After six years and three installments, is the New Museum’s Triennial entering middle age? An odd question for an exhibition devoted to “early-career artists,” as the museum’s press release describes them. But compared with its predecessors, the latest rollout, which is called Surround Audience, frankly isn’t all that audacious.
There’s a lot to see — the exhibition, which was organized by New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and the artist Ryan Trecartin, feels crowded in spots — but that doesn’t translate into the knockabout energy that characterized the earlier versions. This may be a byproduct of the curatorial focus, which grounds the show in a context of technological interconnectedness. From the press release:
We are surrounded by a culture replete with impressions of life, be they visual, written, or construed through data. We move through streams of chatter, swipe past pictures of other people’s lives, and frame our own experiences as, all the while, our digital trails are subtly captured, tracked, and stored.
The statement puts contemporary culture at a remove from reality (“replete with impressions of life”) as it underscores the distractions that derail us from true engagement with art or each other. Accordingly, as if not to crack the veneer of a network thrumming with interrelated ideas, most of the artworks seem content to reside on the periphery, surrounding the audience but not grabbing attention for themselves.
The air of reticence, even politeness, encountered here feels like a deliberate step away from the rambunctiousness of the earlier iterations, The Generational: Younger Than Jesus in 2009 and The Ungovernables in 2012. That may be a sign of maturity for the Triennial as well as for the artists (more than one have already breached the age of 40), but it doesn’t really make for an exciting show.
Paradoxically, the emphasis on daily life’s immersion in technology as a curatorial premise seems to work against the exhibition’s cutting-edge intentions. Technology is so much a part of who we are, regardless of age, that to remark upon its ubiquity at this point feels dated and even a little clueless. Video, photography and digital devices may abound in this show, which also features lots of sculptural objects and a handful of paintings and drawings, but its look and feel aren’t markedly different from other surveys.
Which is another reason why the exhibition seems middle-aged. The first two Triennials, by dint of their age restrictions, felt front-loaded with a sense of discovery. While the current show is filled with just as many fresh faces, the work on display appears more generic, more tried and true, as if it belongs in the Whitney Biennial instead of the distinct niche that the New Museum has carved out for itself with the Triennial. Even the title is bland and hard to grasp, unlike the artist-centric handles of the previous two. Priorities have shifted, it would seem, from the individualistic to the atmospheric, the unruly to the phlegmatic.
A case in point is “The Island (KEN)” (2015) by the collective DIS, which, at the press preview, featured a performance by a fully-clothed woman who lay beneath a horizontal shower stall for about ten minutes before silently emerging, soaking wet, to turn off the faucets.
This piece may be among the most arresting in the show, but it felt like a retread of Chu Yun’s far edgier “This is XX” (2006) from the first Triennial, in which volunteers (after ingesting what was described in the wall text as “sleeping aids”) would lie in bed asleep during viewing hours, creating a discomfiting power imbalance between the conscious and the unconscious — an aesthetic experience inextricable from voyeurism.
Still, thankfully, the dreariness afflicting the last couple of Biennials is nowhere in evidence. There is enough variety to sustain interest, even if the assortment does not ultimately hold together, let alone add up into a sum greater than its parts.
Among the more fractious works are Geumhyung Jeong’s video “Fitness Guide” (2011), which includes an attempt by the artist to outrace an out-of-control treadmill; Nadim Abbas’s isolation chambers dedicated to three American filmmakers: Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola; Shreyas Karle’s fetish objects; and Juliana Huxtable’s incantatory poetry and quasi-mythic self-portraits, which are installed in dialogue with Frank Benson’s meticulously rendered sculpture of the transgendered Huxtable’s nude body.
Like the earlier Triennials, there is at least one breakout work to fix the exhibition in memory. And like such showstoppers as LaToya Ruby Frazier’s searing domestic photographs and Keren Cytter’s demonic video “Der Spiegel” (2007) in The Generational, or Adrián Villar Rojas’ towering sci-fi golem from The Ungovernables, Eva Koťátková’s performance/installation “Not How People Move But What Moves Them” (2013) is a confluence of personal and cultural histories, a repurposing of selective traditions into a bracing new configuration.
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Rachel Wetzler describes Koťátková’s art as ingrained with elements of Czech avant-garde theater, Art Brut and Surrealism, set against a backdrop of the failed states of Communist Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring.
“Not How People Move But What Moves Them” is composed of a large yellow wall outfitted with a door and shelves, and hung with framed collages. The shelves hold a variety of sinister/funny objects made from wire, steel, thread, terra cotta, leather and other materials, all of which will presumably be “activated,” to use the term found in the piece’s wall text, by performers at various points during the run of the exhibition. Larger examples of these structures, all of which are meant to constrain the body in some way, sit on the floor.
The objects are both props for the performers, who silently pose — standing or lying on the floor — with the pieces attached to their bodies, and persuasive works of sculpture in a funky-Minimalist mode. The collages, which are squarely — perhaps a little too squarely — in the mold of John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch, depict painfully fanciful applications of the objects on variously deconstructed human bodies.
The catalogue entry states that Koťátková’s sculptures derive from “disciplinary systems as a point of departure, ranging from those found in the family home and schools to psychiatric institutions or prisons.” These repressive tactics are conjoined with a highly specific art historical lineage that evokes the prewar work of Alberto Giacometti, such as “The Cage” (1930-31) and “The Palace at 4 A.M.” (1932); the infernal machine from “The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope” (1983) by the great Czech animator Jan Švankmajer; and the Eastern European Surrealist dread suffusing the Quay Brothers’ “Street of Crocodiles” (1986), a stop-action animation freely adapted from the stories of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz.
What is most compelling about Koťátková’s “Not How People Move But What Moves Them” is that it is activated not only by the performers, but also by the viewers’ imaginations. What will be done with the clay pots, we might ask, and why is there an undulating wire construction resembling an elephant’s trunk attached to a hole in the door? And why is the door leaning against the wall rather than set into a jamb? One question leads to the next, as the mysteries embedded in each detail draw us deeper into the piece.
“Not How People Move…” represents the kind of interactivity — not digital, but intellectual, physical and emotional — that many of the works in the Triennial lack. It doesn’t attempt to surround the audience; instead, its tough materiality and formal elegance inch their way across the threshold of consciousness until they lodge, uninvited, in the brain.
2015 Triennial: Surround Audience continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side) through May 24.