Adrián Villar Rojas, “A person loved me” (2012). Clay, wood, metal, cement, Styrofoam, burlap, sand, paint. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

As good as the last Triennial was — and, all qualms, quibbles and philosophical differences aside, it was a pretty good survey of emergent art — what it didn’t have was a monster.

Adrián Villar Rojas’ “A person loved me” (2012) has already achieved show-stealer status at The Ungovernables, the second installment of the New Museum’s Triennial, snagging a feature by Randy Kennedy in The New York Times with the sweeping headline, “A Colossus in Clay Speaks a Generation’s Message.”

I’ll leave it to a member of Villar Rojas’ generation to address the accuracy of that assertion, but it is hard to look at this looming, mud-encrusted WTF without sensing that something transitional is afoot — if only because it is so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

I’m reminded of Anselm Kiefer in his prime, or Christoph Büchel or El Anatsui — an unlikely trinity, but artists whose massively scaled works are as serious in intent as they are populist in their appeal. Villar Rojas’ art shares this dualism, but his originality departs from theirs at a juncture that can be viewed as, for lack of a better term, millennial.

Kiefer (b. 1945, Donauschingen, Germany), Büchel (b. 1966, Basel, Switzerland) and Anatsui (b. 1944, Anyako, Ghana) — late-twentieth-century artists mining various post-minimal strata of allusion and metaphor — are collectors of detritus. Kiefer’s amputated wings and Faustian hanks of straw are fragments culled from Germany’s desecrated culture. Büchel’s agglomerated environments strip away the veneer of the everyday to reveal the mechanics of oppression beneath. And Anatsui’s bristling tapestries, made from bottle tops and soda can tabs, return an insidious form of ecological blight to the heritage it undermines.

Each, you could say, is an act of mourning and redemption. And each comes out of a grand tradition, be it German Expressionist painting, Dada readymades or Ewe kente cloth.

It is unwise to extrapolate a worldview from a single sculpture (extraordinary though it is), supplemented by a handful of images and interviews from the net. The evidence at hand, however, suggests that Villar Rojas (b. 1980, Rosario, Argentina) approaches historical engagement outside the confluence of the traditions that have come to define it. It is a disconnect simultaneously alienating and catalytic.

This work — which evokes by turns a killer robot, a space station and an archeological dig — feels like an undiscovered country. Villar Rojas and his collaborators have packed and carved primordial clay into cylinders, tubes and bulbs resembling damaged rocket boosters or jet engines, thrusting off a central axis. (As the Times story tells us, “The crew that helps build his monstrosities is less like a group of studio assistants than like a band, with Mr. Rojas as lead singer and one of the songwriters … While the sculptures are not improvised, exactly, they incorporate ideas from everyone in the group and evolve as they are built.”) Like most of Villar Rojas’ creations, it will be destroyed as soon as the show is over.

This past summer, Villar Rojas represented Argentina at the Venice Biennale. An Art in America interview with Faye Hirsch introduces the project this way:

Villar Rojas’s sculptures crowd into their 250-square-meter space, running vertically from floor to ceiling. They are emphatically handmade, defying the more conceptualist traditions of Argentinian art … Villar Rojas’s fascination with parallel universes, alternative worlds and evolutionary detours permeates the work. The sculptures take on the form of hybrid beings — part plant and part machine, often fantastical — as if they were beamed from a future time or faraway planet.

Later in the interview, the artist states:

What I wanted to do was work as if I was not human. As if the human species didn’t exist any more. I mean, as far as we know, for 6,000 light years around us, the only beings that are producing symbols, that are thinking — in the planets, in the universe — are humans. So when humans disappear from the face of the earth, then there will be no more art. What could you do in those last moments? What would the last art look like?

There is a difference between an imaginative concept and a work of the imagination. There are many imaginative concepts bounding through The Ungovernables, several quite rewarding — to name a few, Jonathas de Andrade’s “4000 Disparos” (“4000 Shots,” 2010), a film consisting of 4000 blurry, black-and-white headshots, all in a 60-minute loop; “O Século” (“The Century,” 2011) by Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado, a nine-and-a-half-minute video showing hundreds of pieces of junk hurtled cacophonously into a city street; and Danh Võ’s unfortunately placed “WE THE PEOPLE” (2011), whose sheets of hammered copper (in the shape of fragments from the Statue of Liberty) seem scattered like dry leaves by the force of the neighboring, and unneighborly, “A person loved me.”

But to begin with the premise of “What would the last art look like?” is of a different order.

The scale of Villar Rojas’ millennial shift has little to do with the fantasy/sci-fi narrative of his Venice installation (titled “The Murderer of Your Heritage,” 2011) or the similarly futuristic look of “A person loved me.” It is about exploring a very large theme within the means of visual art and creating a Wagnerian behemoth out of it.

It would be a mistake, I believe, to think of his work as taking off from pop subcultures such as video games, anime or comix. If his imagery has anything to do with comic books, it is couched in their ability to unlock a child’s imagination. A primal sense of wonder is ever-present in “A person loved me,” which, in the end, is as affecting as it is overwhelming.

Most importantly, “A person loved me” and “The Murderer of Your Heritage” raise the question of why visual art often seems so constricted in the range of subjects it tackles. If such esteemed and provocative filmmakers as Lars von Trier (Melancholia, 2011), Michael Haneke (Time of the Wolf, 2003) and Andrei Tarkovsky (The Sacrifice, 1986) can make serious-minded films about the end of the world as we know it, why do we feel the need to look askance at a visual artist quarrying the same material?

It would seem that this proceeds from nothing other than a routinized acceptance of limitations (William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”) and the all but intractable tendency to justify what is now with what was then.

It is not simply his “emphatically handmade” material that distinguishes Villar Rojas’ sculpture from “the more conceptualist traditions of Argentinian art,” but the richness of imagination he applies to making new art emphatically new.

The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Manhattan) through April 22.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

6 replies on “Stealing the Triennial and Other Neat Tricks”

    1. Good question — especially because I am skeptical of broad statements myself. I was referring to the sense that fantasy/sci-fi themes are taken less seriously in visual art (due to their comic book antecedents) than they are in novels or films.

      We can look at the question historically. Perhaps one could say that there is a link between, say, Boccioni’s ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ (1913) and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927), but I think that would be pushing it. Beyond Futurism (which wasn’t sci-fi but cultural/social/political), what museum-sanctioned (for lack of a better criterion) artist or art historical movement has engaged that sort of imagery? Put another way, have there been any visual artists from the past 50-100 years who have exploited science fiction imagery, directly or indirectly, and have achieved the cultural influence of Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky? Lee Bontecou comes to mind, but I am drawing a blank on anyone else in the canon. The contemporary painter Joan Banach works in this vein, though in a more understated way, and I’m sure there must be others. Suggestions are welcome!

      Also, the makeup of the Triennial itself, as an indicator of current curatorial and critical priorities, is telling in that most of the work is either political or formal (or both), with Villar Rojas’ work standing alone in its use of imagination and ambiguity.

  1. I found the show to be intellectually coherent and filled with many works of considerable beauty and complexity –and generally by artists I had not seen exhibited before in NEw York City.  I think that Joo is a first-rate curator, and was really pleased to see what her take on this moment looks and feels like.  The show requires more than one visit, but from a couple of hours spent there, I feel this is the kind of show the New Museum is meant to do.

    1. I agree that the show is well focused and benefits from more than one viewing.  I’ve seen it twice so far, and I’m sure to return a few more times.  It does miss some of the energy of the previous version, which was admittedly overpacked. But it slows you down and rewards the time you spend with it.

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