PRINT December 2010

Daniel Birnbaum

1 “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929” (Victoria and Albert Museum, London; curated by Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh) They don’t make ’em like Diaghilev anymore, and they never did before him, either. About this most spectacular impresario of all time, the genius dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (whom the master, also his lover, would hit with his cane) wrote: “Diaghilev has two false front teeth. I noticed this because when he is nervous he touches them with his tongue. . . . Diaghilev reminds me of a wicked old woman when he moves his two front teeth.” Not only charming but wily and ruthlessly ambitious, Diaghilev created the most fascinating dance company of the twentieth century and a new form of Gesamtkunstwerk that involved poetry, fashion design, sculpture, painting, music, and of course choreography. He worked all over Europe with Stravinsky, Picasso, Braque, Chanel, Matisse, and everyone else who seemed of relevance. There were a few grand curators and impresarios in more recent decades who likewise attempted to bridge the disciplines (Harald Szeemann, say, or Pontus Hultén). But they all seem like Lilliputians next to this Russian giant, who exchanged ideas with Proust, Joyce, and Eliot and commissioned music by Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Strauss, and Prokofiev, constantly forging new territory with exhibitions, ballets, and events that remain beyond definition. Picasso’s enormous cloth backdrop for Le Train bleu (1924) was only one of hundreds of good reasons to spend a long afternoon in this show. Diaghilev! Already the sound of the name makes clear that the man was larger than life.

2 Brion Gysin (New Museum, New York; curated by Laura Hoptman) This is the kind of show this museum should always have on display, if only there were another artist like Gysin. But there could be no one else as super-natural, no one about whom William S. Burroughs would say: “His paintings are formulae designed to produce in the viewer the timeless ever-changing world of magic caught in the painter’s brush—bits of vivid and vanishing detail. . . . The pictures constantly change because you are drawn into time travel on a network of associations. Brion Gysin paints from the viewpoint of timeless space.”

3 Hu Fang, Garden of Mirrored Flowers (Sternberg Press and Vitamin Creative Space) This novel and artist’s book tells the story of a contemporary artist who designs a theme park. An adaption of the classical Chinese novel Jin Hua Yuan (Flowers in the Mirror), and not without resemblance to Jorge Luis Borges’s philosophical tale about a labyrinth that hides the secrets of time, Hu’s beautiful work is everything I have been hoping to find in contemporary Chinese art.

4 FischGrätenMelkStand” (Herringbone Milking Parlor) (Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin; curated by John Bock) A more palpable but no less confusing kind of Western labyrinth, designed by the artist John Bock, this huge group show represented the experimental spirit that the German art world was hoping to get from the Temporary Kunsthalle. Every time I entered the sprawling and knotted installation, I would come across a work I hadn’t seen before, such as a Klara Lidén film showing the artist performing mysterious piano music in a deserted house somewhere in a godforsaken part of Brooklyn.

5 Friedrich Nietzsche, Dynamisches Schema der Zeit (Dynamic Scheme of Time), 1873 (reproduced in Georges Didi-Huberman, Das Nachleben der Bilder [The Afterlife of Images, Suhrkamp]) Reading the new German translation of Didi-Huberman’s book, I came across a drawing by the philosopher of eternal return that does not appear in any of the major works on Nietzsche by Deleuze, Heidegger, Klossowski, or Derrida. The drawing is not a work of art, really, but an image that gives us the shape of time. Not a line or an infinite series of points; not circle, cone, crystal, spiral, network, or even labyrinth. No, this is the young Nietzsche’s attempt to grasp time in a new image as mysterious as Hu’s Garden of Mirrored Flowers.

6 Sturtevant, Elastic Tango (Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London) Copy, replica, mimesis, simulacrum, fake, clone—for half a century, Sturtevant’s work has been “a meditation on these concepts by decidedly not being any of them,” as Bruce Hainley has written. The artist’s new video piece is certainly none of these things. But what is it? A philosophical dance?

7 Rivane Neuenschwander (Malmö Konsthall, Sweden; curated by Jacob Fabricius) The most elegantly installed exhibition of dazzlingly weightless art seen in years. Has there ever been a show that smelled better?

8 Tino Sehgal (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; curated by Nancy Spector) Before being pulled into the conversations, which in my case were slightly annoying but also fun, everyone simply looked at the spiral itself. We all know it, but this time it looked particularly splendid. Sehgal pulled off not only a small step for the institution but a major leap for objectless art. Both upward, in a breathlessly twisting movement.

9 Hito Steyerl, November (8th Gwangju Biennale) One simply cannot stop watching this 2004 portrait of the artist’s childhood friend Andrea, who, as an adult, was executed by the Turkish government for her alleged terrorist activities with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The two girls staged themselves as dangerously hip teenage outlaws in the 1980s, seen as an archival clip in Steyerl’s film. But in Andrea’s case it all became real, and then more than real. She became a hero, an icon, a martyr, a saint. This is the most riveting and uniquely strange meditation on resistance and the life of images I’ve ever seen.

10 Rirkrit Tiravanija (Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Germany; curated by Thomas Kellein) When Tiravanija turns a German kunstverein into a functioning apartment where people can live and work, or when he turns an entire art academy into an inn with hundreds of guests, he doesn’t really expect to change the function of these institutions for good. He merely suggests the possibility of other models: other ways of sharing things and, ultimately, other forms of human life; another social order, one less fixated on things. In this light, his art could be seen as a kind of therapy to cure us of our pathological obsession with objects. Tiravanija’s art, as this humble but charming retrospective proves, is about giving things away and the very act of giving—an act that still holds meaning for both art and life.

Daniel Birnbaum is the director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where, next spring, he will stage exhibitions of the work of Jutta Koether and Klara Lidén. A book of his selected writings will be published by Walther Koenig early next year.