I went to the New Museum’s latest exhibit partly because of the name: “Generational: Younger Than Jesus.” The display has not a lot to do with Jesus, but it does feature artists who are younger than age 33. I went looking for how these young artists—the ones from my generation—interact with materialism. I found a conflicted reaction to how material objects reveal our identity.
To create Buying Everything on You, artist Liu Chuang approached people on the street and asked if he could buy every object they had on them. Then he meticulously arranged the objects—everything from their underwear to the snapshots of their dog, to the flier they were holding, to their face powder, to their belt neatly rolled in a ball, to their cell phones—to look like a museum display of historical relics.
You try to reason from the objects to their owner, piecing together an identity. You can guess at some of it, but the true person stays obscured in a way that makes you wistful. One display has a letter from a friend, penned on child’s stationery with a delicate Chinese script and “Good Friend” written in English at the top. Why did someone write him a letter on child’s stationery (why did someone write a physical letter at all instead of texting or sending an email?) and what did they say?
This art seems to leave its subject naked and dead. A person’s material objects—her clothes, the items clattering in her pocket—express her identity. But who is the person when she’s stripped naked from all the things that express her personality? As you look at the empty shoes and socks, arranged like a museum would arrange the decaying objects it found in a tomb, it feels as though the subject is faceless and dead.
In another display, artist Ryan Trecartin created a scene of shattered suburbia. The room is arranged to look like a wrecked back yard, with outdoor lawn furniture haphazardly arranged so that the audience can see a video (of ambiguously gendered characters cursing—the least interesting part of the display) playing on the screen. A sledgehammer is slammed through a chair. A dismembered electric fan is crumpled on top of a doghouse. A stone angel sculpture—the kind you’d buy in the garden section at Lowe’s—stands with its hands folded in supplication but with a child’s soccer ball split open to cover its face. Chain link gates stand against the wall.
It’s a scene of all of the cheap plastic objects that make up the uniform furniture of suburban life—but shattered and torn, distorted in a sinister and disturbing way.
So what does this say about the generation that’s “younger than Jesus”? This art shows a conflicted relationship with our material world. The first display says that material objects are a reflection of our personality, but the second says that a cheap plastic uniformity smothers all individuality and authenticity. Our possessions express our identity, but they also stifle it.
It struck me that the recession might impact the artistic imagination of our generation. The scene of a distorted suburbia seems to reject the comfortable clutter our parent’s generation sought. Whereas some make a conscious decision to reject that cheap, plastic, mass-produced uniformity, now others my age (at least for a while) might have no choice but to live with less. Will cleaning up some of this material clutter help us uncover our true identity?
This post originally appeared at Worldmag.com.