A.K. BURNS Shabby but Thriving
New Museum | January 18 – April 23, 2017
Shabby but Thriving, a solo show at the New Museum by artist in residence A.K. Burns, might have this season’s most resonant exhibition title. The two seemingly competing adjectives suggest the odd condition in which many of us find ourselves: being pushed and pulled between outrage and despair, action and inaction, impoverishment and nourishment. Yet the emphasis seems triumphantly on the “but thriving,” as if we are thriving and will continue to do so precisely because we are or have been weary.
It is with this message of arduous optimism that the small fifth floor of the museum houses Burns’s commissioned installation, comprised of a two-channel HD video—synched across one large and one small screen—and a modified couch. The video Living Room (2017 – ongoing), shot at the museum’s artist-residence-studio, presents four vignettes: children lounging on couches that resemble the one within the museum gallery; two institutionalized patients chatting and complaining about a variety of topics in a cramped bathroom; two people carrying an overwhelming amount of trash and other detritus as they make their way down a basement stairwell; and a cadre of queer twenty-somethings wearing headlamps and dancing to club music within that basement.
The exhibition materials state that the scenes and their interconnected settings are evocative and can be read as metaphors for the ways in which diverse subjects struggle toward safety and solidarity. Whereas we first see the children comfortably enjoying themselves on the couches, the young characters soon become unhinged. After sticking her hand in an aquarium, a girl begins to convulse on the floor, as if a fish out of water. A boy, after reading Principia Discordia (a cult-ish religious text), hears voices and unsuccessfully uses a fly swatter to kill flies. Another child suddenly starts to make animal noises before tearing open and throwing bags of potted soil, soiling the domestic furniture that a moment prior was undisturbed.
Perhaps the next scene captures these now-deranged subjects all grown up. Two adult characters, that are presumably meant to conjure something akin to mental patients with their medical robes and stream of consciousness conjecture, converse in a bathroom. The scene resembles Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David, a painting of murdered French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Beginning with the female preparing a bath alone, applying shreds of the newspaper to the bathtub tile, another character then enters carrying a piece of chocolate cake (“Let them eat cake”?), and viewers bear witness to their radical (or is it unstable?) take on reality. The pair have a conversation that seems vaguely profound and sort of silly, supplying viewers with such gems as, “We’re post-everything but we’re not post-sparkling water!”
Next we watch two characters struggle to carry trash bags and other such discards down a cramped stairwell. One character wears a military uniform bearing a name tag that reads “MANNING,” a clear reference to Chelsea Manning, the transgender whistleblower whose sentence was recently commuted by President Obama during his last days in office. With this in mind, the characters’ difficult descent suggests that there’s light at the bottom, a message that is just barely hopeful.
Indeed, as subject after subject come unglued, we reach the dark and damp basement with several tiny visible lights and tremors of infectious music. Suddenly, a cast of dancers emerges, wearing headlamps and large black T-shirts branded with “HER,” “OR BUST,” or “AGAIN” on them, referencing recent political slogans: “I’m with Her,” “Bernie or Bust,” and “Never Again.” Despite the seeming breakdown of these political movements, the dancers collectively gyrate, thriving off of the dingy environment and one another’s elation.
Such communal support in the face of hardship is realized in a series of public programs that take place at the New Museum, such as Body Politic: From Rights to Resistance, which featured “information sessions with lawyers, activists, and grassroots organizers on issues centered around the body: civil disobedience, protest, healthcare, policing, prison, immigration, and environmental contamination.” Two other programs, The Question of Quantum Feminism and Listening Party: Poetry and Record Release for Leave No Trace (Thursday, April 20, 7:00 p.m.) tackle similar issues in a similar community-based, action-oriented way.
The exhibition owes much to these programs; a pairing of art and activism that the museum has been using more and more frequently. Whereas the video is maddeningly opaque, the public programs offer straightforward opportunities for raising consciousness and generating positive social change. In this way, Shabby but Thriving lives up to its title: on the one hand, it is a small, droll, and sometimes impenetrable installation that many museum visitors either ignore or scoff at; on the other, it offers actionable information and cooperative opportunities that carry the potential to make a beleaguered sector of the public more prosperous.