For the third edition of its triennial showcase for early-career and emerging artists, the New Museum claims a light curatorial touch. Entitled Surround Audience, the show professes to explore the tension between new forms of freedom in contemporary culture and threats to such freedom — embodied by social media, extremist states, the corporate sovereign entity, and the cult of self, to name a few examples. What the exhibition emits in execution is a sort of self-driven approach to both art making and curatorial practice.
Exploring themes such as sexuality, racism, nationalism, and consumerism, most of the works — by 51 artists from 25 countries, many of who identify as poets, dancers, designers, writers, and filmmakers rather than artists — are highly personal. But instead of connecting with one another, the pieces stand within the museum walls as cloistered units, reading like individual manifestos. The effect is somewhat like reading a blog composed of posts examining completely disparate topics. ‘It was really important to encourage the artists to do what they wanted to do, and not impose too much,’ says video and performance artist Ryan Trecartin, who co-curated the show with New Museum curator Lauren Cornell. ‘I just drop out of that shit if someone tries to do it to me.’
Staging a show that reads like an art fair, where many exhibitive displays are offered in a single forum, wasn’t the intention of the curators. According to Trecartin, the museum was meant as a ‘jumping off point into the world rather than a place where things are put into.’ In the context of other exhibitions, such as Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,which closed at the Brooklyn Museum last month and truly did extend off-site with works such as Pimp My Piragua, 2009, a coco helado cart that artist Miguel Luciano drove through the neighbourhood during the course of the show, Surround Audience is fairly unexceptional.
The show’s pervasive sense of alienation is introduced by Casey Jane Ellison’s Touching the Art, 2014. Presented on a television in the museum lobby, the ongoing series of videos features the artist in discussion with various cultural workers on the state of the art world. ‘I’m in a death metal band, and I’m only in the art world by accident,’ states musician and performance artist Kembra Pfahler. ‘I think we all are,’ replies Ellison.
Freedom, 2015, by Josh Kline well embodies the cult of self that runs throughout the Triennial. In a black box, life-size figures dressed in riot gear sport Teletubby heads and stomachs implanted with screens offering remarks on the culture’s proliferation of violence sourced from social media. These surround an HD video that depicts a digitally rendered version of President Barack Obama giving an inaugural address authored by the artist. ‘People who love the country can change it,’ says the facsimile, echoing a sentiment that galvanised the 2008 presidential campaign, now deemed as rhetoric unable to survive 21st-century political realities. As a dream of what could have been in the face of what is, the work reads as naïve rather than insightful.
Despite wanting to shed the label of artist, all of the show’s practitioners are keenly accomplished at creating art objects. There isn’t a work in the exhibition that doesn’t appear entirely at home in the museum galleries. The Island (Ken), 2015, by the collective DIS is a mash-up of kitchen and bathroom fixtures designed by the German luxury goods manufacturer Dornbracht. Commenting on the confluence of high-end design and fine art as systems that rely on one another to appeal to potential consumers, the piece will be the site of various performances including product demonstrations, cooking lessons, and a lucky few participants taking actual showers. Without its interactive component, however, the work, which resembles a tanning bed, remains quietly hermetic. Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel, 2015, is a pair of facing letter Es constructed from living aquatic plants encased in an aquarium. Pulsating with life, the work is the result of a collaboration between Catala and the advertising agency Droga5 that attempts to re-brand the concept of empathy. Regardless of its conceptual intent, its hard not to see it simply as a mind-numbingly beautiful object.
And aesthetically, the show appeals. Frank Benson’s Juliana, 2015, is a regal, nude statue, painted in shimmering tones of green and purple, of artist Juliana Huxtable, who is represented by her own self portraits as a comely female force with whom anyone would be lured into reckoning. Museum Shop of Fetish Objects, 2012, by Shreyas Karle, is a cabinet of curiosities that examines the culture of Bollywood with the clinical air of an anthropologist. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s And We Begin To Let It Go, 2013, is a collage of thread, Xerox transfers of advertisements and women’s fashion images, and paint, that depicts the artist kissing the back of her husband. One could potentially spend hours before it, detangling its many references.
With people taking to the streets globally to protest injustice, the Triennial’s stab at cultural commentary will likely have little lasting impact. It reflects rather than leads, which is a shame given the potential for art to shape perceptions in society. ‘For some, it will be more traditional than expected, and for others, it will be a lot weirder,’ says Trecartin. The stance of being impervious to the reaction of others might be necessary for an artist to take to make bold work. But if Surround Audience is any indication, curatorial indifference to viewer experience only has the effect leaving both artists and visitors cold.