‘Surround’ exhibit confuses, intrigues

Alex Greenberger, Editor-at-Large

The New Museum’s third triennial, “Surround Audience,” is wall-to-wall art. It creates a strange feeling of entrapment, as if visitors cannot escape the art. The show’s curators — video artist Ryan Trecartin and former Rhizome executive editor Lauren Cornell — create this sensation without a hackneyed reliance on surveillance technology.

“Surround Audience” is about how technology is deeply embedded itself in our lives. The artists’ voices are present throughout the show — particularly through a poetry book that accompanies the pieces.

The triennial has two issues: it feels as if the show is trying to do too much at once, and it sometimes feels scattered. The latter is not always a problem, as pieces like Eduardo Navarro’s performance and sculpture “Thanks Alex” convey the incompatibility of life and technology. Navarro’s sculpture is a large turtle shell that rightfully feels out of place in this show. In an era in which time is measured in kilobytes per second, slowness is no longer valued, which is why, in Navarro’s opinion, turtles no longer have value in this world.

The show’s ambitious quality still poses a problem. “Surround Audience” sometimes feels like a jumble of topics that not even the most intelligent liberal arts student could grapple with them simultaneously. Feminism, post-colonialism and semiotics are just some of the issues explored in this show.

On the ground floor, Lisa Holzer’s printed, nail polish-streaked poetry is hung adjacent to DIS magazine’s “The Island (KEN),” a kitchen that doubles as a performance space and a Scandinavian furniture lookalike. On the third floor, Frank Benson’s deified sculpture of transgender poet Juliana Huxtable is displayed facing Ed Atkins’ “Happy Birthday!!,” a black-and-white video in which computer-animated body parts fly apart as a man vomits blood. The show is overwhelming, yet wildly ambitious and well worth Trecartin and Cornell’s effort.

“Surround Audience” is at its best when it becomes personal. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s collaged acrylic, pastel and charcoal self-portraits with her white husband are remarkably genuine. Because Akunyili Crosby has made the bold decision to put Xeroxed images of Africans on top of her body, the paintings are powerful works about interracial love in a post-colonial age — no small feat to accomplish in just two paintings. Casey Jane Ellison speaks out against men who shame her in “IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO SEEM WONDERFUL II,” one of the show’s most feminist and personal works.

Of all the collections presented in the show, Josh Kline’s installation “Freedom” is easily the strongest. In it, Kline begins with a powerful gesture: police officers who have Teletubby heads and screens playing brutal videos for stomachs. Kline continues with a video, “Hope and Change,” which shows a speech he wishes Obama gave. Kline’s recreation of Obama on a computer is an ultra-contemporary, unabashedly political punch to the gut that feels personal and smart.

“Freedom” is a lot to handle because it asks viewers to deal with so much. In doing so, it epitomizes “Surround Audience” — the installation, like the show, is intense and thought-provoking.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 3 print edition. Email Alex Greenberger at [email protected]