One Fine Show: “Speechless” at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno

These recent works offer commentary on the forces that make us dance, but are also love letters to the chunky industrial design of the 20th century.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

‘Bureau of Land Management’ (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York. Photo: Wendy McEahern

David Foster Wallace observed that Americans are a group of people looking for a cause to give their lives to. It’s an especially funny idea because Americans are usually the subject of cargo cults, not the victims of them: the term cargo cult entered anthropological usage following World War II and studies of the Melanesian islanders who encountered manufactured goods for the first time courtesy of airdrops to their island, given to them by demi-gods they thought were named “Tom Navy.” Today, the obvious Western bias of these studies means they aren’t always brought up in polite company, and the same can be said of DFW unfortunately.

But there’s something appealing in the concept of cargo cults, which inspired the work featured in “Speechless,” a just-opened show of new work by Cannupa Hanska Luger at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. “The exhibition flips the Western gaze back on itself to reflect that in present-day North American culture, we are all in a cargo cult,” the artist says in the press release. “Devoting our lives to the ‘unnamed gods’ of consumption, wealth and fame, we emulate those who have what we want in the manner of an arcane ritual–prayerful action without a practical understanding of who we are performing for, or of what we are petitioning.”

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One is reminded that Reno is the primary point of departure for Burning Man, but the world at large has become significantly more Burny these past few years, so why not enjoy some art to match that vibe? Though the exhibition features no sound element, many of the sculptures in it might be described as resembling boom boxes or speaker towers, their circular cones crafted from muted ceramics rather than functional. Also, a few of them have ponytails. Another music-minded trompe l’oeil can be found in the large-scale radio tower Luger has constructed for this show, decorated with handmade paper feathers that were completed during the artist’s recent residency at Dieu Donné here in New York. With titles like Wealth and Bureau of Land Management, these recent works are clear commentary on the forces that dictate and make us dance, but they’re also love letters to the chunky industrial design of devices that played music in the 20th Century.

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Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. Photo by Ryan Miller/Getty Images for Getty Trust and Getty Foundation

At SITE Sante Fe in 2020 Luger presented an installation titled Future Ancestral Technologies: We Survive You (2019-Ongoing). Among the sculptural pieces was a #vanlife style camper with woven wooden components attached to the hood so that it resembled a Native American basket or lean-to. It was a blending that highlighted a lot of what’s on display at this new show, where the modern world is shown to be much older than we may suspect.

Speechless” is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through June 2, 2024. 

One Fine Show: “Speechless” at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno