What is the worst crisis facing the world today? Songs in the Dark at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery offers up a few compelling options. Titled after Bertolt Brecht’s oft-quoted words written in exile in the 1930s, about art-making in troubled times, Songs in the Dark presents artistic approaches to an array of hot-button issues such as political corruption, climate change, sexual assault, animal rights, and capital punishment.
Activist art can be a loaded topic, conjuring up questions about the methods and goals of this type of work and the terms on which it should be evaluated. Against the backdrop of these quandaries, Songs in the Dark offers socially engaged vignettes on issues that are of clear personal importance to their makers, some of whom are activists outside of the art world as well.
The works on view largely take the form of installations (for example, a mirrored veterinarian table, Jónsi’s “With my dying friend” , a thatched hut with a blue door, Mark Dion’s “Bureau of Censorship” ) and photographs (a nature morte of a bowl of dry cereal, Mat Collishaw’s “Jeffrey Barney,” ; a boy in Bethlehem holding a bird cage, Phil Collins’s “Bethlehem #1” ). While not at the fore, social practice art is represented by a multicolored, crocheted, lavender-and-fennel-scented healing bed, “Delight Us” (2019), a product of artist Ernesto Neto’s collaborations with the indigenous Huni Kuin people of Brazil and Peru.
To lean on an old binary, activism and aesthetics can make for uneasy bedfellows. Charles Long’s “Untitled” (2011) stands out as a particularly masterful example of art that leverages aesthetics to amplify its message: an orthogonal steel structure intersects with silvery-white tendrils made from papier maché, plaster, and river sediment including half of an Orbit gum packet, bits of plastic bags, and scraps of netting. “Untitled” conjures up the spindly pain of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, made in the wake of World War II amid widespread doubts as to whether humanity had a conscience. The extent of the problem of trash-choked rivers — which are, for some, out of sight — is felt, exigent, in Long’s work.
Meschac Gaba, who splits his time between Rotterdam and the Benin port city of Cotonou, considers another flow: the influx of forced migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to the European Union. Gaba commemorates those killed in the watery passage in “Memoriale aux Refugies Noyees – Memorial for Drowned Refugees” (2016). In a sobering installation consisting of of three glowing lanterns and a stack of rough gray blankets, the artist references the Beninese tradition of leaving out lanterns and blankets on the coast when boats are lost at sea.
When works about seemingly disparate issues of social justice are brought together, the links between them rise to the surface. Primed by the explicitly ecological work on view, such as Long’s installation and Analia Saban’s “Atlantic, Carribean and Gulf of Mexico Hurricane Track Chart (with Residual Counterpart)” (2019), viewers are reminded of the role that climate change plays in the migrant crisis. West Africa, for example, is dependent on agriculture yet geographically vulnerable to symptoms of climate change; this combustible combination spurs political violence that fosters displacement and forced migration, building upon the harrowing history of forced migration via the region’s slave trade.
An exhibition concerning the world’s myriad problems in 2020 does not elicit much joy. However, the show holds a silver lining: Tomás Saraceno’s “Biosphere 06” (2009), a clear globe tethered to the walls, ceiling, and floor by arachnoid strings. Inspired by a terrarium-style research center that studied how life might be sustained in outer space, the work is a closed biosphere where Tillandsia — plants that live off moisture and nutrients in the air — bloom pink. “Biosphere 06” is part of Saraceno’s larger vision (informed by research in fields ranging from aeronautics to architecture to biology) of humanity inhabiting sustainable, interconnected bubbles without political or national borders. Maybe by showing how interconnected these issues are, artists can help to uncover potential solutions as well.
Songs in the Dark continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 W 21st Street, Chelsea, New York) through February 20.