PRINT December 2003

Daniel Birnbaum


1 Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (Tate Modern, London) This synthetic, heliocentric cosmos is no doubt the artwork of the year. Activating the space itself and involving the viewer both as a perceiving subject and as a body among bodies (when I went to the Tate, hundreds of people were on the floor, looking at themselves in the mirror on the ceiling), Eliasson’s installation reaffirms that great art can be popular. A cultic space without a hint of New Age kitsch, his transformed Turbine Hall is majestic, even—dare I say it?—sublime.

2 Mrs. Kabakov’s Underwear In a city like Moscow, where buildings are torn down overnight and new ones sprout up in their place, little remains constant. In fact, I found only one thing: a peculiar lamp, which I first noticed when I went to the Moscow House of Photography to see a show about Ilya Kabakov and his circle. In the photographs and video documentation assembled to honor the artist on his seventieth birthday, one recognized the key protagonists, Joseph Backstein, Boris Groys, Vadim Sakharov—and that lamp, which, as it turns out, was made from a typically Russian undergarment, a silky slip that belonged to Vicki Kabakov, the artist’s ex-wife. A few hours later I visited Moscow’s Institute of Contemporary Art, located in Kabakov’s former studio on the top floor of an old building, and there I stumbled upon the real thing. The strangelooking fixture has been hanging above Kabakov’s (now the ICA’s) table since the early ’70s and so was at the center of the most profound debates about Russian Conceptualism. There it remains, unharmed by time and the shifting political winds. May it stay forever!

3 “Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules” (Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt) Smarter than everyone else, Warhol has extended his fifteen minutes considerably. He even began a second life recently in Frankfurt, thanks to the Museum für Moderne Kunst’s selection of some dozen time capsules on display for the very first time. His second coming may look a lot like the first, but I couldn’t stop poring over all the letters and postcards and stuff Warhol collected. For an artist who likened his mind to a tape recorder equipped only with an erase button, this is a strangely Proustian project.

4 Ayşe Erkmen’s Animals She has worked with real tigers and even tried to restage the MGM lion’s famous roar (with help from a beast in the Berlin zoo); now Erkmen has turned her attention to taxidermic specimens. In “Cuckoo,” her exhibition at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland, a half-dozen automated animals—a stuffed zebra, lioness, pronghorn, black gnu, etc.—performed a mechanical dance, like zoological clockwork.

5 Rodney Graham (K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf) I like everything about Graham: the installations, the films, the books, the album covers, and the music. Thanks to the large midcareer survey at Düsseldorf’s K21, I now see how it all fits together. The idea of a circular narrative structure plays out in an entertaining way in the three loops Vexation Island, 1997, How I Became a Ramblin’ Man, 1999, and City Self/Country Self, 2000. In the last, I’m very fond of the dandy who kicks the peasant’s ass (and I can’t get over his peculiar shoes). The epitome of lovely, pretentious urbanity!

6 Simon Starling Through his displacements of cacti, cars, and rhododendrons across Europe, Starling creates entirely new geographies, presented most recently in Nice and Venice. One very small step for the understanding of transportation, nationality, and travel—but a major leap forward for sculpture.

7 Critical Curators Although the role of the curator in recent years has eclipsed that of the critic—and at times even that of the artist—it’s nonetheless rare to come across a curatorial idea that rises above cliché. Maurizio Bortolotti’s well-researched study Il critico come curatore (Silvana Editoriale) reminds one of the truly original thinking that informed the work of curators like Pierre Restany, who died this summer, and the early Harald Szeemann. But curatorial sophistication is still apparent on occasion: Boris Groys’s ongoing exhibition of Soviet-era art at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, “Dream Factory Communism,” is a recent example. Fully in line with his provocative writings, Groys offers up a kind of visual essay about totalitarianism, art, and propaganda, full of traps and political paradoxes. Here things are never only what they seem to be.

8 Two Monstrous Tomes This year I succumbed to two exceptionally big books: Thomas Hirschhorn’s recent special edition for the magazine Texte zur Kunst—a roughly 30 x 20 x 3" version of Deleuze and Guattari’s Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?—is a somewhat overstated homage to the philosophical duo and perhaps a kind of low-budget continuation of his recent monuments to other thinkers (Spinoza, Bataille). The giant volume looked so bizarre in the hands of the artist that I had to order two copies immediately. And then there’s Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s thousand-page Interviews: Volume 1 (Charta), a compendium of conversations that the curator conducted with sixty-six artists, curators, filmmakers, writers, architects, philosophers, etc.—from Vito Acconci to Brian Eno to Hans-Georg Gadamer. Volumes 2, 3, and 4, please!

9 Carl Michael von Hausswolff Subversive to the core, the Swedish sound artist now systematically devotes his attention to important precursors like Brion Gysin (von Hausswolff recently curated a show of the self-taught sound poet’s work, at Stockholm’s Färgfabriken), the occult scientist Friedrich Jürgenssen, and, rumor has it, the obscure Swedish inventor of the letter bomb.

10 Francis Picabia (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) In a year marred by horrible painting shows all over Europe promoting new figurative art of the most embarrassing kind, it was good to see the real thing—i.e., large parts of Picabia’s oeuvre beautifully installed by Suzanne Pagé and Gérard Audinet et al. in collaboration with Swiss art duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. A totally self-effacing touch. Discreet, Swiss, perfect.

Artforum contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, cofounded its new institute for art criticism, and heads its Portikus gallery.