World at its Tipping Point: “Songs in the Dark”, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, NYC

In her 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: The Poetry of Witness, American poet, academic and human rights advocate Carolyn Forché (1950-) suggested that it is impossible for artists to make work that ignores, or is not read, and seen, within the context of current political events and social issues. She derived her theme from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who is known to have remarked: In the dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times.

Revolving around such a sentiment is “Songs in the Dark”, a group show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York. We’ve entered 2020 in a state of emergency, facing crises on multiple fronts, as citizens and species—a rapidly deteriorating environment, political turmoil (a troubling election year in America, ever-complicated Brexit negotiations), moral decay in leadership across the globe, the insecurities and instabilities that come with migration and displacement.

The artists exhibiting in “Songs in the Dark”—Phil Collins, Mat Collishaw, Mark Dion, Olafur Eliasson, Meschac Gaba, Jónsi, Agnieszka Kurant, Charles Long, Ernesto Neto, Rivane Neuenschwander, Lisa Oppenheim, Susan Philipsz, Analia Saban, Tomás Saraceno, Slavs and Tatars, Hannah Starkey, Jeffrey Vallance and Gillian Wearing—deal with the world at its tipping point by finding beauty in darkness. Through installation, painting, photography, film and sculpture, they shed light on our current anxieties and/or offer proposals for community engagement, sustainability and social justice, turning art into activism.


Watchword (2012) by Rivane Neuenschwander. Embroidered fabric labels, felt panel, wooden box and pins. 78 x 150 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.


Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander explores the semantics of rage and dissension. Her Watchword is a large-scale interactive work that contemplates proclamations personal or public. Here viewers are invited to engage with an abstracted version of the world map using words and phrases provided by the artist. The word “Back” is particularly evident, a common ingredient of protest slogans. It could indicate a yearning for reversal (given the damage we’ve done to the environment) or our obsessive territoriality (strange, considering the fact that national borders exist not objectively on earth but only in our minds).

Driven by the personal responsibility of raising two teenage daughters, British photographer Hannah Starkey documents the 2017 Women’s March in London following the #MeToo movement. Her photos are dark and colourful, full of determined figures and loud, indignant slogans. They display strength, courage and hope even as they reflect a certain tiredness with the age-old reality of harassment.


‘I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit’, Women’s March, London 2017 (2017) by Hannah Starkey. C-print mounted to aluminum dibond in artist frame. 49 x 65 x 1 1/2 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.


With a few blankets and lanterns, Beninese artist Meschac Gaba constructs a monument to profound loss in Memoriale aux Refugies Noyees (Memorial for Drowned Refugees). Based on an ritual from his culture, this piece commemorates those who have perished at sea while making perilous journeys and makes an attempt to instill compassion and understanding in the viewer. It highlights the fragility and vulnerable status of migrants and refugees, who are, unfortunately, seen less as victims of circumstance and more as unwanted burdens who might fail to integrate or steal jobs if hosted in new countries.

American artist Mark Dion, known for his interest in dominant ideologies and perception of knowledge presents an office for an imagined small town censor. His Bureau of Censorship contains forbidden titles that were outlawed in America in the 20th century. The work is relevant to our time for its questions regarding free speech, the authenticity of news and the nature of truth.

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, who has collaborated with the Amazonian tribe of the Huni Kuin, creates a sensorial healing bed, where people can connect with each other and nature—important especially in the aftermath of the recent fires in the Brazilian rainforest.

Learn more about the issues raised by the artists and the variety of perspectives they offer in this exhibition on the gallery website.


Memoriale aux Refugies Noyees (2016) by Meschac Gaba. Blankets, three electric lanterns. 25 1/2 x 60 x 21 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.


Bureau of Censorship (2019) by Mark Dion. Thatch, stucco, wood, glass, office furniture, woodburning stove, television aerial, assorted objects. 126 x 110 1/4 x 63 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.


Delight Us (2019) by Ernesto Neto. Cotton voile crochet, cotton fabric textile, bamboo, amethyst, crystal, green quartz, red jasper, sodalite, aquamarine, orange calcite, rose quartz, lavender, fennel. 118 x 104 x 120 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.