Haroon Gunn-Salie, Senzenina, 2018. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio, Courtesy the artist

“Songs for Sabotage”

New York

New Museum

The New Museum’s fourth Triennial presented the work of 26 emerging artists, artist collectives, and groups from 19 countries. As in earlier iterations, this sparse, spaciously installed show, which filled the entire museum, had an agenda. Conceived by curators Gary Carrion-Murayari and Alex Gartenfeld as “songs,” the featured works could all be viewed as calls to action or even as propaganda committed to unmasking or interfering with the political and social systems that construct our current reality.

The most engaging pieces were those whose immediacy of presentation confronted viewers with the abuses of authoritarian power and strategies of dissent. The ongoing sway of apartheid and colonialism could not be overlooked in Haroon Gunn-Salie’s (South Africa) collaborative mixed-media installation Senzenina. Full-scale resin casts of headless, crouching men alluded to the 34 strikers killed in 2012 by the police at the Lonmin platinum mine. Gathered together as if in prayer or protest in a pose not dissimilar to football players taking a knee, the installation, with its soundtrack of protest songs and mine explosions (unfortunately often muted), reminded us that courageous acts of opposition and repressive state violence continue even when they are no longer in the headlines. An installation in the lobby seemed to echo the exploitation inferred by Gunn-Salie’s figures. In What is Deep Sea Mining?, by Inhabitants (a collaborative endeavor of New York-based artists Pedro Neves Marques and Mariana Silva), a looped digital animation examined the connection between the global market for resources and the production of modern communication technologies like smart phones, which sustain the reach of capitalism and colonialism.

Daniela Ortiz’s (Peru) small-scale ceramic models proposed new monuments to replace the destroyed statues of Christopher Columbus that once stood in countries conquered by the Spanish. Dedicated to indigenous and black people, and including portraits of Angela Davis and Gloria Anzaldúa, among others, Ortiz’s alternative public art imagines a cultural resistance that would both upend and reorder the imperialist discourse of dominance, racism, and power. Cian Dayrit likewise deploys the referential signs of empire and nation-state—in his case, maps, flags, seals, and icons—to interrogate the history and political struggles of his native Philippines. He showed numerous large-scale tapestries, which he calls counter-maps, made in collaboration with local craftsmen, indigenous peoples, and academics. Intricate and intimate, these works required close looking, revealing through sly juxtaposition a subversive counter-discourse to narratives of conquest, faith, and military power.

Video installations by Manolis Lemos and Song Ta examined the relationship between individual and state in divergent ways. In Lemos’s large-screen, double-sided projection, runners wearing colorful ponchos rush along the streets of Athens in configurations suggestive of marches and radical protest. Unfortunately the presentation and edit too closely mimicked a film or music video, a resemblance that transformed the whole into an endless choreographed loop without direction or resolution. Song’s Who Is the Loveliest Guy was more effectively staged. Chinese marines were tricked by the artist into riding Guangzhou’s scary rollercoaster. Focusing attention on their disparate reactions during the terrifying and exhilarating ride, Song explored the parameters of conformity and social propriety—the soldiers all wear safety harnesses and identical uniforms—while allowing a provocative peek into a rarely seen world.

Though many of the artists were bound by a connective thread of activism and engagement, disparate local concerns and personal investigations of identity and race seemed to reflect our present disarray, often not connecting with the collective agenda of propaganda and subversion proposed by the curators. Perhaps the triennial or biennial model, charged with taking the pulse or arguing for a future vision, is becoming more and more difficult to sustain in an increasingly homogenized international art world immersed within an increasingly fragmented world at large.