Installation view of the 2018 Triennial, “Songs for Sabotage” at New Museum, New York. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Courtesy New Museum.

2018 Triennial: Songs for Sabotage

New Museum
Philippines Hong Kong India

In the years following its inaugural edition in 2009, titled “Younger Than Jesus,” the New Museum Triennial has established its position as a platform for global conceptual experimentation by young talent. The 2018 Triennial, “Songs for Sabotage,” posits that these same youths have an appetite for destruction, with “models for dismantling and replacing the political and economic networks that envelop today’s global youth.” The curators—Gary Carrion-Murayari and Alex Gartenfeld, with Francesca Altamura—suggest that these models are tools in fomenting new forms of political organization, challenging legacies of colonial violence and racial discrimination, and perhaps, most importantly, generating propositions for understanding internationalism as a condition shaped by these brutal legacies. The exhibition was—as is typical of sprawling international group shows—unified only by its dissonant voices and multivariate practices. When viewed together, however, the works felt purposeful and distinct, if somehow muted in comparison to previous iterations of the exhibition where artists were poised for superstardom, both by virtue of their pointed politics—Josh Kline’s Freedom (2015) comes to mind—and the rigorous formal presentation of their work, such as in Danh Vō’s copper Statue of Liberty parts and Adrián Villar Rojas’ shapeshifting sculptural tower, both presented in 2012. 

ANUPAM ROY, Untitled, 2016, from the installation Surfaces of the Irreal, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 304 × 137 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

In “Songs for Sabotage,” obvious or prescribed gestures were eschewed in favor of ones that are more subtle and considered. This did not mean, however, that there was an absence of politics; in fact, political positions were often flattened in presentations. Anupam Roy’s large-scale figurative work Surfaces of the Irreal (2018), comprising line drawings of monsters and men, was presented alongside the artist’s banners, which he used in protests as a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). While the richly detailed, evocative drawings stand effectively on their own, the political slogans require the animation of context—and perhaps the mobilization of a crowd—in order to be truly affecting. Cian Dayrit’s fictive maps of the Philippines are reparative in their aims to re-examine the act of colonialism. Landlessness in the Islands (2018) and Insulae Indine Orientalis (2017) are woven tapestries that directly address the material impacts of military occupation. In contrast, Occultas Archipelagus (2017), a painted work on canvas, tackles fictive and occult symbolism mixed with Catholic imagery, to a mixed, often inscrutable effect. In these three works, Dayrit suggests that political power can be mapped, evoking Benedict Anderson’s arguments that colonial mapmaking played a crucial role in the consolidation of political power. In their work, both artists stake out specific areas of concern, such as addressing land rights; Roy also tackles current political corruption. This specificity—and geographic diversity—clarified an exhibition that could have otherwise felt too loosely organized, both in terms of formal considerations of individual works and thematic grouping.

WONG PINGWong Ping’s Fables 1, 2018, still from single-channel animation with sound and color: 13 min. Courtesy the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Nonetheless, the 2018 Triennial was one of the strongest shows of contemporary painting in recent memory. American artist Janiva Ellis’ antebellum paintings were an automatic standout, as was the work of Chemu Ng’ok, who was born in Kenya and now resides in South Africa. Digital works were sparse in this year’s showings, but packed a strong punch. Wong Ping’s Fables 1 (2018), a trilogy of animated shorts by Wong Ping, was perhaps the wittiest and most engaging works on display. These cartoons depict classic parables with a combination of saccharine imagery and bombastic, dark humor, injecting quotidian adult life in Hong Kong with ironic faux-wisdom. The protagonists—Elephant, Chicken, and Tree—grapple with contemporary dilemmas: how to act upon sexual desire; how to negotiate one’s self-image in an age of social media posturing; and how to deal with one’s fears in a lonely, detached world. The fables themselves are perhaps not particularly useful in dispensing real-life advice, but their candor demonstrates a nuanced view of social implications in an era that incentivizes self-inflicted destructive behavior. The act of sabotage, broadly writ throughout the exhibition, can also be seen as a vehicle for potential, and the artists presented here demonstrate plenty of room to grow, in their practices and their view on the world. 

2018 Triennial: Songs for Sabotage” is on view at New Museum, New York, until May 27, 2018.

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