2006 — Zanele Muholi, 'Faces and Phases'
Zanele Muholi’s ‘Faces and Phases’ is not just a photographic portrait series: it’s an example of what the artist herself calls ‘visual activism’. The collection of over 300 black and white images of black lesbians in South Africa, taken between 2006 and 2014, conveys a political message about conditions in Muholi’s native country and, more specifically, about the artist’s fellow members of the LGBT+ community. The series gives visibility to a group of people that has been marginalized and persecuted; many of whom have been victims of so-called ‘corrective’ rape. It carries on a tradition of apartheid-era photography in South Africa with a political bent, as well as echoing the formal qualities of conceptual photography. But, beyond that, the poses and expressions of Muholi’s subjects – or ‘participants’, as she prefers to call them – suggest an intimacy with the photographer, who celebrates their individuality, making them more than part of a collective document. — Christy Lange
Other significant works: Cory Arcangel and Michael Bell Smith, The Year in the Internet; Cosima von Bonin, Relax, It's Only a Ghost; Gerard Byrne, 1984 and Beyond; Spartacus Chetwynd, The Fall of Man; Lukas Duwenhögger, The Celestial Teapot; Haris Epaminonda, Statue #1; Mario Garcia Torres, Share-e-Nau Wanderings (A Film Treatment); Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Zidane A 21st-Century Portrait
2007 — Hito Steyerl, Lovely Andrea
Hito Steyerl’s Lovely Andrea begins with a male voice-over asking: ‘Hito, our trip to Tokyo is almost over. But I still ask myself, what is your film about?’ It’s a good question with a deceptively simple reply: it’s about Steyerl going in search of a bondage picture of herself, taken 20 years earlier. That said, along the way, Lovely Andrea raises fascinating questions, such as: what connects a deleted scene about New York’s Twin Towers featured in the 2001 Hollywood film Spiderman with Japanese bondage culture circa 1987? The answer? Both are about censorship and the intricate webs – literal and metaphorical – that tie people up. Eventually, Steyerl finds the photograph and the man who took it; but what she also finds and perfects with Lovely Andrea is an upbeat, freethinking, feminist form of filmic essay that ties together pieces of pop culture and bits of social reality into a coherent political argument. Bondage, here, becomes an allegory for how power and exploitation permeate supposedly ‘free’ societies. It’s an approach that has had a tremendous influence on a generation of artists coming of age in the years since 2007 – the years of social media, global crises and hard-won civil rights that are newly under threat. — Jörg Heiser
Other significant works: Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled; Paul Chain, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans; Otolith Group, Otolith II; Taryn Simon, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar; Dayanita Singh, Sent a Letter; Artur Żmijewski, Them
2008 — Ai Weiwei, 5.12 Citizens' Investigation
In May 2008, a 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan province, southwest China. 87,000 people were killed or listed as missing, including more than 5,000 schoolchildren. In several places, schools had collapsed while nearby buildings remained standing – leading to allegations of shoddy construction and corruption on the part of local officials. Responding to the government’s silence on the number of student casualties and the victims’ identities, Ai Weiwei launched a citizen investigation into the tragedy. Teams of volunteers, recruited via the artist’s website, visited the school sites, interviewing parents and cross-referencing databases and NGO reports to compile a list of 4,851 names and ages of the dead. These were spread via social media and Ai’s blog – page views of which reached more than 10 million, before it was shut down by the authorities in May 2009. Since the 1990s, as art has increasingly been asked to assess itself in terms of ‘engagement’, activism has become a common artistic response to troubled times. A landmark piece of collaborative journalism, 5.12 Citizens’ Investigation is potent testimony to Ai’s singular ability to galvanize civil society under an oppressive regime and to highlight on the global stage China’s ongoing struggle for democracy. — Amy Sherlock
Other significant works: Lara Almarcegui, Rubble Mountain, Murcia; Duncan Campbell, Bernadette; Roger Hiorns, Seizure; Amar Kanwar, The Torn First Pages; Bouchra Khalili, The Mapping Project; Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break; Daria Martin, Minotaur
2009 — Teresa Margolles, What Else Could We Talk About
Perhaps one of the most tragic results of the exploitative relationship between this planet’s northern and southern hemispheres has been the Mexican drug war. In 2008 alone, a year before Teresa Margolles represented Mexico at the 53rd Venice Biennale, there were more than 5,000 narco-related murders in the country. What else, indeed, could a Mexican artist focus on for a national pavilion at Venice, other than the cycles of violence, spun ever-faster by the insatiable market for drugs? Margolles – who originally trained in forensic medicine and who has long confronted the subject of death in her work – took pieces of fabric soaked in blood from drug-related crime scenes in Mexico and hung them like flags inside and outside the pavilion. The floors were mopped daily in water and blood from murder victims. Visitors were informed that jewellery made from the shattered windscreens of cars shot to pieces in gun battles was kept in a safe beneath the pavilion. Seven years on, the violence has not abated, nor has the economic exploitation. US politicians use the cartel wars to openly espouse hate rhetoric around immigration. Margolles’s 2009 work – a profound yet straight-talking spin on classic conceptual art – seems like an ever-more relevant response to this appalling conflict. — Dan Fox
Other significant works: Yael Bartana, Well and Tower; Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument, Trento; Luke Fowler, A Grammar for Listening; João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva, 3 Suns; Elad Lassry, Ropes; Roman Ondák, Loop
2010 — Tania Bruguera, Immigrant Movement International
Negar Azimi once disarmed today’s politically engaged art in two sentences: ‘Behold the oil tank in the gallery. Behold the sanguine consumption of art.’ Accurately, she condemns distance, a lack of courage, a dilution of reality.
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International – a project-cum-community space that ran from 2010–15, in order to research the relationship between US politics and immigrants – was guilty of none of this. Throughout the first year, Bruguera lived in Queens with 12 immigrants. She survived on a minimum wage with no social security, co-ordinating workshops, English language classes and legal advice for the community.
Political art that claims authority should be questioned, as should those behind it. With Immigrant Movement International, however, Bruguera acted sensitively and ethically, fully admitting the shortcomings of her practice (‘This project has a 99.9999999 percent possibility of being a disaster’) while campaigning for change. She believed in – believes in – art útil (useful art): social practice as a reusable tool, not a passing statement. As we move forward and turn our attention towards the riotous instability that international displacement and transnational terrorism brings, this sentiment is more vital than ever. — Harry Thorne
Other significant shows: Andrea Büttner, HAP Grieshaber/Franz Fühmann: Angel of History 25: Angel of the Disabled; Phil Collins, marxism today (prologue); Theaster Gates, Rebuild Foundation; Christian Marclay, The Clock; Nathaniel Mellors, Ourhouse
First published in Issue 181