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The Digital Problem at the New Museum Triennial

- By Sophie Arni

The New Museum 2015 Triennial titles itself “Surrounding Audience”. This year’s edition presented 51 artists from more than 20 different countries, exploring the theme of identity between era, NSA all-watching authorities and globalist propaganda. The overall feeling I had is that the Triennial is asking uncomfortable questions. Quite pertinent questions to our contemporary society, but uncomforting nonetheless if raised continuously throughout five floors. Indeed, the main criticism I have is that it is too narrowly focused in terms of style (cutting-edge multi-media kind of cognitive ‘Conceptual Art’) and in terms of scope of issues raised. This might be because a lot of works were commissioned for the Triennial. Curators probably had their vision of what questions should be raised in this exhibition instead of letting the artists ask those themselves – not surprising given one of the co-curators is a leading artist himself, Ryan Trecartin. The long wall texts, criticized as well by Jerry Saltz, were almost detrimental to the artists’ voices.

But as Saltz points out, a show on digital identity is destined to be nothing more than experimental: “we have no new masters also because digital technology is more than an invention, tool, or genre. It is a whole new landscape, a new biology, one that is changing us as much as we are changing it.”

Exploring the issue of trust in politics, we had political propaganda work from artist Onejoon Che (b. 1979, South Korea). His series of photographs and mini sculptures were one of my favorite pieces of the show. It is refreshing to have the perspective of a non-American showing us what political propaganda really looks like, in the non-politically correct world. Busts and sculptures of dictators and ideal figures of power and conquering are found throughout the globe. They form the genesis of political propaganda, which ‘developed in the developed world’ – a topic explored by Josh Kline on the second floor with his Freedom, an installation showing Teletubbies-like policemen pointing at racism and other problems of American politics.

Che presented his work through two mediums: small copies of busts from Senegal produced in South Korea and photographs on the wall behind them. I have seen several other artists, usually from the Middle East, doing such works – thinking particularly of Wafaa Bilal and his Canto III (2015) series of Saddam Hussein busts presented at the Armory Show 2015. The bust idea is not only aesthetically interesting, conceptually subtle and impactful, but also quite pedagogic to unaware audiences.

Take one great installation piece, a 3D rendering of an alternate reality (Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, Phantom, 2015). With the Apple Watch introduced recently, this installation is not misplaced in an exhibition showcasing the issues of today’s society. Sci-fi has become reality: we can go around with a pair of Google Glasses and see the world through a pre-programmed video game environment. Technology is now so implanted in our lives we are beginning to wear it. When putting on these giant glasses, visitors can be transposed in a desert green rainforest. The rendering is so well-made people can often lose their sense of direction and run quite ridiculously into the white walls of the museum. The work of art may actually be this exact vision: a person, alone, with fat black glasses, literally blinded of his surroundings, who runs into empty walls. Does augmented reality actually augment the quality of our lives? How do we begin to tame this alien world? How do make Google Glasses ‘ours’? Interesting questions raised here, and a successful work of art always manages to give us subtle answers.

I was disappointed by the star piece of the show, the one on the cover of its catalog and on the New Museum website, Frank Benson’s Juliana (Figure 5). A “most-loved piece of the crowd”, this work is a 3D printer nude sculpture of Benson’s artist friend, MX Juliana. From afar, you are looking at a postmodern eclectic 80s rock and roll neon version of a lounging Greek nude goddess. She is quite recognizably black, with a weave of long braids and voluptuous curves – but Benson chose a translucent yellow-green-blue-pink color to perhaps purposely hide the models’ skin color. Once viewers get close to the work, they get to see the drop of the piece: this gorgeous female is actually a transgender with a full exposed penis. Benson is playing with our preconceived notions of beauty both in popular culture and in art history. The artist is playing with the notion of the female nude and with the sexual fluidity of today’s society. A woman can become a man, a black male can become a white female, a green body can become pink.

But in my humble opinion, these questions were too obviously raised. Benson is clearly focusing on two themes: gender and race. While the Triennial claims to be groundbreaking, ‘predictive rather than retrospective’, Benson is something precisely predictable and predictive. Race and gender are satellites of our identity in the technological era: although very important and time-sensitive issues of contemporary American society, they always manage to find their way into every exhibition of Contemporary Art.

In conclusion, a ground-breaking, trend-setting show of post-Internet art, that makes us think of what direction art will take in our imminent sci-fi reality.

View of the New Museum's fourth floor. Foreground work: José Leòn Cerillo (b.1976, Mexico), The New Psychology (NM2), 2015. Aluminum and acrylic.

Onejoon Che (b. 1979, South Korea), Three Dikgosi Monument / Built in 2010, Dakar, Senegal – Original design in North Korea, reproduced in South Korea, F. R. P. 2013-14, Digital C-print and fiber-reinforced plastic & The African Renaissance Monument / Built in 2010, Dakar, Senegal – Originial design in North Korea, reproduced in South Korea, F.R.P. 2013-14, Digital C-print and fiber-reinforced plastic.

View of: Josh Kline, Freedom, installation, 2015.

Daniel Steegmann Mangranà, Phantom, 3D rendering installation, 2015.

Frank Benson (b. 1976, US), Juliana, painted Accura© Xtreme Plastic rapid prototype, 2015.



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