As someone whose name I can’t recall once said: ‘our days are long but life is short’. Thinking back over the past year it occurs to me: how is it possible that 12 months ago was so recent? And so far, far away? Memory, as we know, is no friend to reason: it leaps about, cares not a whit for convention, is a cruel editor and disobedient to boot. So, please bear with me as I attempt to recall what impressed me this past year: I am dabbling in an imprecise science.
At the beginning of the year I crunched through the snow to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, entered the doors and was staggered by what I saw: a series of enormous, seemingly abstract paintings on paper from 1907 by the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. I spent the next few hours in a giddy state: wandering from picture to picture. It was like travelling through the various stages of someone’s mind, and seeing the strange and lovely evidence of how the things that this mind had experienced were translated into images – and what images! With more than 200 works on view, they veer from ecstatic abstraction to a woozy, ür-hippy love fest; from a hard-edged minimalism to images of swans and nudes born of what can only be described as a spirit/nature-delirium. And that’s putting it mildly. In 1970 Pontus Hultén, then Director of the Moderna Museet, was offered the entire Af Klint estate, for free. He turned it down, apparently dismissive of her work as the daubings of a spiritualist. (Unlike Kandisky or Mondrian, say.) Kudos to Daniel Birnbaum, the Moderna Museet’s Director, for staging this show, and to its curator, Iris Müller-Westermann, for her excellent scholarship. No work by Af Klint has ever been sold, begging the question: is her omission from the history books something to do with her absence from the market? And while we’re at it: what does her gender have to do with the patronizing response to her spirituality, and by association, the perceived seriousness of her oeuvre?
I had first heard of Af Klint from my friends Frank Hannon and Donna Huddleston when, in 2005, they staged a show titled ‘Dear Hilma’ – a wondrous homage to the Swedish artist that evoked something of their precursor’s spirit – in a series of charmingly run-down rooms in London’s Fitzrovia. Considering Af Klint’s resurrection, it was apt that in 2013 Donna’s extraordinary new performance, ‘Witch Dance’ – her tribute to the expressionist choreographer Mary Wigman – was staged at London’s Drawing Room in September: it ran for half an hour and included otherworldly dancers, an enormous verdant wall painting, ghosts, fog, smashed vases, a J.G. Ballard lookalike sitting on a rock, and three original compositions for the triangle. (In the interests of disclosure, I must confess that one of the triangle compositions was by me, but it only went for five minutes, and another was by my co-editor Dan Fox: however, the performance was so great, I couldn’t bear not to include it on my list – it’s omission because of our involvement would, quite simply, be wrong.)
In February I travelled to Sharjah for the 11th edition of the biennale. It was an important trip for me: the city is fascinating, the hospitality fantastic, and the show, curated by Yuko Hasegawa, included a lot of a great work – too much to mention here, but in particular, the films of Amar Kanwar, the collective CAMP, and John Akomfrah. All were perfect examples of what can happen when politics intertwine, often deliriously, with the imagination – and yet the experience made me question the role that contemporary art plays in countries that implement many laws I fundamentally oppose. To discuss.
In May I travelled to New York; three shows in particular have stayed with me: the first was ‘Artist Choice: Trisha Donnelly’ at MoMA: two room of incredible diagrams, paintings and sculptures, all linked by something beyond logic – or, perhaps more precisely, linked by the powerful illogic of an intellect inseparable from an imagination that doesn’t feel the need to justify its rationale. To my mind, this is what art does best: allowing anyone the freedom to wonder and wander. My only complaint is the crowds at MoMA. What’s going on? So many rooms full of jaw-dropping work, but I was forced to flee. Great art can’t do its thing in the middle of a human traffic grid. So, I hot-footed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And my goodness: ‘Impression, Fashion and Modernity’ was one of the shows in 2013 that I never wanted to leave. What could be better than a whip-smart display of incredible paintings, alongside the clothes that feature in said paintings? I had never before thought much about the representation, say, of late-19th century radical fabric design in modern paintings, or what a corset (or the absence, thereof) might signify in a portrait, or what the rakish angle of a bonnet might say about the relationship between artist and sitter. As The Great God Manet declared: ‘The latest fashion is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most.’ Who woulda thought! Clothes, it must be said, once again, maketh the man. And in this case, the lady, the child and the lap dog. And I’m not being flippant.
A sobering but no less extraordinary show was to be found in the same museum, ‘Photography and the American Civil War’. For all its scholarship, it reiterated a simple, and very contemporary truth: what a great and terrible flattener war is and how photography, for all of its flaws, rams its tragic democracy home. So what if it’s 150 years ago, the scared eyes of a young solider are as alive as any today; and yes, that blank horror of mass death on a battleground – all of those men, all of those horses – it was real, it is real. Plus ça change.
OK, I must speed up. I’m not writing a novel here! (Unusual for an art writer!) Obviously, 2013 was the year of Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale, and, unoriginally, I’m a big fan. I loved his show: I loved its surprises, juxtapositions, enthusiasm, spurning of categories, and sheer generosity. And I loved how much work in it I loved. I’m not going to list it all here: it would take too damn long and I don’t want your eyes to glaze over.
In terms of the pavilions (in no particular order) that jolted me out of my Stendhal syndrome: Jeremy Deller’s British Pavilion refused to shy away from what it means to come from somewhere, took the bulls by their horns (eg, William Morris, war mongers and Russian Oligarchs) and proceeded to alternatively pay homage or poke sticks at them in a smart, savage, funny way (please excuse this mixing of metaphors: it’s what Jeremy did, sort of, and it worked); Bedwyr Williams’s nutty, rather marvellous Wales Pavilion was a joy; the great Zanele Muholi’s portraits in the South African Pavilion deserve the acclaim they are finally receiving; the enormous scale and wondrous lunacy of the Lithuanian/Cyprus (what a fantastically weird pairing!) pavilion’s group show was totally brilliant; the deadpan ‘An Immaterial History of the Venice Biennale’ at the Romanian Pavilion – organized by Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş – was ridiculous and profound (trying to remember the past year, let alone the history of the Venice Biennale – I feel their pain); and the Iraq Pavilion: a celebration of life and creativity in a tragic context was humbling and inspiring.
And while we’re in Italy, I must mention Manet for the second time: oh goodness, that show: ‘Manet: Return to Venice’, at the Palazzo Ducale. The hanging of work by the great artist next to paintings by artists who influenced him, for example Titian – it was almost too much. Big thoughts – e.g. ‘ah, so this is how he worked through his influences to reflect upon his own time, and this is what he borrowed from the 16th century’ etc. – were balanced with a startled ‘oh lord, look what he’s done with an asparagus / a handkerchief / a cloud / a wave / a smiling eye / a tubercular cheek …’ etc. What one man could do with a few tubes of paint and a canvas! Dizzying and dazzling.
Now I’m really running out of time, so here’s my short-list: in London, Tate Modern is on a roll. To show Salouda Raouda Choucair, Ibrahim El Salahi, Ellen Gallagher, Paul Klee and Mira Schendel in one year, in separate shows – what an extraordinary achievement for the institution. London’s smaller non-profits continued to do a great job: Chisenhale Gallery always keeps me on my toes and I’m a fan of Studio Voltaire, Camden Art Space, the Showroom, the Serpentine and South London Gallery. The fascinating ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’ at the Hayward was like a mini-Venice biennale; Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel was a gas, and ‘Tagore’s Universal Allegories’ at INIVA was a great opportunity to see the fantastic pairing of Anna Boghuigian and Goshka Macuga responding to the legacy of Indian poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore. Curated by David Campany and Michael Mazière at AmbikaP3, the enormous exhibition of new and old work by Victor Burgin was startling in its contemporary relevance, and I loved Brian Dillon’s show ‘Curiosity’ at Turner Contemporary in Margate – so intriguing to see how one of the best writers around might translate his thinking into objects; Mark Leckey’s ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill was a psychedelic romp; and the jewel of show devoted to Marlow Moss at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings was a welcome introduction to this enigmatic artist. In Birmingham, I could have spent hours poring over Lynda Morris’s archive ‘Dear Lynda’ at Eastside Projects and ‘Bob Parks: And the Heavens Cried’ at Union Projects.
In Paris, Philippe Parreno’s homage to Stravinsky’s Petruchka was magic on many levels, and Pierre Huyghe at the Pompidou was pretty great too: both artists are relentlessly inventive, surprising and – surprise, surprise! – deeply enamoured of the potential of the visual world, despite their fondness for absence and invisibility. On the other side of the planet, in Melbourne, I loved the blast of fresh air that was ‘Melbourne Now’ at the NGV; ‘Future Primitive’ at Heide Museum of Modern Art and a tremendous Yoko Ono show, ‘War is Over (if you want it)’ at the MCA in Sydney.
Of course, much of my reading of 2013 was by the many excellent writers that frieze is honoured to publish: I humbly salute you all! The prize for favourite book of the year must be divided between Terry Castle’s terrific collection of essays The Professor – I am her new biggest fan; Janet Malcolm’s 41 False Starts, a brilliantly Kafkaesque study of the struggle to write a profile of an artist; Paul Kildea’s magisterial biography, Benjamin Britten, A Life in the 20th Century – a meticulous, page-turning analysis of the evolution of a great composer in the centenary of his birth; and Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, which was first published in 1951 but is as fresh and as relevant as anything published last week. Although a novel, Memoirs of Hadrian is about history and the individual and how one makes the other (as is Kildea’s book) but that makes it sound boring. It’s not. It’s a wonder.
Like my co-editor, Dan Fox, I must end on a note I wish I didn’t have to. A beautiful man, Ian White, died in late 2013. He was 41. He was an artist, writer (he published in frieze), a teacher, a film programmer, a dry wit and a kind and generous person. It is absurd and tragic he is no longer with us.
What am I looking forward to next year? Same thing I always look forward to: being taken on a journey (there are so many possibilities!).