The New Museum of Contemporary Art: A Peek into the Heaviness of 21st Century Politics
I decided this weekend to pay a visit on the New Museum of Contemporary Art which, settled at 235 Bowery, borders one of the few neighborhoods in NYC that I actually find enticing—a vibrant, artsy, creative and colorful Lower East Side which bears little resemblance to what this area must have looked like when it housed the “huddled masses” that had come to America seeking refuge from tyranny or poverty. With its myriad bistros, cafés, tea places, art galleries, and avant-garde hotels, this is now perhaps the sexiest and most prized neighborhood in town, and if you wish to spend a Saturday evening in the area, you had better come accompanied by a well-stuffed wallet. I treated myself to a tea and excellent crème caramel at the very French Café Charbon, one of these New York French restaurants done in imported Gallic bistro paraphernalia, complete with old mosaic signs, rows of bottles of vin de table lining the walls, billboards announcing the next soccer match between Lyon and Concarneau (two towns I know well), empty (or not) boxes of French grocery items from pâté to mustard and everything in between--it's all pretty fake, despite the ambition to look genuine, but the crème caramel was one of the "truest" I have ever eaten in this town. It is on the table of Café Charbon that I began writing this article.
The Museum is predictably contemporary: all clad in white and playing with the theme of transparency through a steel mesh that covers the seven-story façade, glass doors all over, and a rare wrap-around balcony cum bar lounge on the 7th floor which reveals the roofs, water cisterns, and silhouettes of one of the ugliest cities in the world: although photo is permitted, the desire to shoot is not included in the price of admission. Staff use MACs: they’re white too, and the prerequisite of contemporary coolness. With its walls covered in turquoise, beige, and white Vicenza mosaic tile, the ladies’ bathroom in the basement is the most attractive part of the building. The men’s loo, I have found out, is done in orange!
The museum has three “exhibitions” on view: two films and an installation, of which I will speak in some detail. A film entitled “Crystal Palace” by German artist Mathias Poledna presents still images of the rainforest of Papua New Guinea against a background of nature’s sounds—crickets cricketing, birds chirping, dead wood breaking under the paws of some animal—a sea of green bathed in crystalline noises that evoke the virginity of an untouched, and quasi-unapproachable environment.
Another film by Darian Martin with choreography by Anna Halprin tackles the oft-treated theme of sexual relations between a senex and a woman his daughter’s age. Entitled “Minotaur”, it is interpreted by two dancers who move for fifteen-or-so minutes in a tight, almost suffocating embrace until the lover-daughter, who dances her part naked with only a transparent veil covering her torso, slowly and somewhat unconvincingly frees herself from this bond all the while casting melancholy eyes on the object of her former passion. (I use the term passion in its Greek acceptation: pathein, to suffer.) Whether such ties are sexually empowering for the female, as is suggested by the accompanying Museum text, or an exploitation of youth’s energy by an almost dying senex is a topic that has occupied psychotherapy for over a hundred years. Women coming out of such relations have rarely seemed empowered to me but rather castrated of a sacred part of themselves for life—that fons of youth from which creative energy, true joy, and unselfconscious spontaneity in love and life stem— and one feels that it is precisely because she senses that the old man might die from her withdrawing that sacred part of herself that the lover-daughter hesitates for so long to part, and when she eventually does, still seems emotionally attached to the piranha that was feeding on her sexual (i.e. creative) energy. The topic is well treated by both cinematographer and choreographer, with no shyness and no shrinking from the complexity and the ambivalence of the protagonists’ feelings and actions. Disturbing, but well done.
Named “Exodus 2048,” the L-shaped installation by Vienna-based artist Michael Blum is an ambitious project in which former travelers to Israel will notice many familiar items from candy wrappings written in Hebrew, to diaper bags also labeled in Hebrew letters, books, children’s games, dolls and Israeli versions of GI Joes—soldiers of the defeated Tsahal, in this case--the whole installation complete with two TVs and a radio blaring the equivalents of Israeli soap operas and traditional Hebrew songs all over this extremely messy dormitory room laden with the chatkas of daily life. There are, of course, Israeli flags and cobalt-blue Stars of David painted on the walls, as well as the words “Uganda,” “Brooklyn,” and various Dutch names inscribed in black, graffiti-style letters.
We are in the UNHCR-deployed dormitory of a refugee settlement in a harbor-town of the Netherlands where the Israeli remnants of a 21st century version of Exodus have landed after weeks of horrendous sea travel during which disease and hunger have added their scars to the trauma of forced exile, fear, and rejection by a number of European countries.
Evoking the possibility of a repetition of the heroic yet ultimately tragic flight of a group of post-Holocaust refugees aboard the ship Exodus in 1947--a tale told memorably by Leon Uris in the book by the same name--"Exodus 2048" is shocking enough on its own ground. The installation, however, is incomplete until one reads the fictitious newspaper of the Vanabbe Museum printed as an addendum to the exhibition and which contains a most enlightening interview of refugee Miri Stern, a scientist born in Israel in 2007, by Lotte Müller, a journalist and author of a reader entitled, “Rise and Fall of the Jewish Utopia” published in New York and Shangaï in 2067!
Let me quote excerpts of this extraordinary mock interview.
The journalist asks Miri: “What eventually convinced you to leave?”
Miri: “Fear. The rumors were getting more persistent and we grew really scared…. When you hear stories of Arabs taking over Jewish houses and entire neighborhoods over and over again, you start believing in them…in hindsight, I know that the whole country deserted on a mere rumor. We had the news but never saw actual fighting. It was ridiculous, yet very powerful… As in any war, the media become a mere vector of propaganda. They use the situation for other purposes. They don’t really report.”
The journalist insists: “So you didn’t witness fighting in Tel Aviv?”
Miri: “No, I didn’t. I know it sounds crazy today, that we left without fighting, but by hearsay. But it’s how it happened…”
This installation therefore presents us with two key factors of what
may pass for "politics" in the 21st century.
1. The first factor is that, because it is "organic", biology is more “real” than, and therefore trumps, the constructs that emanate from a reasoning mind. It matters little that the highest birth rates have always coincided with extreme poverty, the absence of institutional systems (from free elections to the legal systems necessary for investment and trade), the total absence of a concept of women’s rights, typically accompanied by the absence of recognition of human rights in the first place, lack of education, poor or inexistent health systems, and, last but not least, the siphoning-off of international aid, made easier by the total opacity of institutions, when we are not dealing with an outright Mafia cum terrorism system. In the version of history presented by Michael Blum, one must assume that it has become either impossible or increasingly politically incorrect (and the two dynamics are tied) to criticize communitarian behavior and customs from the viewpoint of constructs that are increasingly dismissed as emanating from a Eurocentric, 18th century viewpoint. And therefore biology trumps politics, by which I mean that instinct rules the structuring of the polis as community, which is the same thing as saying that chaos replaces structure.
2. The second factor amplifies the first, and it concerns the way politics is made and told in the middle of the 21st century. If we believe Michael Blum--and I am afraid that we already have reasons to pay attention to his message--21st century politics emanates from a world with no voice. Who speaks, who makes and tells the news in 2048, and who can be held accountable for their content ? We do not know. In fact, what we do know is that the news is made by people with no names. No one is responsible. Rumors circulate, but rumors are famously anonymous. Journalists are no more. Wolf Blitzer may have passed by then, and Anderson Cooper is an old man. What has replaced these voices, which in 2009 are, whatever one thinks of them, still identifiable and individuated, is a WIFI-world of ubiquitous devices that render war and combat obsolete by spreading fear over the fabric of an electronically saturated world. And so it is that in this Orwellian world, a nation-state can unravel by the simple keying-in of messages on the pads of cell phones and what will, by then, have replaced today’s Blackberries.
Michael Blum therefore presents us with the face of the new utopia--call it the utopia of the Age of Aquarius, if you will, as there is much talk of this phenomenon among the cult-leaders of the so-called New Age. In this new utopia, WIFI-empowered flesh creates political reality by the spread of voiceless rumors, and the defenders of this new world (dis)order would have us believe that the Enlightenment, with its idea(l)s of universal democracy, elegance in rhetoric, beauty in dress, free trade, freedom of speech and association, its invention of the very concept of human rights, from which women's and other "minority" rights issued, its advocacy of good measure in all things, backed by a cultivated taste for art and aesthetics, this inheritance we should see as a Europeocentric evil that failed to take into account the rich diversity of the world.
Well, let me tell you: a museum of contemporary art, whether in New York or elsewhere, can be a depressing thing, because, between the senex feeding on his daughter's sexual energy and raving hordes of invaders destroying a nation-state with cell phones, if you have any grain of sanity left when you exit the New Museum of Contemporary Art, you want more 18th century "utopia" and less WIFI-enabled "demo-tyranny", and perhaps, as an antidote, you take the # 6 train to 77th and Lexington, and you run into the Met to look at a Fragonard or a Reynolds or a Gainsborough even, and you pray to whatever entity you still believe in at this sad juncture in history that there may still be plenty of "18th century utopia" to go around.
February 8, 2009