What did I expect from “Greater New York”, an exhibition of hundreds of works by forty-seven artists and collectives more or less contemporary at Mom PS1? I know what I fantasized about: discovering things the creators here have been doing for a year and a half in pandemic isolation. It was a stupid mistake on my part, ignoring the fact that the investigation – the fifth that PS1 has mounted since 2000 – was due to open in 2020 and necessarily postponed. The result, with the exception of a number of updated entries, amounts to a sort of time capsule: a collection of judgments from before a time so tumultuous it looks like an era. A current trend that is represented, albeit in a disjointed way, is neo-surrealism: the savage subjectivity of artists moving from outer worlds to the inside. But the underlying mood is external, tilted towards politically charged emergencies and the inclinations of eccentric but not entirely alien talent. A consensus is projected that lacks aesthetics.
Numerous artist photographs document half a century of social activism in New York City, starting with the Puerto Rican protests in the 1960s and through to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Almost 100 works, all of them supports combined, were created before the year. 2000. Nine of the artists died. The show’s main draw is its focus on foreign-born residents, historically a focal point of New York City as a bubbling rather than a melting pot. There are contributions from people from Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Nigeria, Japan, Mexico, Argentina, India and more. There is also a strong contingent of Native American artists. This is all somewhat hazy, however, both in terms of concerns from the more distant past and what was new about a year ago. Much of the painting, sculpture, video, and stitching in the exhibit, though well crafted and often flashy in terms of production values, preaches to choirs at art schools and urban coteries .
Much of the show could use a slogan related to “avant-garde”, perhaps whatever the French term for “side-guard”. A curatorial team led by Ruba Katrib showed great finesse while tending towards a semi-subterranean orthodoxy. They give pride of place to a garish video installation by Mohawk artist Alan Michelson, the subject of a recent report in the Times, which deplores the historic collapse of oyster culture by the Lenape people in the tributaries of the East River. Go and oppose it. Who is not pro-oyster and regrets the trip of the Lenape? Less obvious assumptions of automatic agreement even infect some surreal and abstract works, at least it seemed to me. Am I overreacting? This is possible, as I scan the show’s illustrated checklist for examples that I might lament. There is ambient restraint despite predominant agitation. What bothers me is an addiction that frustrates the delight.
Exactly one artist really fascinated me: the Japanese Yuji Agematsu, who, since the mid-90s, has fashioned tiny sculptures from rubbish he meets on the streets of New York. Three hundred and sixty-six of them, arranged on shelves in twelve plexiglass display cases, commemorate as many recent walks. Typically snuggled up in the cellophane wrappers of cigarette packets the artist has smoked, they are individually – and all together – exquisite, achieving feats of formal and colouristic lyricism through used chewing gum, scraps of fabric, fragments of metal, feathers, thread, and many other things. The works convey an instinct to seek beauty in the most humble materials, and in the most democratic of civic activities: walking in the city. It is easy to imagine them as monuments, about thirty meters high, when you bend down to contemplate them from a low angle. There is undoubtedly a political atmosphere in Agematsu’s activity, but it is an atmosphere that is subsumed by personal devotion. The suggestion of an underground utopia is here and now, requiring no reform of the attitudes of others. The works contrast with many of the works in the exhibition which seem to at least recede from feelings of rote conclusion, to the detriment of unforced pleasure.
One particular highlight, harshly disrupting the series’ occasional tunes of potential subversion, is a looping hour-long film by Swedish artist Marie Karlberg, “The Good Terrorist” (2021), based on a 1985 novel. by Doris Lessing. Crouching in a New York skyscraper, far-left radicals debate the planting of a bomb, which is sure to harm innocent people, as a means of dramatizing their cause. Some are fanatical, others hesitant. We learn towards the end that the bomb exploded prematurely, killing the woman who was responsible for planting it, in addition to a few unlucky passers-by. Hysteria erupts in the squat, breaking the courtesy of the radicals. The actors and production are decidedly amateurish in a way that, if you take it, invests the intimacy in a talking storyline. The characters’ jarring emotions set in, even when they are appalling. The storyline unfolds casually on the verge of sounding like a plausible nightmare. The work is a moralless fable, testifying to Lessing’s strange understanding of twisted humanity. Karlberg and his cast’s loyalty to the integrity of the tale vibrates and absorbs. As befits a spectacle marked by resolutely non-murderous dissatisfaction, it floats in the air. You won’t forget it, if you want to.
The political is more important than the artistic. Using art to advance causes isn’t bad; it simply abandons independent initiative, an always fragile affair, to the dominant powers of mundane argumentation. There is an ethical weight in the sacrifice, shaming the simple aestheticism. I cannot defend my desire for autonomous experience in the face of concerns that recognize the real suffering of real people. But I find myself clinging to examples of creativity that avoid rhetoric. On PS1, some very strange sculptures of the young American Kristi Cavataro come up against happiness. Cheerful geometric patterns of colorful stained glass are mounted on the walls or stand knee-high on the floor. There is a whiff of nostalgia for Art Deco, but the pieces are subjected to unprecedented ingenuity of form and mysterious pressures of sentiment. Only the desire of the artist justifies them.
Full disclosure: I’m the one vaccinated, art-hungry during my ongoing exile from the city since 2019, when my wife and I had to retreat to the upstate after a fire in our apartment building (still under reparation). We have therefore missed New York’s share in the pandemic, its summer of protests and its direct contacts with colleagues in culture. Now, my pent-up urge for free transcendence saddens me at the PS1 show. I want a re-engagement with the history of art that speaks to personal impulses rather than programmatic discontents. The neo-surrealists and abstractionists of the spectacle are too motley and hermetic to do more than make gestures in a compensatory direction.
Should ideology define us? Can one abstain from an extreme without being implicitly assimilated to its opposite? The art world has become an aviary of miners’ canaries in this regard; there is a virtual certainty, whatever you do, to offend – or, at least, to disappoint – someone. The PS1 show takes what has appeared to be the most secure stance, one that identifies cultural legitimacy with obedience to supposedly irreproachable opinions. The introductory text states that “we must push back the colonial borders and address the indigenous geographies”. Who, please, is this mighty “us”? The strong and historically founded works of the authentic complaint of the Senec artist G. Peter Jemison amply prove the right to the first person plural. Beyond that, however, the presumption of curators of group prerogative changes not the panoply of contemporary art but the makeup of its audience. (I don’t like it? Getting lost.) Can we do better by accepting the limits of art as a force in the world?
âPoetry doesn’t make anything happen,â observed WH Auden, but life without poetry is likely to be quite bleak. How about basing value on joy and letting agreement and disagreement take care of itself? In the short term, seeking disapproval, as “The Good Terrorist” does, would appear to be the most effective escape route to freedom. Only doing things you aren’t supposed to do and saying things you aren’t supposed to say promise relief from a climate of stagnant sensitivity. Being dishonest beckons. Open up. Restore surprise. ??