Rollercoasters, Crumbling Walls, and Dead Seagrass: A Few Highlights from the 2018 New Museum Triennial

Song Ta, Who Is the Loveliest Guy, 2014, three-channel video with photography installation.


This morning, the fourth edition of the New Museum Triennial opened to press in New York. Titled “Songs for Sabotage” and organized by New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari and Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami deputy director and chief curator Alex Gartenfeld, it focuses loosely on how art and politics can be reconciled in our chaotic times. Below, a few first impressions from the show. —The Editors 

Wilmer Wilson IV, Nev, 2017, staples and pigment print on wood.


Staples Like Crazy

Shiny and dramatic and disquieting once they pull you in, seven large wall works by Wilmer Wilson IV feature what have to be tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of staples slammed into planks of wood. The silver in the staples shimmers in the bright light from above, like prairie grass swaying, but the effect of so many together suggests a kind of violence and interjection that is anything but glamorous or serene. (Just imagine the sound of so many shots from a staple gun. Oh, the sounds!)

Peeking out from beneath the dense layers of metal are intimations of portraiture with differing degrees of clarity; one has a pair of shoes at the bottom, while others focus on just a set of hands or maybe a face or fingers holding a microphone. Each piece, the wall text says, is sourced from flyers and pamphlets found on the streets of West Philadelphia, where Wilson lives and works. In their ordinary habitat, they announce “parties, church services, or business openings” and serve “a type of community building and self-representation that relies on alternative and analog means.” In the museum, they take on a sense of specters having been punctured and pinned to the wall. —Andy Battaglia

Song Ta, Who Is the Loveliest Guy, 2014, three-channel video with photography installation.


A Wild Ride

I’ve gone on plenty of rollercoasters in my day, but I’ve always been too cheap to buy one of those photos that the theme parks try to sell to you afterwards. You know the ones: housed in a little book, showing you on the ride, often surrounded by colorful graphics. Those very photos comprise part of For Who Is the Loveliest Guy, a coaster-centric 2014 installation by the Chinese artist Song Ta, now on view in New York at the 2018 New Museum Triennial, which had its press preview this morning.

For the piece, the artist convinced a group of naval officers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to ride the Dive Coaster, which is located inside of the Shanghai theme park Happy Valley. Dive Coaster is the world’s longest inverted coaster and frankly looks terrifying. It features a 197-foot vertical drop, headache-inducing loops, and even a water splash zone (true coaster heads will notice a similarity to the ride SheiKra at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay).

Ta represents all this madness with a three-channel video piece showing the military men, at times screaming like little kids, shot from different angles and soundtracked with music from the classic 1875 Georges Bizet opera Carmen. Adjacent to this trilogy of screens is a cluster of those little photo books memorializing the coaster run. Some of the photos are covered with cat-like cartoon images. Some of the riders look scared. Taken as a whole, the piece is both satirical and generous. Stripped of institutional artifice, aren’t we all just soldiers on a rollercoaster, trying not to pee our pants? —John Chiaverina

Lydia Ourahmane, Finitude, 2018, ash, chalk, steel, and looped sound.


Bringing Down the House

Lydia Ourahmane is bringing down the house—partially, at least—with a new sound installation. Titled Finitude (2018) and located between the museum’s third and fourth floors, the work is unassuming at first glance—it’s a stele-like structure that appears to have been slapped with ash and chalk. Look and listen closer, however, and the work reveals itself. A low humming—something similar to the songs whales sing to one another—sounds every so often, and the floor vibrates a little. Wall text tells us that the sound is causing the work to shake, and that over the course of the exhibition, it will deteriorate. (Crumbles of it already lie at the foot of the work.)

Ourahmane hails from Algeria, and for the young artist, the work echoes a larger sense of loss she and her family have experienced over the years. (Her grandfather, for example, once pulled out all his teeth so that he could leave a medical facility in France during World War II.) The tone of the work is decidedly melancholy, and unlike other works in this loud, large triennial, it’s not meant to last forever, which, in its own strange way, is kind of moving. —Alex Greenberger

Violet Dennison, M.O.O.P., 2018, seagrass collected in the Florida Keys, resin, and electrical metallic tubing conduit.


Signs from the Sea

With a title standing in for “Matter Out of Place,” Violet Dennison’s M.O.O.P. is composed of electrical metallic tubing and jumbled seagrass that recalls tangled tape spilling out of an old cassette. Suggesting displacement and disregard, the seagrass, which Dennison harvested from the Florida Keys, had been suffocated by nutrients in the sea water that come from an influx of human sewage and pollution. Without seagrass, algae flourish and cloud waters that were once clear. Dennison, for her part, covers and preserves the dead material with resin, transforming it into an intricate object that raises questions about the deteriorating health of the ecosystem. —Grace Halio

Daniela Ortiz, Columbus (Colón), recto and verso, 2018, ceramic and paint.


Monuments for a Different Future

Within the past year, the national conversation over monuments—who should be memorialized and in what context—has reached a flash point. Often that conversation has centered around memorials and monuments to Confederate leaders throughout the South. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio created a task force to study the city’s own monuments representing controversial historical figures. Among those studied was the statue of Christopher Columbus, who towers over an eponymous circle on the west end of Central Park South and 59th Street. The study opted to keep Columbus in his place.

For her contribution to the triennial, Peruvian-born, Barcelona-based artist Daniela Ortiz created six poignant ceramic maquettes for proposed replacements for six monuments to Columbus in New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, Barcelona, and Lima, Peru.

The works, all roughly 20 inches in height, rest on large plinths, painted in a sumptuous brown, themselves monuments to brown power and reminders that brown is indeed beautiful. Four of them carry poetic titles: They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds and This land will never be fertile for having given birth to colonisers, among them.

Though small in scale, the works command the same presence that any sculpture in the round—or indeed monument does—forcing you to circle back and forth and round back again to read the harrowing histories, told in Spanglish, of marginalized people on them: forced sterilization of Latinas, deportations at the hands of I.C.E. and FRONTEX, and the effects of colonization writ-large.

Perhaps the most compelling of the group is the reimagining of New York’s Columbus statue, in which the man responsible for decimating indigenous populations through pillage and plunder has been beheaded. The statue includes stenciled portraits of activists, among them the foundational Chicana writer Gloria E. Anzaldúa, as well as, on its back, a powerful statement and reflection on the ways in which many people of color continue to feel in this intense political climate: RADICAL ANTI-RACISM FOR STOPPING LA VIOLENCIA CONTRA NUESTRAS COMUNIDADES NOT FOR YOUR WHITE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. —Maximilíano Durón

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