While the official art world continued its trade in big names, stale forms, and bigger auction prices, there was still plenty of great work being made this year. The Whitney Biennial presented a lot of excellent work within a confused program and their Koons retrospective will be on many best-of lists. The New Museum had Chris Ofili as well as “Here and Elsewhere,” a fine retrospective of art from the Arab world.
For my picks this year, I was most excited by work that was extremely ambitious, extremely innovative, extremely funny and extremely communal. Here’s the 10 best of the year:
1. Jean-Luc Godard – Goodbye To Language at New York Film Festival
This one will be popping up on a lot of best film lists, but it’s much closer to video art than a feature film. After seeing it twice, I still only have vague notions of what it’s about — though vague notions are sort of Godard’s bread and butter these days. While various ideas come together and pull apart, Goodbye To Language is a straight sensory experience and may be the first major film that can ONLY be experienced in 3D.
2. Matthew Barney – River Of Fundament at BAM
Football player, model, celebrity husband, masculine-centered in sensibility and epically grandiose; Matthew Barney may just be our contemporary “great American artist.” He personifies so many of our national obsessions that we don’t necessarily think of as our national obsessions. America is a violent, hyper-ambitious, surface-obsessed place where neurotic systems of arrangement often dominate our lives far more than “freedom,” whatever that means. Barney deals with closed systems that are body-obsessed, decadent and beautiful on the outside, but full of shit on the inside.
For Rivers Of Fundament, Barney has taken on the task of adapting Norman Mailer, an author obsessed with the notion of being “The Great Novelist.” In this case, Barney adapts Mailer’s fever dream novel, Ancient Evenings, into an operatic biography of the novelist and a parable that places the original story of S&M debasement at the upper echelons of Ancient Egyptian alongside the degradation of populist power represented by the fall of Detroit.
Clickhole is a parody site set up by The Onion to lampoon Buzzfeed listicles and Upworthy headlines. It seems that the staff of Clickhole wisely understood that the joke of “this is a dumb list” would have to transform into something else quickly.
That “something else” is a multi-media art project that specializes in surreal dadaist pieces of irrationality like “10 Images That Make The Lincoln Memorial Go ‘aww’ For Some Reason” and “’90s Kids Rejoice! The Spider Eggs They Used To Fill Beanie Babies Are Finally Hatching.” What makes it great is that, often times, there isn’t a clear target for satire — it’s just crazy fucking ideas mashed together: “If Darth Vader Was Your Coffee Table.” The further Clickhole steps away from logic, the closer it gets to capturing our “like-it”-without-reading-it landscape.
4. Hito Steyerl – “How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational Installation” at Andrew Kreps
Taking half its title from a Monty Python sketch, Hito Steyerl’s video piece and surrounding exhibition carries over a wry humor that explores the digital image as well as the political and personal experiences that surround it. Steyerl is no luddite alarmist, but it becomes clear — as she discusses strategies to hide in our increasingly self-surveilled world — that one will eventually need to shrink himself to a size smaller than a pixel to ensure he isn’t being watched. Whether that’s something you can live with is up to you.
5. Christoph Schlingensief at MoMA PS1
This was the sort of “blockbuster” exhibition you don’t see very often: A multi-room, pull-out-all-the-stops presentation of a semi-obscure social practice/video/installation artist. Schlingensief staged pranks, TV shows and demonstrations to address social and political issues.
After making your way through the expected projections and headphone equipped monitors, you found yourself in a room with a rotating pedestal inspired by Hitler’s bunker. On top of the rotating pedestal sat binoculars, with which you could catch a glimpse of the Nazi-themed videos playing from screens on the room’s walls as you turned. All I recall, one included was a man dressed as Hitler spanking another Nazi. The effect could be called “eerie funhouse guignol.”
6. “GCC: Achievements In Retrospective“ at MoMA PS1
Recent years have been good for collectives, crowd-sourcing and cooperative artwork. Named after Gulf Cooperation Council, an economic and political consortium of Arabian Gulf nations, this artist collective travels the world performing meaningless ceremonies, meetings, and ribbon cuttings. They produce photos and objects that are inspired by the opulent tchotchkes that members of the real GCC present to each other when they get together or visit world leaders. It’s a high-concept series that focuses on wasted money, wasted dialogue, and political theater. It’s effectively a stinging portrait of leaders who have no interest in improving the status quo.
7. Edward Marshall Shenk and Brad Troemel’s Keys 1 & 2
A spin-off series from The Jogging, these works continued that project’s ambition of creating images that proliferate and turn viral, but with a far different aesthetic and target audience. Using conspiracy theory memes as their visual reference point, Shenk and Troemel create non-sensical links between political events and figures that are hilarious and frightening. The fact that these obvious parodies started being shared by right-wingers and conspiracy aficionados was the most frightening development of all.
8. Khaled Jarrar – “No Exit“
Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar has been making pointed political work addressing the apartheid conditions in the region for years. This year he was supposed to travel to NYC for the opening of a solo show and simultaneously for his inclusion at the New Museum’s group show, “Here And Elsewhere.” But then Israel started bombing and he was denied an exit visa. In response, Jarrar remotely mounted this exhibition.
After seeing some small monitors with video works when you first entered, you made your way into a large darkened room where a huge automated projection displayed the names of those being reported as casualties in Palestine. A robotic voice read the names over a speaker. With this, Jarrar confirmed himself as one of the most vital activist artists we have going.
(ed. note I have to admit a certain amount of bias in this situation, since I organized a satellite show with the artist and two other curators that was supposed to be in conjunction with “No Exit” before it was shut down. I did not have any direct involvement in “No Exit.”)
9. Jen and Paul – One Stop Shopping Souvenir City and Chelsea Bus Tours
Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw have been mostly known as performance artists up until this project. The two have a knack for pop aesthetics and an infectious presence. With this bus tour, however, they took everything to another level. The Spencer’s Gifts-style shop contained all sorts of ingenious knock-offs and appropriations of big-time artists like Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, making it possible for an average Joe visiting Chelsea to take home an original artwork for the rock bottom price of like 10 bucks. Visitors could also sign up for bus tours of the gallery district with Jen and Paul playing tour guide. If you missed your chance to see it, you can check out ANIMAL’s video here and cross your fingers that they do it again in the New Year.
10. “Burning Fleshtival” at Red Light District
Burning Fleshtival is an annual two-day music fest at a house in the Rockaways. Presenting experimental music, a great party and camping in their backyard, the residents at the Red Light District organize something that feels dangerous and original. No two acts are the same, but everyone had a sort of nihilistic edge and zero commercial prospects. Noise, Techno, Spoken Word, Punk and Rap music all held together by a feeling of just not giving a fuck.
New York’s music scene has probably been the weakest of all the arts this year. DIY venues have been dropping like flies and a homogeneous culture pervades. The artists who made this event possible are rebuilding something exciting. You can see ANIMAL’s full coverage here and pack a tent next summer.