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Exhibition Review

The underbelly of the city: Project for a New American Century by Josh Kline at the Whitney Museum

Habin Yang

Jul 13, 2023

There are certain images that come to mind when thinking of cities. Office buildings, streets buzzing with life and traffic as people hurry through their days, or inviting corners adorned with bustling cafes where city dwellers gather and seek their morning fuel to kick start their day - these can count as some of the impressions cities give out. Along with vibrant street art and lively outdoor markets, cities project innumerable scenes, sounds, and stories. While the cosmopolitan allure offers convenience backed by robust energy, in it lies another side: a world marked by economic disparity and the sacrifices unwillingly made by those striving to sustain the vitality of cities. It is this often-overlooked realm that Josh Kline fearlessly explores and unveils in his latest exhibition titled Project for a New American Century at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

 

Josh Kline, born in 1979 in Philadelphia, is a New York-based contemporary artist deeply engaged in interrogating 21st century capitalism and politics. His previous shows Unemployment at 47 Canal, New York (2016) and Alternative Facts at Various Small Fires, Seoul (2020) were sobering exhibitions that effectively brought a spotlight on current realities. Turning our attention to the latest manifestation of Kline's thought-provoking artworks, we delve into his exhibition currently on view at the Whitney Museum from Apr 19 through Aug 13, 2023. 

 

 

Installation view of Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Apr 19 - Aug 13, 2023
Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Photo: Ron Amstutz

 

 

Project for a New American Century spans the fifth and eighth floors of the museum. On the fifth floor, Kline presents five series. The first four, Civil War, Contagious Unemployment, Unemployment, and Creative Labor, are a visualization of the underbelly of contemporary society, and the last one, titled Another America Is Possible and taking the form of a video, presents alternative directions with respect to that said visualization. On the eighth floor, Kline presents three series: Blue Collars, which immerses viewers in the world of low-paid workers, highlighting their struggles within our economic systems, while Personal Responsibility and Adaptation envision a dire future shaped by climate change, inviting contemplation of the imminent crisis of our time.

 

As viewers step into the eighth floor viewing room, they are immediately confronted with the poignant experience of six individuals. In the video interviews from the Blue Collars series, personal stories and struggles are shared by various blue-collar employees, detailing specific aspects of their lives. Josh, in FedEx Delivery Worker Interview #2 (2014), toils as a contractor without paid leave, a job in which the concept of "resting" equates to "no money", only managing to take three to four days off in the past five years. Jenn, a 22-year-old waitress at Applebee's, adds her voice to the conversation, revealing the challenges of earning a living with a meager hourly wage, heavily reliant on unpredictable tips to cover her living expenses. Following Jenn, Walmart employee Jason tells his story, expressing a sense of hopelessness, trapped in a situation where other options seem perpetually out of reach. These narratives shed light on various challenging circumstances faced by these individuals, inviting viewers to reflect on the meaning of the American dream in the 21st century.

 

 

In Stock (Walmart Worker’s Arms) (detail), 2018
3D-printed sculpture in acrylic-based photopolymer resin, Walmart shopping cart, and cardboard boxes customized with inkjet prints on self-adhesive vinyl
99.1 × 66 × 111.8 cm (39 × 26 × 44 in.)
© Josh Kline, courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York 
Photo: Joerg Lohse

 

 

The impact of these interviews is further amplified by the striking presence of 3D printed sculptures throughout the room, intricately capturing the essence of each interviewee's experience, visualizing the realities behind the shared stories. Just a few steps away from the screen where the video is being played, the arm of a waitress from Applebee's holding a checkbook and her head are served with dry, inedible burgers and fries. Still part of Blue Collars and titled 20% Gratuity (Applebee’s Waitress’s Arm with Checkbook) (2018) and 15% Service (Applebee’s Waitress’s Head) (2018), the life-like sculptures shock viewers and grab the attention these workers rightfully deserve. In a nearby piece titled In Stock (Walmart Worker’s Arms) (2018), the arms of a Walmart worker are placed in a shopping cart, echoing Jason's sentiment of “[being] stuck in a place with no future opportunities.” Within the same collection, No Sick Days (FedEx Worker’s Head with FedEx Cap) (2014) presents the head of a FedEx worker, a testament to the lack of job security and vulnerability that countless workers behind the city’s convenient life face daily. 

 

The exhibition continues on the fifth floor, encountering another range of themes in which Kline subtly addresses the multifaceted dynamics of labor and social upheavals across four series: Civil War, Unemployment, Contagious Unemployment, and Creative Labor. In Civil War, Kline juxtaposes broken furniture and objects to symbolize the shattered dreams of the middle class. A striking sight greets visitors viewing this compelling collection: an ordinary sofa, once a staple of comfort and relaxation in countless households, is now cast in solid concrete, torn apart and fragmented. In Make-Believe (2017), two distinctive blenders, split in half, are duct-taped together, as are the two halves of different laptops in Lies (2017). These powerful visual metaphors paint a stark picture of an apocalyptic and dysfunctional society, where hopes and aspirations have been lost.

 

 

Make-Believe, 2017
Oster blender, Vitamix blender, hardware, duct tape, custom wooden display, contact speaker, audio hardware, and audio file
120.5 x 29.5 x 28 cm (47.5 x 11.6 x 11 in.)
© Josh Kline, courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York 
Photo: Robert Glowacki

 

 

Additionally, through the Unemployment and Contagious Unemployment series, Kline extends his focus of the issue on both blue-collar and white-collar workers. Creative Labor draws attention to the struggles that were faced by visual artists, musicians, and designers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and recession that followed. Together, these series offer a comprehensive examination of various forms of labor and provide wide-reaching implications.

 

As visitors reflect on the visually powerful works, a question lingers: Is there no hope for workers within our current system? However, Kline concludes this immersive experience with a resounding three-channel film titled Another America Is Possible (2017). To reinforce a hopeful vision, video installations on different parts of the wall depict vivid images of an alternative life - one brimming with meaningful family moments, joy, and a deep connection to nature. While a clear roadmap for achieving this transformation may be absent, Kline, though unafraid to unveil the underbelly of city life and labor, does not leave us in despair. Instead, he implores us to hold onto hope, to recognize the cracks within our systems, and to actively seek ways to construct a better future together.