My personal top 5 exhibitions of 2018
So much good art last year! I love lists so, y’know, let’s indulge me!
Since beginning art foundation in September we’ve been taken to see so many shows, and encouraged to visit even more. Not that before this I didn’t enjoy seeing shows, but my favourite thing was probably just to go hang out in the V&A Cast Courts or something. No, I’ve been taught to appreciate contemporary art much more, to engage with its concepts, to think and process and chew it like a cow that just discovered three new stomachs. It’s also been an absolute headfuck - because of my tendency to focus on purpose and function rather than accepting the art as art, because my brain performs acrobatics of doublethink in order to deal with enjoying and loving all this contemporary art while simultaneously being ridiculously critical of it all. It is telling that my solution was to pick Illustration over Fine Art (will elaborate at some point) and make a whole fucking zine entitled ‘What Is Art For’ just to deal with the trauma of seeing three exhibitions a week for the whole autumn.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t have an absolute blast being so cultured and engaging in wanky art speak (there she goes with her cynicism – shut up Mereida! You can talk about contemporary fine art without being critical for one blog post! Let go!). I wrote some pretty banging essays which may appear here at some point too, and succeeded in indulging in art theory and thought, at least until it drove me loopy. Also: very very much video art. Sign or what? And I really enjoyed basically all of it! Like seriously, 90% of the shows were art film of some sort.
I’m gonna keep this stuff short and sweet (with possible expansions further down the line), so without further ado, and with absolutely no judgment on my part, my favourite shows of 2018:
Strange Days – 180 The Strand
Phewf this bad boy was intense. 21 pieces of video art from international artists, shown in the dark labyrinth of the Strand’s newest art venue. The work was varied and of such a high quality the show required multiple visits. For one afternoon it was far too much, each artist demanding your attention and emotional availability in a different way, and I felt a common theme or strand (hehe) was lacking to help draw it together and deliver a tighter experience.
Still, the variation was key, from the vast environmentalism of ‘Vertigo Sea’ by John Akomfrah to Hassan Khan’s deceptively simple dance-off ‘Jewel’. I would challenge anyone to find nothing to their interest in these endless corridors of experimental film.
The Clock by Christian Marclay – Tate Modern
I’m glad I liked this, because I queued for two hours to get in. A queue was of course inevitable, with the high-profile return of this popular 24 hour film returning to London 10 years after it was first unveiled. So simple a concept, yet so effective, the film is essentially a clock that aligns clips that reference time from any and every film with real time. Jennifer Aniston says its 2 o’clock in the morning on screen? It’s 2am. Phil wakes at 6 in Groundhog Day? Its 6am. (yes I did go for an overnight showing, man I’m glad I did). The skill is in the seamless editing, particularly of the soundtrack, melding disparate clips together so they feel part of one fabric, the fabric of time. You learn to forget about character or plot – everything moves too fast, and time is the only story here. And the only character for that matter.
The genius of it is that because you know, consciously, that time is passing, you don’t feel it pass. As someone who is almost constantly aware of the time, and to who time passing causes great anxiety, this made me relax in a way my brain has not before. It also illuminates patterns of human behaviour we may only be subconsciously aware of. What do people get up to at 3am? More specifically, what do characters in films get up to? Because the irony is that none of these clips were actually filmed at the signposted time, and this discrepancy is probably the biggest headfuck. No wonder viewers are impelled to keep checking whether the time on screen is the ‘actual’ time.
Rachel Maclean – Zabludowicz Gallery
Right, the big one. I had three solid weeks of Crazed Rachel Maclean Obsession which began with this show featuring two films and a VR experience. Maclean is an interesting case, her work disgusting and repellent but intriguing all the same. I had the fortune of seeing the full cut of her film Make Me Up at the London Film Festival the day after seeing this show (genuine coincidence) and taking part in a Q&A which perhaps positioned her work more favourably in my mind – nearly everyone else I spoke to was unenchanted or put off her work completely.
Regardless, I loved this show. Maclean is known for her kitsch aesthetic, so sparkly it borders on grotesque (sometimes devolving completely into the latter) which is used to present her sharply satirical takes on societal habits. The stand out piece was her 2017 film Spite Your Face, commissioned for the Venice Biennale and made during the Trump candidacy. It is a clever, sickening treatise on fake news and popularity presented as a fairytale for the digital age. It works particularly well in its critique thanks to direct but well considered references to current politics, and convinces us of its importance in a culture of fake news by examining the consequences of lies and our unexamined tolerance for them.
Some weeks later I did begin to reassess her work, or more accurately my response to it. Make Me Up was an interesting experience but ultimately unfocused, addressing too many unrelated issues and ideas without the originality the aesthetic suggests. I am less enchanted by Maclean now, but hot damn I haven’t stopped thinking about Spite Your Face.
Mika Rottenberg – Goldsmiths CCA
Firstly how great is it that I now have a great new local gallery? In a building by Assemble, at that, which makes excellent use of the old bathhouses in New Cross.
Another exhibition of films, often presented with custom entrances to immerse the viewer before the film even starts, that worked as an antithesis of sorts to my dear Rachel – just as surreal but less brashly so, using similar motifs (2018 – the year of prosthetic noses) to completely different effect. With a focus on female labour, mass-consumption and globalisation, Rottenberg’s realistic settings and hyper-realistic sounds make the surreal elements all the more potent and thought-provoking. The world of her films is our world, albeit shown and constructed so as to present the viewer with a fresh perspective on the state of things. Funny, confrontational, weird, wonderful, but with a tangible grit and underlying themes that are not undercut by surrealism or bathos, simply said this was my favourite show of the year. How could I not love it when it dedicated an entire room to a lone ponytail thrusting out of the wall.
Heidi Bucher – Parasol Unit
Bucher makes häutungen, or skinnings, of surfaces using latex slathered over walls, doors, structures, which are then ripped off to preserved the surface, sometimes even taking flakes of the original with it. Hanging in the exhibition were huge skinnings taken from a derelict psychiatric ward, resembling human skin in their yellowing latex and ranging from the spectral to the gluttonous. I went into this blind after seeing two other shows previously that
day, so my attitude was exhausted and dismissive. Me being drained usually makes me think less about things, and in this show, it was an advantage because I allowed myself to be completely taken by these curious records of buildings and of the people within them.
The process itself is arguably even more fascinating: videos showed how the skinnings were originally made, with Bucher applying latex aggressively and exerting real force in order to rip it off the walls again. There was a beauty to the violence of the tearing action and the roughness with which the skinnings were treated (in sharp contrast to their delicate gallery presentation). Bucher was the single-minded presence here, stalking gloomy hallways draped in latex imprints of the decaying walls around her like a ghost upholding the past.
The dried drips of latex were like the tears of the inmates and of the building that housed them, a reminder of their lives that exists in a distant gallery long after the residents passed and the building was torn down. Powerful
Other good shows worth a mention:
Turner Prize – Tate Britain (fuck man Forensic Architecture, they may not have won but what they are doing, even if it feels out of place in a gallery setting, is so potent and important. My first exposure to counter forensics, more humane and powerful than any actual art I’ve seen since)
Amy Sillman – Camden Arts Centre (introduced me to an exciting zine making practise, even if I wasn’t a fan of the painting. Reading rooms are great)
METAHAVEN – ICA (more cool film, but dense as hell)
Magnum Manifesto – Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung, Munich (retrospective of the renowned photography agency and of societal upheaval in the latter half of the 20th century – the exhibition equivalent of a gut punch)
Francis Upritchard – The Curve, Barbican (very enjoyable until I spilled a bottle of ink all over the floor trying to draw Upritchard’s deliciously twisted quasi-human forms)
And, for my own enjoyment, a ranking:
10) Amy 9) Fran 8) Metahaven) 7) Magnum 6) Turner prize 5) Heidi 4) Strange days 3) Rachel 2) Christian 1) Mika
Thank you 2018, ya did me good