PRINT December 2009

Daniel Birnbaum


1 “John Baldessari: Pure Beauty” (Tate Modern, London) No doubt the show of the year: visually overwhelming, wry, and, as always in Baldessari’s case, mildly subversive. The artist says, “I think there’s value in being under the radar, because you can develop better. And now I don’t care about the spotlight because I am who I am, so it doesn’t really matter.” He may not care, but the fact that after all these years he’s out there reaching a huge audience does matter.

2 Inhotim, Brumadinho, Brazil Nine ambitious new permanent projects by, among others, Chris Burden, Yayoi Kusama, and Rivane Neuenschwander convinced me that Inhotim must be the most significant art venue to emerge this century. The unique combination of botanical garden, ambitious educational program, purpose-built architecture, and novel sculpture garden puts paid to the old-European division of labor and makes every other institution seem a bit gray and average. Burden’s gigantic Beam Drop Inhotim, 2008, here looks just the right size. I got so used to the scale of ambition that not even new pavilions with work by Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney, and Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller could ruffle me. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a laboratory hidden under an artificial lake, or Dr. No himself hiding in a clandestine grotto in one of the mountains. Add in the monkeys and the massive butterflies and you can see why I’m still not sure it wasn’t all a hallucination. What was in those caipirinhas I had at the airport?

3 31st Panorama of Brazilian Art (São Paulo Museum of Modern Art) Curator Adriano Pedrosa’s attempt to define a specifically Brazilian national sensibility by revealing its presence in work by artists from other countries is one of the subtlest and most elegant large group shows I’ve seen in many years. Impeccably installed and atmospherically convincing, it only made me admire Brazilian Neo-concrete poetics all the more. It is impossible, of course, to prove conclusively whether the interconnecting tortillas of Berlin-based Mexican artist Damián Ortega’s baked sculpture Módulo de construcción con tortillas (Tortillas Construction Module), 1998, are really neo-Neo-concrete, but the work is an understated masterpiece.

4 Zero An interest in perceptual processes, the phenomenology of light and vision, and the difficulty of drawing a line between the natural and the artificial is evident in much contemporary art, suggesting that the questions this Düsseldorf-based group raised in the late 1950s and early ’60s have lost none of their urgency. This past year, in addition to a survey of Zero’s work at Sperone Westwater gallery in New York, Lichtraum (Hommage à Fontana) (Light Room [Homage to Fontana]), 1964, was presented in a new configuration at the Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf. This key installation by Zero’s core members Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker makes a whole swath of contemporary artists—among them Olafur Eliasson, Spencer Finch, and Carsten Höller—appear in a new light.

5 Sandra Kranich’s fireworks With a series of elaborate experiments mixing sculpture with glowing and exploding things in cities across Europe, Kranich takes artistic pyrotechnics into the twenty-first century. Can this Frankfurt-based artist’s reconstructions of modernist sculptures with fire and explosives give appropriation art a new lease on life? More, please.

6 “Mira Schendel: Monotypes and Other Works” (Stephen Friedman Gallery, London) With her “Monotypes,” 1964–65, this Swiss-born, Brazil-based artist created an unusually light blend of concrete poetry and graffiti-like pictures. The airiness and elegance of Schendel’s work make her seem almost like a female, Southern Hemisphere counterpart to Cy Twombly.

7 Sadaharu Horio (“In-finitum,” Museo Fortuny, Venice) For four days this summer, Horio and his entourage were on site at the Palazzo Fortuny, using around six hundred feet of paper to create a wrinkled cosmology that was shown as part of Axel Vervoordt et al.’s labyrinthine exploration of the unfinished and the infinite. One of the few key members of the legendary Japanese Gutaï group still alive, Horio exerts an influence far greater than his visibility in Western art institutions suggests. This is also true of other members of the group such as Saburo Murakami, Shozo Shimamoto, and Kazuo Shiraga, who all had beautiful works in this exquisite Wunderkammer-style exhibition. The performance seemed true to the spirit of Gutaï, and created one of this summer’s most intense and poetic moments.

8 Chu Yun (Vitamin Creative Space at Art Berlin Contemporary) If you travel though large cities in China, you come across the most extraordinary public sculptures, optimistic and modernist in spirit, whose creators have remained unknown. In an ongoing project, the Shenzhen-based Chu appropriates the massive works, documenting them in photographs and models and proclaiming them his. His endeavor circles around the question, Can one create a personal relationship to such absolute and official anonymity?

9 “Thomas Demand: Nationalgalerie” (Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin) A perfectly installed exhibition that takes Germany as its subject, Demand’s show is totally and absolutely German to the core. So German, I can hardly breathe.

10 Semiotext(e) It’s remarkable how Sylvère Lotringer has managed to keep his publishing program relevant to generations of readers willing to spend weeks or months on slim but demanding books of philosophy and political theory. He famously introduced American students to Jean Baudrillard and to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the 1980s, but sometimes his books get attention of a radically different kind, as in the recent assessment by Fox News’s Glenn Beck of the Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection (2009): Europe is on the “brink of destruction,” and this book is “a sign that it is coming soon.” It is hardly one of Semiotext(e)’s most important books, but nuanced argument is not what this apocalyptic little volume is about. Could there be a better plug for a revolutionary pamphlet?

Daniel Birnbaum, director of this year's Venice Biennale, is rector of the Städelschule in Frankfurt and director of its Portikus Gallery, where shows devoted to Rachel Harrison and Mathias Poledna kick off 2010. In April, Birnbaum and artist Olafur Eliasson are cocurating an exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.