Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2019

Every year since 2015 I’ve written a round-up of the best exhibitions and artworks I saw that year. It’s a fulfilling exercise, and even though I always underestimate how much time it takes to write, I’ve come to cherish the process of forcing myself to think about what I saw and why it mattered to me. I love art, but I love art in an outward-looking way. I want art to intersect with other ideas and get knocked off balance. I want art that avoids insularity and struggles to stay relevant in a place where its methods and assumptions are not taken for granted. So, is it relevant? The answer is not a given. Plenty of art I see in a year is pleasant and amusing, but this is my chance to make myself decide which art mattered to me and take a shot at explaining why. I’m never entirely successful.

These entries are listed chronologically in the order I saw them, so they’re not ranked. Some of these works are new, some are not, the common thread is that I saw them in 2019.

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto, at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

This multi-channel video installation was produced and first exhibited in 2015. It consists of thirteen 10-minute long videos that play simultaneously in a big dark room, each one featuring Cate Blanchett dressed as different characters reciting historic political and artistic manifestos. On one screen she appears as a disheveled homeless man reciting Guy Debord’s Situationist Manifesto, on another she’s a television news anchor reading Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, and many more. Viewers wander from screen to screen listening to one bit of manifesto after another. Every few minutes all the videos sync together and all thirteen Cate Blanchetts speak in unison, which is incredibly jarring. It’s the kind of installation in which you can spend a long time lingering, and I did. It works on one hand because Blanchett is just so good, it’s like a catalogue of her range as an actor. But it’s also unsettling and feels much more fake than watching her in a typical movie. This is probably because of the disconnect between what she’s saying and what she’s doing is so acute (people don’t usually recite the Dada Manifesto at a funeral, as one scene depicts). 

Nina Katchadourian, On Hold Music Dance Party, Fridman Gallery, New York

This was a performance at Fridman Gallery in New York that happened around the same time as the Armory Show. Katchadourian is one of my favorite artists because of the way she takes mundane everyday things and turns them into something remarkable with what looks like very little effort. Her work is poetic but it’s also very, very funny. One of her better known series of works are photographs of herself wearing a napkins on her head to look like Flemish renaissance portraits. In Fridman Gallery in March there were a series of photographs she had taken of collages made on the tray table in front of her while flying on commercial airlines. On Hold Music Dance Party was exactly what is sounds like. Katchadourian and some collaborators recorded music and automated messages heard while waiting on hold with various corporate callcenters and chopped them up into danceable beats. There was free wine. I didn’t know anyone, but everyone seemed a little nerdy and we all had fun.

But I suppose it’s not enough to say it was a fun dance party. There are plenty of dance parties, and they’re not necessarily art. Reflecting on Katchadourian’s performance now, I’m reminded of something I read recently by the art critic for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl. Schjeldahl published a devastating piece titled “The Art of Dying,” where he reflects on his terminal lung cancer diagnosis. He takes the opportunity to meander through art, life, love, and facing the inevitable. One of my favorite passages is this (although the whole thing is quotable): “The aesthetic isn’t bounded by art, which merely concentrates it for efficient consumption. If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.” He’s talking about looking at art (and life), but this is exactly how Katchadourian makes art. She can put a frame around anything, and she does it with such wit and joy that I can’t help but feel lucky to have encountered it.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Guggenheim Museum, New York

This was a very popular show, and for good reason. Klint was a Swedish painter who began producing spiritually-infused abstract canvases in 1906, decades before the broadly recognized turn to abstraction led by artists like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. Klint felt that the world was not ready for her paintings, and they were rarely exhibited during her lifetime. In fact she stipulated that they not be shown publicly until 20 years after her death, and most of the work wasn’t shown until 1986. The Guggenheim show was the first major solo show of Klint’s work in the United States. Klint’s paintings were heavily influenced by spirituality and the occult. A large series of works in the show are known as The Paintings for the Temple, which she intended to one day install in a spiral temple. The exhibition felt so relevant and urgent, despite showing canvases that are more than a century old. Paintings for the Future was one of those exhibitions that rewrites our understanding of art history by pointing out what was previously overlooked. It also worked so well in the Guggenheim; the paintings made it to their spiral temple after all.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Walled Unwalled, Venice Biennale

Lawrence Abu Hamdan made news recently as one of the four nominees for the Turner Prize who collectively decided that they should share the award. Hamdan’s video Walled Unwalled was probably a big reason why he was on the Turner Prize shortlist to begin with. The single channel video installation was part of the Venice Biennale main exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times. The video was shot in a recording studio in Berlin, and features Hamdan’s narration, experimental sounds, and interviews with scientists about the nature of sound. Hamdan observes two recent trends related to walls. The first is that border walls have proliferated around the world in the last two decades. At the same time, scientists worked out a way to use muons, elementary physical particles similar electrons, to penetrate and produce images through what were previously thought to be impenetrable materials, like lead-lined shipping containers and the stone walls of ancient pyramids. The legal implications of this technology are vast, because it essentially renders all walls invisible, meaning that images can be created through the barriers that once separated public and private space. Walls are everywhere, walls are nowhere.

Stan Douglas, Doppelgänger, Venice Biennale

This two channel video installation was presented in a room where viewers could see either side of the screen depending on where they stood. The looping scenes tell the story of a solitary astronaut who is sent to a distant planet through quantum teleportation. The ground crew and the explorer assume something went wrong when the ship unexpectedly returns shortly after the teleportation. But upon closer examination the scientists realize that the astronaut and the ship that returned are an exact mirror image of the ones that left. The text printed on the ship’s control panels is backward, the screw threads go the wrong way, the position of the astronaut’s stomach and liver are swapped within her body. The looping film has no clear beginning and end, and as I watched it for a while it dawned on me that there wasn’t an error, the quantum teleportation worked as planned. But instead of arriving at an uninhabited earth-like planet as intended, the astronaut arrived at a world exactly like her own, but where everything is reversed, even the planet’s orbit around the sun goes the opposite direction. At the same time, the mirror image world sent an astronaut through quantum teleportation to Earth, who confused the scientists by being the exact mirror image of the astronaut they had just sent away.

This is a relatively simple science fiction conceit, but it work so well here. The way the video installation is displayed is crucial. Because you can watch the video screens from either side, one of them appears “normal” and the other appears as a mirror image, with text and everything else reversed. But it’s impossible to determine which video screen is depicting events in the “normal” world and which one is the mirror image, because it depends on your position relative to the screen in the gallery. It’s a simple trick, but its effect was breathtaking. A lot of video art installations would be more pleasant to view in a traditional theater setting, but this one would fall apart. The looping nature of the work and the ability of the viewer to change positions relative to screen are both essential, it would be impossible really see it any other way.

Anton Vidokle, Immortality and Resurrection for All!, The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea

Anton Vidokle is a Russian born artist and cofounder of e-flux who has produced a series of video works in recent years about a nearly forgotten early 20th century Russian philosophy called Cosmism. Cosmism was influential in the early days of the Soviet Union, but fell victim to Stalinist repression in the 1930’s. Cosmism sought to meld Western Enlightenment with Eastern philosophy to promote space colonization, immortality by technological means, and the resurrection of dead ancestors. MMCA was showing all three of Vidokle’s video works on Cosmism when I visited in June, but I only had the opportunity to see the most recent one. Immortality and Resurrection for All! shows scenes inside several Moscow museums, overlaid with the narration from a text by Cosmism founder Nikolai Fedorov about the importance of museums as sites of resurrection. A mummy walks the galleries, a dog scampers among the exhibits. Cosmism is weird. But the more I learn about it, it seems like a potentially fruitful way to think about science, spirituality and politics that isn’t beholden to the divisions we tend to place between those domains.

Lee Bul, Gravity Greater than Velocity I, at Leeum Samsung Museum, Seoul, South Korea

This piece is a functioning karaoke booth that can only be used by one person at a time. The booth is soundproof, so people outside the booth can’t hear what song is being performed inside. I went in, closed the padded red door behind me, and belted out Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run for an audience consisting only of myself. I love this piece because it’s interactive and it repurposes common objects and rituals (the karaoke machine looked to be a widely available model), but it’s decidedly not social. Most artworks that incorporate audience participation do so to create a unique temporary social reality, a social sculpture. But Gravity Greater than Velocity I employs common tropes of social sculpture to create an experience for a single participant at a time. You’re alone with your voice.

Anonymous painting of James Earl Jones as Othello, at Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts

This summer I had the chance to visit the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts in Manistee, Michigan, where I received a tour of the historic theater, galleries, and community spaces from the director and a board member. The theater is beautiful and has a rich history. James Earl Jones grew up in a tiny town nearby and acted in his first theater production at the Ramsdell in 1955, playing Othello. In the lobby hangs a painting of Jones (identified as “Todd Jones,” the name he used at the time) dressed for his role as Othello. I asked who painted the picture, but the staff didn’t know. The only clue is a set of initials in the bottom corner, GSKA. The painting is brushy and expressive, but it’s still recognizable as Jones, even though it’s a much younger version of him.

When I first saw the painting I thought it was an interesting curiosity, like the architectural details of the theater or the odd mishmash of props backstage. But the picture stuck with me. Othello is about a Moorish general in Venice, it’s a tragedy about race, jealousy and betrayal. Othello is an outsider. I couldn’t help but think about apt it was for Jones to begin his career playing this character in Manistee County, a place where 95% of the population is white. Painting and theater are both about the fluid relationship between artifice and reality. A painting is only ever pigment on a canvas, but we’re pulled from that material reality into the image it presents. On stage the actors are real people, but they conjure another reality and we get sucked in. The painting of Jones as Othello is so good because it manages to be both a painting of Othello the character and Jones the person, while perfectly employing loose brushwork and a slightly unfinished feel to remind us of the central contradiction of representative painting–between the flatness of the object and the depth of the image it depicts. 

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan

During a brief stop in Lansing I had the chance to see an exhibition at the Broad Museum at Michigan State called The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes. The exhibition surveyed the rise of conceptual art in Latin America and the way that work responded to dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. These artists employed their own bodies, like Elias Adasme photographing himself hanging by the ankles next to a map of Chile. Images and materials of the street were also a recurring theme, a site that serves as space for protest and a reminder of the freedom of movement lost under dictatorships. I was particularly moved by Regina Vater’s Para un tempo guerra (For a Time of War), a mandala-like installation of paving stones and little loaves of bread. The stones are a particular kind used on the streets of Portugal and the old settlements of its former colonial cities in Brazil. The bread loaves are Brazilian-style French rolls, an ubiquitous and inexpensive staple. On the wall was a passage by Peruvian writer Cesar Vallejo in Spanish. The wall label held the English version, which read:

And in this cold hour, when the Earth
Transcends human dust and is so sad,
I would like to touch all the doors.
And plead to I do not know whom, sorry,
And make him pieces of fresh bread
Here, in the oven of my heart…!

The Plot: Miracle and Mirage by Alejandro Celedon, Nicolas Stutzin, Javier Correa, Chicago Architectural Biennial

This year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, titled …and other such stories, focused historic, environmental, and political conditions of cities far more than it focused on the physical form of buildings. Many exhibits presented dense research findings, wall-sized infographics, long videos, reading rooms. Others, like the one by the group Forensic Architecture, seemed to partially collapse under it’s own critical approach, when they concluded that it would be irresponsible to show a video they’d produced which investigated a police shooting in Chicago (the work consisted of wall text and some audio). The piece that really stuck with me was The Plot: Miracle and Mirage by Alejandro Celedon, Nicolas Stutzin and Javier Correa. A video projected onto the floor was surrounded by waist-high wooden walls, the interior of which were covered with a mirrored surface. Looking over the walls and down on the video, it reflected, reversed and repeated infinitely in all directions. The video was about experimental urban development in Santiago, Chile that took place in the 70’s and 80’s, coinciding with that country’s violent far-right dictatorship. This approach to urban planning had a direct link to Chicago, and was implemented by a group of Chilean economists known as the “Chicago Boys” who were educated in neoliberal free market thinking at the University of Chicago. The promise of radically de-regulated urban planning turned out to be a mirage with far-reaching consequences. The video was short and not overly didactic. The connection between Chicago and Santiago began to seem like a sort of ideological colonialism, the North performing thought experiments on the global South, which paid in blood. 

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