Andrew Witt

Andrew Witt on the best exhibitions of 2014

Phyllida Barlow, dock, 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, Tate Britain, London, England, 2014.

IF MONUMENTS WERE ONCE CONSTRUCTED to celebrate the glories of history, the antimonuments of today question the future by destabilizing the present. History is substituted for abstractions of collapse and ruination. Patriarchal authority, empires, and the fallen of great wars all must succumb to gravity. For instance, Phyllida Barlow’s monstrous sculpture dock, 2014, installed in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries (March 31 to October 19, 2014) read as an antimonument to the provisional. A perilous construction built of interweaving scaffolding, cardboard, plywood, and fabric, dock courted danger as a structural condition. The scaffolding encouraged her to build up as well as destroy in a method as constructive as it was ruinous. Though danger is often considered a running theme in monumental sculpture, in Barlow’s case it was material necessity.

Likewise, Helen Marten’s exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ (January 29 to March 15, 2014) dealt with the grammar of collapse from the standpoint of the body. In “Oreo St. James,” Marten arranged headless torsos as disjecta membra, or scattered limbs, as supports for a cluster of parts and objects. The surfaces of the artist’s torsos evoked a picnic sensibility, where tousled leaves, tin bowls, plastic baubles, yogurt cups, and other waste objects were assembled as a constellation. In this constructed world of degraded commodities, no object takes precedence or privilege—equivalence reigns. Disintegration reverberated throughout as images and objects refused to cohere toward any unitary narrative.

Along a similar trajectory, the rhetoric of speculative fiction was a central theme of this past year. Camille Henrot’s The Pale Fox, 2014, at London’s Chisenhale Gallery (February 28 to April 13, 2014) addressed a world pulled between formation and disintegration. At the heart of her installation was a mythic origin story wherein a series of questions was posed: What makes up a world? Who are its subjects? What are its objects? Where do these relations coalesce? And, How do they dissolve? For this artist, a world of collapse is one that disperses, scattering meaning—forms and in the same breath falls apart.

Andrew Witt is a PhD candidate in the history of art department at the University College London.