View of the exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” 2017, showing (left) A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner’s installation Community Action Center, 2010–17, and (right) Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s video Lost in the Music, 2017, at the New Museum.

LIKE MANY, I approached “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” with a dose of anxiety. Its subject, “gender’s place in contemporary art and culture,” feels at once crucially important, politically unwieldy, and dispersed, even vague. And the show is, in fact, chaotic. Recent works by more than forty artists come together in a mess that oozes over five of the museum’s floors. There is no clear beginning or end, and the works on view address such a far-ranging set of issues that you could even walk away wondering what gender has to do with any of it. But maybe, in a perversely satisfying way, that’s all part of the plan. “Trigger” challenges its audience to experience the mess itself as a productive model for both the conception and display of gender as subject matter. It’s an exhibition where an array of truly disparate practices and politics never coheres into a pat narrative, instead generating a useful frustration.

The show derives its energy from the wide variety of ways in which the works form (or refuse to form) their own links—internally, with each other, and with viewers. In some cases, following these threads can lead you to the works’ political underpinnings. Wu Tsang’s mesmerizing film Girl Talk (2015), which plays on loop in a gallery with clay-colored carpeting and pillows, captures poet and theorist Fred Moten (also a curatorial adviser to the exhibition), bejeweled and shrouded in velvet, twirling and gesturing at the camera in a sun-spotted yard while Josiah Wise’s cover of the jazz standard “Girl Talk” plays. Moten has in his own work offered the term “entanglement”—a cousin to “mess,” perhaps—to describe the way multiple identities can exist distinctly yet inseparably from one another. Such entanglements play out in Tsang’s work, not only along the lines of race, sexuality, and gender, but also between camera, image, and sound. On the same floor, tangles of another sort form the basis of Liz Collins’s baroquely relational installation Cave of Secrets (2017). The cave is a long, dark room that houses many of Collins’s textile works, which hang on the walls like paintings, from the ceiling in swaths, and over the backs of chairs. There are also videos by ACT UP activist Gregg Bordowitz and the experimental theater troupe the Dyke Division of the Two-Headed Calf, and one that shows Collins mending a stuffed monkey for Nayland Blake (another artist in the show). The videos are projected onto leaning mirrors so that you can’t help but be aware of yourself as both witness to and participant in Collins’s framing of them. Within this space, the woven textiles evoke a broader weaving: that of a network of experiences and conversations in a particular community of artists, presented here so as to bring viewers into this community as well. 

Inclusiveness, however, is only one possibility among many, and other artists in the exhibition embrace their surroundings less wholeheartedly, leveraging the power of closed systems. Remixes and re-presentations of social media posts by the House of Ladosha, a collective of artists, DJs, and nightlife performers, in the museum’s interstitial spaces (a stairwell, the lobby, and a basement corridor adjacent the bathrooms) broadcast some of the show’s sharpest messages, even as they hold the viewer at arm’s length with their cliquish jargon. A vinyl decal (Untitled [a carry], 2017) in the lobby declares: it’s best to keep it a private account (a more intranet vs internet sort of concept). The works seduce with their humor, style, and wit while also forming a protective barrier around a queer family. A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner construct a similarly voyeuristic dynamic in “Community Action Center” (2010–17), which probes the idiosyncrasies of sexual desires and exchanges that form over time among a group of friends. (The project revolves around a video that will be screened next month at the museum. A related installation is on view in the galleries.) In maybe the most extreme example of a closed loop, Sondra Perry presents a glass orb that is continually drained and refilled with clay slip, the work gesturing toward total nonproductivity. The voice-over in a video appended to the machine advises: “If we don’t make it through the exhibition, pour us down your sink. We’ll clog your drain.” 

Other pieces in “Trigger” establish direct links to historical work. Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s video Lost in the Music (2017) interweaves footage of black performer and trans activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992) with their own fictional and interpretive material, continuing their project to raise awareness about a figure whose impact on the struggle for LGBT rights has been largely erased until recently. Leidy Churchman’s painting New Dawn Marsden Hartley Soutine (2014) applies stylistic qualities of Chaim Soutine’s work to a portrait appropriated from Marsden Hartley. Sharon Hayes’s Ricerche: three (2013) borrows the structure of Pasolini’s documentary Comizi d’Amore (1965), which probes its subjects’ views on sex, but focuses on a group of students at Mount Holyoke College. 

“Trigger” continues a lineage of exhibitions at the New Museum that have explored how debates around gender and sexuality play out in art. Perhaps recognizing some of the criticisms of these shows—that, for instance, they simplified queer and feminist histories, relied on overly academic premises, or defused radical practices by institutionalizing them—curator Johanna Burton has taken a less authoritative approach. In her introductory essay in the catalogue, she relates her initial desire to simply leave her pages blank. Rather than trying to organize the show under the rubric of a coherent argument, Burton allows the 150 or so discrete works to pursue their own unique and even contradictory agendas alongside one another, leaving viewers with the task of reading the spaces between. The trade-off of this strategy is the suppression of some of the artistic and critical genealogies within which the artists have positioned themselves, as well as the histories that have opened “gender” up to the expanded sense the show proposes: as a tool that can be wielded to destabilize binaries in a broad range of intersecting political arenas. In the end, though, it’s a pleasure to experience a large-scale exhibition at a major institution working so forcefully against resolution. “Trigger” does not so much refuse a narrative as offer any number of possibilities for finding one.