The New Museum Triennial is bursting with color, noise, movement, dynamic, treble, bass (and some added bass) across all four of its floors. It is lively and very much alive. And yet, I left the museum feeling markedly depressed. I’ll explain…
The title of this year’s gathering of international emerging artists is Surround Audience: a reference to “surround sound”, the kind available in cinemas or live concerts, and the audience as one that surrounds and may be surrounded by interactive visuals. The 2015 edition was co-curated by the New Museum’s Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin (now considered a pioneer in Post-Internet art). The curatorial emphasis clearly rests on things that move. Whether the medium is photography, video, sculpture, painting, or even a virtual reality environment, every element within the exhibition seems unable to sit still, as if the curators had a severe case of ADHD.
Everything is in constant motion, and while this may appropriately reflect the state of our hyper-technologized, de-humanized world of the moment, the exhibition doesn’t even have moments of stability or respite to anchor the rest of the frantically-moving parts. No single work could have illustrated my frustrations (or had captivated the entire general audience) more precisely than Oliver Laric’s haunting, untitled video work. Set to the sad strains of two piano compositions in a minor key, various animated characters undergo continuous, relentless cycles of mutation against a stark white backdrop. The changes always occur involuntarily, with neither resistance nor will emanating from the forms. Some of the figures are familiar (I spotted two instances of the changing of hands from the Disney films “Beauty and The Beast”, followed by “Snow White”), while others are original characters where Laric adds unfamiliar, disquieting embellishments (two half-wolf, half-human characters are drawn by computer into exquisite 3-D forms, with the kind of sculpted torsos bordering on a “drugstore romance” book cover). Another segment reveals the process of a clay-colored statue being drawn by computer: a jackal-esque deity like Anubis (Ancient Egypt’s undertaker God), holding a caduceus in one hand, with the other raised aloft to call his worshippers forth. Laric brilliantly reflects our species’ obsession with change, with improvement, with augmentation, without ever stopping to appreciate the results (whatever they are), as the film ended up being a kind of commentary on the larger exhibition: slow down? Stop and smell the roses? Impossible.
In the hours after I left the museum, the great work by artists such as Geumhyung Jeong (whose exercise routines accelerated into frantic, empty sexual motions), Ane Graff (who painted slabs of marble to resemble bruised human skin), Sascha Braunig (whose paintings of brain-like muscle tissues composing a full head and the painting’s own background), and Verena Dengler (whose clever metal floor sculpture spelled out “Namedropping”) began to lose their punch. The artists’ initial gestures were intelligent, piercing, and highly informed by disciplines ranging from postmodern critical theory to feminist performance to global politics. Politics and surveillance paranoia reached an apex with Josh Kline’s recreation of Zuccotti Park (in New York’s Financial District) as a kind of NSA-controlled playground, where heavily-armored Teletubbies carried small, built-in video screens filled with talking heads and conspiracy theories diluted into Twitter feeds, read aloud. On a large viewing screen, a computer-generated avatar of President Barack Obama delivered a rousing, but fictitious speech. All of these works resulted in one overwhelming feeling: hopelessness. Granted, I appreciate that the exhibition made me feel something. Still, what does it mean for these young artists, in the context of this celebrated institution, if their work appears to appease the ravenous depression of Postmodernism without neither resistance nor will? I was constantly reminded of the tortured genius of co-curator Trecartin’s own work – flamboyant, but quietly suffering, hysterically funny, but devoid of a punchline. I could have more readily accepted the platform of Surround Audience if any of the works offered even a hint of release from the oppressive, sad subjects the artists covered.
While I was watching Basim Magdy’s film The Dent (2014), a mother and her young daughter sat next to me. The little girl excitedly pointed at images on the screen (in French), asking her mother what was happening or what things were. Here and there, she would say “elephant” or “boat”, but the rest of the child’s questions were met with a searching, helpless silence. The mother could hardly explain to her toddler that the film was a bleak, faux-narrative of a town that failed to win an Olympic bid because of an alien, “electromagnetic fog of fear” set upon its citizens, compelling them to try and resurrect a more idyllic past (and failing at that endeavor, too). The film isn’t exactly aimed at the toddler as its audience, but to have even slightest positive feedback from an artwork that a child might grasp onto – what’s wrong with that? Even apocalyptic narratives can supply lessons and open-ended possibilities. As we age, we see variant states of our own weariness in art that is incrementally less-than-joyous. To have contemporary art constantly, doggedly pushing our own, universally-assumed misery back upon its viewers, though, seems both wasteful and inconclusive. Nearly all of the works in Surround Audience milked the “to be continued” or “no clear resolution” gambits, and upon leaving The New Museum into a bitter March afternoon, the feeling of despair becomes even heavier. I felt as if I was Dante, in reverse – abandon all hope, ye who exit here.
The 2015 New Museum Triennial: Surround Audience opened on 25 February and is on view till 24 May, 2015.