PRINT December 2011

The Artists’ Artists


To take stock of the past year, Artforum contacted an international group of artists to find out which exhibitions and events were, in their eyes, the very best of 2011.


Mary Reid Kelley, Sadie the Saddest Sadist (Armory Show, New York) Tucked away in the back of the Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects booth at the 2011 Armory Show was a monitor showing a costumed figure with exaggerated face paint, pacing in front of a hand-drawn black-and-white background. The piece was Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie the Saddest Sadist, 2009, and the mixed metaphors, narrative snippets, and repurposed fragments of slogans that bounced through the script reminded me of early Barbara Kruger pieces, while its visual aesthetic recalled early Hans Richter on the one hand and Tony Oursler on the other. But though this young woman—to my mind, the most engaging female performance and video artist since Julia Heyward—has earned a place at their table, she sits way out on her own limb.


“Art Unlimited” (Art 42 Basel) The fact that an art-fair-affiliated exhibition could be more engaging than a biennial is disturbing and suggests a curious leveling of explicitly commercial enterprises and supposedly radical or politically minded shows. The “Art Unlimited” exhibition of Art 42 Basel clearly evidenced this dynamic. Curator Simon Lamunière’s approach was definitely freer and more creative than that of recent international biennials that were obviously muffled by the pressure of high stakes and by too many compromises. All in all, this leveling reveals the inadequacy of our existing models for large-scale exhibitions, and the question remains: Where can true experimentation take place today?


“‘. . . a multitude of soap bubbles which explode from time to time . . .’: Pino Pascali’s Final Works 1967–1968” (Camden Arts Centre, London) The Camden Arts Centre’s Pino Pascali exhibition comprised works made in the latter half of the 1960s, many of which were shown at the Venice Biennale in 1968. When students fought with police at the Biennale, Pascali denounced their attempt to “resolve moral problems with violence.” This tension between avant-garde art and overtly political efforts to transform society—two forms of progressive radicality that are often proved to be incompatible—lives on today. Pascali’s vibrantly expressive sculptures such as Vedova blu (Blue Widow), 1968, remind us of this conflict and engage issues of art and politics that remain central themes of our times.


“Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) Serra does not make black a color; he makes it form and space. In the presence of his drawings, emotions were forced out of me. I became human—almost under a searchlight. I became anyone who sees these expanses, no longer just a brain in a skull, but a thinking person. For their compositional precision, works such as The United States Government Destroys Art, 1989, and Pacific Judson Murphy, 1978, were truly inspiring. One actually stands inside the latter, feeling its visceral density and weight. For me, this was a transformative exhibition.


Dancing Dreams (directed by Rainer Hoffmann and Anne Linsel) The only part of high school I can remember is a quasi-utopian period near the end, when jocks, fags, dykes, cheerleaders, cholas, nerds, and heshers alike suddenly became friends—a hopeful end/beginning-times solidarity in the face of fast-approaching “real life.” The possibility of this kind of connectivity was wrenchingly revealed (I cried) in Dancing Dreams, 2010, a film documenting a group of similarly varied adolescents in Germany working over the course of a year with the late, great Pina Bausch to perform one of her signature pieces (Kontakthof [Contact Zone], 1978). I don’t think any film has ever made me so thoroughly question the possibility and power of making and showing art, or made me feel so resolutely that the answer to these questions is . . . YES!


Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance (Swiss pavilion, Venice Biennale) Generous, energetic, positive, and strange, Crystal of Resistance, 2011, took and gave courage. It was fueled by urgency, imagination, and love. It made invention/resistance seem like something you could do in a hurry. The spirit of the work continued online via—a site jammed with pictures, texts, and numerous drawings not exhibited in Venice. Hirschhorn’s writings frankly declared his artistic purpose in a way few artists would be brave enough to attempt. The design of the site was similarly outgoing: Every content link “button” was placed up front on page 1, where they simultaneously screamed for equal and immediate attention. It was a refreshing challenge to the currently fashionable rules of “quality” Web design, reminding the visitor that graphic design can both do and undo.


Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Recently, I tried to “tell” my father about Christina’s World: There’s this woman in a field looking off toward a farmhouse that must seem to her very far because she’s just bracing herself there, gazing toward it, her legs contorted, as if they gave out mid-escape! I hadn’t realized it was such an icon, but he probably hadn’t remembered the hypnotic mystery, terror, and sense memory this deceptively simple image invokes in a first-time viewer. It’s like a Terrence Malick movie compressed into a single shot.

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948, tempera on panel, 32 1/4 x 47 3/4".


“James Turrell: Present Tense” (Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles) In 1967, I was finishing a cube-shaped environment with blue light coming through the sides when I first learned that Jim Turrell was making artworks by projecting shaped light directly onto gallery walls. Two pieces from that era, along with a couple of more recent works, are now on view at Kayne Griffin Corcoran. Carn White, 1967, a rectangular form projected in bright white into the corner of a room, is included, as well as Yukaloo, 2011, a glass-pane and LED-light installation that changes colors over two and a half hours. Jim’s artworks are scientifically precise in conception and execution.


“Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On” (Artists Space, New York) I hadn’t seen much of Mark Morrisroe’s work before I came across this extraordinary exhibition at Artists Space, curated by Richard Birkett, Stefan Kalmár, and Beatrix Ruf. The photographs in this show spanned the brief decade of Morrisroe’s feverish artistic output, which came to an abrupt end in 1989, when he died at the age of thirty. With the artist’s short and difficult life in mind, one can hardly bear to watch the succession of events documented in his pictures. An undertone of inevitability lends the work a sense of innocence and tranquility. There is an implicit sweetness and unique sensitivity to his work. Morrisroe’s images have the texture of a lived life.


Chris Burden, Metropolis II VIP tour, invite only. Chris Burden Studio, Topanga Canyon. In that hippie hillbilly lizard-garden desert above the Pacific, thousands of matchbox cars sped by as I walked around a warehouse-scale minimetropolis. Designed to be futuristic and utopian, its buildings had been constructed using Erector sets and Legos, Toys“R”Us for boys. Cars racing nonstop created a background buzz that almost immediately made its way to the middle of my body. Auditory and visual sensations turned to pure (low-level) anxiety as I took the stairs to the mezzanine. From that vantage, I saw the cityscape as a sculptural object. It’s invigorating to know that a piece like this was made—art that makes its mark on the globe, that lets you know where you are.


Botticelli and Baldessari (Berlin) On one of Berlin’s only sunny days this summer, I saw two remarkable paintings: at the Bode Museum, the striking ca. 1490 portrait by Botticelli of Michael Tarchaniota Marullus (in the exhibition “Faces of the Renaissance”), and at Sprüth Magers gallery, not far away, John Baldessari’s Double Feature: Deadline at Dawn, 2011. Both works were intensely radiant, each in its own way. Through Botticelli, we see the itinerant poet and soldier Marullus with skin the color of olive oil, a claylike alien face set against the austere ocher of a Florentine sky. The subtle dissonance of these colors, the friction between figure and ground, seems almost to bite, suspending Marullus in space like a bird on the wing. Baldessari also unhinges his subject, makes it float—but with the Californian painter, it’s the white noise of an empty canvas, the vortex of hidden time, that frees the figure from any nameable ground.

Translated from German by Anne Posten.


Lubomyr Melnyk (NUMINA lente music festival, New York) Lubomyr Melnyk’s performance on the first night of the NUMINA lente festival, organized by Jay Sanders and Keith Connolly, offered a glimpse of an intensity, invention, and sincerity that one rarely, if ever, sees. Melnyk is a Ukrainian composer who has worked in obscurity and “shit poverty” (as he puts it) for more than forty years. This was only his third concert in New York. To try to describe Melnyk’s music is to fall short of its virtuosity. He is debatably the fastest pianist in the world and has created his own “continuous music”—an exquisite layering of harmonic overtones and melodies. Waves of sound build, mix, vibrate, and rupture. The physical properties of his music are astounding; then to see it played, coming out of a piano being driven at top speed or almost possessed by a man whose arms seem to be more swimming than playing an instrument—this is the kind of fix that I wait around New York for.


Vern Blosum, 25 Minutes (Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) I discovered Vern Blosum’s painting 25 Minutes, 1962, in Cardwell Jimmerson’s “Sub-Pop,” an impeccably researched exhibition that sought to diminish the aura of historical inevitability surrounding the Pop art canon. Blosum’s early-1960s works, sold by Leo Castelli, suited their show perfectly, but the identity of Blosum himself remains a secret. A nonrepresentational painter by preference, Blosum executed a series of flatly rendered parking meters, perhaps as a hoax that succeeded too well to be sustained. After being regularly displayed at MoMA through the late 1960s, Time Expired, 1962, the culmination of the series, went into storage. 25 Minutes was once owned by Betty Asher, who probably donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art Rental and Sales Gallery, from which it was likely borrowed by the art department of a feature film. Never returned, the painting sat in a San Fernando Valley prop-storage locker until one of the producers of the television show 24 bought 25 Minutes and facilitated its public exhibition. I eagerly await more details of this story and hope for an authoritative Vern Blosum catalogue raisonné.


Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Warhol was the first person I associated with the term artist when I was growing up, because he and his cohorts were featured in Life magazine. Every time I think I’m sick of him, something he did long ago makes me admire him all over again. This past winter, MoMA filled one of its top-floor galleries with video transfers of Warhol “stillies,” four-minute16-mm film portraits he shot in the mid-’60s of people who came by the Factory. Each portrait played on a loop on very large, evenly spaced monitors mounted high on the walls. Who knows if Warhol would have wanted them played this way—dead silent without the loud noise of the projectors that would have accompanied the original screenings—but the installation was creepily effective: Videodrome meets fun-house graveyard haunted by the ghosts of scenesters past.


Anonymous pop propagandists (state radio, Cairo, 2011) During the revolution in Egypt, state radio began broadcasting a new type of nationalist song as part of the full-scale psychological warfare being waged on the population. These songs instilled paranoia in insidious ways: The lyrics were deceptively simple (“Everybody has a secret that they hide / It is time that you tell me yours and I tell you mine”) yet always hit a sensitive spot with great sophistication. The music mixed familiar tropes of mainstream Arab pop—cloying sentimentality; heavy, lazy, syrupy beats—with unfamiliar minor keys, queasy modal shifts, and dark timbres. I have no idea who composed these tunes or penned their refrains, but I imagine a cabal of social scientists, psychiatrists, and composers rather than the usual hacks of mail-order nationalism. I will never forget the fear that grew inside me when listening to these songs blaring out of radios everywhere. It might sound perverse, but this was definitely one of the most effective and sophisticated formal uses of a popular genre I have ever experienced. Lessons lurk in these sinister depths: Formal innovation can respond to collective expectations, yet instrumentalization and design have their limits.


Matthew Noel-Tod, Castle 3.0, in “A Skvader” (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, UK) Frigidly digital, flat, and soundless, this CGI vision hits a sweet spot between posthuman spectacle and romantic tragedy. Viewing Castle 3.0, 2011, we found ourselves hallucinating a third dimension of pheromones and pneumatic sex. His and hers perfume bottles locked in a futile zero-sum battle, a digital tiger searching for an exit from the biopolitical circus; while the work seduced with strip-joint strobes and self-replicating virtuality, it was also permeated by a palpable sense of lack and loss. But unlike many works subverting the weightless, alienated domain of the industrial image, Castle 3.0, with its slick overidentification, goes beyond pastiche and irony, its codified and highly distilled images evoking the psychosexual tension and narrative drive of cinema.


Louise Lawler, “Fitting at Metro Pictures” (Metro Pictures, New York) Earlier this year, the word MOUSTACHE started appearing above people’s upper lips on advertisements in the New York subway. After just a few months of activity, “Moustache Man” was, unfortunately, busted. For her show at Metro Pictures last spring, Louise Lawler, who has been chasing ghosts in galleries, museums, and private collectors’ homes for more than three decades, showed vinyl prints that were compressed and stretched to the proportions of the walls onto which they were plastered. The printed vinyl reminded me of the subway ads, and as I worked my way through “Fitting,” continually approaching and stepping back from the gallery walls (because of the images’ huge variation in scale), I recalled the rapid zoom sequences in Limitless, a sci-fi action thriller about a new drug that unleashes superhuman abilities—like Lawler’s.


Carlfriedrich Claus (Akademie der Künste, Berlin) Living in not-sosplendid isolation in the former GDR, Carlfriedrich Claus investigated—with both an artistic eye and a social-utopian impetus—possibilities for broadening the limits of our spoken and written language. His visual and acoustic works straddle the realms of literature, philosophy (Paracelsus, Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch), and fine arts. The remarkable results of this artist’s radical and absolutely unique lifelong experiments in art and existence (ranging from drawings and photographs to hybrid forms that Claus referred to as Sprachblätter [Speech Sheets], Klang-Gebilde [Sound Shapes], and Lautprozesse [Sound Processes]) were shown in this exhibition curated by Brigitta Milde and Matthias Flügge—a stunning and inspiring presentation.


“Commodity/Fetish” (Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York) This deft, subterranean show—which included works by Robert Heinecken, Hans Bellmer, Sam Lewitt, and Richard Prince—was organized by artist Nicolás Guagnini for the gallery’s basement using Guagnini’s own “Curatorial Machine”: four cross-shaped sets of freestanding walls, on which the majority of works hung. It was a show that visitors, according to their desires, could manually reconfigure as if the walls were rotating postcard racks. Offset by Bellmer’s razing erotic vocabulary, Lewitt’s bureaucratic fetishes of inscription and exchange, and Heinecken’s refantasized advertising identifications, Guagnini’s structural apparatus served to underwrite the whole show and to demand that the viewer pass through a revolving door of appropriable positions. Such shrewd, masochistic play let slip our paradoxical investment in the object to reveal—only to quickly re-veil—an unbearable void of meaning.


Yvonne Rainer, Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 (Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York) A frank and straightforward dance of dementia, aging, and failing health. This is not an idealized or romantic version of death. It’s a stark rendition of the last phase of life. Memory is fragmented and circular. There’s static on the line. The sound track sputters, lights switch on and off. Trotting around in a harsh interior—a hospital? A nursing home?—the dancers seem helpless at times. At other moments they act out bold assertions of individuality, then fall back into automatic activity. The performance is very funny and deeply painful. Avoiding melodrama, heroism, and familiar narratives about aging and death, Rainer gives us a complex, politicized exploration of confusion and loss. Assisted Living is an astonishing dance.


René Pollesch, Ich schau dir in die Augen, gesellschaftlicher Verblendungszusammenhang! (I’m Looking into Your Eyes, Social Context of Deception!) (Rotterdamse Schouwburg) One actor, Fabian Hinrichs, standing on the stage, looking you in the eyes; me, sitting clumsily on a white bag. The performance is very tense, focused. Pollesch gives you the interactive as a theatrical cliché—a cliché that at the same time I never totally get. I love his flirtation with failure, how the audience is invited a hundred times to get onstage and each time doubts that they should actually do this. And then there are the motions Hinrichs acts out: appearing in public using an electric toothbrush; touching the drums as though they were a woman. But this stupid hassle of a play, with its longwinded theoretical texts and all the sitting around and singing together it requires, enables me to go on with my work! For me, Pollesch’s piece means freedom.


“Images sans fin: Brancusi, Film and Photography” (Centre Pompidou, Paris) Who would have guessed that Constantin Brancusi made movies? It’s like finding out that Warhol carved stones in his spare time. I was aware of Brancusi’s photographs, of how obsessed he was with capturing light bouncing off his polished bronzes and with the shadows they cast. But, like most people, I had never seen his films. Made in the 1920s and ’30s, the short home movies are often self- portraits, typically documenting Brancusi carving stone or modeling clay, and in the most revealing ones we see him spin his “fish” on its pedestal or rock his “newborn” sculpture like a cradle. Now I understand why Marcel Duchamp liked to hang out in the artist’s studio—I couldn’t help but think of his bicycle wheel.

Constantin Brancusi, Leda en mouvement (Leda Moving), ca. 1936, strip from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 37 seconds.


“Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective” (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles) I knew the work of Paul Thek—sort of. But that vague familiarity gave way to a more comprehensive understanding when I saw his retrospective at the Hammer Museum. The clear, linear, yet subtle installation by Douglas Fogle in consultation with the show’s curators, Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky, allowed me to see the artist’s life’s work as a succession of discrete, interrelated groupings of remarkable objects that were a pleasure and a challenge to look at and think about. But perhaps more meaningfully (and not common enough in retrospectives), the show came across as a moving and carefully conceived biography.


“The Present’s Presents” (Centre d’Art Neuchâtel, Switzerland) Who needs to go and see exhibitions when you can look at the sky, a lake, or the burning earth? How could one visit Saint Moritz for Art Masters but not the amazing Swiss landscape? Or go to Venice for the Biennale but not its great churches? One exhibition I’m glad I did see, though, was “The Present’s Presents” at CAN, which brought together four artists from the former Soviet East—Aleksandra Domanović, David Maljkovic, Deimantas Narkevičius, and Anri Sala. All the works were videos, all nicely installed. Narkevičius's Once in the XXe Century, 2004, was especially good: footage documenting the removal, in 1991, of a statue of Lenin in Vilnius, Lithuania . . . but played in reverse, so that people appear to be applauding the installation of the monument rather than its destruction. I loved that, and how, through this piece, Narkevičius showed Communism to be something very exotic.


Stephen Mueller (Lennon, Weinberg, New York) For the past decade, Stephen Mueller, who died this September, has been way up there in my pantheon of painters. His pictures serve as passports to some higher state of being. In his last New York exhibition, he streamlined the metaphysical symbols for which he was so well known into ebullient, cartoony lozenges and clouds, humming in an ambient bloom of psychedelic color. Here, nirvana was no longer represented as a flickering, bejeweled temple but appeared as an Art Deco pleasure palace irradiated for optical bliss. Mueller solved the mind-body problem like no other painter I know.

Stephen Mueller, Jacinto, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50"


Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff, Peles Empire In 2005, artists Stoever and Wolff came together to create Peles Empire, an ongoing collaborative project that takes its name from the fin de siècle Romanian Peleş Castle. Known for its splendid pastiche of architectural and cultural influences, the palace features styles ranging from neo-Renaissance, Gothic Revival, and Baroque to Moorish, imperial, and Florentine. With each new iteration of the project, Stoever and Wolff dress the walls of a given space with a trompe l'oeil re-creation of one of the castle's many rooms. This always evolving, continually fascinating project—which includes not only wall treatments but also a range of performances, exhibitions, and events—has existed, since early this year, in mirrored form, split between outposts in London’s neighborhood of Stoke Newington and the Romanian city of Cluj.


“Włodzimierz Borowski: The Net of Time” (Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw) Borowski, often referred to as the last avant-garde Polish artist, strove to overturn institutional authority and conventions of authorship. So the task of presenting his practice in a museum context seemed fated to disappoint. But the show’s curatorial trio—art historians Luiza Nader, Paweł Polit, and Agnieszka Szewczyk—managed to pull together his heterogeneous work without compromising its inherent resistance. Hosting an impressive reconstruction of “Playing Field” (Borowski’s 1972 self-arranged exhibition, which included every work he’d ever made up until that point), “The Net of Time” also included documentation of the artist’s actions and conceptual projects. Borowski’s rage against the institutions of art—their often simplified explanations and nostalgic tendencies—reverberated through the show, lending the work an uncanny sensation of timelessness.


Merlin Carpenter (Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles) In the 1969 film adaptation of Terry Southern’s satirical novel The Magic Christian, Sir Guy Grand and his son Youngman Grand (played by Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, respectively) work to reveal the avarice of the material world through humor, absurdist gesture, and hallucinatory Dada-like pranks. Likewise, Merlin Carpenter (whose name could be translated as “Magic Christian”) mounted an exhibition in LA this year that was a tonic for every fatty cell that has accumulated within the obese corpus of painting. Like Sir Guy Grand or a wicked and unorthodox Zen master, Carpenter created a slim koan of an exhibition that activated a spiral of thought and awareness of structure that didn’t allow the viewer to don the usual cloak of invisibility within the gallery but instead sparked an undeniable self-consciousness, unveiling the passive posture that we routinely relax into while walking through a show.

Merlin Carpenter, 1990 Repainted 1, 2010, oil on linen, 39 1/2 x 27 1/2".


Zhang Peili (Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai) One of the first artists in China to make videobased work, Zhang is well known for exposing the social realities of contemporary Chinese culture through chillingly dispassionate incisions into the political ideology that permeates everyday life. The Minsheng Art Museum’s retrospective demonstrated that, for twenty some years, he has offered a critical alternative to an art world swept up in the fervor of commercialization and its attendant power struggles.

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.


Homai Vyarawalla (National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai) Homai Vyarawalla is best known as India’s first female press photographer; now ninety-eight, she has covered India’s transition to independence, partition, the funeral of Gandhi, and generations of Indian heads of state and international dignitaries, and has compiled dozens of photo essays about working life in India. What stands out most to me in Vyarawalla’s work, though, is the way she has used still images to capture sound, especially voice. There are sonic registers to be found in her pictures—the faraway noise of crowds, close conversation—as if her flash (which she used even in daylight) doubled as a mic, articulating her subjects against, but in conversation with, the background din of constant political negotiation and reform. What’s left, years later (Vyarawalla quit photography in 1970), are the gestures and artifacts of old speech—microphones, radios, mouths open mid-sentence: records of how it might have felt, or looked, to be listening then.


Kerstin Cmelka, Change (“Based in Berlin,” various venues, Berlin) Kerstin Cmelka’s Change, 2009, part of her ongoing series “Microdramas,” was a standout piece in this year’s “Based in Berlin” exhibition. In keeping with previous works such as Nora, 2009, and Ich liebe Dich, 2011, Change is an amazingly sexy hybrid of performance art, amateur theatrics, and folk theater. Out of the many different strategies in contemporary performance, Cmelka’s work constitutes one of the most remarkable and straightforward approaches: figurative and hyperpersonal one moment, entirely abstract and general the next.


“Images sans fin: Brancusi, Film and Photography” (Centre Pompidou, Paris) It’s unbelievable! This discovery of Brancusi’s films, finally shown this past year. What a joy to watch visitors arriving at the artist’s studio; to witness him sharing a meal with friends; to see, as he did, the wind in the trees and works yet to be. Observing these simple actions, you feel a profound empathy with the stationary beings Brancusi created, which, through film, he could make move at last. Sometimes dancers are even shown taking the objects’ places. Things never appear completely finished, as they pass from one world to another. If shot today, these short vignettes might seem like “behind-thescenes” bonus feature material; but coming from this other era, they convey, foremost, the lightness of stone and an immense goodwill toward the world.


Horst Ademeit (Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin) Horst Ademeit’s history of being met with rejection—from his parents, the academy, his wife, and even Joseph Beuys—led him to abandon drawing and painting for photographs and text. In 1987, while living in subsidized housing in Düsseldorf, he initiated his study of the impact of cold rays, electromagnetic waves, earth rays, and other forms of radiation on his health and safety. He guarded against these unseen forces with magnets and herbs while obsessively documenting his measuring devices and various aspects of his surroundings. Over a fourteen-year period, Ademeit shot more than six thousand Polaroids, many of which show a collection of compasses, moisture detectors, thermometers, and Geiger counters placed on a daily newspaper. In the white borders of the Polaroids, as well as in countless calendars and booklets from this period, Ademeit handwrote meticulous notations on a scale that is difficult for the naked eye to read. This exhibition forced scrutiny of Ademeit’s unusual perception, immersing the viewer in his virtually indecipherable system.


Odilon Redon (Grand Palais, Paris) The Grand Palais felt like a nightclub as I ran through gallery after gallery, choking on dry lithographs; then down the plush, dimly lit spiral staircase, thinking, That was it!—not yet knowing that, when I entered the lower galleries, my head would be arrested by druggy bouquets in crazy colors, the cry-making decorative panels, and, next to the exit, a little hand-embroidered two-seater in pretty tatters. This was the Odilon Redon I had longed to see. Afterward, I was ejected through the main door onto the sand in the garden with bees, real flowers, and other tourists. I craved a pastis and a tisane.

Odilon Redon, Domecy Decoration: Trees, Yellow Background, 1901, oil, distemper, 94 5/8 x 72 7/8".


Occupied Wall Street (New York) The negentropic core forming in response to the protection of bodies (those of the protesters) that have distinguished themselves by standing apart from their more abstracted fellow citizens shows the necessity for a new sense of the temporal and spatial—potentially one that would permit the emergence of a new political subject while simultaneously offering comfort and defense to those most radically incised by the laws that buttress the 1%. Let’s hope that by the time this goes to press, Mark di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre at OWS’s home base, Zuccotti Park, will have been retrofitted with heaters and U-bolts, allowing it structural pride of place within a vast winterized yurt.

Occupy Wall Street protesters under Mark di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre, 1998, Zuccotti Park, New York, October 16, 2011. Photo: Harriet Salmon.


“Matt Keegan: I Apple NY” (D’Amelio Terras, New York) Much like New York itself, Matt Keegan’s show “I Apple NY” was immersive and layered, pushing me to reconsider not just what the nature of a city is but what an art exhibition can be. Every piece felt intimate and personal yet also communicated more universal concerns. From his dynamic image arrangements along the walls to his poignant book A History of New York, published in conjunction with the show, Keegan offered us an affecting reminder that New York, as a collective entity, resonates not only with the histories embedded in its infrastructure but with the ideals, emotions, dreams, and struggles of the people who live here.


“Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914” (Museum of Modern Art, New York) We have seen it before, and we needed to see it again: the artwork that changed the twentieth century—the 1912–14 papiers collés of Picasso and Braque. The wonder of it—how can work so modest, and made from the commonest materials, be so beautiful! We usually assume that these works were serious experiments labored over with great purpose, an E = MC2 of picture making. But I can just as easily imagine that these artists were simply playing around, that the epochal results were in truth accidental, more akin to an explosion in the hands of children. It is a miracle that these little works on paper and board still exist—that they were saved from the garbage can. But were they not the source of almost every artistic strategy of the avant-garde from then till now? Could such an event happen again? What would the equivalent be today?


Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience (Henan University Press) Published this year in Chinese some three decades after its first Italian edition, Agamben’s inquiry resonates with ideas that are of great interest in this country now: How will communities be rehabilitated in the future, and how, in the present, can a true sense of historical consciousness be rehabilitated? Read today in the context of contemporary China, Agamben’s words point toward an urgent issue: how to initiate a revolution that challenges the convention of the experience of time.

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.


James Richards (Chisenhale Gallery, London) Touched. The way that word sounds and the possible things it could mean. Does it make you think about being touched? By what? By tongs? By those machines that shoe shops use to measure your foot? A letter in which an older woman asks a younger woman all about her life; a song about splitting in two to keep yourself company; an image of a fingertip reflected in a pool of mercury as though stretching to form another digit: I was touched by James Richards’s installation at the Chisenhale Gallery. It felt like communication.


Liang Yuanwei (Beijing Commune) Two-dimensional works are rarely able to convey such a strong sense of space, but Liang Yuanwei’s solo exhibition at the Beijing Commune was a great surprise. Making use of the gallery’s fluorescent lighting, she set aside large expanses of white wall where no work would be hung, rendering the figure-ground relationship between art and its exhibition space ambiguous. However, the four large canvases that did serve as the “art” on view were nonetheless compelling in their own right, their particular optical effects triggering a multilayered visual and cerebral experience for the viewer. Through this particular premeditation of space—both mental and physical—Liang posed new possibilities for painting, transforming reality into an absurdity.

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.


Artist talk by Tehching Hsieh (“Action Script” symposium, Hong Kong) In October 2010, I was invited to participate in a symposium on performance and documentation in Asia, organized by Asia Art Archive and the Centre for Community Cultural Development of Hong Kong. The high point was to be a talk given by Taiwan-born artist Tehching Hsieh, and he didn’t disappoint: Beginning with an illustration of his first painting, from 1960, he proceeded to review his entire corpus of performance works. Hsieh’s legendary “One-Year Performances” (during which he lived in a cage [1978–79], punched a time clock every hour [1980–81], or was tied to another person [1983–84] for a full year) deal directly with an essential element of performance art—the body’s expenditure of time. This was a rare and unforgettable chance to hear Hsieh discuss his own history.


“Glenn Ligon: AMERICA” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) Glenn Ligon’s midcareer retrospective was a pleasant surprise for me, as someone who has always been a bit bored by the premeditated grit of his black stenciled paintings. What surprised me first is that they’re not necessarily black! Arranged side by side, the “Door Paintings,” 1990–92, for example, tended more toward charcoal gray, burnt umber, or midnight blue. They made me think of artists not usually associated with Ligon, such as Ad Reinhardt, On Kawara, and Hanne Darboven. What surprised me even more, though, was the fact that, like Darboven’s work in particular, Ligon’s show demonstrated that maintaining the appearance of working for a living can be a great way to work for a living.


“Tony Tasset: Judy” (Leo Koenig Inc. Projekte, New York) Tony Tasset’s film Judy, 1998, shows a woman looking at the camera, which is supposedly being operated by Tasset, her husband. We witness, and relate to, her air of suspicion and self-consciousness, but what is most palpable is the strong psychological bond between her and the cameraman. Like voyeurs, we study the few seconds of footage as they loop over and over again. The piece is presented in a dark room by a cold and impersonal monster—the film projector—which loudly screeches and creaks along, scratching and gradually destroying the film. Even with this machine standing in place of the husband, we still detect love on the woman’s face.


Viennese Actionists film screening (Nova Cinema, Brussels) This September I attended a screening of Viennese Actionist films organized by Wilhelm Hein as part of a weeklong program (which also featured my work) titled “Transgression: The Extreme Underground.” A filmmaker himself, Hein was friends with the Actionists, whose scandalous and subversive Happenings evoked, through sadomasochistic horror and defilement, the malignant memories (and then-present realities) of a civilization of concentration camps and genocide, while at the same time liberating the participants from the pseudomorality of social conventions and state-imposed order. Zerreissprobe (Endurance Test), 1970 documents the final performance of Günter Brus, in which he swallowed his own piss; Sodoma (1969), a collection of shorts documenting actions by Otto Muehl, totally demystifies sex, portraying it as a purely physiological bodily act. Art is meant to disturb, and these films achieve that brilliantly. When the screening ended, Hein congratulated the audience on having had the stomach to watch some real art.


“Future Festival” (TOP Contemporary Art Center, Shanghai) Organized by artists Jin Feng and Ding Li (with input from several others), the monthlong exhibition-cum-project “Future Festival” made possible a series of weekly discussions between Tongji University professor of philosophy Lu Xinghua and various local artists. The talks didn’t solve any major problems, of course, but the dialogue did effectively encourage everyone to abandon their narcissism and open up their myopic ways. From the expansion of Weibo (a Chinese social network similar to Twitter) to recent galvanizing controversies and thought-provoking exhibitions such as this one, Chinese artists in 2011 have been anything but lonely.

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.