A psychologist, treating a patient who knows cigarettes cause cancer but can’t stop puffing like a chimney, might attribute the phenomenon to cognitive dissonance. An art critic, covering an institution whose romancing of money and power corrupts its aesthetic and cultural mission, will likely find the same condition at play.
If there’s a poster child for cognitive dissonance in the art world, it’s New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In December MoMA unveiled “The Forever Now”; billed as a cutting-edge survey of contemporary art, the show was utterly predictable, orthodox, and almost entirely vapid. Last month the museum trotted out a second turkey in “Björk,” which critics from various corners labeled a “fiasco,” a “disaster,” an “abomination,” and the show that “turn[ed] MoMA into Planet Hollywood.” Panned like no other museum exhibition in recent memory, the Icelandic singer’s “retrospective” — it’s made up largely of unremarkable music videos and Björk mannequins wearing goofy costumes — plumbed a new low for MoMA.
So what to make of encountering the entrance to “Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art From the Collection” on the same floor as Björk’s navel-gazing “retrospective”? Another term for “cognitive dissonance” is “just plain confused.”
A selection dominated by new objects from the museum’s vast warehouse, the show endeavors to examine how the major geopolitical events of the past 30 years have “destabilized the established world order and reconfigured everyday life.” And that’s precisely what it does. This exhibition recalls not alt-Disney MoMA but the scholarly institution at its bright-eyed best.
“Scenes for a New Heritage” is a working interpretation of contemporary art’s evolution in our time, presented through paintings, sculptures, installations, and videos that the museum has acquired since “We Are the World” and the network-television debut of Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark. A snapshot of the age, the display mixes well-known artworks with lesser-known pieces by 40 international artists. Together they trace the contours of an expanding global art world. (Much like Major League Baseball over the same era, it’s on steroids.)
Organized jointly by curators Quentin Bajac and Eva Respini (photography), Ana Janevski (media and performance art), and Sarah Suzuki (drawings and prints), “Scenes” takes seriously the novel interdisciplinary challenges of defining contemporary art in our age. Notably, more than half of the pieces on view have been installed at MoMA for the first time. Among them is the display’s title work, a video installation by the Croatian artist David Maljkovic. A trio of lo-fi futuristic vignettes that revisits an abandoned Communist monument, the piece both nostalgizes and ridicules the twentieth century’s most fashionable millenarian movement.
Several other works take on politics and history directly in an effort to memorialize the costs of certain painful social transformations. Uruguayan conceptualist Luis Camnitzer, for instance, fills a room with 195 pages from the Montevideo white pages, to which he has digitally restored the names of more than 200 people “disappeared” in that nation’s “dirty war.” Chinese artist Feng Mengbo’s interactive game, Long March: Restart, pits the Chinese Communist Party against the Chinese Nationalists: Members of the public can direct Mengbo’s Red Army soldier-hero on a Super Mario Bros. battle/trek across 80 years and two 30-foot screens.
Then there’s Kara Walker’s black-and-white blockbuster epic, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred B’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, made from cut-paper silhouettes. The closest thing America has produced to Picasso’s Guernica, Walker’s roiling panorama of daisy-chained bigotry rightly pegs the history of U.S. race relations as a painful, tragicomic, repetitive mess.
These and many other excellent pieces — notably Allan Sekula’s multimedia “documentary” about port cities and the modern global economy — refresh the notion that art plays a profound role in understanding large-scale change in the world. Not a selection that stoops to conquer, this brilliant overhaul of MoMA’s collection reaffirms the institution’s fundamental values at a time when they’re under attack — from the inside.