2015 Triennial: Surround Audience

25 February – 24 May 2015, New Museum, New York

By Siona Wilson

2015 Triennial: Surround Audience (installation view). Photo: Benoit Pailley. Courtesy New Museum, New York Antoine Catala, Distant Feel, 2015, mixed media. Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

Everything is new.
Marketing is art.
Comedy is art.
The artist has a new role in the world.
She provides new visual metaphors for our new subjectivities in this new digital age.

All this promise of newness makes me feel too old to write this review. Thankfully, the New Museum’s third triennial survey of early-career artists, Surround Audience, does not quite deliver on its advertising. There remains a distinct mismatch between this oh-so-old (modernist) rhetoric of ‘the new’ and what we experience in the abrupt shifts between different modes of attention, media and tone as we walk through this exhibition’s cluttered rooms.

The entry-level galleries offer the most immediately apparent reference to the rhetoric of newness promised in the exhibition. Casey Jane Ellison’s Touching the Art (2014–), an apparently parodic but desperately real artworld chat show aired on Ovation TV, is well-placed, mediating the space between the ticket booth and café. That the series is also available on YouTube is further indication of its introductory role in an exhibition that stages the linkage between art practice, commerce and entertainment. The resounding echo of high-pitched irony in Ellison’s bitchy docent-cum-talk-show-host voice, evident in soundbites like “I don’t do soundbites” and “My final word is everyone needs therapy and you all agree I’m pretty, right?”, undergoes a sharp tonal shift as we move to the adjacent gallery space.

Here, amid Renaud Jerez’s awkward assemblage sculptures and Lisa Holzer’s strangely appealing nail polish paintings, are two contrasting commodity displays as sites for performance. Li Liao’s Consumption (2012) presents stained worker overalls, the identity card of the artistas- factory-worker and the timesheets from the 12-hour shifts he ‘performed’ in Foxconn’s notorious Shenzhen complex. Liao’s work of labour-as-performance was used to purchase the very product he helped to produce in the factory: an iPad Mini. This slightly scuffed object stands mutely attached to a plinth, unresponsive to the prods of gallery viewers hoping for some kind of related moving-image document of the action. Disappointment is exactly the point.

Next to this self-consciously dull display of a widely desired contemporary commodity is the DIS artist collective’s luxury Dornbracht-brand combination kitchen-bathroom installation, The Island (KEN) (2015). This is a purpose-built, fully functioning stage set and prop for a series of lecture-performances presented weekly over the course of the exhibition. (The one I attended, by curator Chus Martínez, was on the topic of artists’ research as a form of procrastination delivered while simultaneously using The Island (KEN) to make a cup of tea.)

Staging political contradiction is not political insight, and there is little of the latter on offer in Surround Audience

If Liao offers the traces and the product of voraciously exploitative labour and a banal everyday digital device, DIS operates in another class register. The juxtaposition of the two works animates global inequities: on one side is the New York collective’s collaboration (and complicity) with corporate sponsorship; on the other is the fact that Foxconn likely manufactured much of the technological infrastructure of Surround Audience. We know about Foxconn and still use our iPads. We know that art is a luxury commodity bought by the rich even as it might suggest a critique of social inequities. We know that the global biennial circuits are implicated with global capital. But staging political contradiction is not political insight, and there is little of the latter on offer in Surround Audience. So, on we go.

With the aftertaste of Ellison’s bitter irony I begin to feel a creeping ambivalence about the social address of contemporary art flaring up in the space between these works. It’s hard to tell if this is generated by a curatorial logic of disjunction or my own critical despair. Lauren Cornell of the New Museum collaborated on the curating with artist Ryan Trecartin, who is known for his low-tech, high-energy immersive videoworks featuring hordes of contemporary teenlike characters in frenzied performances. While the tone of hysteria that distinguishes Trecartin’s video installations is largely absent from the works selected for Surround Audience, something akin to this level of affective dissonance is nonetheless generated in the seams between certain works.

There are moments of thematic synthesis … Critical dissonance has disappeared, making me wonder if perhaps I had imagined it all along

There are moments of thematic synthesis around, for example, the retro-cyborg repre- sentation of the body. A segment of Juliana Huxtable’s series UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING (2015) is adjacent to Frank Benson’s lifesize sculpture Juliana (2015), showing Huxtable’s trans body with breasts and penis as a shimmering green mannequin. The Huxtable figure faces the cockless cyber-dummy of Ed Atkins’s large-scale black-and-white HD video projection Happy Birthday!! (2014), and Juliana seems to gesture with manicured acrylic nails towards Firenze Lai’s modest paintings of featureless figures with enlarged feet suggestive of various alienated emotional states. Critical dissonance has disappeared, making me wonder if perhaps I had imagined it all along.

Elsewhere the body is largely absent but for the proliferation of metonymic or prosthetic suggestions, such as Aleksandra Domanović’s SOHO (Substances of Human Origin) (2015), a series of artificial arms attached to the wall that were based upon a model of a prosthetic hand designed by a Hungarian-born scientist in 1963. A series of erotic devices are presented in a curio cabinet display of drawings and prototypes in Shreyas Karle’s series Museum Shop of Fetish Objects (2012). More reminiscent of surrealist objects, Karle’s work suggests the contradictions between personal modesty and religious erotic symbolism in Hindu traditions. Karle’s Cleavage Plates for Idol Worship (2012) are small plaques of beaten metal showing the varying amounts of décolletage revealed on sacred statues and presented here as eroticised fragments. This paradox is more than retro-Surrealism, since it has a charged political relevance in India’s current climate of virulent Hindu nationalism.

We encounter a more bombastic political tone with Josh Kline’s spectacularly didactic installation Freedom (2015). The hypocrisies of the Obama administration are revealed through Teletubby figures dressed as members of a SWAT team. Another kind of political linkage is explored in Onejoon Che’s installation featuring enlarged photographic documents and facsimile models of North Korean aesthetic influence on socialist-style public monuments in Namibia, Senegal and Botswana. One of only two or three documentary-type projects in Surround Audience, Che’s installation stands out in contrast to the phantasmal spaces suggested in many of the other works.

Che’s project finds its match in Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel (2015), a contemporary reimagining of a propaganda sculpture for the present. The ideological message is empathy, or as the wall text puts it, ‘a message with no product except feeling’. To develop this Internet-age work, Catala collaborated with the highly successful Manhattan-based global advertising firm Droga5. They came up with a meme for empathy, E3, and fashioned this shape as a living sculpture constructed out of coral and housed in a fish tank. It’s not for nothing that this monstrous staging of the corporatisation of affect, with pulsating sea urchins and anemones living on the coral E3 symbol, turns out to be the most visually powerful piece in the exhibition. The spectacle of nature put to work in the service of the commercial branding of human feeling generates an aesthetics of bathos. While Distant Feeling might provide the closest fulfilment of the New Museum’s marketing for the triennial, this is a rather depressing imagining of the shape of the new in our times. 

Read our interview with the New Museum Triennial's curators Lauren Cornell, Ryan Trecartin and Sarah O'Keeffe, from the January & February 2015 issue.

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue.