The New Museum Triennial

NewMu4I wanted to like the New Museum. I really did. I’ve gone there a couple of times. I even considered becoming a member.

But it sucks.

OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But every time I visit the New Museum, I find their “art” more laughable than inspirational. It’s as if the mission statement of this museum is along the lines of “You can declare anything to be art, and we will revere it as such.”

I’ve gone-off about meritless art many a time on this blog (including here and here). And I’ve spared the New Museum my scorn simply because they weren’t worthy of it. Genuinely interesting art seems to be the exception in that place, so I stuck to taking jabs at other art museums where sham art is the exception not the rule.

But I thought I’d give the New Museum a third and final try when I saw they were having a triennial exhibit. After all, they have a boat hanging from the front of their building, so the place can’t be all bad, can it? And, in fairness, it surely won’t be my last visit because the International Center of Photography is opening up its new museum across the street this fall, and I’m definitely rejoining that institution.

The Try-ennial
I plowed through the New Museum’s triennial exhibit in hopes of finding some inspiration. Most of the stuff was what I call sham art – stuff that’s considered art simply because someone declared it to be art. But there were two gems that caught my eye.

The first was an aquarium. It had some convoluted meaning which required a long, rambling explanation on a poorly lit placard. But I really liked it because it gave you an up-close look at some beautiful soft coral. And I didn’t even have to don my dive gear.

The second was a virtual reality thing. Apparently some guy (or guys) digitally mapped a small section of the Brazilian jungle. And by “small” I mean about a 10-yard radius. This exhibit had its own separate room, with a pair of goggles tethered to the high ceiling. And there was a line. Normally I wouldn’t bother with a line. But since I found little else of interest, I figured I’d stick around and have a look.

One of the highlights of the New Museum's triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

One of the highlights of the New Museum’s triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

When my turn came, I slipped the goggles over my eyes and was surprised by what I saw. I was told that it would be a 3D image of the Brazilian rainforest, which I expected to be in full-color (it is 2015, after all). Instead, it was black and white. In fact, it wasn’t an image but rather dots of white light – like stars in the night sky – that formed the outlines of plants and other features. More of a sketch than a picture.

At first I felt a little disoriented. I looked up to get my bearings and saw that I was in some sort of tube or vortex. Too small to be a clearing in the canopy, I thought. Then I realized I was standing in the middle of a tree, looking up through its trunk. I stepped out and walked around a bit. It was pretty cool – like the Matrix, but with patterns of white light instead of green.

I told the attendant, who was there presumably to keep order in the line, that the only thing missing was a member of the indigenous population running out of the darkness with a machete after five minutes. That, I explained, would prevent people from bogarting the goggles. Though it would also be quite the buzzkill for anyone who was high, and that’s probably the best way to experience such an exhibit.

In fact, being high is probably the only way the New Museum is worth the price of admission. Yes, they deserve credit for taking chances, like an “exhibit” in which visitors can follow an “artist” around the East Village (I prefer to trail random people in the East Village). And I am glad someone is taking chances, as it offers opportunities for new artists and encourages established ones to try new things.

Other Options
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has long been the innovator in the city’s museum scene. Its busy midtown location, which they are planning to expand yet again, probably draws more tourists than locals. But, in an attempt to attract more of that new money (and even more tourists), they have shamelessly been pandering to all of the wrong young people. As a result, they’ve only managed to shoot themselves in the foot. In fact, MoMA even made Bjork look decidedly uncool (which is no easy task). And this pandering to Main Street USA may attract tourists, but it also makes MoMA the Cats of the New York City museum scene.

Fortunately, there’s also MoMA PS1 over in Long Island City. That’s where MoMA keeps its edge sharp. Like the New Museum, exhibits at PS1 tend to be hit or miss. But with the backing of MoMA, they seem to have better luck landing the hits.

Again, experimentation is good, especially in the art world. But I don’t have the kind of deep pockets to consider myself a patron of the arts. Maybe (hopefully) someday I will. But until then, I go to museums for inspiration and – if possible – enlightenment. And having devoured the New Museum’s triennial exhibit, I found little of either.