Art Seen: National

ETERNAL HINDSIGHT // NEW MUSEUM

by Tara Plath

Currently on display on the fifth floor of the New Museum are a pair of time-bending exhibitions—iterations of past and future that ultimately meet in the middle: the present moment, perhaps even a statement of art today. The first is an empirical study in the New Museum’s Resource Center; Occupied Territory: A New Museum Trilogy presents a series of exhibitions first presented at the museum in 1993 through a collection of documents, photographs, and ephemera. The display is text heavy, choosing to not focus on the work in the original series but instead on the process of organizing three exhibitions focused on issues of globalization, technology, urbanization, and migration. The exhibitions, In Transit, The Final Frontier, and Trade Routes, are communicated through press clippings, minutes from meetings with advisors, and descriptions of the original artists and artworks represented.

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Image: film still from Czech science-fiction film Ikari XB-1 (1963)

The exhibition functions in two ways: the first reveals the abstract and creative endeavors behind organizing this ambitious trilogy, while simultaneously highlighting the behind-the-scenes processes that tend to be ultimately less interesting next to the actual artwork – a collection of documents that seem to only engage those who are curious about museum operations or curatorial studies. The second remarkable aspect of the archive is that it hardly feels archival. While parsing through binders of text, I couldn’t help but overhear a visitor exclaim in disbelief– “…This feels like not that long ago. It feels like just yesterday.” History becomes grossly relative and condensed, as the issues raised in the original exhibitions still persist today. Those topics, raised in early planning, are issues like AIDS, the stereotyping of African Americans in ghettos, and perhaps the topic most poignant in its stagnancy: a letter from curator France Morin emphasizing the need to change the name of Occupied Territories to Contested Territories so that as not to be associated with occupied Palestine.

The New Museum is nearly twice as old now as it was then. Roberta Smith, who in 1993 wrote for the New York Times Weekend in Review, “This exhibition exemplifies what seems to have become the New Museum’s house style: a display of rather antiseptic, Conceptual-based artworks organized around a theme that is top-heavy with theory” continues to review the museum’s exhibitions; Palestine remains under occupation­; and while the cultural perception of AIDS has changed, from “gay cancer” to an African epidemic, the disease rages on world-wide.

While technology races forward, humans appear less quick to adapt. Curator Celest Olalquiaga, who helped to organize The Final Frontier, is quoted in a guided tour of the original exhibition saying, “Today, the body is electronically mediated.” Reading this line from one of the many documents in the display, I can’t help but recall two people standing slightly uncomfortably in the museum lobby thirty minutes prior, calling out into an unresponsive crowd of visitors, “Anyone here for Meet-Up?”

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Installation view, Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module, tranzit, 2014. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Jesse Untracht-Oakner

Installed in an adjacent gallery, Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module is a disorienting compliment to Occupied Territory. Guest curated by the collaborative Eastern European network tranzit, Report uses the metaphor of space shuttle to articulate ideas of context – historical, geographical, and temporal frameworks that normally serve to root our understanding. In this case, however, we are abruptly uprooted, and placed within a fast-moving and falsified time capsule.

Whereas Occupied Territory presents binders of text that draw attention to subtle shifts of time, Report consolidates its theory into a broadsheet newspaper haphazardly piled below the general wall text in the entrance. The exhibition is physically framed by the fabrication of a spaceship interior, which the wall text informs us refers to “the iconic Czech science-fiction film Ikari XB-1 (1963)”. tranzit uses this space shuttle replica to emphasize the sci-fi aesthetics of the Cold War era. The majority of viewers, that is to say American museum-goers, are physically lifted out of their familiar Western Capitalist bearings and placed within a vessel filled with the remnants, projections, and reflections of the former Eastern Bloc. The displacement is jarring. The subject matter of the contemporary video works feel unattainable, while the more relatable handmade objects are relegated to the space shuttle’s storage.

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Installation view, Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module, tranzit, 2014. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Jesse Untracht-Oakner

A domineering projection of an excerpt of Ruti Sela’s film The Witness fills one wall of the main chamber, dissolving the line between reality and performance, political action and the banal. Otherwise, the majority of smaller works go unattributed, installed on small monitors or televisions on the floor, or the array of sculptures, photographs, and prints stored on storage shelves throughout the space. Report operates, and ultimately succeeds, on a conceptual level. As a whole, it does not represent a unified ideology or aim. Instead, it highlights the inescapable historical narratives that each of us operates within. It does not attempt to draw connections between the disparate works cluttering the storage room shelves, in the same way that tranzit itself is composed of autonomous groups adhering to loosely defined principals. The similarities between the objects are embedded in locale, in otherness, in their lack of hierarchy. Ultimately, the exhibition escapes a didactic reduction of the art of Eastern Europe into a neatly packaged art history lesson. Instead, Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module manages to humanize art production by removing it from digestible narratives, allowing it to confuse and intrigue in its own right.


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Occupied Territory: A New Museum Trilogy and Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module run at the New Museum through April 13, 2014.

Tara Plath is an artist and writer based in New York City. She currently works at Whitebox Art Center. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture and a Bachelors of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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