PRINT December 2013

Okwui Enwezor

Steve McQueen, Charlotte, 2004, 16 mm, color, silent, 5 minutes 42 seconds. Installation view, Schaulager, Basel, 2013. Photo: Tom Bisig.

1 STEVE McQUEEN (SCHAULAGER, BASEL; CURATED BY JAMES RONDEAU, HEIDI NAEF, AND ISABEL FRIEDLI) The most rewarding exhibition I have seen in a long time, it confirmed that, at the age of forty-four, Steve McQueen is already one of the greats. Coinciding with the release of his latest feature film, 12 Years a Slave, this extensive retrospective brought McQueen’s impressive two decades of quiet radicality full circle, showing that to comprehend his powerful and unsparing vision as a filmmaker one must begin with the roots of his practice as an artist.

Co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago.

2 JOHN AKOMFRAH, THE UNFINISHED CONVERSATION (HAUS DER KULTUREN DER WELT, BERLIN) There is something to be said for historical returns, the way past events play on our memories, and Akomfrah’s soaring, mesmerizing film says it all, paying homage to Stuart Hall, that renegade humanist, pivotal figure of the New Left in postwar Britain, and founder of cultural studies. Taking Hall as both subject and witness-narrator, Akromfrah simultaneously revisits epochal events of the twentieth century across three screens—enveloping us in an oceanic wave of archival images that sweeps us from immigrant arrivals on the docks of England to international war zones, urban riots, and scenes of labor unrest, accompanied by jarring notes of jazz improvisation and interspersed with beautiful yet disquieting footage of great musicians—most memorably Mahalia Jackson—performing.

3 IBRAHIM EL-SALAHI AND MESCHAC GABA (TATE MODERN, LONDON) This past summer, Tate Modern upped the ante on its ongoing commitment to examining the global legacies of artistic modernity with two unprecedented exhibitions of African artists: a retrospective of almost sixty years of the paintings of the Sudanese master Ibrahim el-Salahi, and a multiroom installation of the irascible Béninois Conceptual artist Meschac Gaba’s project Museum of Contemporary African Art, 1997–2002. Presented together, the two shows allowed visitors to travel between the eras, forms, ideas, and histories that have shaped the work of contemporary African artists.

4 “THE ENCYCLOPEDIC PALACE” (55TH VENICE BIENNALE; CURATED BY MASSIMILIANO GIONI) Large-scale exhibitions are tough to conceive and even harder to realize as a coherent whole, especially in Venice, where spatial sprawl often threatens to subsume sharp thinking. But at the fifty-fifth edition of the mother of all biennials, Gioni used that vast expanse to manifest a dense network of artistic intentions and postulations of visionary inventiveness, blazing a trail of creative worlds driven purely by unbounded imagination.

5 “DANCING AROUND THE BRIDE: CAGE, CUNNINGHAM, JOHNS, RAUSCHENBERG, AND DUCHAMP” (PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART; CURATED BY CARLOS BASUALDO WITH ERICA F. BATTLE) This magisterial and thrilling show stood out among the growing genre of performance-based exhibitions, bringing the works of Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg into a theatrical setting masterminded by artist Philippe Parreno, who carefully choreographed the interaction of radical paintings, sculptural installation, dance, music, and set design, complete with entrance marquee. Far from getting lost in art history, Parreno’s loving orchestration showed that the experimental verve animating many of the collaborations between the artists on view remains as alive as ever.

El Anatsui, Gravity and Grace, 2010, aluminum and copper wire, 12' 1 5/8“ x 36' 9”.

6 EL ANATSUI (BROOKLYN MUSEUM, NEW YORK; CURATED BY ELLEN RUDOLPH) This exhibition of El Anatsui’s beautiful and magnificent works induced exhilaration, pleasure, and awe. The flattened scraps of metal—salvaged liquor-bottle tops and similar refuse—that make up Anatsui’s tapestry-like weavings form a kaleidoscope that is part abstract painting, part collage, and part assemblage. Here, the shimmering chromatic subtlety of a number of recent monochromes was juxtaposed with better-known pieces in which flamboyant crinkles and folds throw off splintered shards of color, elevating Anatsui’s humble material into the realm of the sublime.

Organized by the Akron Art Museum, Ohio.

7 CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH AND PAUL KLEE (NEUE PINAKOTHEK, MUNICH) The Alte Pinakothek, with its splendid old masters, tends to get top billing among Munich’s great museums, but a lesser-known gallery in the Neue Pinakothek hosted a curatorial triumph this past year, when Oliver Kase and Annabel Zettel paired the intimate paintings of Caspar David Friedrich with Paul Klee’s small pictures as part of “Changing Perspectives: Pioneers of Modernism, Degas–Picasso, Gauguin–Nolde, Monet–Macke.” Repeated visits did not dull my ardor for the play between the Romanticist’s spectral landscapes and the delicate compactness of the Bauhaus master’s dense pictorial surfaces.

8 “GUTAI: SPLENDID PLAYGROUND” (SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, NEW YORK; CURATED BY MING TIAMPO AND ALEXANDRA MUNROE) Revisiting the key innovations of the postwar Japanese avant-garde, this timely exhibition reminded us of the undeniably global turn that is expanding the genealogies of contemporary art. Surely, after shows like this one, it is no longer possible to continue with business as usual in museums that have long ignored the obvious seismic changes brought about by art from outside Europe and North America.

9 THOMAS HIRSCHHORN, GRAMSCI MONUMENT (FOREST HOUSES, NEW YORK) It was fitting that the fourth and final work in Hirschhorn’s series of discursive “monuments”—this one devoted to the life and thought of the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, famous for theorizing the concept of cultural hegemony—was installed just as inequality in New York was becoming a central topic in debates among the city’s mayoral candidates. Hirschhorn has long and vigorously abjured any connection to site specificity or social engagement, two terms often invoked to describe projects such as his. But his implementation of a series of temporary, makeshift, and multifunctional architectural pavilions on the grounds of Forest Houses, an aging housing project in the South Bronx, nevertheless opened itself up to examinations of human experience against the backdrop of depredations of power and individual social agency.

Organized by Yasmil Raymond for the Dia Art Foundation.

10 HOME WORKS 6 (VARIOUS VENUES, BEIRUT; CURATED BY TAREK ABOU EL FETOUH) Despite its small size, Beirut has one of the liveliest contemporary art scenes in the world. At the center of this creative ferment is Home Works, a festival founded and directed by the incomparable Christine Tohme. This year, Tohme invited the Brussels-based Egyptian curator El Fetouh to participate, and the latter responded with a small but complex exhibition that used three historical exhibitions—the first Alexandria Biennial (1955); “China/Avant-Garde” (Beijing, 1989); and the First Biennale of Arab Art (Baghdad, 1974)—as a conceptual springboard for probing the ways in which such historical touchstones have remained fertile territory for artists engaging with—and altering—narratives of modernity.

Okwui Enwezor is director of Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Global Distinguished Professor in the Department of Art History at New York University. He has headed numerous major international exhibitions, including the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1997), Documenta 11 (2002), the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008), Meeting Points 6 (2011–12), and La Triennale 2012 at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and is currently finishing a new book, Archaeology of the Present: The Postcolonial Archive, Photography, and African Modernity.