For the Best of 2013 In Print, see the December Issue of Artforum.

View of “Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing,” 2013.


AS CORPORATOCRACY darkens our collective door, income inequality soars the highest since 1928, and journalism is chilled if not altogether frozen out by the aforementioned factors, this year’s Best celebrates underdogs, whistleblowers, and rays of light (who aren’t Madonna).

Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store” and “Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing,” Museum of Modern Art, Apr. 14 – Aug. 5, 2013. Not an underdog at all. But still Fabulous. Morphing between knickknacks, commodities, blobs, and Art, the mishmash of found and made things in the Mouse Museum and the Ray Gun Wing conducts a hilarious conversation in the absurd and eloquent language of shape. On The Street and in The Store: faux food, underwear, price tags, and other everyday items hand-sewn or fashioned from paint-encrusted papier-mâché conjure a world in which everything is for sale: a baggy burger the size of a settee; a saggy cash register. Oldenburg’s crude and expressive objets palpably demonstrate how we project desire onto blobs of matter. These Mad Men–era pieces are as fresh as ever.

An underdog only in his own mind, Cary Leibowitz’s one-man show of candy-colored tableaux and snazzy brass belt buckles at Invisible-Exports (September 6–October 13) mingles the decorative and the kvetchy with signature Leibowitz pizzazz. Against cheerful pink walls, his peinture confides, in fancy handwriting, HEY, I’M NOT DEPRESSED ANYMORE! and I JUST GOT A PAIR OF GUCCI FOR BERGDORFS LOAFERS FOR 50% OFF AND I REALLY DO FEEL BETTER. The collectible belt buckles commemorate historic events that didn’t happen, but should have, like the Forty-fourth Fluxus Ice Cream Cone Lick-Off Detroit, Michigan July 4th, 1976, 2013 and The Greenwich, CT. Ab-Ex’es Annual, Nov. 8–10, 1974, 2013. Leibowitz makes it look easy to reconcile zippy décor with aspirational and anxious feelings and has long tempted enough copycats to inspire his recent piece: CAN I BORROW YOUR IDEAS? PRETTY PLEASE?

Banksy, Sirens of the Lambs, 2013.


Banksy, Sirens of the Lambs. Yes, the hype during the street artiste’s NYC stint this summer was a bit much, but this mobile installation won me over. What’s not to love about his slaughterhouse truck that toured the streets stuffed with cute animatronic lambs, cows, and chicken puppets “that squeal those horrible dog-toy type noises to raise awareness of the animal’s distress during harmful meat production practices”? Playfully shedding light on a disturbing element of the food chain deliberately shielded from public view, Banksy’s dark humor is as moving as Morrissey’s vegan rant against “Thankskilling,” and perhaps more effective. I hail this disarmingly droll piece of agitprop about the trucks transported “always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking” (as George Packer put it in The Unwindingreviewed brilliantly by Thomas Frank).

Not at all funny but profound and powerful, Liz Marshall’s The Ghosts in Our Machines “chronicles activist Jo-Anne McArthur’s photographic documentation of animals held captive for food and in other industries around the globe […] and calls into question the legal status of animals as property.” From the harrowing practices of fur farms to confinement in labs and the gruesome conditions of factory farms, this everyday industrialized cruelty—in Peter Singer’s phrase, this “eternal Treblinka”—is hidden away, enabling “consumers” to turn a blind eye to suffering that is hard to condone when made visible. Marshall’s film is especially important in light of a new crop of state bills—“ag-gag” laws—that ban the filming of industrial animal abuse and even place whistleblowers on a “terrorism registry.” Obscene laws attempting to keep industrial animal abuse, yes, obscene, by forbidding documentation are one of many prongs in the war against whistleblowers in our creeping corporatocracy.

Government insistence on secrecy in any field is ironic considering Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s massive spying program aimed at everyone and anyone. It is hard to imagine a more able handler for this bombshell of a story than lawyer, journalist, and one-man truth squad Glenn Greenwald, aka “Glenzilla.” Filling the void opened up by courtier scribes who sacrifice candor on the altar of access, Greenwald refreshingly embraces his adversarial role and reminds us “what journalism is about: shining a light on what the most powerful people are doing [to us] in the dark.” For fans of Olympic-caliber arguing chops, few things are more satisfying than watching Glenzilla calmly smack down his hapless interlocutors with flawless sound bites on YouTube and Twitter. He’s the Muhammad Ali of debate, and his slow release of the leaks entrusted to him by Snowden is a brilliant publicity tactic: “Each time the security state comes up with some ‘excuse’ for what it’s doing, the next round of documents are released to prove that they’re lying.” (Astute commenter Nathanael on nakedcapitalism.com.)

And let’s not forget our culture worker comrades! In “Slaves of the Internet, Unite,” the best manifesto for “content providers” on prominent media real estate (New York Times op-ed), Tim Krieder* addresses a vexation familiar to the talent who is hit up to work for free by people who “admire his work” but not enough “to pay one cent for it.” His presentation is priceless:

This contemptuous coinage (“content providers”) is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art”—writing, music, film, photography, illustration—to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads. […] I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.

Krieder ends his satisfying if poignant screed with an exhortation to younger colleagues—“Don’t give it away”—and a handy letter, for public use, with which to decline offers to work for nothing. Power to the peons!

Cary Leibowitz, The Greenwich, CT. Ab-Ex’es Annual, Nov. 8–10, 1974, 2013, brass belt buckle, 2.5" diameter.


If all this isn’t festive enough for you, Tom Scocca’s “On Smarm” takes on another insidious scourge of our time: the decay of critique by the validation-hungry herd of the Internet, where being “social” is confused with marketing, and anything short of puffery is smeared as “hating.”

Snark, when not done well, is merely dismissive. Smarm is snark’s “bright-sided” flip side: Neither engage issues in any substantive way, but smarm is pious about shutting down discussion in the name of bogus “niceness.” So goes the reasoning: “If negativity is understood to be bad (and it must be bad, just look at the name: negativity) then anti-negativity must be good.” But Negativity, according to Sartre, is Consciousness! It’s what distinguishes a freethinking human from a thing or ’bot.

Scocca ably exposes smarm as the enemy that turns the power of consciousness against itself: the “content-free piety” that shuts down debate before it starts.

Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer? […] Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It’s not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.”

What I want from commentary, above all, is insight. For promotional purposes, we have publicists. I “like” “On Smarm.” How can we value what’s great if nobody’s allowed to nail what’s crap?

If smarm is the saccharine at life’s banquet, effectively calling bullshit is the spice. Alice Longworth Roosevelt put it best: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”

Happy New Year, everyone!

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer based in New York. This year she curated “The Cat Show” at White Columns; an expanded version of “The Cats-in-Residence Program,” her purrformance piece for rescue kitties, will travel to the Walker Art Center in 2014.

Ed Halter

12.28.13

Marc Forster, World War Z, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 123 minutes. Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena).


CATASTROPHE HAS LONG BEEN a staple of cinema, from the extravagant pageants of ancient warfare first seen in silent Italian epics through Cold War sci-fi allegories of nuclear armageddon to the 1990s golden age of Hollywood blockbusters, in which the techniques of the action film joined forces with the new powers of computer-generated imaging to offer hyperreal battles against aliens, dinosaurs, tornadoes, and asteroids. But 2013 feels like it gave us more visions of the apocalypse than any year prior. After Earth, Oblivion, Elysium, World War Z, Pacific Rim, and Ender’s Game all served up illustrations of the end of the world as we know it, their stories taking place before, after, or during. This tendency could even be found in no fewer than three comedies released this year: This is the End, The World’s End, and It’s a Disaster. Indeed, it was hard to find a science fiction or fantasy film that didn’t try to picture widespread devastation of one sort or another; the latest Star Trek reboot, otherwise a loving pastiche of retro-optimism, succumbed to this imperative by showing a future San Francisco crushed by the impact of a massive spaceship.

This eschatological efflorescence is yet another way cinema continues to compete with small-screen media. Post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-Katrina, post-tsunami, post–Great Recession, post-Fukushima, post-Sandy, we’re more familiar than ever with the documentation of chaos and its long aftermath, and so Hollywood must up the ante. More insidiously, the boom in apocalyptic entertainment suggests that we now have no viable concept of our collective future other than collapse, be it ecological, economic, or both. Two of the most pointed articulations of this sensibility were found in Roy Scranton’s philosophical editorial in the New York Times, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” and science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s sobering keynote address for the future-conscious series Speculations at MoMA PS1’s summer exhibition Expo 1.

At the movies, Elysium connected these possible outcomes most clearly, picturing a scenario in which the despoiled Earth is left to the suffering poor while the superrich live in an orbital gated community with the benefits of miraculous medical technology. Though Oblivion and After Earth posit the eviction of humanity from its home planet thanks to alien attacks, these too have moments of mourning for a lost world, whether via Tom Cruise top-gunning his aircraft through the canyons of a buried Manhattan, or Jaden Smith ogling massive herds of bison and sky-darkening flocks of birds, replenished after a thousand years of human exile. Recent cinema, then, has modified its obligation to escapism, helping us imagine scenarios of survival through the apocalypse, rather than giving us hope of victory over its inevitable arrival.

At the same time, there is a deep irony that these warnings are packaged within the most expensive movies in existence, products of the same turbo-capitalism that has pushed us past the point of no return. Today, the financial future of Hollywood depends upon producing unwieldy, overbudgeted spectacles that are too big to fail, their successes propped up by the dark arts of marketing and publicity. Desperate to entertain at any aesthetic cost, these films are structured around a pointedly twenty-first century temporality: crisis time, an essentially reactive time, the exhilaration of responding to disastrous events as they unfold, whether outsmarting zombies in World War Z, maneuvering through the void in Gravity, or playing the life-or-death contests of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games: Catching Fire. These are cynical films at heart, allowing us to fantasize about negotiating survival within a failing system rather than letting us hope to replace it with something better. Their anxieties mirror the just-in-time logic of networked economies, in which a typical day of work consists of the management of multiple crises, thrown onto the laps of multitaskers thanks to the unfettered spread of instant connectivity.

It seems inevitable to invoke Susan Sontag here, whose 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster” set the tone for all future considerations of science-fiction cinema. Atomic-era films such as Mothra or This Island Earth, she wrote, “are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness.” But a far less well-known fragment from Sontag is even more apropos to our current situation. In her diaries of August 1975, Sontag proposed that “a new style will emerge in the last decade of this century, with the ascendancy of the ecological crisis—and possibility of eco-fascism.” Here, she refers specifically to an architectural style, but her words resonate beyond this, suggesting that in response to widespread systemic breakdown, new forms of total control will emerge. In so many of this year’s end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster, whether it’s Cruise’s maverick flyboy in Oblivion, the global police state of Elysium, After Earth’s father-son commander-cadet team, Pacific Rim’s mind-melded machine-warriors, the never-ending conflicts of World War Z, or the overachieving child soldiers of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games. This shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.

Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, New York.

The Collapsable Funeral. Performance view, September, 2013. Photo: Paula Court.


WHAT TO SAY ABOUT THESE LISTS.

They’re weird; I think we can all acknowledge that.

As well as wildly spotty and biased and unscientific (in the artistic sense). One of their (my) problems is that they don’t take into account all of the shows the people (me) writing these lists didn’t see—you know, like Jon Kinzel’s Someone Once Called Me a Sound Man, which happened at the Chocolate Factory Theater earlier this month and, according to everything everyone smart said, was one of the best things to have hit a New York stage in ages. Didn’t see it, dunno, can’t comment, etc. And yet. Yes. Let’s put it on the list. That’s number 1. (You can catch up with Kinzel again in April at New York Live Arts.)

No. 2. The reason I couldn’t see Jon’s show is that I was down in Tallahassee, Florida to observe Beth Gill’s residency at MANCC, for an ensemble dance that will premiere at New York Live Arts in March. As part of the residency, she did the inevitable in-process showing. This one was notable for being interrupted by an emergency alarm (apparently brought on by a misfiring steam machine): It happened right in one of the quietest, stillest sections of a quiet and still dance. So, we got to see it again, after an impromptu intermission on the lawn out front. Architecture. The edifice. Sun on palm fronds. The slow laborious movement of the maker, the liquid embodiment of influence. Bodies as archives, the kind that don’t keep. Get thee to NYLA in March. (And also maybe I should say that I am doing documentation and evaluation work for The Hatchery Project, which Gill is a part of—so, well. There could be an entire conflict-of-interest list. Problem No. 2.)

No. 3. In a lot of ways, and lucky for us, Gill is just getting started. One of the most memorable events of 2013 was an end: the funeral of The Collapsable Hole. And what an end: richly performative, booze-infused, spilling out and through the streets of Williamsburg in traffic-stopping mayhem. You would expect no less from a rehearsal and performance space founded and run by the folks from Collapsable Giraffe and Radiohole. It’s good when people know when and how to end. (I wish more people in the arts did.) But still. I miss that place.

No. 4. I also miss the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Two years after the final New Year’s Eve bash at the Park Avenue Armory, we get our Cunningham fixes in dribs and drabs: a studio showing here, a film screening there. A couple of weeks ago I got a double dose of the latter at the Migrating Forms festival at BAM: Nam June Paik’s Merce by Merce by Paik (1978) and Charles Atlas’s Channels/Inserts (1982). All these years later, Atlas’s collaborations with Cunningham still stand as the strongest examples of dance filmed for camera that I can think of, and Channels/Inserts is a lush ravisher. As for the Paik, what to say other than how deeply, marvelously weird it remains? More, please—and wonder of wonders, there is. The newly rediscovered Cunningham film Assemblage (1968, created with Richard Moore) will be shown at Electronic Arts Intermix on January 15, 2014.

No. 5. EAI is one of those organizations that I always, idiotically, forget about, until the next time they unearth some crazy, obscure gem. Like an evening with the dearly departed Hungarian collective Squat Theatre, presented as part of the Whitney Museum survey “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980.” Speaking of crazy, obscure gems, this show is packed with them. Every time I’ve walked in there I’ve had to resist the urge to walk out with Jack Smith’s glittery mutant brassieres strapped on. So far so good.

No. 6. This other great thing happened to me at the Whitney: By sheer dumb luck I managed to stumble into a Charlemagne Palestine solo performance one uncivilly hot August evening. Trailed by various electronic thingamajigs, the artist, composer, and musician sailed grandly up and down that imposing staircase, recording a work that will be featured in the upcoming biennial. As I recall, he had a suitcase or maybe two stuffed with stuffed animals, and a tumbler full of cognac. He sounded like a dream. These are the consolations of New York. Like Frank O’Hara put it: the occasional “sign that people do not totally regret life.”

Tim Etchells, Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First, 2008. Jim Fletcher. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.


No. 7. Another late summer dream: The Tempest at the Delacorte, the inaugural offering of The Public Theater’s Public Works program. So many Shakespeare productions make you despair of anybody ever getting anything right ever again. But the Public has had some magical successes this year, most recently with Much Ado About Nothing performed by the Mobile Shakespeare Unit.

No. 8. What else can I tell you? The inevitable: Kate Valk. She stood in for Tim Etchells at the Crossing the Line festival, since the British artist, director, and writer couldn’t make it overseas to deliver a lecture presented as part of an evening of his work. The second half of the night was another solo knockout: Jim Fletcher, performing the monologue Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First. I don’t recall if he mentioned what goes last.

No. 9. I’m running out of steam. These lists are exhausting. There were (so many) other things, like pretty much the entire Sequences VI time-based-art festival in Reykjavik this April or Justin Peck’s In Creases at New York City Ballet in May or the Wally Cardona showing at LMCC that same month, with Jennifer Lacey and Rebecca Warner. Cardona is on a tear these days: dance stripped to its essential, gossamer musculature.

That’s a three-for-one No. 9. Do we still need a No. 10? How about… two actors in an endless filmed loop, repeating the final scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for two hours, come what may or may not? That was Daniel Fish’s Eternal, this October at the Incubator Arts Project. I could have watched it forever, and it seems as good a place as any to stop. Happy New Year.

Claudia La Rocco is a writer based in New York.

View of Chalet Hollywood, 2013.


A YEAR OF STRANGE ROOMS, STORIED INTERIORS. A city of secret gardens and hidden beauties, Los Angeles, dappled and palm-treed in the midday sun, always hides more than she gives. Too many tourists cheap thrill-it at shitty nightclubs and then bag on the traffic to peer behind that blank storefront vitrine or notice the quietly marked doors on shady backstreets.

Tucked behind the storefronts along Hollywood Boulevard, a valet’s jog from Musso and Frank’s, Piero Golia stood above a Pierre Huyghe aquarium, feeding a silver-shelled crab a shivering live meal amidst a forest of angled white oak. He thus inaugurated his latest venture in social sculpture, the Chalet Hollywood, carved out of the dingy back rooms of a historic movie theater. Golia collaborated with Huyghe, Mark Grotjahn, Jeff Wall, and Christopher Williams as well as architect Edwin Chan (formerly of Gehry Partners) to outfit this late-night salon, which is open by invitation and appointment. Through the dark parking lot, beneath an aged and flickering beauty-school neon, a night ranger might witness ballerino Stephen Galloway dancing in the blue room or catch a five-minute Thomas Lawson exhibition hung with care in the back of a hurriedly parked truck.

Richard Hawkins’s show at Richard Telles Gallery (May 18–June 22, 2013) advertised all the pleasures of a head shop—an adult arcade, oils, lubes, and a massage parlor. To-ing and fro-ing throughout his wholly literate and lusty oeuvre, Hawkins—just two years past a wandering retrospective—is quietly building new bodies of work that will doubtlessly require another one. Here the artist curates a gallery of portraits invented by him in his paintings of sultry galleries, but other curatorial projects beckon: for the Bob Meiser and Tom of Finland exhibition with Bennett Simpson at LA MoCA and for Tony Greene at next year’s Whitney Biennial with Catherine Opie. Along with some beautiful writing that peeks out here and there, Hawkins continues to collect my admiration.

All those warehouses east of the river: Night Gallery’s day gallery debut in all its thousands of feet and François Ghebaly, its newest neighbor that, though inaugurated with a Neil Beloufa show, is slated for a more proper opening this January. Spearheaded by Ghebaly, this new complex includes exhibition spaces run by Brian Kennon and Martha Kirszenbaum along with publication and archive projects by Dorothée Perret, Eric Kim, and Hailey Loman. And of course up the street, Laura Owens’s epochal paintings opened 356 Mission. Including art bookstore Ooga Booga and some help from Gavin Brown, the artist’s community space has hosted everything from Wasted Breath of Jean Eustache, screened by the editor and artist Hedi El Kholti for his occasional journal Animal Shelter, to Sturtevant’s first Los Angeles exhibition in ages, which opened this last September. Assuredly, the territory for art in Los Angeles has shifted, pulling gravity eastward out of an increasingly resolved (and ever resolutely commercial) Culver City and markedly closer to where artists and writers actually live and work.

A poster from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s series “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” 2012–


IN JULY I beamed with pleasure while reading the essay “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child” by Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern, published by the New Inquiry. The sharp, insouciant piece is an extended riposte to the French radical philosophy journal Tiqqun’s book Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, published in English by Semiotext(e) in 2012. Weigel and Ahern reject the Young-Girl as a gendered scapegoat and take aim instead at her “boyish critic” who exemplifies a dominant strain of cultural passive-aggression and reliance on irony. Mimicking Tiqqun’s style, they write, “The Man-Child tells a racist joke. It is not funny. It is the fact that the Man-Child said something racist that is.”

I was also happy to see, as I exited a Duane Reade in Harlem one day, a poster by the artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh wheat-pasted on the side of one of those green mailboxes. I didn’t know then that it was by her, of course. It was mysterious feminist street art: a blown-up pencil drawing of a young woman, a frontal view of her serious face with text below. WOMEN, it read in bold on the first line. Then, in smaller type: DO NOT OWE YOU THEIR TIME OR CONVERSATION. Eventually, I found Fazlalizadeh’s blog at the perfect URL stoptellingwomentosmile.com, and saw her other anti–street harassment portrait-posters. Watch for them!

Other exciting public interventions were documented in “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. (The second part of this survey will be on view at the Studio Museum until March 9th.) I was intrigued when Adrian Piper staged a protest of the exhibition’s premise, withdrawing a film from the exhibition that documents her transformation into her male alter ego the Mythic Being, the protagonist of a series of influential conceptual works from the 1970s. On my second visit to the Grey Gallery, a press release was taped to the monitor where the film had played: Piper’s letter to curator Valerie Cassel Oliver suggests a better context for the shows’ artists would be “multi-ethnic exhibitions that give American audiences the rare opportunity to measure directly the groundbreaking achievements of African American artists against those of their peers in ‘the art world at large.’ ” This critique notwithstanding, the show was the occasion for an impressive schedule of performances, and an opportunity to see a wide range of performance-based historic and contemporary works by African American artists.

In her startling essay for the December 5th issue of the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith looks at a sixteenth-century work by Luca Signorelli, a charcoal drawing of a man with a corpse across his shoulders, and challenges herself to identify with the dead body instead of with the picture’s muscled hero. “Like most people in New York,” she explains, “I daily expect to find myself walking the West Side Highway with nothing but a shopping cart stacked with bottled water, a flashlight, and a dead loved one on my back, seeking a suitable site for burial.” Her point is that—absurdly—post-apocalyptic survival is easier to imagine than our human fate, our inevitable “corpsification.” The wandering text touches on Rothko and Warhol, then Karl Ove Knausgaard, Tao Lin, and Louis C.K., as she asks herself, as an artist, “How can I insist upon the reality of death, for others, and for myself?”

The question was still on my mind a few days after I read the piece, as I walked—toward the West Side Highway—to see “Jo Spence: Work (Part III) ‘the History Lesson’ ” at White Columns. The British socialist feminist photographer Spence died from leukemia in 1992, leaving behind a confrontational, inventive body of work rarely shown in the US. Her self-portraits and laminated collage panels are often boldly didactic, reflecting an activist and therapeutic approach to image-making: Beginning in the ’70s she interrogated sex and class stereotypes, and when she became ill with breast cancer in the ’80s, she charted her resistance to dehumanizing medical care. At the gallery’s front desk I found a beautiful new book. Jo Spence: The Final Project reproduces mournful, macabre, and often funny works from the artist’s final two years as she faced her terminal diagnosis. In one photograph she stands among tombstones at the edge of a deep grave, looking down. In another she’s in a cathedral (I think), wearing aviator-frame sunglasses in front of a wall of skulls. She holds onto a sign that reads: TO THE CRYPT.

Johanna Fateman is a musician, a writer, and an owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is working on a book about Andrea Dworkin.

Fiona He

12.21.13

Tang Song, In Memory of Hans van Dijk, 2006–2013, mixed media on canvas, 10 x 82’.


THIS PAST YEAR, ignoring the excitement over young and emerging artists (many of whom know all too well what’s expected of them if they’re to thrive in the contemporary art world), and eschewing the gossip pertaining to the political and socio-economic complexities that drive large-scale biennales and mega-group exhibitions, I found myself drawn to the artists who emerged from the puritanical 1980s, many of whom continue to investigate epistemology, ascetics, or aesthetics via their artistic practices.

On the closing day of Tang Song’s exhibition “Elegy – In Memory of Hans van Dijk” at Boers-Li gallery (March 23–April 20, 2013), the artist unveiled an artwork of the same title—a scroll measuring over eighty feet long. A five-year-plus effort, the piece represented a shift from his negotiations of social and political factors (as he took blame for his then-partner Xiao Lu’s famous decision to shoot a gun at her installation, Dialogue, in the 1989 China Avant-Garde exhibition) to a process-based abstraction that focuses on its process. But it also marked the artist’s revelatory perspective on extreme polarities: past traditions and contemporary forms, East and West, life and death, illuminated by the asceticism that’s intertwined with his painting process.

Yu Youhan’s retrospective, “yiban” at Yuan Space (June 23–August 17, 2013), on the one hand, was evidence of the artist’s diachronic repertoire—references to movements including Fauvism, expressionism, pop-art and abstraction are found within this one artist’s oeuvre over the span of four decades. An adroit elegance pervades Yu’s signature abstract series, “Circles,” which incorporates Chinese ink painting techniques with aspects of Western abstraction, while meditating on the mind and on the universe in flux.

Failure of communication formed the thematic core of Wang Jianwei’s sculptures, installations, and paintings on view at “...the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes” at Long March Space (September 14–October 13, 2013). Wang’s deconstructive approach conjured colliding epistemological interpretations of the contemporary, allowing for a myriad of reads, all reflecting the complex contexts brought to bear by Wang’s audience. “The world indeed has no meanings,” the artist said in an interview. “It leads to more possibilities.”

Fiona He is a researcher for mainland China at the Asia Art Archive.