PRINT December 2008

Suzanne Cotter


1 Peter Doig (Tate Britain, London) Few artists today are capable of creating narrative painting on such a scale and with such compelling formal and psychological tension. To look at Doig’s paintings is to lose oneself in the constant shifts among figure, ground, and surface. Dreamlike in tone, the works evoke a melancholy and longing that rings true to our postideological moment. In a bold programming move by chief curator Judith Nesbitt, the Tate, frequently associated with its retrospectives devoted to twentieth-century greats, felt truly contemporary in celebrating one of the most significant painters of our current generation.

2 Andrea Zittel (Schaulager, Basel) Occupying the Schaulager’s first floor, this retrospective surveyed Zittel’s impressive oeuvre to date, from the early watercolors and collages and her homemade fashion line to habitats, environments, and projects for living (for which she has often served as the experimental subject). Articulating her artistic investigations in terms of individualism, self-determination, and the human desire for structure, this thoughtfully selected and well-paced exhibition revealed Zittel’s originality, humor, and critical tenacity. She is living proof that artists have some of the best ideas on our individual and collective life choices in the present—and regarding how we might shape our future.

3 “Home Works IV: A Forum on Cultural Practices” (Beirut, Lebanon) Established in 2002 by curator Christine Tohme as a platform for artists, writers, and thinkers working both in and outside the Middle East, “Home Works” is one of the most stimulating multidisciplinary art events around. Despite the continuing political fragility of Lebanon, “Home Works IV,” held this past April, brought together an impressive international lineup of participants during a weeklong program of performances and discussions. While the annual event’s energy and urgency reflects the fraught context of the region, its unique exchange of ideas has created a vital arena outside the market-led imperatives of the international art world.

4 “Revolutions—Forms That Turn,” 16th Biennale of Sydney Even southerly squalls and chilly temperatures could not detract from the impressive achievement of curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s biennial, presented across five main sites in and around Sydney Harbor and involving 180 artists from more than forty countries and sixty-five new commissions. With an acute sensitivity to context, not only in terms of site (Cockatoo Island, a former penal settlement and naval shipbuilding yard, was a particularly rich venue owing to its layering of indigenous, colonial, and postcolonial histories), but also in its examination of the local and global in relation to the historical avant-gardes, Christov-Bakargiev’s program provided a textured narrative of revolving bodies and revolutionary moments.

5 Michael Clark Company, “The Stravinsky Project” (Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York) Clark’s achievements as a choreographer of extraordinary talent and a performer of genre-defying brilliance have long attracted a devoted following—and yet this presentation of works inspired by Stravinsky’s compositions for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was the choreographer’s first performance in the United States in twenty-two years. Clark’s charged reinvention of the classical idiom brings to light an opus that, while still pulsating with provocative sexual tension, has reached new levels of maturity and plenitude. After this event, which featured costumes by Leigh Bowery and Stevie Stewart of Bodymap, sets by Charles Atlas, and Jurjen Hempel conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, audiences were left transfixed, transported, and elated.

6 Frank Gehry (Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London) The Serpentine’s annual Pavilion series brings the work of world-renowned architects to a broad public as a venue for performances and lectures. This year, Gehry’s spectacular timber-and-glass pavilion was inspired by Leonardo’s drawings for catapults and beach-bathing huts. Even if you didn’t bother entering the airy amphitheater-cum-promenade to attend an event, you could enjoy the planar flights of Gehry’s architecture as an exuberant eruption into Kensington Gardens’ verdant skyline.

7 Tris Vonna-Michell (Cabinet, London) Vonna-Michell’s performance one evening in October was announced by way of an elegant, numbered invitation. Crowding into Cabinet’s Old Street gallery, which was empty aside from a table, a fish tank, a clock, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the select audience was treated to Vonna-Michell reciting an account of a journey that led from Southend-on-Sea to Yokohama. Somewhere between stream-of-consciousness improvisation and a play on visualization techniques for public speaking, Vonna-Michell’s rapid-fire monologue, elaborated over three successive “takes,” produced a spellbinding and palpable sense of time, travel, and place.

8 “Rothko: The Late Series” (Tate Modern, London) Curator Achim Borchardt-Hume’s exhibition of late works by Mark Rothko is built around the series of paintings, models, and sketches made as part of the artist’s famous commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. While the magisterial display of these murals serves as the exhibition’s centerpiece, it is the subsequent “Black-Form” paintings and, especially, the final series of “Black on Gray” paintings that overwhelm in their solidity and their honesty. It is not easy to look afresh at the paintings of an artist of such iconic stature as Rothko. But to look at these late works is to be moved by the fluency of an artist for whom painting had become pure enunciation.

9 Cildo Meireles (Tate Modern, London) This strikingly installed and concise exhibition, curated by Guy Brett and Vicente Todoli, generated unanimous praise. Covering four decades of work, the exhibition revealed Meireles’s use of the simplest everyday objects in tandem with concepts of space, circulation, time, and infinity to generate sculptural propositions through which complex social and political realities can be expressed. At a moment when artistic discussions are preoccupied with questions of engagement, Meireles’s art is a persuasive reminder of the enduring power of the poetic over the literal.

10 Steve McQueen, Hunger, 2008 McQueen’s directorial debut about hunger striker Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in the early 1980s is a tour de force. Structured in a series of clearly defined narrative streams, McQueen’s film moves from a prison officer’s seemingly banal daily routine and the brutal treatment of prisoners during the Dirty Protests to Sands’s slow and deliberate dissipation into death. The script, camera direction, and use of sound create an intensity of emotion that borders on the transcendent. Shot in a single frame over seventeen and a half minutes, the scene in which Sands tells Father Dominic Moran of his intent to lead the hunger strike is the extraordinarily beautiful linchpin to the film’s narrative—and to the understanding we gain of Sands as both a man and a revolutionary.

Suzanne Cotter is senior curator and acting director of Modern Art Oxford in London, where she recently curated the exhibition “Gary Hume: Door Paintings.” forthcoming projects include “Transmission Interrupted,” a group exhibition looking at contemporary art and agency. She is also editing a monograph on the work of Michael Clark, to be published by Violette Editions in 2009.