The Ungovernables and Conceptualism

A colleague said to me today, “it seems like everything is so structured now, kids can’t just go out and play but rather need to have appointments and goals.” I couldn’t help but both agree and disagree, in some ways I think our society is increasingly embracing structure to deal with the growing instability in our lives. On a recent trip to New York I had the pleasure of visiting the New Museum as they were presenting their second Triennial, titled “The Ungovernables.” Hearing about the show I was expecting it to be politically charged and very youthful, the work I found was provocative although not necessarily political, incredibly thoughtful, and possessed of a maturity beyond the years of the artists themselves. A globally-focused exhibition displaying only 4 artists from the United States, the included artists draw from rich aesthetic and conceptual traditions to create work at once playful and affecting, imaginative and influential. They may come from countries deemed “ungovernable,” but we are treated to a strong curatorial vision offering viewers structure and historical specificity from which to experience a disparate barrage of media and message.

As PST here in LA continues on into its last weeks, I realize that however much I have loved the events and exhibitions, I am becoming tired of artist celebrities and celebrity artists. The same five to ten artists grace most of the exhibitions and, as is typical in LA, celebrities from the entertainment industry have been central to the venture’s success. I find myself longing now that I have been thoroughly schooled in Angeleno art making of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and even some 80s, for some idea of what has come of that tradition. Looking at the great diversity of work coming out of our smoggy yet fair city, a curatorial inquest into the influence of place and history on working artists would be much appreciated. Just as the curator of Ungovernables, Eungie Joo, was able to create a comprehensive glimpse into the seemingly overwhelming world of global art production by focusing on young artists firmly influenced by a history of conceptual practice, it would suit LA institutions to harness some of the momentum of PST and look forward in the next year. Joo comes out of the education department at the New Museum and Holland Cotter in his review for the New York Times attributed her background in education to the inclusion of so many works that require “homework” to be fully revealed to the viewer. The viewer may benefit more from the wall panels in this show than in some others, but I would say the real evidence of Joo’s background comes from the inclusion of so many artists that ring the bell of art history, showing so concretely that the best continues on in subtle ways and across culture.

Some works from ungovernables:

Danh Vo, We the People, 2011, Pounded copper
Vietnamese Vo, who lives and works in Berlin, envisioned We the People as a full-scale reproduction of the Statue of Liberty. The thin skin of lady liberty becomes large copper waves within the gallery space, scattered on the walls and floors and evoking more the sea above which she stands than the iconic figure herself. The didactic plate quotes Vo, “I wish only to deal with [her] through the logistics, economy, and practicality… Why should we impose more interpretation or use at all, hasn’t she been raped enough?” This is a powerful statement from a non-countryman about a figure that stands for the freedom of a nation. Is Vo referring to the actual sculpture itself, to the ideals of the nation, or to the physical space on which she stands? Claiming to deal with her only through the physical state, Vo drops quite a bombshell in the later part of his sentence! The work itself though is creative, imposing yet enveloping of its audience in all the right ways. Not truly reflective, the metallic surface allows for enough interaction for the viewer to feel intrinsically connected to the work through their own figurative (for the US audience at the New York institution) and physical presence/representation within the work.

The Propeller Group, TVC Communism, 2011, Five-channel synchronized video installation and LED monitor, color, sound, 5:45 hr (loop)
Founded in Ho Chi Minh City, the group tasked the local branch of an international advertising company, TBWA, to created a political campaign for the idea of Communism. Shot over 3 weeks and coming it at just under six hours, I obviously was not able to view the entirety of the piece while visiting the New Museum, nor does it seem necessary to view the piece start to finish. The work consists of five monitors placed in a circle with their screens inward and alternating sound. We see on the video the faces and bodies of several seemingly young and hip men and women who are in various poses and are each flanked by two cameras while they speak, write, text on their phones, or just zone out. The wall text describes the work as purporting to give the audience a glimpse into the process of a marketing agency but to me the work was more aggressively situated to give the viewer a glimpse into the lives of people under communism. The placement of the viewer in the center of multiple screens, in the eye-line of several workers who may or may not be observing you, and also in the direct sight of 8-10 video cameras imposing on the viewer their steely and unnerving stare. The Foucaultian implications are obvious.

Jonathas de Andrade, 4000 disparos [4000 shots], 2010, Super 8mm film transferred to DVD, 60 minutes.
Featuring 4000 single frames of male faces on the street, the resulting video work is at once beautiful and frustrating. Seeing only glimpses of purposefully male faces makes the female viewer vulnerable in an interesting way. Far from gazing upon the male persona, despite the static nature of the men pictured, it is the viewer who ends up being gazed upon in a chaotic and forceful fashion. Having no control over the multitude of male faces that flash upon the wall, some looking directly at the viewer, some away, the viewer is the only stable element in the room and therefor becomes the object of this masculinized gaze rather than the perpetrator. Andrade also conceived the piece in book form and it strikes me that the reception of that work would be completely contrary to the powerful effect this work had upon me as a viewer. Having control of the speed and motion of the faces, being able to freeze each masculine form for my viewing pleasure places me squarely within a position of power rather than the vulnerability of my position watching these faces whiz by my arrested position before the screen.

Hu Xiaoyuan, Wood, 2009-10, Thirty-one pieces of wood, silk, Chinese ink, white lacquer
As much as I love process-oriented artists, the work of this artist, from Haerbin, China and working in Beijing, represents an unfortunate miscommunication between process and form. Describing the silk, wood, and Chinese ink as “emotionally resonant materials,” the panel text asserts a symbiosis between maker and viewer that I truly didn’t experience standing in front of the work. I can’t help but wonder why they really just aren’t resonating? Coming upon the piece in a room full of colorful works I was drawn to the quiet of the material, the white on the white of gallery walls, the beauty of the natural form, but the staggered, seemingly-haphazard layout betrayed the expected tranquility. I noticed nothing of the artist’s painstaking process in my initial viewing and very little even after reading the wall text. We are told that the installation begins “with raw lumber covered in white chiffon silk, upon which the wood’s natural grain is painstakingly traced in brushed ink. Hu then whitewashes the lengths of wood and re-covers each object with its respective ‘painting.’ Even at a distance the beauty is seductive, forcing a closer encounter that reveals the precise, diligent work that created it.” This precision is near-invisible even directly in front of the work and actively looking for signs of process. I also tend to find that when the curator needs to tell us how we are supposed to react to a work, the work itself is probably not doing its job of conveying that emotion in the first place.

And just a couple other pieces that were engaging but have been already written about many other places:

Kemang Wa Lehulere, Remembering the Future of a Hole as a Verb 2, Chalk







Pilvi Takala, The Trainee, 2008, Mixed media or PowerPoint presentation, video, framed letter, key card, office furniture, computer, monitor







Ala Younis, Junior General On Iraq, 2012, Perpectival drawing in acrylic paint based on paper soldier drawings by Marvin Schneck, Michael Smith, and Austen Erblat


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