Exclusive: We Chat with The New Museum’s Generational Curator Massimiliano Gioni

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The generation born after 1976 is notoriously difficult to define. Sociologists have described us as everything from optimistic forward lookers to dead-eyed consumers. At once, we are the narcissists who spend hours each day pouring over Facebook and the do-gooders who entered New Orleans in droves after Katrina. One thing we are not, however, is a movement. Maybe we can point to shared technologies or products, but we struggle to claim an agenda either social or creative that unites us.

The New Museum’s recently opened inaugural triennial The Generational: Younger than Jesus is compelling for how vividly it reflects this lack of cohesion. Comprised of fifty artists all under the age of thirty-three, the common themes you might expect to see exist — many artists focus on our self-involvement, consumerism and apathy — yet, it is the work that exists in the cracks and margins of the show that make it so interesting. We like New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz’s take: “Sociology is the new black. None of these artists is trying to advance the teleological ball or invent new forms. They’re investigating the whole world, not just the art world. Their work is less about how we affect time and people than about how time and people affect us.”

Below read Flavorwire’s interview with one of the triennial’s three in-house curators, Massimiliano Gioni, where he talks about the process used to research the artists, some of the recurring topics found in the show, and the way he hopes it makes you feel — like crashing a really good party where you don’t know anybody.

Flavorwire: Could you talk a little bit about how you chose the artists?

Massimiliano Gioni: Rather than the process we used to choose the artists, it was more about the process we used to do research. We asked many colleagues across the world — a total of 150 writers, curators and artists that know and work with art and we asked them to send us the names of artists who were doing particularly challenging and radical work and asked that they be born from 1976 and on. Then, we also worked with ten other curators in areas that we knew particularly little about like Africa, India and China. We asked them not only to send us names of artists, but documents about galleries, not for profits, and other spaces to give more of an organic idea of the local scenes. That’s how we came to acquire a list of nearly five hundred and fifty artists. We started to get materials about them and at the same time continued conversations with the curators. We started realizing that there were some elements and threads that wove the different artists together and slowly we came to the 150 artists in the show.

Ultimately, we presented all the materials in that big book called Younger Than Jesus: The Artist Directory that shows all five hundred and fifty artists. It was another way to distribute the information

FW: What are some of those common threads you see throughout the show?

MG: Well, it’s not even a theme, but a question, a sort of hypothesis. The question is: Will people who belong to the same time produce art that is somehow similar. Are they going to be preoccupied by the same problems and ask the same questions? But, the answer to that is ultimately is up to you the viewer. The other issue is we all belong to generations and we all share certain things with our peers, but we also try to be individuals. The show is very much about trying to identify the space between the individual and the collective, and I think that’s also a very important element. We didn’t want to produce a show that has the magic answer or the magical equation to describe this generation. On the contrary, we wanted to say that this generation is much more complicated and much more stratified than many people like to think. In a way, it is a tribute to the many individuals that animate this generation. We wanted to prove that each member of this generation is unique even though he or she shares many commonalities. So those are some of our preoccupations rather than themes.

FW: Did you encounter anything unexpected about this generation when you were putting together the show?

MG: Well, there were a lot of things. When you look at young artists you expect them to be messy and confusing. I think that’s a patronizing assumption that many people who are older than young artists make. We weren’t coming across artists who were making messy, chaotic work. There are a lot of artists in the exhibition who are making very finished, very beautiful work. There is also very “mature” work — whatever that means. I think that these were the biggest surprises and we were very thankful that our patronizing assumptions were questioned and ultimately criticized by the work itself. As you go through the show there are many recurring themes and many more than we expected when we started. There is for example, the preoccupation with language that seems to be very present, from the videos of Ryan Trecartin where people speak at an incredible speed to the soundtracks of Tris Vonna-Michell and the work of Mariechen Danz in the videos of Guthrie Lonergan. Often, they are speaking very fast or speaking in made up languages. This might be an effect of technology. It might be an effect of a century in which the biggest industry in the world is communication and the industry of words.

There also seems to be a sort of tribalism that emerges from the scenes of fights in Tigran Khachatryan films or the AIDS-3D’s OMG obelisk. There is a collective or a family or a belonging to a group that seems to be quite strong. There’s a pride in belonging to these groups whether it is a family or an alternative family as it is, again, in the work of Trecartin. Then there is, in terms of media, a return to abstraction that I think is very interesting after years of figuration and a certain kind of figurative painting that was also very market oriented. There is a return of photography also and a blurring between whether this photography is documentary or if its fictional. There is a sort of new immediacy and new intimacy in video works. There are some that are very staged but there are others that are like vignettes, as if you turned on the camera and came upon a piece of poetry in your every day life. I think that’s really special and thank god there’s so much more that can’t immediately be labeled as a theme. I think this is what makes a visit to the show so interesting: there is a lot that cannot immediately be translated into words and that you have to experience.

I think that was an effort we consciously made. We wanted to have a sort of fragmented portrait, a portrait that is made of many different pixels and its sort of pulsing with a lot of information. As a way to describe it, because so many even art professionals are surprised by the amount of new information that’s in the show, is we wanted it to be like a party where you don’t know fifty people, but its still a great party. Each one is a stranger to the other, but it’s a great mix.

FW: As you noted earlier, there isn’t single theme that unifies the art in the exhibition. But, you could you ultimately see movements growing out of this work?

MG: I see many, many themes or subtexts. In my essay, I actually I appropriate a term from James Wood who is a critic for The New Yorker. The term is “hysterical realism” and Wood used it to describe the writings of some people at the turn of the millennium so I appropriated that term. But, I also think that this century may be about the passing of the movement. I think, though, that that is a label I would feel most comfortable using for some of the works because there is an attraction to reality. There is a return to reality, a sort of refusal of art for art’s sake, but it’s also sort of hysterical with the use of language and explosion of languages that I mentioned before.