New Museum, New York
25 February – 24 May 2015
by ANNE BLOOD
The New Museum’s third triennial, Surround Audience, curated by Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin, presents a cacophony of work by 51 emerging young artists from 25 countries. Unfortunately, the show tends towards the mode of contemporary curating that is shrouded and defended by the prolix use of quasi-theoretical language. Wall texts are cumbersome, oversaturated with “artspeak”, and often provide the viewer with too much information about how to approach what they see in front of them. The artist’s intention is prioritised over an individual’s personal interpretation, creating a sense that much of this art is accessible only to a chosen few. As is often the case with so many shows in this vein, attempting to provide a survey of the contemporary (or even future) cultural landscape yields uneven results.
Perhaps in an attempt to emulate our oversaturated media present, one is not so much surrounded at the New Museum, but bombarded by pieces that compete for your attention. Video- and sound-based works often manage to hold their own within the galleries, but quieter, more conceptual pieces – such as the wall installation on the first floor by Chinese artist Li Liao (b1982) – are easily overlooked. Composed simply of his uniform, labour contract, ID, and a pristine iPad on a pedestal, when given a moment, Li’s installation is one of the most poignant works on view, and the most caustically critical of the ways in which our post-internet age has changed so much, while reinforcing existing socioeconomic divisions. The elements that hang from the wall are artefacts from the 45 days Li spent working 12-hour daily shifts on an assembly line at an Apple factory in China until he had enough money to buy the very sleek product he was helping to make.
Despite its faults, the show includes some strong works. The introduction describes contemporary culture as porous, as a site where the borders between genres, identity, sexual orientation, and so on, are not necessarily fluid but penetrable. The word porous is particularly apt because it allows for an honest understanding that while change or transformation is possible, it meets obstacles and resistance. The paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b1983) address the issues of identity and race that have shaped her personal experience as a Nigerian artist working in the US. In Thread, she depicts herself in bed, kissing her husband’s back. Her body is almost entirely composed of collaged images, while her husband’s is painted. In this intimate moment of connection, the importance of the layers of past experience and how they leave an indelible mark are eloquently explored.
A sense of disillusion is also present across much of the show. In Ed Atkins’ video Happy Birthday!!, the figure of a man’s body becomes fractured into dismembered parts – arms, and then just hands, are intercut with a disembodied head with a date stamped on its forehead. While the title, stamps and short moments of monologue point to the passage of time, the work is more about memory and the unstable way it stores moments from the past.
While the “bunkers” of the Hong Kong installation artist Nadim Abbas (b1980), on view on the third floor, feel like cold war timepieces, their sealed-off interiors speak eerily to our obsession with cleanliness and our all-too-real fear of infection: the shells mimic the shape of an aseptic isolator cell for quarantining hazardous bodies. Visitors are invited to stick their hands in, using the black leather gloves that protrude from the Plexiglas fronts of the bunkers, allowing us to satisfy our curiosity-driven desire to invade the space, but with the safety of thick gloves.
Modelled after Zuccotti Park, the one-time site of Occupy Wall Street, Philadelphia-born, New York-based artist Josh Kline’s Freedom is filled with life-sized Swat team police mannequins, with Teletubby heads and screens on their bellies, who stand at ease under metal trees with credit-card leaves. The embedded screens plays clips featuring retired police officers reading from scripts based on commentary posted on social media. Internet platforms are often heralded as presumed arenas of free speech, but here personal opinion is copied, repeated, and even altered, as the original identity of the commentator becomes separated from their words. Behind these figures is screened a video of a Barack Obama avatar delivering a speech on surveillance and public justice. The relative ease with which Kline (b1979) was presumably able to appropriate the individual messages from social media feels sinister after listening to the avatar’s speech. The faces of characters from a children’s TV show are perhaps intended to make the police look ridiculous, but they also convey a sense of sadness, or even loss of innocence.
Kline’s large installation is the type of work that thrives in group shows devoted to contemporary art: it provides a tongue-in-cheek critique of society and safely engages with topical political issues. His work is smart, but also expected. The annual, biennial, and triennial formats continually try to reinvent themselves and the model feels worn and thin.