On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
Project for a New American Century
April 19–August 13, 2023
The exhibition Project for a New American Century at the Whitney Museum installed on the fifth and eighth floors is a sampling of Josh Kline’s works done over the last fourteen years. The initial impression is that Kline’s work descends from the tradition of social realism and agit-prop in which art serves as a tool of social and political criticism and mobilization. However, what one soon realizes is how often it instead verges on melodrama. According to the museum’s press materials Kline supposedly uses video, sculpture, photography, and design to question how emergent technologies are changing human life in the twenty-first century. I write “supposedly,” because his work does not self-reflectively address the impact of technology at all. Instead he essentially repeats the techno-phobic narratives that have been advanced since the days of Karel Čapek’s 1920 science fiction play R.U.R. and Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.
What Kline arguably offers up for his audience’s viewing pleasure are surfaces and display strategies, as well as doppelgangers and golems, which mask subtexts of manipulation and exploitation. His fictions and fabulations address neither real human relations nor their social contexts in an informative or interventionist manner, the way such artists as Santiago Sierra and Tania Bruguera do. From my perspective a Duane Hanson sculpture of a tired working-class woman with her shopping bags plopped down in the midst of the museum, with its jarring realism and flawless craft, would trump Kline’s fragmented simulation of body parts, work carts, staged interviews, and life-size Teletubby riot police. Kline gives us artifice and slick display reminiscent of Haim Steinbach and Damian Hirst. Likewise, his installations lack the impact of Peter Saul’s paintings, or the material fictions of Ed Kienholz, Jason Rhodes, or even Tom Sachs, which intentionally assault, engage, and disorient their viewers.
On the eighth floor, which houses the installation Climate Change is Personal Responsibility (2023–), one steps into a darkened gallery filled with randomly arranged temporary structures whose tent-like coverings are digitally printed in reddish-orange with images and texts. These are meant to allude to the shelters set up by refugees and migrants all over the world. These shelters, though, are comfortably fitted out as work-live spaces and are meant to be those of near-future climate crisis “essential worker types.” These spaces cannot be entered because in actuality they are mini-theaters, housing large flat-screen monitors. This installation reminds me of the early days of video installations, before projection, when artists like Bill Viola and Francesc Torres would insert big bulky TV monitors into elaborately built sets.
What is being screened in Climate Change is Personal Responsibility (2023–) are videos from two different series, the principal one consisting of fictional interviews with people who are supposedly living through catastrophic climate change in a near future United States. In actuality these videos are meant to psychologically manipulate their viewers to emotionally identify with the dilemmas of fictive entities whose narratives are actually adapted from those of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Presented in a style reminiscent of infomercials and made-for-TV movies, the not-quite-natural delivery of their lines and the artificiality of the green-screen backdrop images behind each actor reminds me of how media simultaneously generates subliminal messages and trains its audience to suspend their disbelief. I can only hope such a Brechtian effect was intended, but I doubt it. One telling aspect of Kline’s videos are the extensive credits, which, if actual, indicate the scale of Kline’s operation and budget. Meanwhile the videos that make up the “Capture and Sequestration” (2023) series appear as if they are commercials. The imagery of these shorts reference the four iconic commodities—sugar, tobacco, cotton, and oil—that fueled the United States’ rise to military, economic, and cultural power, which we are supposed to trace back to the enslavement of African peoples and the theft of Indigenous lands. But like most of Kline’s political content, this is never explicitly stated by the works themselves—instead we must turn to the wall texts.
Among the works on the fifth floor, is Blue Collars (2014–20), a series of stand-alone shopping carts and tableaus consisting of dismembered body parts and commercial products that are intended to be symbolic portraits of real working people. These are accompanied by video interviews with the people themselves. It quickly becomes apparent that his imagery and its backstories have been confused—there is little here about the working classes in the States, or about how technological change has impacted us psychologically. What is most telling is that, without any irony intended, to make these pieces Kline “hired” deliverers, waitstaff, and hotel room cleaners, etc. to make 3D scans of their heads, arms, and legs. From these full-color, 3D-sculptures are printed. No mention of what rights to their images they have signed away or whether they receive royalties, or other compensation when the works are sold. The 3D scanning and digitization of the workers he hires brings to mind both the objectification of workers via biometrics, which an increasing number of people are subject to in their workplaces, while their hi-tech production calls to mind Jeff Koons and Charlie Ray’s techno-fetishism.
In the video interviews accompanying the sculptures, the same workers who have been scanned and objectified are asked about their jobs, aspirations, political views, and feelings about their lives in general. While these works do convey the plight of low-paid workers, there is nothing here that one does not get from reading Studs Terkels’s 1974 book Working or Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2012) by Jefferson Cowie. Kline’s workers seem comparable to those of some fifty years ago. In pieces such as Civil War (2016–17), where he imagines the middle-class dream reduced to rubble in the aftermath of riots brought about by massive technologically motivated layoffs, Kline avoids addressing the structural nature of the social and political issues affecting the concept of “work.” Meanwhile in Class Division (2017), he juxtaposes luxury and generic appliances to represent social inequity, but nowhere identifies the source of such inequality. The irony of this is the Whitney’s resistance to the unionization of its staff and the business activities of its board members.
Neither novel or insightful, Kline’s interviews with workers both real and imagined offer up oft-repeated scenarios in which everyone is a victim of a system that has failed them. No one in Kline’s videos is particularly angry; they are all suitably compliant, everyone is soft-spoken—no one holds Leftist or even alt-Right views. I assume any calls for unionization or genuine economic reform were filtered out or edited because they did not fit Kline’s vision, which is that we are all trapped in capitalism’s endgame, which here is presented as inevitable. There are glimmers of hope in two stand-alone videos, one promoting the benefits of early retirement and another that asks us to imagine a society where social conflicts have been resolved. How this is to be achieved under capitalism is anyone’s guess. If I were to give Kline the benefit of the doubt, due to the ambiguity of his messages it is possible to believe that while he is not committed to shaking his audience awake from their media-induced sleep, he is bent on producing a discordant vision that is aesthetically more suited to the neo-Liberalism of the twenty-first century.