Not so ungovernable, the triennial roundup at the New Museum

When the New Museum created its signature show, the triennial of emerging artists,  in 2009, it laid claim to territory that was once the exclusive realm of the Whitney Biennial. The inaugural exhibit, “Younger Than Jesus” sprawled through the museum and actually had the feel of a Whitney Biennial — there were a lot of artists making sprawling installations, and you were familiar with a lot of the names.

A group shot of some of the artists in the Ungovernables, at the New Museum.

This year’s triennial “The Ungovernables” feels radically different. Here the New Museum separates itself from the Whitney by being truly global — with seemingly 99 percent of the artists from outside the US. It’s a decidedly downtown show, seemingly beholden to nobody but the museum and its mission to show art — lots of it political — from outside the normal channels.

Artist Abigail DeVille in bling and prints, at the New Museum, was one of only two Americans in this very international show.

We were happy to be introduced to the new names — and we came away more convinced than ever that art made anywhere in the world looks pretty much like art made any other place in the world.  Thank you Internet, or no thank you Internet.


Performance, social networking; video; animation; politics; autobiographical documentation along with object-making and painting — it’s all here. And ironically given the show’s title, most of the pieces are quite polite and mannerly. If they are ungovernable, you wouldn’t for the most part know it.

Abigail DeVille’s Dark Day installation embedded in the wall on the stairwell between two floors–the dark side of bunking down out of sight.

There are exceptions: The untamed installation “Dark Day” by Abigail DeVille in the stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floor; and The Propeller group’s multi-channel video project about rebranding communism, especially the single piece that spoofs communism’s happy face.  There’s a subversive piece by Pilvi Takala, and while they aren’t really explosive or raucous, the video by Hassan Khan and the behemoth sculpture by Adrian Villar Rojas are notable, as is Gabriel Sierra’s take on a modest life in hiding, with elegant wall niches hiding tools.

Gabriel Sierra, ladder niche
Gabriel Sierra, Untitled (the devil in shape of a ladder), one of a series of wall niches to hide tools–a take on the repressiveness of bunking down out of sight.

DeVille, whom we know from her installation last summer at Marginal Utility, punched a hole into the ceiling above the alcove space and tunneled upward 30 feet into the building’s interstices. Using found materials gathered from the streets, she’s created a hive/cave with references to yesterday’s squats and todays tent cities with displaced, homeless, discarded people. It’s a poignant work, and visually stunning. We ran into Abigail when we were leaving the museum. We love her bling!

Propeller Group, TVC Communism, 2011. The Vietnamese group rebrands communism with a smiley logo (the yellow object is part of it).

The Ho Chi Mihn City Propeller Group’s 5-hour+ video installation shows people taking a meeting at an advertising agency. That is what it is and we didn’t spend more than a minute surrounded by the screens on their poles before we “got” the irony of the capitalist/communist meeting vibe. But we watched, over and over, the animation that seemingly resulted from the meeting, a wry piece of work that suggests without saying it that communism is a sham.

Adrian Villar Rojas, A Person Loved Me, 2012 Clay, wood, metal, cement, styrofoam, burlap, sand, paint

While it didn’t break new ground, the concrete and clay behemoth by Adrian Villar Rojas, “A Person Loved Me” is totally lovable. Made on site (well, next door at 231 Bowery, a building now owned by the Museum and used for projects), Love rises above you majestically and is a gorgeous object, cold and steely, and yet lumpy and frisky enough to be, we think, the show’s mascot.

shannon bowser
Shannon Bowser, chief preparator, New Museum, and former Philly-ite

Lo and behold, it was in Love’s shadow that we ran into Shannon Bowser! Shannon, who used to be in Philadelphia, and is an awesome artist (making cement sculptures that had things like wheels on them), is now chief preparator at the New Museum. Congratulations Shannon!


We also loved the video, Jewel, 2010, by Hassan Khan. Presented in a pitch dark room, it shows two men, one older and rotund, one younger and slim (are they father, son; uncle, nephew?) dressed in street garb and dancing to the mesmerizing sound of music we don’t think is really dance music, but is clearly Middle Eastern. The notes say the men are re-enacting historical Egyptian events. But the ambiguity and grace of their actions seems barely related to anything so humdrum as reality. If this piece is about gender, which it may or may not be, it’s also about stasis — the men stand in place while moving.

And we must mention the project by Pilvi Takala, in which the Dutch artist inserted herself into an office of the accounting firm DeLoitte, and sat there thinking for days on end. Her office mates didn’t know what to make of her, but they were jealous. And nobody kicked her out. The hubris of this is what we like as much as the videos showing Takala sitting at her desk thinking–and not working on a computer.

dominique ansel bakery
Dominique Ansel Bakery on Spring St. Wayne Thibaud world come alive!

We saw the show on Valentine’s Day and have to share these little treats of the day. Pastries at the Dominique Ansel Bakery on Spring St. in the West Village (near enough to the Bolt Bus downtown stop to make a great coffee pit stop). And the abject lineup of guys outside a flower shop waiting to get their flowers for their sweeties. Only in NY would you see such a line, we believe.

Valentine’s Day lineup for flowers, on the Lower East Side.

Monday we saw the Whitney Biennial and will tell you about that show in another post coming soon.