The New Museum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side is still hot from its opening on December 1, 2007. You can feel the energy buzzing through the whole building, as large numbers of tourists walk from floor to floor, lovin’ it. Yes, loving the incredibly cluttered space, and the confusing and often disappointing arrangement of art that gives one the impression of a shopping mall rather than of a museum. As in a shopping mall, we are surrounded with objects, colors and textures, while sound plays overhead from hidden speakers. Unlike a shopping mall, however, the exhibit is not designed for the enjoyment and pleasure of the visitors, creating a claustrophobic and visually unappealing space. And yet, five out of the seven people I interviewed during my visit of Unmonumental, the current exhibit, really enjoyed the show. They loved the variety of the work on display, the fact that video, sculpture, and collage were all in the same room. One woman thought the arrangement of the art worked particularly well. And some found the sound installations, which fill the whole museum at set intervals of time, to be “really cool.”
Why? Personally, I found Unmonumental to be a depressing experience. For one thing, most of the work felt fashionable but not substantial. A mix of Dada aesthetics, such as in Rachel Harrison’s Huffy Howler (2004), and work that I had already seen, such as Martha Rosler’s revisited 70’s work in Gladiators (from the “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” series, 2004.) Sometimes a piece would catch my eye, such as Henrik Olsen’s Anthologie de l’Amour Sublime (2007), a series of 82 computer printouts with 19th century images manipulated to highlight homoerotic moods or tensions. Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Matière Brute (2006), a hanging cluster of boes, and Marc André Robinson’s sculpture of couches and chairs, entitled Myth Mondith (Liberation Movement) (2007), similarly caught my attention for the beauty of the sculptural forms. Yet without more context for their work, and with so much stimulation from the neighboring pieces, it was hard to engage fully with the art.
Furthermore, there is little attractively new at the New Museum. The most promising section, entitled “Montage: Unmonumental Online”, exhibited works that were not as conceptually innovative as could have been expected. Oliver Laric’s 50 50 (2007), for instance, brings together fifty clips from amateur performances of songs by 50 Cent, a famous rapper. Yet how does his work with the medium of YouTube (from where he took the clips) differ from thousand of other collages already available through the same website? What kind of questions are artists asking themselves in the context of Unmonumental?
As for the popularity of the show amongst its visitors this past Saturday, then, we might conclude that in an over stimulating culture of television, internet, and continuous advertisting, people might find the New Museum a familiar experience of the senses. Yet in regards to art, Unmonumental presents a show about clichés: abstract work that does not make much sense to the viewer, work that shocks and confuses, without the depth of strong concepts behind it or the support of an intelligent design to make the work more accessible. The reasons for the arrangement of the pieces in the space are vague, though apparently intentional, as the exhibit seeks to exemplify the 21st century language of “fragments and of debased, precarious, and trembling forms, sounds, and pictures.” Ultimately, while Unmonumental attempts to address issues of fear and fragmentation in contemporary society, it lacks the clarity in vision necessary for a show that illuminates, rather than recreates and echoes, the complexity of contemporary art and society.
December 1, 2007 - March 23, 2008