A Dialogic Review of “2015 Triennial: Surround Audience” at the New Museum, 2/2015-5/2015
by Rachel Hadas and Shalom Gorewitz
Published uin The Raintown Review, October 2015
The New Museum, founded by Marcia Tucker in 1977 as a space for new work by living artists, represents what once was called the avant-garde. At its old home in SOHO and since 2007 in the Bowery, it exhibits some of the most adventurous, experimental, and baffling international artwork in New York City. Sometimes the works feel like prototypes or site-specific. The 235 Bowery building designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA, is a seven-story, eight-level structure located between Stanton and Rivington Streets, at the origin of Prince Street in New York City. The architecture was severely impacted by the small footprint and tight zoning laws. There is much to respect about the innovative use of materials and space. But we are not the first to notice that the interior sometimes compromises the exhibited art.
The press material for “Surround Audience” advertises that several of the artists are poets and that some of the art are poetic statements. We went to see how young international artists are using language in ways integral to the art itself. Since we have been working together on ways to fuse poetry and digital filmmaking, we thought this Triennial would be pertinent. In a left handed way, it was.
SG: The New Museum feels like a brutalist building with the agenda of exhibiting brutal art. Except for the open and inviting window on the street level, the building feels hermetically sealed. The epitome of the box gallery, this is the most claustrophobic and annoying art space in New York City. Situated in the heart of the Bowery district, one must still walk around the residents of SROs and Missions, even as gentrification creeps into the neighborhood. The sun seems to target Bowery with more intensity and less vitality than any other street that I know of. The Museum looks like a police station in a dangerous neighborhood. The content is abstract and mostly meaningless to anyone outside the world of pedantic art speak that it specializes in.
RH: Everything about this place - architecture, lighting, installations, viewers - seems weighed down, almost paralyzed by depression. I find myself peering hopefully at the labels on the wall, set oddly low, maybe collar-bone height for my tall husband, that reveal the artist's age and nationality - mildly interesting human facts - before lapsing (without exception over this five-floor exhibition) into language of such ponderous abstraction, such unremitting density, that each
sentence seems about to tumble over into self-mockery. As one of the labels puts it, poker-faced, "the series skews the blinkered self-importance and inflated discourse that run rampant in the world of contemporary art, satirizing them by dialing them up just one degree." Just so. But is this satire? The pratfall never quite happens.
SG: Not all of the art in the 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience is bad. The exhibit was co-curated by artist Ryan Trecartin and New Museum curator Lauren Cornell, who admits she was “inspired in part by Trecartin’s own artistic practice.” I’d like the show better if Trecartin was called what he is, a brilliant editor and collagist. I love his video art and think I get the relationship between his poetry on the big wall label on each floor with the juxtaposition of the work. Judging from Rachel’s reactions, she had no idea that part of his idea might be the odd objects and visuals blending the digital and physical. From my experience of his work, which I’ve mostly seen online, I have a sense of a generous artist able to collaborate with a wide range of performers and friends while producing highly energized and expressive art. I came to the Triennial wanting to like it.
RH: Baffled by the artworks, I drift towards what feels more familiar to me: the language which purports to explain the art (and the art, to me at least, was in need of explaining). Over and over, the phrasing that accompanies each piece is too anchored in its self-importance, too tethered to its sweeping, ominous, and never precise references, to lose its balance. And this sense of weighty bleakness, of unsmiling irony, inflicts us museum goers as well as we stomp or sidle around: no smiles or frowns, no eye contact, no evident pleasure or puzzlement. There's no air in which any of these responses can draw breath, and this airlessness is only part of what makes the exhibition feel like a prison, a prison in which inmates have been given some tinfoil and dog vomit, an ashtray, some yarn and leather and cables and broken shells, and told to construct something, anything. Or maybe something socially, globally important? In a real prison, says Shalom, the prisoners might try to use whatever materials they had to make something beautiful.
SG: Again, I’m not sure how much of my reaction is based on the New Museum architecture. The haunting Sound and Light installations by Ashland Mines that fill the airless stairways cannot soften the epic bluntness of sharp angles and just enough headroom. I liked the ambience of sounds especially when mixed with slightly over loud voices that were hushed in the cubic lairs where the art is exhibited. Just as Ryan Trecartin’s video art is busting at the seams, each of the works could use more space, stillness around it. But then it would be a series of solo shows. For example, the paintings by Sascha Braunig, whose witty and skillfully executed work we saw and enjoyed recently in Chelsea, seems dull and brought down by the work around it. Yes, these are the problems with a group show. This show makes the recent Chris Burden retrospective in the same space seem user-friendly by comparison(it wasn’t). Is there a rule that says conceptual art needs dull lighting?
RH: The only writer whose words are on view whose language seems unburdened by
the heavy cargo of complicated political indignation, of inflated artspeak which sounds a lot more like sociology, is the co-curator, Ryan Trecartin. Limpid, discontinuous, naive (or is it knowingly faux-naive?), his idiom seems to wander among the heavy sights here
(several pairs of immense black plastic gauntlets which suggest the handling of hazardous waste come to mind) like a carefree child in a toxic dump. You want to protect the child; you also feel he or she has no business here.
The problem is that most of Trecartin's excerpted statements are too fragmentary and airy to make much sense. He's an accomplished artist who must have had some ideas in assembling/curating this show but his words, at least those I've read here, give little clue as to his intentions. Unlike the dimly-lit, too-low labels on the wall, though, at least some of Trecartin’s fragmentary, unpunctuated apercus as they are displayed on each successive floor of the exhibit do make at least some fleeting human sense: "have it all, but also cry about it a lot..." "Everyone was touching each other's gadgets..." "I'm kind of wondering what the best ten thoughts in her head might be"...Jejune but rather appealing, these disiecta membra (scattered fragments) make one wish that Trecartin had included some of his own work in the exhibit.
SG: We went to “Surround Audience” to test the idea that language is now completely meshed within visual art. In this show there were only a few works that contained words, outside of the chattering voices coming from video speakers. Verena Dengler uses nearly casual words and phrases in several media. Juliana Huxtable’s Untitled Works from the Universal Crop Tops for all the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming Series are as much about looking at words as reading them. Rachel told me that the Rachel Lord painting that says, “It’s all Greek to me” in English also says, “It’s all Chinese to me” in Greek.
RH: The only artist whose words provoked a smile, less sophomoric and fragmentary in her rhetoric than Trecartin but also maybe more predictable, is the Texas-born Juliana Huxtable, whose paintings often include, almost consist of, dense, unpunctuated, manifesto-like
texts that aren't devoid of wit. "Moist with the blood of pigs lingering in the near-tropical heat of a topos," writes Huxtable, or "destroying our flesh as it fits into the noumenon." In the space of a sentence (not that she deigns to use a period), Huxtable shows how “flesh” and “blood,” sturdy Anglo Saxon words, can be subsumed into the abstractions, Greek roots and all, of a topos or a noumenon - that is, into the realm of ideas. Maybe
these are two of the ten best thoughts Trecartin was after.
In most of the other pieces, we don't hear the artist's words; the labels drown them out with insistent periphrastic abstractions, as in this laborious, clunky description of the Austrian Verena Dengler’s embroideries: “[her] varied treatments of surfaces...suggest a feminist appropriation of traditional handicrafts, while also introducing techniques of flattening and superposition." Or this revelation, about "an iterative approach that collapses the distinction between the first and its copy." Didn't Benjamin have something to say about this in his 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" or, a generation later, Warhol?
SG: The most pertinent video, emblematic of Ryan Trecartin’s sense of humor, is by Lawrence Abu Hamden called “The All Hearing” literally a series of Koranic teachings about sound pollution, the proper tone for speech, and turning down the volume in general. The museum’s lousy acoustics makes the large number of video projections and monitors even more problematic. I’m still not sure how long one should be asked to stand to watch a video when there are so many in the exhibition. This is a disservice to the artists and another unfortunate quality of this museum. Martine Syms’ two channel installation is 25 minutes. 90 seconds of attention to the still images and sculptures adds up to an hour. Where there are seats to watch the usually long and complicated videos, they are awkwardly placed, near doors, and the labels are often above the few chairs so that one is constantly disrupted by people trying to read the unlit text in a darkened space. Video monitors are tucked into hallways, looking like after thoughts.
After leaving this museum feeling depressed which has happened several times before, why should we return? Maybe for the relief of leaving into the constant motion of the Bowery. We walk south to buy bulbs, surrounded by humanity looking for light.