The Generational: Younger Than Jesus at New Museum
New York, NY 10002
April 8th through June 14th, 2009
Younger Than Jesus, the New Museum’s inaugural triennial arrives on the scene as the newest anti-Whitney Biennial. Whereas the Whitney Biennial often feels like a checklist of familiar artists assembled from established galleries, albeit a well-curated one, the New Museum takes a more expansive approach with its exhibition. By now the origin of YTJ is common knowledge: In June 2008, New Museum curators Lauren Cornell, Massimiliano Gioni, and Laura Hoptman invited 150 international artists, critics and curators to nominate artists for the show. This resulted in a database of roughly 500 artists (all revealed in the exhibition catalog), from which 50 – all under the age of thirty-three, and from over 25 countries – were selected.
This “social network” approach to curating seems appropriate for a show about a generation that thrives via online social networks. The curators should also be applauded for leaving out the typical crop of New York scenesters in favor of less familiar international artists, most of whom do not have representation in New York. Although this may appear to be of minor significance, it helps mitigate the initial backlash observed before the show even opened. The show was criticized for adding to the cultural obsession with youth, which, in the art world invokes the ever-rotating cast of seasonal art stars who may burn bright, but slowly fade away. That may be the case with some biennials, but YTJ isn’t so much about launching the next scene-makers or projecting a slew of buzzwords and “–isms,” rather it feels like a genuinely low-key approach to presenting art made by a new generation of artists.
That being said, in a show of this magnitude (I wish the curators had settled on 40 artists), one is bound to find familiar tropes from biennials of recent past. Once again, the struggle between painting and new media does not bode well for painting. With the exception of Tala Madani’s small but potent paintings of men behaving badly, this most traditional of mediums appears to have completely fallen out of favor with the “iGeneration.” More often than not, paintings here are treated as secondary objects. They serve to support other projects that are often collaborative and/or performative in nature.
The best works in the show are videos: James Richards’s Active Negative Programme (2008), is a familiar yet bewildering sequence of remixed found footage of various objects, photo shoots, and television talk-show audiences in mid-reaction. Ryan Trecartin, perhaps the most recognizable artist in the show, presents another enthralling, choose-your-own-adventure-style editing marathon. Unlike the overrated Cory Arcangel, who deals in nostalgia for the technologies of yesteryear, Ryan Trecartin’s technically-savvy work looks to the future, and suggests that the hybridization of technologies is synonymous with the fluidity of individual and social identities. His style is so pronounced that it will soon be difficult to tell his films apart. Does this hurt his work? Does it matter? Once you watch two minutes, you want to watch two hours. How many videos can you say that about today? It is also interesting to experience his films presented in increasingly elaborate installations. Sculptures that once seemed like mere movie props now emerge as wholly integrated sculptural environments.
The standout piece in the show is Cyprien Galliard’s Desniansky Raion (2007), an absolutely mesmerizing thirty minute video set to the hypnotic score of French musician Koudlam. The film takes the viewer to the housing projects of Belgrade, Kiev, and Meaux (France), where a choreographed light show, straight out of Pink Floyd, takes place on the façade of a housing project on the verge of demolition. The most stunning sequence takes place in St. Petersburg, where two rival gangs of an underground fight club emerge on a public street and proceed to beat the shit out of each other, before escaping to their respective communities. This is the closest thing this show had to a genuinely sublime moment.
On the other end of the spectrum, Chu Yun’s “This is XX” (2006) presents a rotating cast of female participants who willingly take sleeping pills in order to dream their way through the entire exhibition. The first time I saw the piece, the sheer sweetness and tranquility of the artist’s gesture seemed innocent and completely seductive. The next time I saw it a few days later, the model had just woken up, bewildered and seemingly trapped on her domestic island. Carsten Holler’s “Hotel Room” installation at the Guggenheim this isn’t. Rudely awakened after the sleeping pills wore off, the model was visibly agitated and uncomfortable, offering a completely different reading of the work, whereby the transaction of the performance became more real.
The idealism of youth is undermined in two strong works that address the failures of utopian ideals. Berlin–based collective AIDS-3D’s OMG Obelisk (2007) is a satirical monument to a contemporary representation of “god”: the sms acronym “OMG.” It’s a faux-apocalyptic scenario with a knowing goth-pop sensibility; it may very well become the defining image of the exhibition. Its counter-piece is Loris Greaud’s Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted, Stairway Edit (2007), a rotating spiral staircase that moves but takes you nowhere. The title comes from an 11th century mystical sect, but ironically it is one of the few “slick” new sculptural forms in the show, suggesting a post-millennial take on Tatlin’s revolutionary Monument to the Third International of 1919.
Few of the works on view are explicitly political. The strength of Matt Keegan’s work lies in his effortless fusion of the personal with the political. Keegan takes the politics of his youth: Reagan, AIDS, Hands Across America and addresses them via accessible, quotidian displays that bridge scrap books with office bulletin boards. But instead of recycling the preachiness of much political art of the Vietnam era, he lets the works breathe, and pairs the boards with head shots of wide-eyed 22 year olds, as a kind of hopeful portrait of a generation on the verge.
For a supposedly narcissistic generation, most of the artists in YTJ tend to look out into the world instead of into the mirror. Although much of the art could easily be lumped with 3rd generation conceptualism, the work shares an openness and sincerity that is decidedly less academic - and surprisingly optimistic. It shows, as Laura Hoptman writes in the catalog, “an inclusive embrace of history, an absorption with the visionary, and a romance not so much with the future, but with a kind of futurological fantasy...” The New Museum has had a thirty year history of giving young artists their first major exhibitions. The art on view does not define our generation, and the curators are likewise weary of labeling the artists. Rather, the exhibition cautiously opens up a dialogue about shared artistic practices and the possibility of identifying binding ideological threads within this and future generations of artists.
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Dmitry Komis is a freelance writer and independent curator living
in New York City.