PRINT December 2008

Okwui Enwezor


1 Steve McQueen, Hunger, 2008 McQueen’s new film, which garnered the coveted Caméra d’Or in Cannes, is justly celebrated. Depicting the last weeks of Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, Hunger is a spare, brooding film of potent political acuity, filled with expanses of wordless beauty and horror—a work of emotional ravaging. It calls up our own dark times without sacrificing the internal contradictions that riddle the relationship between jailer and jailed, making it nothing less than a meditation on the nature of incarcerated life.Okwui Enwezor

2 New Museum, New York, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA When the New Museum opened on the Bowery last winter to mixed reviews, a cold wind about to topple the real estate market was already blowing. One year later, this building looks more solid than ever. The asymmetrical stacked boxes sheathed in a veil of perforated aluminum strike an elegant pose, without seeming detached from the gritty surroundings. The building achieves a measured austerity and self-effacing luminosity that resolutely avoids the sensationalist, gaudy luxury that has turned some museums into veritable emporiums of suspect taste (think of the Broad Contemporary Art
Museum at LACMA).

3 The Aftermath: Ruins of the 2008 Beijing Olympics China is today the site of some of the world’s most ambitious architectural designs, from the merely spectacular to the brazenly iconic. The run-up to the 2008 Olympics afforded the emerging global powerhouse the occasion for a spectacular coming-out party, with Beijing serving as ground zero for a pageantry of awesome political marketing. As the games recede in memory, structures such as Herzog & de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest”; the Rem Koolhaas/OMA–designed CCTV Tower; the “Water Cube” by PTW Architects in collaboration with China Construction Design International and Arup; and the new airport terminal (the world’s largest) by Norman Foster demonstrate that the spectacle may have been well worth it in architectural terms.

4 Aimé Césaire, Iba Ndiaye, and Ousmane Sembène: A Remembrance It is never too late to celebrate greatness. The passings of Césaire, poet, statesman, theorist, and dramaturge (1913–2008); Ndiaye, painter, educator, and humanist (1928–2008); and Sembène, filmmaker, auteur, activist, and novelist (1923–2007) are individually noteworthy, but coming nearly within one year, their loss inspires reflection on three of the great voices of the twentieth century. From the Negritude movement cofounded by Césaire in the 1930s, to the École de Dakar movement of modern art cofounded by Ndiaye in Senegal, to Sembène’s nearly fifty years of erudite, philosophical, and humanist films and novels, the glow of their intellectual and cultural legacy reveals how diverse the field of twentieth-century modernity was.

5 Fela! (directed by Bill T. Jones) At first glance the works of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the radical Nigerian musician and political activist, and those of the radical American choreographer Jones may seem an odd pairing. But in Fela! it becomes clear that the two are creatures of the same instincts, who can transform raw social commentary into powerful formal artistic devices that speak both to art and politics. Packed with exhilarating performances, pungent banter, and kaleidoscopic stage design, the musical brings Fela to life, giving body to the dense, lengthy compositions, postcolonial critiques of power, and unabashed carnal celebrations that are the hallmarks of his genius.

6 Michael Asher (Santa Monica Museum of Art, CA) The retrospective is a common hagiographic genre normally employed to hype and flatter an artist. But often it serves as a eulogy. In keeping with the manner in which he has questioned the received genres of what constitutes the work of art and its situations, Asher’s reflexive take on the retrospective was not at all common. Rather than culling examples of past work, he reassembled the walls of each of the forty-four exhibitions staged by the museum since arriving at its present location in 1998, a maze of overlapping spaces that constituted an entirely new architecture and sculpture. Here the ghostly remains of the previous exhibitions, sans content, continued Asher’s rigorous diagnosis of the artwork and context in relation to conditions of anomie that oversee their temporal dissolution once an exhibition closes and another follows in its wake.

7 “Jasper Johns: Gray,” “Gustave Courbet,” and “Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) It is not often that a city gets to present great surveys of Johns, Courbet, and Poussin during the same year. But that such a rare occurrence can happen in one institution at the same moment, such that the visitor can walk from the compound aesthetic of Johns’s gray paintings, to the theatricality of Courbet, and finally pause at Poussin’s metaphysical scenes, is a miracle. The three exhibitions formed an appropriate coda for director Philippe de Montebello’s great tenure at the museum.

8 Derek (Isaac Julien) and “Derek Jarman” (Serpentine Gallery, London) Derek, a valedictory documentary film on the life and work of the British filmmaker/queer icon Derek Jarman, finds Julien again playing the familiar roles of filmmaker, cultural historian, and public intellectual. The film places the erudite, irreverent Jarman—raconteur, lover, activist, and above all artist—at the crumbling center of the cultural transformations of postwar England both as an outsider (an openly queer man) and insider (the privileged boy in class-obsessed England). These dualities have been mainstays of Julien’s tradition of docu-bio films, which use their complex subjects to explore larger issues of identity and art’s relationship to the broader culture.

9 “Revolutions—Forms That Turn,” 16th Biennale of Sydney Sometimes, to achieve a measure of gravitas, biennials resort to return trips through contemporary art’s already-ransacked catalogue raisonné. For the Sixteenth Biennale of Sydney, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev made such a trip, but with fresh eyes, new thinking, and surprising conclusions, albeit with a quixotic slant, probing the conjunction of the literal and the symbolic, avant-garde and revolution. Here formal systems focusing on historicizing revolutionary forms in modern art (from Futurism to Dada) were deployed to lend weight to contemporary art (from Arte Povera to Conceptualism), all, perhaps, to prove the dichotomy between the historical and contemporary to be a false distinction.

10 Twilight of Scare Politics: Change, Hope, Intelligence, and the Coming Obama Presidency At the time of this writing, a new kind of cultural and political surge is under way, to the graceful one’s advantage. We are witnessing not just a generational but a millennial change. Will our timid cultural institutions respond? Go Barack!

Okwui Enwezor is dean of academic affairs and senior vice president at the San Francisco Art Institute. he has served as artistic director for several prominent international exhibitions, including the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (1997), Documenta 11 (2002), and this year’s 7th Gwangju Biennale.