"Each new generation," according to social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville, "is a new people." Through July 5, the New Museum in New York, which specializes in new art and new ideas, exhibits the visual culture of the generation called the Millennials, composed of artists who came of age after the millennium. The cheekily named exhibition, "The Generational: Younger than Jesus," includes work by 50 artists from 25 countries – all younger than 33 – to see if this cohort has anything in common beyond age.
Not only the title of the show is brazenly irreverent. In the time-honored fashion of rebellious youth, these artists shake up their elders with "huh?"-inducing conceptual works. To add an element of surprise, Mexican artist Adriana Lara instructs a museum employee to eat a banana and discard the peel each day for "Installation (Banana Peel)." Such art may literally upset your equilibrium.
Chinese artist Chu Yun's "This is Laura" consists of paid volunteers, young women whose role is to sleep (with the aid of a sleeping pill) under a white duvet in the middle of the gallery. This living sculpture snoozes away like an island of stasis amid the hubbub of churning life.
In "This Consequence," Ryan Gander, from England, also uses a live person to engage viewers. A museum employee wearing a white track suit embroidered with scarlet drops like blood strolls through the galleries. The piece tests our powers of observation and imagination.
These works are in the tradition of antitradition that reigned in the beginning of the 20th century, when artists wanted nothing so much as to create new, unprecedented forms. Innovation and originality were the hallmarks of modernist art. Artists were considered noteworthy based on their degree of invention and subversion.
But most of the works produced by the Millennials don't seek to be outrageously original. Rather, they tell stories and comment on sociopolitical currents. A major common thread is the use of the century-old collage technique – in both video and hand-made art. The French artist Cyprien Gaillard's "Desniansky Raion" video combines footage of a violent clash between young Russians, a light-show playing over the facade of a French low-income housing project just before its demolition, and aerial views of soulless, desolate towers in Kyiv (Kiev). The sum of these parts discredits Utopian architects' plans to improve society through giant housing blocks, which instead breed crime and despair.
The Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda makes actual collages. She superimposes shards of bright colors on photos of ancient Egyptian and Cypriot objects to juice up these remnants of the Old World.
The painter Josh Smith, born in Japan, unabashedly returns to brushy abstraction in his collages of newsprint splashed with vivid paint. Not afraid to revive 1950s Abstract Expressionism, Smith exuberantly reinterprets the genre with hallucinogenic colors from the 1960s, like a mash-up of Kandinsky, Rothko, and Basquiat.
Works in series also recur. The Algerian photographer Mohamed Bourouissa sets his staged photos in ghetto-like Parisian suburbs, the scene of riots between police and young immigrants who feel marginalized. The dramatic, tension-filled scenes are another example of variations on a theme that presents a compartmentalized but coherent picture.
The most moving series is Czech artist Katerina Šedá's "It Doesn't Matter." Faced with her grandmother's decrepitude and apathy (the title was the elderly woman's response to all questions), Šedá enlisted her in an art project: to draw pictures of all the items the older woman had inventoried in her years working for a home-supply store. The assignment rejuvenated her grandmother, who rummaged through her memory to produce images of mugs and mops, regaining her interest in life.
Sheer visual pleasure is not absent from the exhibit, thanks to German sculptor Kitty Kraus's mirrored cubes that emit rays of crystalline light, radiating spiky shadows from the boxes' seams.
This cohort of artists has much to say about the state of the world. Indian photographer Shilpa Gupta's images of children with hands covering their eyes, ears, and mouths illustrate the innocent homily, "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." But the results look sinister, as if the children are being shielded from horrors or prevented from viewing them. A response to persecution of Muslims in Kashmir, the photos suggest we must perceive, acknowledge, and oppose evil.
Ruth Ewan's "A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World" includes 600 songs, like "Woodman, Spare that Tree" or "Eve of Destruction," that recall the need for idealistic protest.
Of all the works, a performance piece best expresses the hurry-up mood of this generation. In "The 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project, or, Building Rome in a Day," Boston artist Liz Glynn, with the help of volunteers, created and destroyed a scale model of ancient Rome. She and her co-workers emulated the boom and bust cycle of imperial history in a fast-forward version of history – from the founding of Rome through its fall. This participatory work, requiring collaboration, expresses both optimism (yes, we can!) and realism (the inevitability of decline). A banner unfurled over the cardboard ruins proclaims: "All things change and we change with them."
T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" – a collage of shards from many religions and cultures – contains these words in its last stanza: "these fragments I have shored against my ruins." For emerging artists of a new generation, the Utopian dreams of the 20th century – human progress and global prosperity through capitalism, consumerism, and technology – may have fallen into ruins. But youthful verve can still cobble together a vision of unity that may impel a fresh start.