Greater New York
Through April 18, 2022
By PRIYA GANDHI, October 2021
MoMA PS1’s newest iteration of their quinquennial Greater New York survey considers the complexities of identity and place. Delayed a year because of COVID-19, the show consists of 47 intergenerational and interdisciplinary artists who all live and work in the New York City area. The show brings forth a plethora of entangled narratives that address the city’s past and current transformations using two general categories: documentary and surrealism. I write on the pieces I found compelling below.
Alan Michelson’s Midden highlights New York City’s essential and overlooked Indigenous history. Oyster shells are piled on an incline, replicating a shoreline lapped by water. For generations, the Indigenous Lenape people cultivated oysters in New York’s waters; a practice destroyed by colonialism and pollution. Oysters exemplify Indigenous respect and cohabitation with natural resources; without clean water, oysters cannot be harvested, and without the Lenape’s respect for nature being valued, the colonial project succeeds in breaking connections between Indigenous people and land.
Atop the oysters are video projections of Newton Creek and the Gowanus Canal, both places in which oyster middens once existed. When piled together and viewed from above, the small and dirty oysters create the illusion of flatness. A closer look reveals the rivets of the hard shells, and the illusion breaks; no such flatness exists. The projections show the viewer what our city looks like today, spaces that are built upon Indigenous relations between land and nature. By placing the oysters and today’s images in conversation, we are able to see how deeply connected our past and present are.
Avijit Halder’s images of naked bodies are both earnest and evasive: unclothed, and therefore vulnerable; faceless, and therefore anonymous. Halder’s images hold secrets. In Birth (2018), dancing saris reveal swathes of textured skin. The figure in Birth is faceless—we see them as an arm, a curve in their back, a leg. Their identity consists of only these fragmented body parts, solid but incomplete, as if they have only begun to arrive from their mother’s womb. The simultaneous anonymity and vulnerability of the body supplies a haunting intimacy, a heart-aching presence. In Birth, the moment captured is significant, not just incidental exposure.
Diane Severin Nguyen, whose first solo show is on at Sculpture Center, requires the viewer to constantly question what they are seeing. What are the objects in Your Reversal (2021)? Animal flesh, or human? Candy, or fruit? The viewer must continuously grab hold of details; objects are familiar and yet foreign, and toe the line between natural and artificial. It is as if we are looking at a complicated circuit board, with metallic aspects and wires; thin white strings sprout from a web of texture. We aren’t sure about the circuit board’s mechanisms, but the materials ring a bell. The light source is confusing, emerging from below the square figures in white and yellow.
On the third floor, Carolyn Lazard’s Red (2021) swaddles the room in red (fittingly). The screen flickers, at times becoming more yellow-red or orange-red. A corner of white is occasionally revealed, breaking up the consistency of the red room. A countdown from 10 is projected on the screen and leads to strobing, an effect that Lazard achieves by placing their thumb over an iPhone camera. Because strobing can trigger epilepsy, Lazard uses a separate screen to alert the audience when flashing lights will occur. The strobe has the effect of stopping time and place, chopping up the viewing experience and disorienting me. I left the space with my head thumping, my eyes and brain saturated with red light. What does it mean for a color to make you ill? Red’s sensorial experience brings questions of wellness to the forefront, questions which have a new meaning in our COVID world.
One goal of the survey is to provide New Yorkers with a space to mourn and celebrate as they emerge from the pandemic. But I do not feel that I am emerging. I feel more like I am walking on eggshells, attempting to find my footing in a world made over again, as it has been made over many times before. As the lost time from quarantine tries to catch up with us, the past still lingers. I feel that I am sinking into a molasses of reckoning. I believe that Greater New York speaks to this dragging feeling all the same. It brings with it not only the tender strings of history, but also the beauty and breath of our current precarity, aptly providing the reconnection that I desperately seek by showcasing such varying narratives of the past and present. Every moment it exhibits is a critical one, regardless of difference in identity. It is a necessary reminder of the ways in which our past continues to alter our present and future.
For more information on Greater New York, please visit MoMA PS1’s website: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5352. WM
Priya Gandhi is a writer located in New York City. She has held positions at Creative Time and the Smart Museum of Art, and has been published in Hyperallergic and MODA Magazine.view all articles from this author