Highlights 2015 – Tom Morton

Natalie Dray, Kendrick Lamar and James Magee: Tom Morton shares his highlights from 2015

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Natalie Dray, ‘DRAY’, 2015, Cell Projects Space, London

Natalie Dray, ‘DRAY’, 2015, Cell Projects Space, London

Having been lucky enough to visit James Magee’s The Hill in the remote West Texas desert this September – an extraordinary structure in progress resembling a set from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain (1973), which Magee has been working on for more than a quarter of a century – most of the other artworks I encountered in 2015 felt a little flimsy by comparison. Pacing its catwalks under rainy skies, I was one of 50 or so guests treated to a two-hour performance by the Japanese musique concrète artists Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda, organised by Houston-based Nameless Sound. With smartphones strictly verboten, and even the vultures wheeling overhead gulping down their squawks, the hushed desert landscape – and Magee’s singular creation – appeared at once both hallucinatory and realer than real.

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James Magee The Hill, early 1970s–ongoing, El Paso, Texas. Courtesy the artist

James Magee The Hill, early 1970s–ongoing, El Paso, Texas. Courtesy the artist

Recalling those unworldly hours on The Hill in the British midwinter (a time and place that always summons up Philip Larkin’s lines ‘when the lights come on at four / at the end of another year…’), I feel oddly disinclined to linger on the more attention-grabbing shows, books, films or music that emerged in 2015, whether disappointing (Okwui Enwezor’s drab Venice Biennale, Jonathan Franzen’s crabby Purity) or exhilarating (George Miller’s enjoyably bonkers Mad Max: Fury Road, Kendrick Lamar’s buoyant single King Kunta, Eddie Peake’s barnstorming solo at the Barbican). It might well be a matter of mood, more than anything, but right now my 2015 highlights tend towards the smaller scale, and seem to be characterized by an unwillingness to disclose their intentions easily, if at all.

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Angelo Plessas ‘The Eternal Internet Brotherhood/Sisterhood (1-3)’, 2015, installation view Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens. Courtesy the artist and The Breeder, Athens

Angelo Plessas ‘The Eternal Internet Brotherhood/Sisterhood (1-3)’, 2015, installation view Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens. Courtesy the artist and The Breeder, Athens

At London’s Cell Projects, Natalie Dray presented a series of sculptures in the form of glowing patio heaters, in which all sorts of business about utility, desire, and perhaps family too, combined to tough and startling effect. Also in London, Rupert Ackroyd’s show ‘Cathedral Blocks and Thistle Seeds’ at Marsden Woo was an unexpected and hugely engaging mediation on the weak force of contemporary Western spirituality via tea lights, cheese curls, and the show’s titular masonry and spores, while at Belmacz Dan Coopey’s show ‘lalahalaha’ imagined a vanished archaeological record through woven sculptures (each of them concealing, Kinder Egg-like, another object) that were as vulnerable to rot as any amount of 21st century data. In my hometown in Kent, the London gallerist Tommaso Corvi-Mora showed two vitrines of his strangely touching, De Chirico meets Moebius ceramics at The Rochester Art Gallery, while at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Angelo Plessas’ DESTE award-winning exhibition (full disclosure: I was on the jury) showcased his ongoing work The Eternal Internet Brotherhood/Sisterhood (2012-ongoing) – a series of temporary, invite-only, and avowedly unplugged communities facilitated by the artist in locations including a Greek island, the Dead Sea, and a surrealist park in Mexico. Looking at Plessas’ not-quite-documentation of these events is like peeking into another dimension, an improvised, rickety and very contemporary fairyland. Can I pick one seventh of an exhibition? The section of the Hayward Gallery’s ‘History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain’ curated by Roger Hiorns was a relentless and quietly apocalyptic account of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Whether this constituted a work, or a show, or a detournement of a state sponsored institution is still unclear, but it was quite brilliantly uncomfortable.

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Mary Ramsden & Adam Thirlwell, RadioPaper, 2015. Courtesy STUDIO_LEIGH, London

Mary Ramsden & Adam Thirlwell, RadioPaper, 2015. Courtesy STUDIO_LEIGH, London

A collaboration between the painter Mary Ramsden and the writer Adam Thirlwell (whose novel Lurid & Cute was my favourite fiction of the year), the book RadioPaper was published by STUDIO_LEIGH in a tiny edition of 30 – only 29 more copies than the Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Featuring imagery by Ramsden that recalls smudged, pawed-at touch screens, and short stories on the subject of the mucky selfie by Thirlwell that disappear, mid-sentence, into the publication’s uncut, French-folded pages, it’s a brilliantly designed response to digitally-enabled desire. Other artists’ books of note this year included Mathew Sawyer’s darkly funny The Forgetting Head, published by Woozy Machine Press (sample line: ‘REMEMBER WHEN YOUR HEAD BECAME YOUR COFFIN’), and Jessie Flood-Paddock’s £4.50, published by Akerman Daly, in which the sculptor turns, with a kind of unvarnished urgency, to what seems to be a form of life-writing through objects.

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Julia Davis in Hunderby, 2015

Julia Davis in Hunderby, 2015

In a year in which new series of several favourite TV shows have been something of a let-down (The Leftovers, Peep Show), thank goodness for the return of Julia Davis’ brilliant Hunderby. Much more than a simple Daphne du Maurier spoof, this stately home comedy – sadly confined behind the Murdoch paywall on Sky Atlantic – is pitch black, utterly filthy, and beautifully written and played. Having become a father this year, I’m afraid I only went to one gig in 2015, so the excellent Marching Church at London’s Birthdays wins by default. The band’s cellist Cæcilie Trier’s / CTM’s recent solo single Cézanne, however, has been on heavy rotation in my increasingly toy-filled home, and her forthcoming album Suite for a Young Girl (2016) – a release that counts among its touchstones Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow (1565) – is a treat to look forward to in the new year. With parenthood in mind, I can also recommend Timo Feldhaus’ series of interviews ‘Kids in the Art World’ (widely circulated on social media) in which artists, curators and writers speak about ‘what does it mean to have a life with kids, to have a life in art, and to live a life?’ According to Feldhaus’ correspondents, among them Chus Martínez, DIS, and Isabelle Graw, the trick might be summed up as ‘do less, but do it better’. Here’s to 2016!

Tom Morton is a writer, independent curator and contributing editor for frieze, based in Rochester, UK.

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