“Surrounds: 11 Installations,” part of MoMA’s reopening schedule last year, featured a selection of works from the collection that renegotiate and reimagine architectonic boundaries of display. Visitors ascending to the sixth floor were greeted by Sheila Hicks’s Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column (2013–14), an acrylic fiber work occupying the full height of the space. Like many of the Hicks’s works, Pillar is polymorphic, arriving at its resting form through a confluence of artist, curator, and architecture. Each braid appears as color given form and assumes an almost synesthetic quality, reinforcing Hick’s status as a master colorist and material innovator.
For more than two decades, Mark Manders has been working toward a self-portrait in the form of a building. In Room with Chairs and Factory (2002–08), one iteration from a series, quasi-representational entities are tethered in associative, yet uncertain relationships. As with the proximal Fox/Mouse/Belt (1992, cast 2007), Room with Chairs and Factory appears as if fabricated from a building described rather than seen, or from a hybrid of blueprints. There is the disquieting sense that a second glance would present a revised form, an alternate reality, and a renewed self-portrait.
In Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Killing Machine (2007), the viewer, like the explorer in Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, witnesses the automated workings of a “judicial procedure” in which mechanized arms hover over and probe the plane of a bed on which a subject might lay incapacitated. An erratically moving light illuminates the machine’s jarring economy of movement and incongruous features, including a suspended disco ball. As compelling as the visuals are, it is Cardiff and Bures Miller’s orchestration of sound through a combination of loudspeaker and active mechanized instruments that convinces us of this singularly horrific event. The harrowing reverberations of the soundtrack linger long after the cycle is complete.
Rivane Neuenschwander’s understated Work of Days (1998) consists of a 12-by-18-foot room in which walls and floor are covered in adhesive tiles transported from her studio (adhered debris intact) to the installation site, where they continue to accrue evidence of visitor passage through particles of dust, hair, and dirt. The accretion patterns only come into focus at close range, compelling viewers to fixate on constellations to which they might feasibly contribute.
Sadie Benning’s Shared Eye (2016) consists of 40 mixed-media panels featuring digital snapshots taken by the artist, found photographs, archival prints, ceramics, and other materials. The composite layering, cropping, and jostling of the imagery is mnemonic, conveying incomplete or fragmented narratives. Images are inset as tablets, with tabbed shelves supporting figurines and miniatures. The combination of the personal, votive, and generic reinforces each panel as a vestige of a relationship. Sequentially, the panels relay events as they are truly recalled—imperfectly, with embellishment and an eye for surprising details.
Sarah Sze’s Triple Point (Pendulum) (2013), the show’s final offering, was inspired by Foucault’s pendulum, a device illustrating the earth’s rotation. The trajectory of the plumb bomb is arresting, not least for its proximity to the fragile amphitheater-like construction just below. At its lowest ebb is a shallow mound of salt, which serves as a screen for a live feed projection from a camera directed into the center of the theater from its periphery. From this center, an array of common objects radiates outward, increasing in height and size as if subjected to centrifugal force. Like a supernova, Pendulum appears to have collapsed in on itself before exploding outward.
“Surrounds” also featured Arthur Jafa’s riveting montage APEX (2013), examining Black life in America; Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. (2014), which sets viewers adrift in an internet vacuum of global financial markets and weather; and Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance (2013) in which teak partitions house photographs and furniture. Singh’s presentation is subtle yet powerfully evocative, akin to Mark Dion’s museological interventions. Sou Fujimoto’s Architecture is Everywhere (2015) humorously reimagines domestic and utilitarian objects for their architectural promise. Finally, Allora & Calzadilla’s Fault Lines (2013) features a live performance in which two young sopranos exchange combative language from a variety of historical sources while standing atop metamorphic and igneous rock masses. Fault Lines is a continuation of the artists’ exploration of the relationship between music and conflict, a theme prominent in Clamor (2006).
Visitors expecting either the cavernous or claustrophobic had to take time to adjust to radical perspectival shifts—from the intimate to the monumental—when transitioning between installations. Thankfully, the scope of “Surrounds” allowed for this adjustment while also affording a rare opportunity to experience the spectrum of engagement and material invention characteristic of installation today. These 11 examples demonstrated how installation continues to challenge conventions of display, scale, time, and spatial delineation, affirming the medium’s continued relevance today, and at the dawn of a new environmental epoch.