New Museum’s ‘The Ungovernables’: A Triennial for the 99%

New Museum’s second triennial, The Ungovernables, which opened this week in Manhattan, comes saddled with an unfair amount of baggage. First and foremost, it’s about to go head-to-head with Whitney Biennial 2012 — and the exhibitions’ similar missions (to collect the past few years’ best new art) and timing (the biennial debuts March 1st) will make it difficult for the New York art press to resist comparing them.

Then there’s the intense criticism New Museum has often faced in the four years since it moved to its big, beautiful Bowery home. While 2010’s Jeff Koons-curated tour of trustee Dakis Joannou’s personal collection drew both conflict-of-interest controversy and accusations that the museum was celebrating ostentatious, tasteless wealth, New York magazine’s influential art critic Jerry Saltz responded to last fall’s Carsten Höller slide-and-carousel show with fiery invective about the transformation of museums into playgrounds. And although it did earn some positive reviews, The New York Times called the institution’s first triennial, 2009’s Younger Than Jesus, “familiar, like a more-substantial-than-average version of a weekend gallery hop in Chelsea and the Lower East Side, right down to the token Asian and African imports.”

It’s impossible not to see The Ungovernables as, in part, a response to all of this. In keeping with its mission, the Whitney Biennial is a show of American artists — and the museum is careful to state that the 2012 edition is meant to encompass not solely new faces but “artists at all points in their careers.” The roster is packed with well-known names, from Werner Herzog to K8 Hardy to George Kuchar to the late Mike Kelley, in a predictable attempt to balance the impact of the new with the safe appeal of the familiar. If New Museum had mounted another Younger Than Jesus, its overlap with both the gallery scene and the Whitney might well have rendered the show irrelevant.

The Ungovernables skillfully dodges the threat of redundancy, displaying pieces by 50 young artists from around the world, many of whom have never shown in the US before. Born between the mid-’70s and the mid-’80s, most of the participants hail from Asia, Africa, or Latin America, and their work reflects their diverse experiences. Eungie Joo, the museum’s Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs, spent a year and a half visiting hundreds of artists in 20 countries to assemble the show, and her wide-net approach (which also boasts relatively proportionate representation for female artists) has paid off in a collection of art that’s personal and political and often universal all at once.

In the press materials, New Museum touts “an exhibition that acknowledges its failure to fully represent a generation in formation and instead embraces the energy of that generation’s urgencies.” After a year that began with Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement, this focus on young people from around the world and their various “urgencies,” while acknowledging that their particular concerns are only beginning to coalesce, is compelling enough to make the Whitney’s show seem overstuffed and insider-y by comparison even before it opens. It’s also a shrewd move for a museum that’s been attacked for mounting lightweight crowd-pleasers and indulging in wealth porn.

Of course, there’s no shortage of potential pitfalls facing an exhibition with such a broad focus and lofty ambitions. With works that vary from traditional paintings to large-scale sculptures and installations to video art and a full schedule of performances and salons, The Ungovernables is as diverse in form and content as its participants are in nationality. Yet somehow, the lack of cohesiveness works. Instead of a forced theme, it’s the contagious exuberance of too many brilliant ideas that unifies the show. In fact, while New Museum can often feel like a handful of private galleries stacked on top of each other, The Ungovernables makes the entire, five-floor space come together like never before.

When Joo talks about the relationship between the pieces as a “conversation,” she’s not just spouting postmodern buzzwords — Amalia Pica’s Eavesdropping, a multicolored collection of found drinking glasses glued to the gallery wall, really does seem to be exchanging thoughts with its neighbor, Adrián Villar Rojas’s A Person Loved Me, an enormous clay sculpture that evokes both a sci-fi future and the cracking ruins of contemporary civilization. Both works appear playful and incorporate almost cartoonish pop-culture references, but paranoia and loss lurk beyond their surfaces.

The Ungovernables could also have been too self-serious and didactic in spotlighting voices that are too often marginalized, in the art world as much as in global politics. But while the dire issues of economics, identity, globalization, cultural appropriation, religion, and (as the triennial’s title suggests) postcolonialism play a major role in many of the works, the artists mostly steer clear of strident or obvious political statements. José Antonio Vega Macotela, for instance, explores underground economies in his massive Time Exchange series by tracking — and contributing to — the exchange of goods and services in a Mexico City prison. For an ingenious video project, Vietnam’s Propeller Group hired the Ho Chi Minh City branch of a global ad agency to rebrand communism and taped the meetings that resulted.

Many of the works are fascinating in their ambiguity. Abigail DeVille, one of the show’s few New York-based artists, has taken over the shaft between two floors and installed a black hole-inspired environment, light shining through a ceiling that’s pierced by the skeleton of a mattress, with debris scattered everywhere and liquor bottles hidden in a corner. Are we seeing a bunker that’s been raided or simply the remains of a particularly decadent and destructive party? The Eurasian collective Slavs and Tatars contributes a giant prayer stand, the folded, Persian-carpeted top of which suggests a “magic carpet”; visitors are invited to take a seat on it, the sculpture’s inviting shape and comfortable surface making the potentially divisive cross-cultural discussion of religion more inviting.

In fact, if there’s one thing that’s perplexing about this energetic, gracefully curated, thought-provoking, and often entertaining show, it’s the artists’ palpable desire to defuse tensions and please viewers. With a few notable exceptions, such as the video art of Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado, The Ungovernables is non-confrontational, rarely channeling the anger of a generation that has spent the past year recognizing its rage. It’s possible that young artists are still too caught up in that moment to make meaning out of it, and in that case, 2015’s triennial should be even more exciting than 2012’s.

Click through for a preview of images from The Ungovernables.


Slavs and Tatars, PrayWay (installation view), 2012, silk and wood carpet, MDF, steel, neon. Courtesy the artists, Kraupa-Tuskany, Berlin, and The Third Line, Dubai. Photo credit: Benoit Pailley