“The Ungovernables,” the New Museum's building-filling triennial of artists born between 1973 and 1984, really ought to have been called “The Explanations.” It’s loaded with art that you need to read about so you can even grasp what it thinks it's dealing with. Nearly every artist’s work is joined by dense wall text full of buzzwords like "interstitial spaces" or syllogistic, nearly generic statements like "externalize . . . processes of . . . thinking." An artist's primary job is to infuse thought into material. (Let’s restrict public signage to important warnings, like "Beware of the Bears.") Yet at “The Ungovernables” -- as at more and more shows I visit -- I saw a lot more people standing and reading than actually trying to unpack the work.
I was hopeful about this exhibition, curated by Eungie Joo, because it had the potential to show differing artistic approaches bubbling up from all over the world. (Of the 50-plus artists on view, just four were born in the United States, and only a few more than that live here.) There turn out to be few surprises here, though, probably because the lineup is pretty orthodox.
A good handful of the artists in "The Ungovernables" are already fairly well known, exhibit in recognized galleries or have appeared in international biennials (the skeptic in me made me think this was why the artist bios in the catalogue didn't mention career accomplishments). Brazil's Cinthia Marcelle has already won the $100,000 Victor Pinchuk Future Generation Art Prize; Vietnam’s Danh Võ had a major 2009 Kunsthalle Basel show; the American Wu Tsang is simultaneously showing here, at MoMA and the Whitney Biennial; Adrián Villar Rojas represented Argentina in last summer's Venice Biennale; the Egyptian Hassan Khan was president of the international jury of the 54th International Venice Biennale; Abigail DeVille showed at Jeffrey Deitch's gallery as a finalist on his short-lived reality TV show Artstar.
Nothing’s inherently wrong with that, of course. Most of the artists in this show will still be unknown to anyone who doesn't trip the international art circuit or who missed Artstar. Less good is that much of what's on view in “The Ungovernables” looks Über-governed. It’s in lockstep with conventional pre-approved post-conceptual academic practices -- the same ideas you see in galleries, museums and biennials all over the world. Almost all of it looks formally familiar. Influences include Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Gabriel Orozco, Lygia Clark, Richard Tuttle and Hans Haacke.
There are arrangements of found objects (one of those wall labels assures us that a scratched table represents "an interruption of daily routine dictated by other people and pressures"), interventions with the building, dark rooms with big videos, a rug to lie down and hang out on, documentary-like photos of Africa, text pieces, nostalgic references to mid-century modernism, Relational Aestheticians interacting, a smattering of washy drawings and of course one obligatory painter. (Note to curators: Just once, please, I wish someone would take a stand and say, "I don't like painting," then not include any in his or her show. One token painter is worse than none.)
The perverse reverse effect is one of a private colony. Now, I certainly don't object to choices guided partly by demographics. Institutions have done that forever with mainly white, mostly male artists, and it’s about time that world expanded. But in contrast to the New Museum's own “Ostalgia,” which was demographically determined by artists from the Eastern Bloc and was chock-full of fresh approaches, Joo’s diversity initiative simply allows her lineup to be as mediocre as any.
None of this means that I don't really like some of the work in “The Ungovernables.” Or that I don't already know that the so-called margins are as alive as the so-called centers, and that the chief difference between the two is marketing and money, not the work itself. Here, I love José Antonio Vega Macotela's complexly inexplicable interventions with Mexican prisoners, wherein he performs tasks for them (visiting a relative; contacting a past lover) in exchange for the prisoner’s executing certain tasks for him. The results (a map of a jail cell, a collection of cigarette butts) are dense with the barren self.
Similarly mysterious in its archaic power is Hassan Kahn's video of two Egyptian men dancing. We glimpse brotherhood, love, competition and worlds between them. I took pleasure in the The Propeller Group's PSA for the new Communism; Ditto Pilvi Takala's The Trainee, documenting a stint as an office intern where she didn’t do any work. The sight of this human spanner in the works, her own one-person corporate Occupy movement, captivates.
As does Cinthia Marcelle's video of a street being strewn with buckets, crates, fluorescent tubes, tires and all manner of thrown debris -- a meeting of abstraction, scatter art, Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra’s molten lead, Fischli-Weiss and Tahrir Square. It's an encapsulation of what 2011 looked, sounded and felt like (though another of her sculptures, of a leaky bucket, is utterly generic).
These pieces break out of the academic forms that restrict most of the art in this show. They confirm that if curators stop reinforcing one hegemonic international aesthetic -- and stop sweating the wall texts and look harder -- wild things happen.
“The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial,” Feb. 15-Apr. 22, 2012, New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10002.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.