Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2015

I traveled a fair amount this year, and I saw a lot of art. I thought it would be good to record the things that are still sticking with me. This is far from a definitive “best of ” list of major exhibitions, because even though I saw quite a bit, there is so, so much I missed (maybe I’ll see the new Whitney next year…)

These are listed in the order I saw them.

1.  On Kawara, Silence at Guggenheim Museum

One Million Years

I wrote a blog post about my experience as a volunteer reader for a performance of Kawara’s One Million Years that was part of this exhibition. It was certainly a top art experience of my life, not just the year. The whole show was excellent as well.

2. Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective 1999–2015 at The Contemporary Austin

Tom Sachs

This was an exhibition of functional boomboxes and speakers, constructed or heavily modified by Tom Sachs. When I visited there was a DJ set happening. Sachs uses common materials and tools to make obsessive, funny objects. It reminds me of the way my brother and I would modify action figures with saws and hot glue guns when we were kids, but Sachs is on another level. He draws heavily from design and the maker movement, which is surprisingly rare in contemporary sculpture.

3. Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun at the German Pavilion in the Venice Biennale

Hito Steyerl

I saw a lot of great work at the Venice Biennale, but this stands out. It’s pretty hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot. The entire room is covered in a glowing grid that mimics a motion-capture studio. A video is playing about characters in gold lamé suits who are trapped in a video game, and all of their movements are used to generate sunlight. This is blended with an apparently real story of a girl whose Russian family emigrated to Canada, who’s brother makes dancing videos that went viral on YouTube. A sci-fi narrative emerges of a near-future where Deutsche Bank kills protesters with drones, and is working to accelerate the speed of light. Shooting a protester with drone is handled primarily as a PR problem. It’s funny, smart, and deeply weird. While the national pavilions are separate exhibitions from the main show–All The World’s Futures curated by Okwui Enwezor–Steyerl and Enwezor are both considering how capital and forced labor might operate in the 21st century. It’s a bit of an apples to oranges (artist to curator) comparison, but I think Steyerl did a much better job.

4. Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows, at the Venice Biennale

Mika Rottenberg

Although the Steyerl was a standout, there were some wonderful moments in All The World’s Futures. My favorite was another work that used video and humor to explore politics of labor. Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows was an installation of shelves and tables filled with pearls. In the next room, a video plays that cuts together laborers extracting pearls from clams, while in the room above them a woman in a business suit sniffs bouquets of flowers. Her nose becomes irritated and long, like Pinocchio, and she sneezes out whole plates of food, which stack up around her. Among the pearl hunters in the room below, one young woman cranks a wheel that connects by a long belt to drive a fan that blows the scent and pollen from the flowers into the face of the long-nosed woman. There’s even more to it than that. Again, very weird, laugh out loud funny, but able to get me to consider notions of power, exploitation, and labor far better than the more dour works in the show.

5. Abu Bakarr Mansaray at Venice Biennale

Abu Bakarr Mansaray

(Apologies for the lousy photo) Mansaray is an artist from Sierra Leone who makes insanely detailed, dark, complicated, and sometimes hilarious drawings. There were dozens of them on display, depicting spaceships, weapons, and other war machines spewing scribbled blood. They reminded me of the drawings my brother and I did when we were kids, but taken to an extreme.

6.  International Pop at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

International Pop

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with this show, but what I saw was a dynamic and funky exploration of how pop art manifested in all corners of the globe. I think it’s traveling, so hopefully I’ll catch it again.

7. Jenny Holzer, For the Garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

Jenny Holzer

Holzer created 13 boulders engraved with passages of poetry for the new Japanese Gardens that opened at Meijer Gardens this year. They’re really hard to photograph, but stumbling upon these enigmatic phrases while wandering the garden is really delightful.

8. Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada

Burning Man

I went to Burning Man for the first time this year. There’s a lot more art there than I expected, it’s probably one of the biggest exhibitions of temporary sculpture anywhere. Some of it is wonderful, some not so much. The best artwork of all, however, is the event itself. I wrote a short piece for The Rapidian about how the event reveals a lot about how ideologies create and animate cities.

9. William Pope.L, The Beautiful, Art Basel Miami Public Sector

William Pope.L

Each year as a part of Art Basel Miami Beach, the fair installs a series of artworks in Collins Park, not far from the convention center. The work this year was pretty strong, I especially liked William Pope.L’s performance, The Beautiful. A band of men in Superman costumes with black face paint drag one another on skateboards through the park to a stage. There they sing America the Beautiful in careful harmony, undercut by glaring, dissonant electric guitars. The song repeats a number of times, then reaches a crescendo when the performers toss handfulls of crumpled up fake money, causing some in the crowd to jump to the ground to gather it. The performers walk off one by one, leaving only one singer repeating a line from the second verse, “Confirm thy soul in self-control,” over and over again. I had never really noticed that line before. Standing there, among the blitz of excessive consumption that is Art Basel Miami Beach, in the party-induced cloud of distraction that almost let me forget about things like Donald Trump campaign and the San Bernardino shooting happening in the rest of the county, it occurred to me that “Confirm thy soul in self-control” is about the worst way to describe 21st century America. The gap between what we aspire to be and what we are hit me like a punch in the gut.

10. Artist-Designed Acid Tabs at Rob Tufnell’s Booth at NADA Miami

Rob Tufnell

In addition to Art Basel Miami Beach, there are a number of satellite art fairs that run at the same time, showcasing emerging and alternative galleries and artists. NADA is always one of the best satellite fairs, and this year I was struck by a small booth belonging to a British gallery called Rob Tufnell. It featured a series of small framed works on paper, which on closer inspection I realized were artist-designed acid tabs, including big names like Laura Owens, Liam Gillick, and David Shrigley. Now, I don’t do acid, so I’m not into these some kind of fanboy. I like these so much because they got me thinking about how all art presents itself as offering the possibility of a personal, transformative experience. Art is never just a thing, it’s the effect the thing has on you. Art fairs are weird because pretty much everything you see is intended for another context, but you have to look at it crammed into a booth in an enormous convention center. So many dealers pushing their wares at once can seem crass and exploitative, not unlike a drug pusher promising a great trip.

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