I first noticed the odor, a sweet smell of chrysanthemums and soil. When I visited “Unnamed Entities,” Daniel Lie’s exhibition at the New Museum, shortly after it opened, these organic materials were still fresh; two weeks later, the dominant notes were of compost and manure. The fruitiness of vomit and the saltiness of the sea bubbled up as the mums dried out, losing their fragrance.
Lie’s first US solo museum show is both a sculptural installation and a durational performance of decay. The canvas, jute, rope, clay pots and mums are tied and suspended in symmetrical arcs so that they resemble the hull of a ship, which at some points appears at sail and at others seems to buckle in on itself. These organic forms will soon crack, leak, rot, break or fall—and as one form goes, another one emerges. Already sprouts are sprouting, mushrooms are sporing and fruit flies are flying about. The hanging jute sacks are carpeted with green seedlings and various fungi are pushing their way out along the floor. If the bundles are meant to resemble ships—Lie is an Indonesian-Brazilian artist whose work engages with themes of migration—soon those ships will remind us not of the colonial vessels that once altered native landscapes as they transported human and nonhuman commodities across oceans and empire but of the underwater wreckages that shelter rich ecosystems of aquatic life.
“Unnamed entities” refer both to Lie’s enigmatic sculptural forms and also to the barely visible forms of life composing (or perhaps decomposing) them. Invisible microbes hasten the sculpture’s decay and ferment the rice mixture in Lie’s handmade clay pots. The gallery is now home to fruit flies and ants that did not dwell there before. Lie’s work names the boundless unnamed entities making up every artwork we encounter in the museum despite what didactics tell us. It challenges the invisible architecture that makes up the museum, from air circulation to light control, temperature management and humidity regulation.
Is “Unnamed Entities” an assault on the New Museum and museological practice in general? It certainly looks like the installation is causing water damage to the floors and leaving mold spores on the walls. For now, the smell is contained in the museum’s lobby gallery, but soon it will reach the gift shop and front entrance. Museums are typically devoted to the preservation and maintenance of static objects whose stasis in turn preserves their, and thus the institution’s, value. But Lie’s work frustrates this antiseptic aim. The work puts forth a putrid criticism that is impossible to ignore. “Unnamed Entities” dares the museum to contain and preserve it for value and then molts into manure in the face of that desire.
Recently, museums have had to confront the living and dying in their collections. Many museums hold human remains in their vast stores, and groups around the world are actively making demands of repatriation. By creating living entities designed to evolve within specific museum environments, Lie imagines different kinds of life that could appropriately flourish behind gallery walls. This kind of life would be interspecies, antitaxonomic and maintained by homeostasis rather than conditions of enclosure. This kind of life would have to be nurtured rather than preserved and owned; it would draw out the word care hidden in the word curate. Something is rotting at the New Museum, and that rot is a welcome, dynamic challenge to the function of art institutions. —Justin Linds
Installation view: “Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities,” 2022. New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni