The Best Art I Saw in 2020 (sort of), part 1

Every year at this time I write a blog post about the best art I saw throughout the year. This has not been a normal year, so this won’t be a normal list. I used to travel a lot, I’d see exhibitions all over the country and all over the world; New York, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Venice, Seoul… But this year the virus came and travel stopped. One by one all the big exhibitions and events I would have attended were called off. In 2020 I was slated to travel to Austin for SXSW, New York for the Frieze Art Fair, Burning Man in Nevada, Prospect 5 in New Orleans, Art Basel Miami Beach—I’m sure there would have been more—but they were all cancelled or postponed. ArtPrize was cancelled, too, and I lost my job. 

So what about art? Did I see any good art this year? The short answer is… barely. I saw a tiny bit. But the long answer is that I saw and experienced many amazing things this year, even if they might not have been art, per se. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to continue this tradition. I’m a believer that once art begins to teach you how to see, you’ll start to see things you missed before, both within art and without. I’m also a believer that the visual is only a fraction of what really great art does, even “visual art.”

The first international trip I took to see an exhibition was in 2012. I went to Kassel, Germany to see the 13th edition of Documenta, the uber-important contemporary art survey that happens once every five years. I know it sounds cliché, but it changed me. I never looked at art, or anything else, the same way again. That exhibition rewired me in some ways, I’m still processing it. In the main catalogue essay, at the beginning of a 767 page volume that now sits on my lap, the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev discusses her choice to include the output of biologists, economists, philosophers and anthropologists in the exhibition along with artists. She writes:

What these participants do, and what they ‘exhibit’ in dOCUMENTA (13), may or may not be art. However, their acts, gestures, thoughts, and knowledges produce and are produced by circumstances that are readable by art, aspects that art can cope with and absorb. The boundary between what is art and what is not becomes less important.

So, for 2020 my list of ten best artworks instead becomes a list of objects and experiences that are “readable by art.” I might like it better this way.

I’ve decided to split it into two parts so it’s not too long. Here are the first five, in no particular order.

1. Watching The Host (2006) while flying home from South Korea

The Host (2006)

I did take one trip in 2020, before the Great Shutdown, to Seoul, South Korea. It was my second trip there and the culmination of a year and a half of planning. For ArtPrize I hosted an event in Seoul called ArtPrize Gangnam Showcase, where five Korean artists were invited to give short presentations about installations they hoped to present at ArtPrize, then I and some other judges picked which one would receive a grant to travel to Grand Rapids and create their project. Obviously, the second part of that did not happen.

It’s a little hard to remember pre-virus 2020 at this point, but it did happen! If you recall, South Korea was having a bit of a moment in early 2020 because Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in early February. I couldn’t go to Korea without having seen it, so I downloaded it and watched it on the flight over. The country was bursting with Parasite pride, and rightfully so. But the experience that really sticks with me is the movie I watched on the flight home, an earlier Bong Joon-ho masterpiece called The Host. I saw it shortly after it came out over a decade ago, and I remembered it as a very inventive monster movie with a surprisingly tender family drama at its center. That’s all true, but what I had forgotten is that The Host is also a movie about a pandemic, and how the government’s ham-handed attempt to manage the crisis is made worse by American imperialism.

It was a perfectly erie time and place to watch that film. At that point COVID-19 had spilled out of Wuhan and was running rampant all over mainland China. There had been a small number of cases recorded in South Korea, along with a handful in Seattle, Washington. It was apparent, however, than Seoul was far, far more prepared for what lay ahead than we were. All public buildings had guards stationed at the doors with thermal cameras reading the temperatures of all guests. Many people sitting near me on the plane while I watched The Host were wearing masks. That was February 14. Two weeks later, South Korea recorded over 800 cases in a single day, the peak of its first outbreak (a number that pales in comparison to what the US is experiencing now). One month later the ArtPrize office closed for good, my kids’ school went entirely online, and the world changed in ways we’re still trying to comprehend. All in one month. 

I heartily recommend you drop what you’re doing and watch Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, but brace yourself.

2. David O’Reilly’s Corona Voicemails

David O’Reilly is an artist, animator and game designer (Mountain, Everything). Shortly after COVID-19 shutdowns began in the spring, he set up a phone number and asked people to call in and leave voicemails about their experiences during the pandemic. The result is three short films that pair audio from anonymous voicemails with pulsing, mandala-like animated visuals. The videos were posted between April 8 and April 20, they are titled STAYING HOME, SUDDEN BLACK HOLE, and QUARANTINE DREAMS

I am transfixed by these films. They do such an incredible job capturing the unease of the early days of the pandemic. I really think these films will be seen as important historical documents 20, 50, or even 100 years from now. 

I’m also amazed that such a tonally perfect series of artworks about a crisis were created during the crisis. That rarely happens, usually such things need to gestate for a few years, artists benefit from hindsight. I’m sure there will be plenty of artworks of all forms in the future that will process what happened this year. For my money David O’Reilly added to the canon of coronavirus artworks in the first month of the crisis. That is remarkable.

3. SiTE:LAB – CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE | Kyd Kane poetry presents: Challenge Privilege w/ Liquid Courage

Kyd Kane performs on Paul Amenta and Ted Lott’s Critical Infrastructure

This was one of the very few cultural events that I attended this year. SiTE:LAB, the deeply collaborative artist-run nonprofit brought together familiar faces and new voices for a poetry reading / concert / printmaking demonstration / outdoor happening. The event was headlined by poet Kyd Kane with a supporting cast of musicians and DJs. Brewery Vivant hosted and provided a custom beer, “Challenge Privilege.”

I’ve been to many SiTE:LAB events over the years, and this one was similar in some ways but also very, very different. Advanced tickets were required, sold in groups of four that entitled you to a circle in the parking lot to place your lawn chairs away from other guests. We visited the bar then sheepishly pulled up our masks to drink. It was odd, but it worked, it was reassuring to know that gatherings like this could still happen safely. 

4. LATTERDAYS by Big Red Machine, performance video

In the weeks leading up to the November election, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and his collaborators at the Eaux Claires Music Festival produced a string of performance videos and events in an effort to raise money and get out the vote in Wisconsin. Perhaps it worked, Biden won Wisconsin by a hair. But that outcome was by no means guaranteed, and the sense of foreboding and dread leading up to the election is something I’ll always remember about 2020 (and 2016 *shudder*).

In this video Justin Vernon performs a song called “Latterdays” on a rooftop in Milwaukee at dusk, which he wrote with Aaron Dessner (The National), and Anaïs Mitchell, working under the name Big Red Machine. The audience, if you can call it that, is just two people politely sitting on chairs. Vernon projects his falsetto through a mask that slowly slips off his nose, while panoramic drone shots show the Milwaukee skyline looking serene and still. The lyrics at first center around preparing for a storm, then allude to vague memories of being young and dealing with use (or overuse) of certain substances. 

I’m not normally a big fan of concert films or videos of live performances, and I think the reason is that they usually seem like secondary artifacts. Performance videos with a raucous crowd just remind me that I’m not in the crowd, I’m watching a video instead, there’s a layer of removal. I love live music, I’ve had life-altering experiences standing in a crowd, so I don’t usually care for being reminded of the experience I’m not having. But the “Latterdays” video is different. Live music is one of many casualties of this pandemic, so watching the video of Vernon playing on the roof feels like the primary way to experience this song, not a secondary experience. There is no sense of “you had to be there,” almost no one was there. We are where we need to be, staying home, staying safe, and watching this video on our various personal screens. Everything about it—the music, the lyrics, the cinematography—all seem attuned to that reality.

The lyrics are wonderful, and capture something specific about the fall of 2020, particularly in the midwest. In the weeks leading up to the election the pandemic was surging in Wisconsin, there was a point where the rate of new cases was as bad there as anywhere in the country. Wisconsin, like Michigan, went red in 2016 and it was really unclear whether it would swing back in 2020. The song is not directly about the pandemic or the election, instead it’s about preparing for a storm, which functions as a metaphor for both. One hallmark of this moment is the maddening way in which our fellow Americans refuse to take the pandemic seriously, misplacing blame and condemning us to scores of unnecessary deaths and months upon months of lockdowns. Nothing captures my lament at that foolishness quite like these lines:

You were stocking up before the storm
Stacked yourself against the odds
Talkin’ back to an act of God

5. Jill Magid’s Tender

I normally follow a rule when I make these annual lists of artworks that the entries can only be things that I saw and experienced myself that year. These posts are never an attempt to list the best artworks of a given year, because I could never see enough to make such a list comprehensive (even when travel was possible), and I don’t want to rely only on documentation of an artwork. I’m making an exception here. 

In September the conceptual artist Jill Magid worked with Creative Time to launch a project called Tender. She altered 120,000 US pennies to contain a tiny etching along their edges that read, “THE BODY WAS ALREADY SO FRAGILE.” The total value of the coins is $1,200, equivalent to one COVID-19 stimulus check in the first round of direct relief. They were wrapped in special coin rolls and distributed to bodegas in all five boroughs of New York City. The length and spread of the project is not determined, the coins will continue to circulate indefinitely. You might end up with one someday. 

This project is one of my favorite, even though I haven’t seen any of the pennies, I’m not sure there’s even a way to do that. I suppose you could shop in lots of New York bodegas with cash and hope to get lucky, but realistically you’ll never see one of these pennies. That lack of direct experience actually makes the work stronger. In a press release about the project, Magid says, “Tender pennies enter the local economy quietly, and travel like rumor.” They also travel like a virus. There’s no way to know if you’ll ever see one of these pennies, but you know they’re out there. Tender is about transmission and exchange, the tension between strength and vulnerability in our interconnectedness, both economically and biologically.

The Best Art I Saw in 2020 (sort of), part 2

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