The Figure is Back in New Museum Triennial

Juliana Huxtable, "Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm)," 2015.

The figure is back. This is the main thesis according to New Museum’s Triennial “Surround Audience,” which offers a near-deafening obsession with the self. Curated by Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin, the exhibition takes a look at how technology affects us, a focus that mercifully puts a plug in New York’s seemingly endless supply of non-objective abstraction.

And by the looks of the Triennial, the results of such self-obsession are pretty good. Bold monumental portraits tower over the second-floor galleries, while exaggerated interpretations of the present and dystopian trippy visions of the future permeate the show. Activism is everywhere.

This is what a strong show looks like.

Certainly, the best example of this is Josh Kline’s Freedom (2015) an installation modeled after Zuccotti Park, the one-time site of Occupy Wall Street. In it, life-sized SWAT team police dolls carry iPads on their bellies — each containing a video showing a social media commenter who has had his or her face overlaid with facial recognition software. Their scripts — found internet clippings — are read by retired police officers.

It’s a thoughtful touch that reflects the reality of social media. In the same way that the voice reading Kline’s script will remain anonymous until the wall label is read, Twitter and Instagram users often don’t know the background of fellow users without a little research. That research rarely gets done, which is why the imperfectness of Kline’s facial recognition software makes so much sense. The construction of identity online isn’t so much incorrect, as it is incomplete.

Behind these figures is a projection of what appears to be President Obama giving the State of the Union address. As with the social media commenters, his face is reconstructed too, and the speech is orated not by Obama, but by the world’s most famous Obama impersonator. The President, here, is transformed into a mere puppet; his words a transparent illusion of freedom, hope, and change.

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