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Ghosts in the Machine | New Museum | ArtReview

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Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari’s techno-aesthetic ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is the latest in a line of near-eccentric (as near as the general conservatism of New York’s museums can muster) New Museum exhibitions that take on big themes with big numbers and only limited respect for convention – Ostalgia (2011), After Nature (2009), Unmonumental (2008) being the others. But with Ghosts in the Machine, a show ostensibly about the ‘dream-like life’ that we share with our technology, it is exhibition making itself more than any rapturous engagement with our ever-evolving machine age that is on display.

The phrase ‘dream-like life’ belongs to (the currently modish) Richard Hamilton, whose exhibition Man, Machine and Motion from 1955 is both an inspiration and has been recreated here. A large lattice bearing archival images of humans on the move – in the air, through the water, over ground – and the bits of technical apparatus they have used to help them on their way, Hamilton’s installation offers an early example of the archive fever that gripped his own Independent Group and other artists of the early post-Second World War period, most notably J.G. Ballard, who is represented here by a suite of early spreads from Ambit magazine.

Gioni and Carrion-Murayari pay homage to other more and less well known curatorial forays into the always uneasy marriage of art and technology: Bruno Munari and Umberto Eco’s Olivetti-sponsored Arte Programmata (1962); William Seitz’s The Responsive Eye (1965, MoMA); Willoughby Sharp’s Kinetic and Programmed Art (1966, RISD; parts of which have been recreated for Ghosts…); K.G. Pontus Hultén’s The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968, MoMA); Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity (1968, ICA); Maurice Tuchman’s Art and Technology (1970, LACMA); and Harald Szeemann’s Bachelor Machines (1975–7, various locations).

In this field, Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963–5), installed on the museum’s fifth floor, looks less like an experiment in ‘expanded cinema’ and more like an early lesson in moving-image curating. But where, one wonders, is Billy Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg, Fred Waldhauer and Robert Whitman’s E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), launched via the art and engineering collaborations of 9 Evenings (1966)? Perhaps given E.A.T.’s tepid reception, both at the time and in more recent histories of the period, Gioni and Carrion-Murayari didn’t want to diminish the cred of their idols.

That the most affecting work in Ghosts isn’t a conventional ‘artwork’ at all, either official or outsider, but an unattributed reconstruction of the malign sentencing apparatus from Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1919) that was specially produced for Szeemann’s Bachelor Machines show, goes to the high level of curatorial self-regard at work here. But it also speaks to the trouble with the genre of the ‘art and technology’ exhibition in general, which is the fact that it is a genre, like genre fiction, SF or fantasy in particular. No matter how philosophically pungent the ideas or how contorted the manipulations of form, the art has to stand or fall on its own, which is why Ghosts… remains more curiosity than show.

The best work of art in ‘The Ungovernables’ at The New Museum…

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Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado, O Século (The Century), 2011

…is by Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado, and it is called O Século (The Century) (2011).  It’s a video, roughly ten-minutes long, and it shows a sun-raked, empty street, the kind you find at the edges or in the industrial zones of cities. Marcelle and Machado’s camera overlooks the street as if from a perch on an adjacent wall, so that what we see is only pavement, gutter, curb, sidewalk and a wall opposite the camera, all of which runs the length of the frame. The top of the wall is outside that frame, but we know that it is lined with concertina wire, because we can see its shadow on the sidewalk below.  There are sewer drains, just left of center.

Then the action begins.  From the right side of the frame, all manner of things are chucked into the scene: chairs, oil drums, car tires, slatted crates, hard hats, bicycle wheels, fluorescent light bulbs (these last are particularly satisfying to watch, given how they often disintegrate with a great “POP” when breaking against the rest of the junk).  Sometimes chunks of dried dirt that must have been stuck to one or another of the things vaporize into puffs of brown smoke when landing in the scrum.

The delivery is rapid-fire and comes from a number of different positions off to the right.  It builds quickly into a steady barrage, waxes and wanes a bit, and then begins to trail off, presumably as the hurlers begin to tire and their ammunition runs out.  At one point, the scene gets enveloped in white smoke, as if some larger collapse has occurred off screen.  Then it dissipates, and a final few things (some more fluorescent light bulbs, luckily) are thrown at and onto the pile.

It all takes about five minutes, at which point the video transitions back to the empty street, but now mirror-reversed.  The volleys begin again, the junk is hurled, but it is comes from the left.  Junk, smoke, smashing bulbs, it’s all there.

O Século is a powerful distillation of the kind of ballistics that have become so familiar to us in the age of filmed, televised, and streaming conflict. It would be a mistake to romanticize the action though.  The resistance fighter, the demonstrator and the protestor are here, but so too is the rioter, the looter, the vandal.  The act of throwing something about which one cares only that it hit its mark and do its damage, to person or property—or that it be seen to harbor this intention; so many times such throws are complete in and of themselves as acts, regardless of whether they hit anything at all—is a pure act of aggression.

This does not mean, however, that it is not historical.  As Marcelle and Machado’s title suggests, this act belongs to a period, and which period is given by what is thrown.  The light bulbs, the bicycle wheels, the hard hats, the oil drums, these are products of the Twentieth Century, as is their visibility as items in an arsenal of impromptu urban battles. That O Século was made in this, the twenty-first century, gives it a necessary ambiguity too. Will it memorialize the century just past?  Or is it prophetic for the century that has just begun?

As a work of art it is undoubtedly a product the 1900s.  Its formal rigor (the empty street is composed like a color field painting—think Kenneth Noland), its fixed-camera performance (a form that traces its genealogy back through Bruce Nauman to the films of Edison and the Lumieres), its dependence on gravity and accumulative spread (Jackson Pollock, Barry Le Va), its quotidian character (Duchamp), its mid-point mirror reversal (a hallmark of 1960s structural and materialist filmmaking), and so much more anchor O Século in twentieth-century art’s incessant, sometimes obsessive, concern with form.

In contrast to most everything else at The Ungovernables, which is almost singularly concerned with content, with what all this work is about and with what it all means, work which is in many cases seemingly wholly unaware of or willfully amnesiac about the art of the recent past, as if to suggest that its simply having been made is justification enough for our attending to it—in contrast to all of this, O Século is exceptional.

REVIEW: Ostalgia | New Museum | ArtReview

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Erik Bulatov House, 1992; Seva’s Blue, 1979; Russian XX Century, 1998-99; from The New Museum

Erik Bulatov’s House (Dom), completed in 1992, just months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, could serve as an emblem of the kind of time slip that is everywhere present in Ostalgia, New Museum Director of Exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni’s love letter to the art and artists of the former eastern bloc and the contemporary artists who remain fascinated by the latter.  Running vertically down a background of photo-based, faded Kodachrome colored sky cracking with Baroque rays of light one ‘reads’ the three large block letters of the Russian word for ‘house’: ‘дом’.  The painting as a whole mobilizes familiar pictorial tropes, such as tensions between surface and depth, image and text, form and content, but there is something more to House than this.  It recalls, rather, those kitschy credits from 1970s science fiction movies—think Zardoz (1974), or Logan’s Run (1976), or Solaris (1972)—with their equal mixtures of techno-utopianism and environmento-Wagnerian romanticism.

The point here is not to saddle Bulatov’s work with some particular iconographic resource but rather to note that those films themselves, their aesthetic and their narratives, were, like Bulatov’s paintings and much of the best work in Ostalgia, products of the cold war, which was everywhere itself a product of collective fantasies and fears and desires.  The future, back then, was a contest played out on the field of the present with the weapons of history, both personal and political; and SF offered some of the most compelling diagnoses and representations of that contest, precisely because the horizon of time that formed SF’s core orientation was also the horizon that organized the two super powers’ dueling collective projects.  And as with capitalism (but notably not democracy) the modern nation state was for socialism merely an exit vehicle, one that could eventually be discarded when the working class or consumer, as the subject and so the inevitability of history, traversed the globe…

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Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

November 3rd, 2011 at 12:11 pm

ArtReview.com teaser…

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Younger Than Jesus, The New Museum’s “Generational” opens this evening.

The approach here is an interesting one, coming as it does on the heels of an art market that appeared to fetishize youth. But the curators of the new triennial, Laura Hoptman, Mas Gioni, and Lauren Cornell, assure us that what the show is meant to offer is a “snapshot” of a specific generation that for some time now has simply existed either as a catchphrase (“Millenials,” “Generation Y”) or as a demographic group for marketers. For Gioni, Younger Than Jesus is an attempt to show this generation of artists as “producers,” ones for which, as Hoptman noted, the curators have created “no ‘ism,” which is to say no conceptual corral that might makes sense of what it is that this generation of artists is up to. (That seems like a good idea, except when you remember that the very notion of a “generation” is itself a conceptual problem, though the curators and others unpack the idea in one of the shows two accompanying catalogs; more on the second one in a moment). Hoptman demurred that they (the curators, the Museum) would “leave the assessments to the sociologists, to the marketers, and to the future,” which is a nice way of confirming that they (the curators, the Museum) believe the show (and this generation) is worthy of assessments to begin with…

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Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

April 7th, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Links to new AR articles and reviews…

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Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

November 22nd, 2008 at 8:22 am