Greater New York

Jonathan T.D. Neil detects an existential cynicism in MoMA PS1's quiquennial show on New York's artworld

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

KIOSK, 1,303 People, 2005–15, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Alisa Grifo & Marco Romeny (KIOSK) with Rebecca Forgac, Gary Murphy, Anny Oberlink, Jason Rosenberg & Ryne Ziemba. Photo: Pablo Enriquez. Courtesy the artists Lebbeus Woods, ‡ŒŽŒ‘Œ’‡“SOLOHOUSE – Exterior View 2, 1989, watercolour and coloured pencil on board, 50 × 71 cm. © estate of Lebbeus Woods. Courtesy Aleksandra Wagner

On the occasion of this Greater New York, MoMA PS1’s quinquennial exhibition of all that is contemporary in New York’s artworld, when one enters the museum grounds, before getting to the building proper, one is confronted with the VW Dome, a temporary structure that houses events and programmes and is sponsored by Volkswagen. In an earlier life, the Dome and its programming played a role in PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach’s efforts to draw attention and money to the Rockaway Beach community of New York, which was badly in need of help in 2012 after having been rocked by hurricane Sandy. Now the dome sits in PS1’s forecourt, somewhat pathetically bearing the stain of corporate malfeasance and venality that the letters ‘VW’ cannot but now signify: the world’s largest automaker, with a devoted customer base and vocal commitments to environmental responsibility and reform as well as artistic culture – a company in which one could, perhaps stupidly, believe – rigged its cars to beat emissions tests; the company, we now know, is a devious polluter, a cheater, a liar.

With David Hammons’s green, red and black Untitled (African-American Flag) (1991/2015) flying overhead, it is fitting that what one first encounters is the VW Dome, because the tenor of this exhibition, or the pathology that it symptomatically exhibits, is something along the lines of an existential cynicism. This is not to suggest that the art in the exhibition is cynical (little of it is), or that the artists are (perhaps a few might be); it’s to state that one cannot seriously attend to all this exhibition has to offer without experiencing a slow but steady revelation of one’s own – that is, that to entertain even a hair’s breadth of hope for our shared future is witheringly foolish, and yet here we are. On the evidence, art making and meaning in New York has become a Sisyphean task minus any sense of Beckettian perseverance. There is no failing better, there is no failing because there is no succeeding, there is just going on.

With Greater New York we’re made to feel this tragic persistence rather than have it pointed out to us. One might identify, for example, with Ugo Rondinone’s waxwork nude (2010) and the subtle exhaustion it figures; he’s almost tapped out. One might be baited by Kiki Smith’s Lure (1995), taken in by that gentle crouching figure only to get hooked, mindlessly, by its line.

It is with KIOSK’s 1,303 People (2005–15), an archive of objects, mostly small manufactured goods of one insignificant kind or another, that the shape of Greater New York’s malaise comes more clearly into view. Collected by Alisa Grifo and Marco ter Haar Romeny, the sentiment that stands behind KIOSK is of the stop-and-smell- the-roses variety, though in this instance, it’s the wildly diverse profusion of mostly cheap stuff that the world and its many cultures and lands put out in the name of consumerism that one is meant to take the time to appreciate. All of the items are numbered and placed in their own clear corrugated plastic containers, which are then stacked high, creating a maze of little trinkets and food-stuffs and craft items. It’s like the physical manifestation of the lower reaches of some Craigslist search. By calling a local New York City line, and dialling in an item’s associated number, one hears a computer-generated voice tell a story about it, often detailing how it works and its origins and why it’s worth your attention.

Whether intentionally or not, 1,303 People models an insouciance to the glut of consumer junk that proliferates seemingly of its own accord, and the egotism that underlies the curatorial act of selection, not to mention the privilege of globetrotting collectors. Though KIOSK’s project may be informed by a redemptive impulse – it’s not junk if you take the time to appreciate it – this is just the setup. The letdown comes when, not quite being able to take it all in, one realises it’s all a piece of the throwaway culture that dominates today.

Lebbeus Woods, ‡ŒŽŒ‘Œ’‡“SOLOHOUSE – Exterior View 2, from December 2015 Review Greater NY
Lebbeus Woods, ‡ŒŽŒ‘Œ’‡“SOLOHOUSE – Exterior View 2, 1989, watercolour and coloured pencil on board, 50 × 71 cm. © estate of Lebbeus Woods. Courtesy Aleksandra Wagner

That fashion figures prominently elsewhere in the show reinforces this throwaway logic. The collagist, anticraft, antiaesthetic of pieces by Eckhaus Latta (with Annabeth Marks) and Susan Cianciolo play well to the Chloe Sevigny-side of contemporary art’s cool reserve, but fast fashion and runway spectacles are some of our biggest sources of material and visual waste. Even if Cianciolo or Slow and Steady Wins the Race (another label taking part in the show) pay lip service to the idea of resistance – on its website SSWTR claims to offer a ‘considered response to the hyper-consumerist pace of fashion’ – the distance between Zara-esque hyper-consumerism and what’s on offer in Greater New York is negligible to the point of invisibility.

Cynicism infects even the most earnest work in the show, such as Yoshiaki Mochizuki’s high-polish and deftly scored palladium-leaf paintings, or Stefanie Victor’s finely crafted linear metal sculptures. When viewed next to John Finneran’s lazily executed symbolist canvases, for example, one feels that Victor didn’t get the memo. In these rooms, such a level of investment in surface or form comes off as naive at best and crassly commercial at worst.

Photographic work by Alvin Baltrop, James Nares, Gordon Matta-Clark and Roy Colmer root Greater New York in an earlier but now lost moment when New York City was still in some sense open, when inhabitants could seize space and make it theirs. But their work also points to what would come next: AIDS, Ed Koch, broken-windows policing, the culture wars and the growing kingdom of finance and real estate, crowned today by vacant $80 million condos owned by foreign nationals.

And speaking of architecture, when I studied it, Lebbeus Woods was some otherworldly God of parasitic design, yet I’d never noticed until this show how windswept and worn he’d endeavoured to make his futuristic work appear. They weren’t relics, as so many liked to think; they were blighted, abandoned. It’s unfortunate that Woods’s drawings and models weren’t set up next to Nick Relph’s photo-based renderings of more contemporary architectural monstrosities, which are subject to some rough handling and wave distortions of their own, as if starring in some Spaghetti Western set in downtown Baghdad circa 2003.

The ‘greater’ part of Greater New York surely lies with the achievement of its curators, Peter Eleey, Douglas Crimp, Thomas Lax and Mia Locks. They have captured how New York itself feels today: overfilled, overcapitalised, underserved. Everyone and everything is tight, which, one must assume, is why so much of the art is not.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of ArtReview.