The world is broken. Humans hang around, overwhelmed and anxious, glued to tiny screens, living fossils in an archeology of traumas – racial, economic, ecological – that all seem to be activated at once. In the face of a pandemic, political and economic leaders have proven unequal in the challenge of leading their people and the planet to safety. The playbook is empty. They lacked mediocrity, surveillance, algorithm.
This compound failure is a failure of the imagination. But if the powerful run out of ideas beyond clinging to wealth and control in the face of disaster, art reminds us that there are other options. And so this season more than ever, I turn to an art that refuses to abdicate: exhibitions and projects that offer global reach and historical insight, that tap into ancestral and community knowledge, that invite us to a thought. constellational.
The New Museum Triennial (October 28 to January 23) should be a good start. The triennial’s established mission – to showcase emerging artists from around the world – is crucial in this time of national isolation; and the theme of this edition, to do with neglected materials, decay and renewal, seems appropriate. I am delighted that it includes the prodigious young South African artist Bronwyn Katz, whose sculptures of copper, iron ore and found objects are aesthetically concise – not to say minimal – but strangely charged with the spiritual strength of the geological and social terrain of this country.
I often think of the 1970s, when competition between nations (and dissent within them) opposed real social projects – European social democracy, Third Worldism, the various tendencies of communism – before the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution” introduced the hegemonic cult of finance. It was a turbulent time with many failed experiments, but it produced thinking with purpose, offering glimpses of a better world.
What if global transfers of resources had taken place, as recommended in 1980 North-South: A Program for Survival, the report of a commission chaired by Willy Brandt, the former German chancellor who knelt in contrition for the ‘Holocaust and made peace with the East? On the art front, at the time, a large part of European opinion and even establishment figures supported the return of works looted during the colonial wars, an idea that is only progressing painfully. What if this humanistic logic had prevailed from the start, instead of raw market power and zero-sum thinking?
We will never know, but in the work of contemporary artists enlightened by the aspirations and illusions of this era, we can perhaps find a glimpse of the present. What could a global consciousness be today?
In Amant, Brooklyn, an exhibition by Grada Kilomba (until October 31) uses an installation and video performance to examine postcolonial trauma using Greek myth and psychoanalysis. At the same place, Manthia Diawara (from November 11 to March 27) will premiere a multichannel work inspired by the work of Édouard Glissant, the Martinican philosopher who claimed for the oppressed the “right to opacity” – to not Explain. Diawara was a friend of Glissant, who died in 2011; his film stars, among others, David Hammons, Danny Glover, Wole Soyinka and Maryse Condé.
In her four-part book “Who’s Afraid of Ideology”, filmmaker Marwa Arsanios examines the new liberation movements – ecological and feminist – in Kurdistan, Lebanon, Colombia; the complete project is presented this season at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati (September 17-February 27). Here in New York, I will be looking for international works – for example those of Indian photographer Gauri Gill, at James Cohan’s (October 7-November 13), and Burmese painter in exile Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, at Jane Lombard (Sept. 10-23 October) – for its subject matter and style, but also for connecting across the chasm of travel bans and vaccine inequalities. (Here are the artists, art managers, and gallery staff producing shows under these conditions.)
I hope that the Prospect 5 triennial in New Orleans, already postponed from last year by the pandemic, can go as planned (23 Oct-23 Jan). The program is rich, with a high proportion of local artists as well as interventions from non-locals (Kevin Beasley, Simone Leigh, London duo Cooking Sections and more) which should illuminate how a large artistic gathering can be productively woven. in their host community. It’s still a problem for biennials, but Prospect – who was born in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – can hopefully set an example, following this new trauma, for other cities to emulate. .
Louisiana-made projects are also coming to New York, with Dread Scott’s photographs and banners from his 2019 community re-enactment of a slave rebellion, in Cristin Tierney (September 17-December 18); and Dawoud Bey’s photography and video at the plantation sites, to Sean Kelly (September 10-October 23).
If you can hit the road, however, you can make it to the Texas Biennale, which features 51 artists at five museums in Houston and San Antonio (through Jan.31). The Dallas Museum of Art presents the first museum solo by spiritual painter Naudline Pierre (September 26-May 15); the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth features works on paper by Sandy Rodriguez (December 18-April 17), combining inspiration from California desert flora with the social upheavals and isolation of the past year .
I’m not looking for “pandemic art” per se – we’re still deep in it. But the historical global shock that we have been going through since March 2020 is slowly but surely being channeled into great artistic creations.
“Five Murmurations”, John Akomfrah’s new video installation at the Lisson Gallery (until October 16), is a “film archive of today” by the British director whose career, work on race and class in the 1980s to recent projects on oceans and climate change, traces how we got there.
And at the hyperlocal level, I look forward to the first public programs of the Queens Museum’s “Year of Uncertainty”. The museum – with an already solid track record of creative engagement with its borough – works with artist-in-residence and community groups to interpret and reflect in the museum’s culture and projects the existential challenge of our time.
It is not in the halls of power, but rather in places like Queens – hit hard by the first wave of the pandemic, but also vibrant and diverse, connected by its immigrant population to most countries of the world – that we can gain solid understanding, even hope, as we strive to come out of ruin.