Last week, the excitement surrounding Josh Kline kept mounting. At Phillips in Midtown Manhattan, in an auction called “The New Now,” a 2011 sculpture by Kline shot $20,000 over its high estimate, ultimately selling for $37,500. Then, a day later, at a lecture at the New School near Union Square, students and fans alike gathered together in a cramped auditorium to see Kline speak. A Facebook invite for the lecture, organized by Parsons Fine Art, had some 219 RSVPs, plus another 692 who were “interested”; the aisles and standing room were filled, possibly beyond what would’ve been safe in an emergency. “That’s him!” one young audience member exclaimed to a friend, spotting the artist before his lecture.
For once, an art world frenzy is actually well deserved. Kline’s work about the human condition in a digital, politically turbulent America—Freedom, his far-reaching Occupy Wall Street allegory in the 2015 New Museum Triennial, for example—feels prescient and wise, and has been embraced by fans. His show at 47 Canal, “Unemployment,” which opened in May, is my favorite show of the year so far.
At the lecture, the median age in the room appeared to be below the legal drinking age—many audience members had probably never voted in a U.S. presidential election. They listened intently as Kline went through three sets of work, starting with his second 47 Canal show “Quality of Life,” in 2013, and then moving on to Freedom and “Unemployment,” offering insights about his art as he went along.
“For me, and this is just me, it’s important for people to be able to have a self-sufficient experience with the work when they encounter it,” Kline said. He explained that he studied film, so he didn’t have a formal training in art, and that viewers shouldn’t have to read pages-long press releases to understand what his art is about—“no Lacan, no Deleuze,” he said.
“Quality of Life” focused on “aging in a culture that’s based on youth, and that’s driven by youth as a marketing system,” Kline said. The show was also about failure, something that Kline wanted to explore at the beginning of his career, while he was still young. “This is when I was still doing tragicomedy, instead of just doing tragedy,” he said.
Included in the show was a digitally animated video, made with the help of a friend, artist Rodrigo Trombini Pires, that punned on the clothing brand Forever 21. The video, installed atop glowing white boxes that recall bank architecture, features those very words, with various red, white, and blue digital elements moving around them. With the exception of some falling pills, the animations are recreations of a real Bank of America ad that Kline saw in Times Square. “At the time, I also wanted to add giant falling kale,” he said, “but that was apparently really hard to do in Cinema 4D. So I had to let that one go, and now I’m glad, because I think it’s better without it.”
Since “Quality of Life,” Kline has moved on to creating more intricate visions of the future. “I had this idea to make a cycle of large-scale projects that would look at possible futures within the 21st century,” he said. “I could look at key economic or cultural issues that will eventually come to define the coming century, almost as if you were in 1911 and you were looking forward to the coming century, like, ‘What are some key issues in the 20th century, just based on what’s happened in the past 15, 20 years?’ ”
Freedom grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Kline witnessed firsthand. The installation, which debuted at the New Museum and later traveled to Modern Art Oxford, in England, in an expanded version, contrasts the potential of Obama’s 2008 election with the bleaker situation in 2012. “I almost wanted to time-travel backwards and create a political fantasy,” Kline said.
That political fantasy includes Teletubbies dressed in NYPD garb and a video in which Kline digitally re-stages Obama’s inaugural speech, this time using a text that Kline himself wrote. (Another political fantasy he’s done is Crying Games, a 2015 video, originally shown at the Berlin Biennale, that features Bush Administration Republicans apologizing. “I’m so sorry!” a face-shifted Condoleezza Rice wails at one point.)
But according to Kline, whether the vision presented in Freedom becomes a reality or not isn’t important, and the same could be said of “Unemployment,” which is set in 2032 and offers a view of a world where software was replacing its users. “Don’t come to me in 2032 and be like, ‘You’re wrong,’ because I don’t care,” he said. “I’m not trying to be like Nostradamus and accurately predict what’s going to happen on a year-by-year basis.”
“Unemployment,” like many of Kline’s other shows, included 3-D-printed objects: realistic-looking people who had apparently lost their jobs to automated systems. They are curled into fetal position and bagged in plastic, as though they are being recycled. For Kline, the show asked, “What happens to labor in a world with automation, software, and otherwise? What happens to the middle class?”
“I think this is something we’re already grappling with, which you can see happening in our election this year,” Kline said. “It’s not so much about the middle class, but also the working class, and it’s about to come to everyone.”
Machines have been rendering human labor obsolete for centuries, he continued, except that now new technologies have have made the situation far more grave. Nevertheless, the American Right hopes to return to the not-too-distant past. “They want to live in Mad Men,” Kline said, “but they want to do it with computers.”