This week, I finally checked out the Whitney Museum’s survey of artist Josh Kline’s work, called “Project for a New American Century,” after hearing it was “shocking” and quite frankly, “bananas.”
The exhibit, which opened back in April, uses immersive installations—video, sculpture, photography and design—to question how new technologies affect our way of life as well as the effects of capitalism, economic disparity, climate change and the weakening of democracy impact the people who make up the labor force. It’s a lot to tackle, but Kline does it in an unforgettable, haunting way.
Seeing Kline’s Whitney exhibit is like walking into a Black Mirror episode, except you’re left with some sliver of hope that we could change course and prevent some of the futures he predicts through his work.
Broken down into more than half a dozen sections, his more than 100 works across two floors are stark, darkly comedic, harrowing, and somehow, cathartic.
“Josh Kline has had the uncanny ability to hone in on the most important issues of the day and create art that is disturbingly urgent,” Adam D. Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum, said in a statement. “Watching the magnetic attraction of viewers to his work is astonishing: they are simultaneously enraptured, bewildered, and repulsed. Kline’s art is radical, uncompromising, and looks unblinkingly at the possible future.”
The show’s “Blue Collars” series consists of stand-alone, 3D printed sculptural portraits of working people accompanied by verité-style video interviews with the workers—delivery workers, cleaning people, restaurant waitstaff, an employee at a suburban big-box store. They were paid to do the interviews and get their heads, hands and feet 3D scanned. Their disembodied limbs are strewn about on platters, in cleaning carts and shopping carts, sometimes covered by the uniforms, brands, and logos of each person’s employer. This, quite frankly, upsetting scene screams out about the dehumanizing work experience of working-class Americans—many of whom have been recently deemed “essential workers.”
Likewise, “Unemployment” imagines what it would be like in the 2030s and 2040s when AI and automation have replaced white-collar workers like accountants, administrators and lawyers, destabilizing society. Kline created 3D-printed and CNC-routed life-size figures curled in the fetal position and wrapped in clear plastic as if they are disposable like trash to their respective companies. IYKYK.
“Contagious Unemployment,” created almost prophetically in 2016, features large, clear plastic sculptures of viruses that encase cardboard file boxes containing various workers’ desk objects, supplies, personal belongings and family photographs. They serve as little portraits or dioramas of desk workers and how work, health and disease are so connected—something we now know too well.
His “Civil War” installation, which was made in response to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, is set in a speculative America one or two decades in the future. He imagines there’s been mass unemployment thanks to AI (how very real this feels now with the introduction to ChatGPT). It has two series of sculptures and a three-channel film installation. One group of sculptures shows luxury and generic household appliances held together with stars-and-stripes-patterned packing tape with a ticking sound emanating from each work as if there’s a ticking time bomb, suggesting it’s only a matter of time before these class divisions will “blow up.” The second set of sculptures contains full-size reproductions of various artifacts of middle-class life made to look like concrete that has been ripped apart: a couch and a child’s playhouse, among them.
The newest installation, presented here for the first time, addresses the experiences of future climate refugees forced to relocate due to catastrophic environmental changes. The room is full of tent-like structures resembling emergency housing, a medical clinic, a car, and a remittance center for foreign workers. Here, fictional video interviews give a human face to devastating global changes already underway, according to the museum. It both feels and smells like a refugee encampment.
More hopeful, a short film, “Another America is Possible,” shows a radical and utopian scenario in the 2040s when the U.S. is anticipated to become a minority-majority country. In it, a diverse group of people have gathered to picnic and burn and bury the Confederate flag. I left smiling at this joyful act of defiance, hoping Kline would be just as prophetic in this vision, too.
As a privileged New Yorker struggling to keep up with the price of inflation, combating burnout and fighting for relevance, Kline’s work speaks loudly and directly to my fears and observations of where society is headed—and my role in it. His work is deep, yes, but it’s also crystal clear.
Kline knows he’s having a “very intense conversation with the public about America’s past, present, and future” through his work.
To take part in that conversation and see “Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century,” head to the Whitney Museum of American Art through August 13, 2023. Tickets are $25 per person and $18 for students, seniors or those with disabilities.