2016 Highlights: Brian Dillon

From Michael Gove to Mary Hurrell to Orange is The New Black, the year in review

I’m writing this a few days after Helen Marten won the Turner Prize. Within minutes, Michael Gove – former government minister, failed Conservative leadership candidate, an engineer of Brexit – had tweeted that her work was ‘modish crap’ and an expression of ‘the tragic emptiness of now’. In the UK, Brexit or no, there is always a bumptious opportunist poised – if that’s the word – to foment the public’s supposed contempt for contemporary art. Gove, however, had misjudged the mood of the social-media mob, who seem to dislike know-nothing nostalgists even more than they distrust artists.

Helen Marten, 'Turner Prize', 2016, exhibition view, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy: Tate Britain

Helen Marten, 'Turner Prize', 2016, exhibition view, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy: Tate Britain

Helen Marten, 'Turner Prize', 2016, exhibition view, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy: Tate Britain

Maybe none of this folderol touches a Turner Prize nominee, let alone a winner. But it’s worth noting that even (or especially) when an artist seems to have carried all before her in a scant few months – in Marten’s case, a show at the Serpentine, the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture and the Turner Prize, in quick succession – her work will struggle to be clearly seen in the fog of diverting opinion. It’s been suggested that Marten’s art (in common with the rest of the Turner Prize shortlist) is an aesthetic dodge in the face of the political exigencies of 2016. But this calm assertion is almost as wrong-headed as Gove’s intemperate effusion – as if the political import of an artist’s work were only ever a matter of avowed intent, address or immediate ‘relevance’. I was lucky enough this year to spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about Marten’s work, and I’ll take its vexing visual grammar, giddily various materials and exactingly ambiguous contemporaneity any day, over literalist partisans of now and not-now.

The South Africa-born artist Mary Hurrell has been working with the dancer Kitty Fedorec for several years; I first saw them collaborate, early in the year, in a performance at Throbbing Gristle’s former studio (which the band named the Death Factory) at SPACE Studios, London. Fedorec was back, writhing and stretching atop a mobile Perspex platform, in Movement Study 5 (Pearlex) (2016), the piece Hurrell presented at David Roberts Art Foundation in October. Accompanied by an original electronic soundtrack, clad in Hurrell’s sci-fi-ski-sex costume design, wheeled through the crowd by two other dancers, this figure was something like a fetish-wear extra-terrestrial, a crustacean or insectile presence.

Mary Hurrell, Movement Study 5 (Pearlex), 2016, documentation of performane, David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dan Weill

Mary Hurrell, Movement Study 5 (Pearlex), 2016, documentation of performane, David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dan Weill

Mary Hurrell, Movement Study 5 (Pearlex), 2016, documentation of performane, David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dan Weill

The Irish actor Lisa Dwan has been performing a select number of Samuel Beckett’s works – all monologues, or near as damn it – for a decade, starting with a breakneck take on Not I in 2005 and ending (it’s hard to say where she could go from here) this year with a dramatization of some of his late prose gobbets: voices on the verge of fading out, bodies slumping into bogland ooze. No’s Knife, at The Old Vic, London, was not so stark or exacting as Dwan’s earlier performances, but the extraordinary voice was still there – or rather voices: by turns wheedling, mocking, stentorian, obscene. At the Barbican, Isabelle Huppert’s three-part turn as Phaedra(s) – adapted by Krzysztof Warlikowski from three versions of the myth, by J. M. Coetzee, Sarah Kane and Wajdi Mouawad – was abject, brittle and operatic. In a three-and-a-half-hour production, there were inevitable longueurs, but Huppert throughout was like a naked blade in agony.

My books of the year arrived, respectively, as a headlong rush and a series of minutely worked fragments. Eimear McBride’s first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Faber, 2014) was a provocatively indrawn soliloquy about sexual abuse and its aftermath. Her second book, The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, 2016) is in some ways more conventional, matching its young narrator in 1990s London with an older man who tells his own story of abuse, and tells it in a soberly realist register. But McBride’s stylistic brio is still in evidence, her skewed syntax and ear for a sort of abject lyricism: ‘Starched and parched I jit in the wings.’ Another type of syntactic oddity was among the pleasures of Diane Williams’s short story collection Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (CB Editions, 2016). Williams’s beautifully botched sentences have a habit of switching subject, tense or tone at the drop of a dash or comma. Here’s the narrator of ‘Beauty, Love, and Vanity Itself’, reflecting on her relationship history: ‘Bob – Tom spent several days in June with me and I keep up with books and magazines and go forward on the funny path pursuing my vocation.’

Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington in Orange is the New Black. Courtesy: Netflix

Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington in Orange is the New Black. Courtesy: Netflix

Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington in Orange is the New Black. Courtesy: Netflix

And finally, it’s hard to say just how much I have loved (belatedly) Orange Is the New Black – there’s hardly a character among 20 or so principals who couldn’t carry her own series. This year’s season, the fourth, saw Jenji Kohan’s teeming, tragic and hilarious women’s-prison saga parlay its established ensemble and slow story arcs into a punctual portrayal of racial and political emergency. Poor, poor Poussey.

Lead image: Lisa Dwan in No's Knife, The Old Vic, London, 2016. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Brian Dillon’s latest book is Essayism (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017). He teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.

Most Read

A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018