PRINT December 2005

Martin Herbert

1 “AN ASIDE” (CAMDEN ARTS CENTRE, LONDON) Making a virtue of the ballooning art world’s deleterious impact on its own epistemology—i.e., no one can get a fix on the whole picture anymore—Tacita Dean’s superb curatorial venture foreswore holistic mastery in favor of a journey through the artist’s own cloud of unknowing. Chance meetings with art and artists (plus several Sebaldian coincidences) guided the collection of this daisy chain of works by, among others, Lothar Baumgarten, Paul Nash, Sharon Lockhart, Joseph Beuys, and Fischli & Weiss. An endeavor few “professional” curators would have risked, “An Aside” benefited hugely from Dean’s eye for marvelous obscurities and offbeat affinities while arguing convincingly for faith in serendipity.

2 DARREN ALMOND (K21 KUNSTSAMMLUNG, DÜSSELDORF) Almond’s constellation of photography, film, and sculpture doesn’t easily communicate its breadth and interdependence in smaller commercial shows. This attentively installed midcareer retrospective, though—drawing into its orbit polar exploration, global warming, trains, clocks, the Holocaust, the history of photography, and Almond’s grandmother nostalgically watching ballroom dancers—repeatedly hit a high elegiac note, making the world (and the artist’s place within it) seem small and inestimably precious. As happens all too rarely, I was floored.

3 SASKIA OLDE WOLBERS (SOUTH LONDON GALLERY, LONDON) Olde Wolbers makes one short film a year (the model environments she builds as miniature sets are seriously labor-intensive) and won Beck’s Futures in 2004, so expectations were high for Trailer (2005). A loamy, digressive excursion across duplicitous surfaces—zonked footage depicts a liquefying jungle and a faded cinema while, in voice-over, a man recounts his discovery that he’s the bastard product of an illicit old-Hollywood tryst—it cleared the bar and then some, authenticating Olde Wolbers as a fabulist in a class (and, quite possibly, world) of her own.

4 GUY BEN-NER (ISRAEL PAVILION, 51ST VENICE BIENNALE) An unlikely bouillabaisse of Nauman, Wegman, Chaplin, and Daniel Defoe, Ben-Ner’s video Treehouse Kit, 2005, follows a Robinson Crusoe–like figure—the artist, in shorts and fake beard—stranded in a room, comically permuting flat-packed furniture into and out of the form of a tree (also on exhibition). Tension and tenderness ripple beneath the witty carapace, as this handyman’s determined ingenuity feels inseparable from the New York–based Israeli artist’s own status as an immigrant househusband trying to build a new life for his two kids. The latter previously dispensed charm all over Ben-Ner’s reworkings of silent movies; here they’re conspicuously absent, but one senses their presence just outside the frame.

5 “FACES IN THE CROWD” (WHITECHAPEL GALLERY, LONDON) I expected to hate this, since the mandate for inclusion seemed to be any work depicting people in modern times. The selection encompassed Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera, 1873, Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, 1993, a Warhol Jackie, 1964, and works by Grosz, Beckmann, McCarthy, Duchamp, and innumerable others. But, crucially, its catholic profusion split the thesis into coteries and subsets so fast that one soon gave up on it and simply wandered, an indoor boulevardier, ticking off (and often luxuriating in) brilliances both newfound and familiar.

6 “FOLK ARCHIVE: CONTEMPORARY POPULAR ART FROM THE UK” (BARBICAN, LONDON) Britain’s first folkart exhibition in half a century, and it took Jeremy Deller’s post-Turner prestige (and help from cocurator Alan Kane) to achieve it. Packed with evidence (including artifacts, documentary video, and photographs) of unpretentious people doing unpredictable things—parading around in a suit made of burrs, offering a funeral service in which the hearse is a motorcycle sidecar, affectionately painting champion pipe-smokers—with scant regard for the world’s opinion, “Folk Archive” was a bounteous miscellany that suggested the contemporary art scene as viewed through the looking glass.

7 RAPHAEL MONTAÑEZ ORTIZ (BLOOMBERG SPACE, LONDON) In his abyssal 1985 piece What Is This?—the highlight of “The Mind Is a Horse (Part 2),” the latest in an occasional series of video compendiums lassoed together by Bloomberg’s curators—“Destructivist” artist Ortiz toggles agonizingly between frames of an old movie, stretching a few seconds of black-and-white celluloid (a girl rolling an unexploded bomb off a table, to her parents’ horror) into nine minutes of stuttering Freudian psychodrama. Video may be more “real” nowadays, but rarely is it this visceral.

8 FANTÔMAS, SUSPENDED ANIMATION (IPECAC, 2005) 1. Load up on coffee and/or sugar. 2. Slip album four by Mike Patton’s avant-metal supergroup out of its gorgeous, info-rich, Yoshitomo Nara–designed calendar for April 2005, each day of the month spotlighting a different angry kid. 3. Get pummelled by thirty one-minute-long tracks demonstrating that speed metal and Carl Stalling’s onomatopoeic Warner Bros.–cartoon music reinforce each other’s aesthetics beautifully, each style yoking bionic musicianship to mindless violence in order to divert the energetic overspill of kids and kidults. Suspended Animation is funnier (and heavier) than a boulder landing on Wile E. Coyote; unsurprisingly, my three-year-old daughter loves it too.

9 ETTORE SPALLETTI (HENRY MOORE INSTITUTE, LEEDS, UK) But we are complex beings, and after our conceptual rock we demand blissful, Minimalist painting/sculpture hybrids, painted in brow-soothing grays and Mediterranean azures. Again, it’s a mood thing. The spikes in this show’s cardiograph appear unpromising: a sly tonal modulation; a variance of angles in two paintings that tilt away from the wall; disporting natural light darkening and haloing curved surfaces. And yet—such is the recalibration of attention that Spalletti’s exquisitely judged, indeterminacyassisted art creates—each felt fleetingly epochal.

10 INTERNATIONAL BIENNALE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, PRAGUE In which the National Gallery of Prague, having ousted the Flash Art–organized biennial it hosted in 2003, mounted its own grand show. Chaotically hung (video projections in daylit spaces, anyone?), heavily seasoned with bad-to-indifferent local artists, but emphatically not designed in Italy, IBCA was a brilliant burlesque of the nationalist underpinnings and image-politicking of a hypertrophied biennial structure wherein your city’s expo doesn’t need to be any good—it just needs to exist and be homegrown. (This was satire, wasn’t it?)

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England. He is the author, most recently, of catalogue essays on Olaf Breuning and Barnaby Furnas, and is a contributor to Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (Phaidon, 2005).