For the Best of 2014 In Print, see the December Issue of Artforum.
A WAR STARTED the year in video games, and another war ended it. That latter—Gamergate, a vituperative expression of cultural frictions among game-makers, critics, and audiences—continues to play out in news feeds and their id, the comment sections, but the first clash, while less contentious, raised another set of stakes for video-game cognoscenti. Gamers call it the Bloodbath of B-R5RB, and it took place this January in EVE Online: an anarchic outer-space environment where players, to survive, often join one of several thousand-member alliances, many of them locked in ongoing hostilities with one another. When a player in one alliance failed to make a payment on a key space station, a commander of an enemy faction—a twenty-something-year-old engineer from Savannah, Georgia who goes by the name Murph—noticed the slip-up and rallied his troops for a massive counterattack. The resulting battle took twenty-two straight hours, during which urgent directives were translated into Russian and French and transmitted across the globe. Twenty million virtual soldiers died.
But what was intriguing were news media’s attempts to articulate the battle’s significance in real-world economic terms. One Wired headline called it the “Space Battle That Cost Gamers $300,000.” (That number was what it would purportedly take players, via in-game purchases, to rebuild.) It was one of the many vertiginous dollar amounts to spruce up video-game headlines all through the year. Readers learned that Destiny—a first-person shooter set in a sci-fi world of airbrushed-looking beauty—took in a record half a billion dollars the Tuesday it went on sale this September. (The top-grossing movie, the final Harry Potter release, didn’t even generate a fifth of that amount on its first day.) We also learned that the world’s top five paid pro gamers make over a million each year. And that NCAA basketball players reached a $40 million settlement with Electronic Arts, which was accused of using their likenesses in video games like NCAA March Madness.
In a turn toward the absurd, Lindsay Lohan brought suit against the makers of Grand Theft Auto V, citing the character Lacey Jonas’s jean shorts and Chateau Marmont address as evidence she was an “unequivocal” reference to Lohan. Then, in a further descent into absurdity, Manuel Noriega slapped Activision, the company behind Call of Duty, with another lawsuit, looking for a slice of the game’s billion dollars in profit. The suit's since been dismissed. Most surreal, Activision was defended by none other than free-speech pioneer Rudy Giuliani, who said, “Video games are entitled to exactly the same protection as movies and books, under the first amendment,” adding: “It could create a terrible precedent that could go well beyond just video games and extend to movies and books. It could also put in jeopardy the whole genre of historical fiction.”
To art-world observers, the many dollar-sign-riddled headlines might have resembled coverage of auction records and Oscar Murillo sales. If such headlines were crass, they were forgivable too. I saw them as attempts, by those of us who care about video games, to translate the importance of the medium to a wider audience, if only by relying on capitalistic values assumed—alas—to be universal. Those headlines were among the increasingly frequent arguments that video games should be taken seriously.
To those of us who also care about contemporary art, the best of these arguments this year came from the games that stared down their medium’s conventions, repurposing them to new ends or subverting them entirely. Take the indie game Kentucky Route Zero, an eerie road-trip adventure whose third installment arrived this spring. The game twits a classic video-game device—the illusion of agency via a finite lists of choices—to poetic and even sublime effect: In one moment, when two roadbound musicians named Johnny and Junebug perform at a dive bar, the player is invited to engage in multiple-choice gameplay. But here, choices dictate nothing more than the lyrics of Johnny and Junebug’s lonely synth-pop songs. At another moment, the pair rides a darkened highway, lit only by their vehicle’s headlights, and the player has only two options: “Road behind.” And “Road ahead.”
Another game that cannily toyed with video-game norms was Dark Souls, whose sequel (Dark Souls II) had its North American release this March. While designers of most big-budget games aspire to make their products hard—but not too hard!—such that challenging tasks become an invisible method to maintain player engagement, Dark Souls cranked up its difficulty level so notoriously high that the practice of dying repeatedly, in a world full of hazy medieval vistas and ghostly beings, itself became a meditation on the futility of life—and even an insightful look at what it means for video games to be rewarding.
There were plenty of instances in which artists and designers subverted expectations to leverage games’ political potential. Among the best was Papers, Please, which came out for various platforms this and last year. Casting the player as an underpaid border-patrol bureaucrat who must scan documents with increasing speed and accuracy, the game looks at the inevitable tide of populations moving across borders, and the futility of bureaucracy in the face of global migration. The collective Babycastles, which opened a gallery this August, launched with an exhibition exploring “lived Muslim experience through the embedded narratives of independent, contemporary video games.” One standout, Ramsey Nasser’s بونج (Pong), was essentially a version of the classic game with one intriguing exception—Nasser had created it in a programming language he’d built out of Arabic words. It was a reminder that most widespread coding languages used around the world are derived from English, a facet of Western-centrism perpetuated at the level of production. And then there was Harun Farocki’s Parallel I-IV, 2012–14, presented at Art Basel Unlimited and later at Greene Naftali Gallery, a four-channel video installation that highlighted, among other things, US government’s deployment of video games as training tools for combat.
Other artists used video games as a medium to turn a spotlight on conventions of artistic practice and exhibition: Diego Leclery, in an endurance piece at the Whitney Biennial, played Civilization every day for the run of the show, and in Los Angeles this fall, Cory Arcangel—who exhibited hacked versions of video games throughout the early 2000s on Nintendo consoles—this fall repurposed those pieces into new works by presenting them on later devices like Samsung tablets, running Nintendo emulators. John Gerrard and Tabor Robak generated futuristic sights using digital gaming environments and engines. Meanwhile, some artists combined video-game references with actual human performers, like Xavier Cha in her December 2013 Fruit Machine 2 at the New Museum, and Ariana Reines and Jim Fletcher, whose performance at the Whitney Museum in October drew from the vocabulary of Mortal Kombat fight moves. Even museums continued entering the fray, whether it was MoMA’s ongoing acquisition and preservation of seminal, old-school video games, Tate’s recent Minecraft maps that allow viewers to experience virtual artworks, ZKM’s newly re-opened permanent exhibition of video games, or Rhizome and the New Museum’s announcement this November that they planned to preserve and present three 1990s CD-ROM games by Theresa Duncan.
With our digital-media obsessions spurring so many buzzy and nebulous conversations, this year, about the “post-Internet” age (and how art and life alike have putatively changed since the Web became ubiquitous), one was perhaps also tempted to wonder if we’d similarly entered a post-video-game era. But while the Internet has by-and-large become a fact of modern life—or at least has reached the threshold by which its adulators can pretend it achieves some kind of universal “condition”—video games aren’t yet considered ubiquitous, even if more of us play them than we realize. Last year, only 44 percent of the world’s online population played video games. Though they predate the Internet by several decades, we by and large still regard games as products that create and sustain subcultures.
The most powerful games of 2014 saw this as a strength, leveraging the medium’s ability to create private, engrossing worlds that bring together smaller communities. To quote indie game designer Anna Anthropy: “The number of stories from marginalized cultures—from people who are othered by the mainstream—that a form contains tells us something about that form’s maturity.” Anthropy, who is trans, made Dys4ia, about her experiences after the first six months of hormone therapy. More recently she debuted Queers in Love at the End of the World, which technically came out in 2013, but charmed me this year. The player is confronted with a choice—“In the end, like you always said, it’s just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there’s so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her”—and a timer, at the end of which the world melts away.
Anthropy’s games are among a new wave of creations speaking to the concerns of communities whose stories haven’t yet proliferated throughout the video-game canon. There was Ether One, which has players salvaging the memories of a dementia patient, decoding histories from letters and heirlooms. (Perpetuating the kind of use-value discourse that pervades much video-game criticism, champions argued it created empathy for the day-to-day experiences of those with dementia.) There was also Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, or Never Alone, a puzzle game told from the perspective of an Inuit girl and her fox that was written by an Alaskan Native and developed in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Never Alone’s creative directors spoke about the team’s desire to be something other than a “bunch of white guys talking about a fictional fantasy world.”
A favorite of mine was With Those We Love Alive, by feminist game-designer Porpentine, about an artisan who works for an insect-like queen. There are undertones too of hormone therapy—the main character must apply “estroglyphs” on a regular basis. But the game also paved its own ground: It had players alternately interacting with the computer and drawing symbols in pen on their arms. Often, a player’s choices had to do with interiority and frame of mind—a far cry from games’ customary focus on goals. At one point, the protagonist is invited to a New Year’s Eve fireworks party hosted by the queen. Here Porpentine offers players two options vis-à-vis the celebratory display: “Lie on your back and stare.” Or: “Turn away toward the dark trees.”
Opting for spectacle, I chose the former. “The sky is full of jellyfire like disemboweled rainbows,” came the game’s reply. “The old year is ending.”
The 2014 New York Art Book Fair. (Photo: @visaforviolet)
Was 2014 a banner year for small-scale art presses? Printing technology is increasingly accessible, publications seem to accompany every exhibition, and the principal experience of Printed Matter’s New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs was congestion. In early December, artforum.com managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler sat down with artists Paul Chan, Ian Cheng, and Micaela Durand of Badlands Unlimited; curator Howie Chen of Dispatch; and Primary Information copublisher Miriam Katzeff to discuss just what it is that makes art publishing today so different, so appealing.
artforum.com: Against the drone of complaints about the decline of criticism and publishing more broadly, it’s heartening that—at least from the outside—independent art publications appear to be flourishing. What’s been your experience? Is there evidence for this?
Badlands Unlimited: Yes, in terms of how many emails we received from people asking us about independent publishing. We’re being grilled more about what we’re doing.
Primary Information: In the past year, more organizations—or budding organizations—have approached us because they want to publish their own books.
Dispatch: Are the inquiries mostly about viable and sustainable models for publishing?
Badlands Unlimited: It was a lot of people asking if we’re making money. They were curious as to whether e-books, for instance, are profitable, and if our model is sustainable.
Primary Information: And is it?
Badlands Unlimited: It’s sustainable enough that after almost five years we’re still here. But whether we can keep it going depends on how adaptable we are to the changing nature of reading while staying true to the particular vision we have about what is worth publishing. We learned on a recent panel discussion that our e-books get pirated a lot in China—they are printed out. This is a positive sign for us. There is no greater vote of confidence in our publishing than piracy.
Dispatch: So it all becomes material at some point.
Badlands Unlimited: Miriam, do you foresee Primary Information doing e-books? I know you do pdf releases.
Primary Information: Yes, we’re going to do more pdf releases, and the pdfs on our website are always free. We’ve published Seth Siegelaub’s publications as pdfs because he didn’t believe in republishing them as books and Art Workers Coalition’s Open Hearing and Documents, which are open copyright as pdfs. We’d pursue e-books if it makes sense for the project. Something that excites me is that the e-book doesn’t go out of print. Some of our books are just too expensive to reprint.
Dispatch: This year Primary Information published IRL, a pdf publication produced by my research collaborative, JEQU. Since it did not have to conform to “e-book” specifications, we were really able play with the design possibilities and experience of the pdf—instead of a standard book page we used the width of a smartphone and the maximum allowable length of a pdf at the time. The overall publication was three long pages—a text, moodbook, and interview with sociologist Luc Boltanski—each being 200 inch-long scrolls. When you download it, it assembles the images randomly each time, so each publication is unique and has its own moodbook.
artforum.com: Let’s return to the money aspect.
Primary Information: You mean the lack of money aspect?
artforum.com: Right. So the pdfs that you all offer are free?
Badlands Unlimited: They run the gamut. We’ve released free pdfs, free e-books, e-books that are $0.99. And we sell paper books and handmade limited editions.
artforum.com: How do you decide on a format? What should be a pdf, what should be a book? And why is it that pdfs, which are hardly immaterial, continue to be undervalued?
Badlands Unlimited: We feel our way into a way, so to speak. For instance, we gave out excerpts of Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews by Calvin Tomkins as free pdfs. For a few months we called grad art-history departments around the country and asked if they wanted the excerpt to see if they would be interested enough to pick it up as part of their curriculum. And that seemed to work. So we have degrees of “free.” As a commercial publisher that’s what we’re trying to figure out: What degree of free would work within the model that we’re trying to create?
artforum.com: What are Badlands's sources for revenue?
Badlands Unlimited: Paper books, e-books, limited editions, consulting, prescription drugs, astrology (on the weekends only).
artforum.com: But does, for instance, winning the Hugo Boss Prize influence the way Badlands operates?
Badlands Unlimited: Absolutely. Now we can pay our lawyers.
artforum.com: Do you see Badlands as a something that has to produce a profit to survive?
Badlands Unlimited: What's interesting about capitalism in the twenty-first century is that a business does not have to profit to survive. Look at Amazon. In these great times, profitability is too minor of an ambition, don't you think?
Dispatch: Have your e-books made it to free sites like BookZZ? What do you think about these share sites? I wonder if there is enough demand for people wanting to trade it or do things circulate in more specific channels?
Badlands Unlimited: We’ve seen some searches come up where you can torrent the Duchamp book. Someone scanned the whole book. That’s the most pirated book of ours.
Badlands Unlimted advertisement for Calvin Tomkins's Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (2013).
Dispatch: Do you get a lot of questions about the ethics of e-commerce publishing?
Badlands Unlimited: We like the questions about e-commerce because they lead to questions about why we’re publishing and what we publish, and what we publish is inextricably connected to how we survive. Our model is in essence a goof off what Barnett Newman once said—someone asked him why he paints, and he said he wanted something to look at. We publish books because we want something to read.
But we also have a particular understanding of the kind of books that we want to read and publish. We call it the Montaigne principle of publishing: Montaigne wrote essays because he was trying to figure out how to live. And for one reason or another, the book as an evolving historical form seems most suited to put one in the mood to understand just that: how to live. Sometimes for the better, maybe for the worse. Whatever the case, our wager is that for a book to matter it has to exude this peculiar “aura” as part of its formal properties, whatever format the book takes on. That’s certainly why we published The Afternoon Interviews. And it colors everything else we do. Even the erotic romances that we’re putting out in the spring.
artforum.com: I’d like to hear Primary Information and Dispatch talk a little bit about their publishing philosophy.
Primary Information: When we are working with historical material, we’re considering whether the material is easily available already and if there is a need for it. With contemporary projects, we’re often introducing artists or a different part of their practice to a larger audience. As a nonprofit, we’re not just showcasing the taste of two people. So there might be a book we do that isn’t something that I personally want to read more than anything else, but I think that it needs to be out there. Still, I think that most of the books and the projects that we put out are ones I want to read.
Dispatch: Curating can be a type of publishing. Both involve the activity of producing and relaying information through various channels and materials—this is how I approach Dispatch and my other projects.
As a reader I’m interested in the productions of Badlands, PI, and other art publishers, and much of my consumption has to do with gleaning people’s productions, of knowing the vectors of what type of publishing is happening now so that I can get a picture of what’s interesting and what people think is interesting to readers. With the amount of things published these days, it might not always be about deep reading, but you get a valuable sense of the territory. Maybe things are getting closer to the type of “reading” that occurs when we scroll through Instagram feeds, for better or for worse.
artforum.com: That leads to a question I had about consumption at the New York Art Book Fair. Could you speak about your experiences presenting there, specifically this year, which also broke attendance records for any event in MoMA PS1’s forty-three-year history?
Primary Information: Because we’re committed to pricing our books so affordably, we can’t afford to do many book fairs and make our costs back. NYABF is a great opportunity for us, but it can also be inhumanely crowded. What brings all these people to the book fair? So many of them are interested in art or books and then some of them really enjoy touching the books . . . or appreciating art through osmosis? I’m not sure. But the fair is where I get to meet the largest number of our readers. We launched a new book, ALBUM, at the fair this year, and it went very well in part because so many people were able to see it in person. Also, having Square for payments has made it so people who are going to buy books buy even more, instead of looking for an ATM. Perhaps it even makes people forget how much money they’re spending.
Left: Cover of Eline Mugaas and Elise Storsveen's ALBUM (Primary Information, 2014). Right: New Lovers Erotica forthcoming from Badlands Unlimited in Spring 2015.
Dispatch: We’ve done it for many years now and have always enjoyed it 100 percent. We try to take publishing at its widest or most abstract definition. It’s cool that the fair’s organizers consider editions and other formats as “publishing.” This year, we presented printed works by Thank You Brenda and JEQU and we shared the table with Halmos. Over the years, I’ve noticed that independent publishing has become part of a creative lifestyle that people want to be part of—so they’ll go just to be there, but books might not be the main thing that they’re actually interested in. That’s why oftentimes people come away with a T-shirt, button, or some other swag, which is okay too.
Speaking of forms of payment, our proposal for this year’s book fair was that instead of having a table, we would have three modified ATM machines. The publishing part would’ve been printing the receipt. But no ATM company wanted to participate because it’s not profitable anymore despite tens of thousands of people attending the fair. I think it would’ve been a good idea four years ago before Square but maybe not this year.
Primary Information: True, but four years ago, there would’ve been less people there.
Dispatch: It’s the total experience package now. The fair is the Coachella of publishing, complete with microclimates and body odors. Given the scale, it ran amazingly smooth this year from a presenter perspective.
Badlands Unlimited: I took a Vine when I was at the fair and was like, “Coachella!”
Primary Information: Did you crowd surf?
Dispatch: You can pretty much festivalize anything in the art world at this point.
Primary Information: The fair also gives people the idea that they should publish whatever they’re making or their friends are making, and I feel OK about that.
Badlands Unlimited: What a thumbs-up for independent publishing!
Primary Information: I’m not talking about people who are trying to start a company or an organization, but more those that are publishing books as something they can just step in and out of. But I think the fair shows us how it can be appealing to control all of the aspects of a book and self-publish in any edition size and become part of this community rather than approaching a larger publisher.
Badlands Unlimited: We’ve tried to think of ways to use the book fair that don’t just involve selling our books. This year Hans Ulrich Obrist and Claudia La Rocco did signings, which gave them a chance to chat with their readers. It’s vital that readers and authors meet. And because most of our authors are artists, we also showed some of their works at our booth—for instance last year we showed works by Josh Kline, Gil Gentile, and others. The book fair becomes a way for Badlands to act as a publisher and a small gallery. What’s great about it too is how diverse it is. You can go to a vitrine and see a $80,000 storyboard of La Jetée by Chris Marker and walk two rooms away and see what Dispatch has and two floors up and see what’s at Primary Information or go to the zine area and buy a $1 zine. That diversity is still its most vital aspect.
Primary Information: Well, there’s that joke that a kind of clueless person walks up to a gallery booth at an art fair and asks, “Are you the artist?” And the dealer just scoffs at them. But at the book fair, now that I think about it, you do stand a really good chance of meeting the artist who made that book standing right behind the table.
Dispatch is a New York–based curatorial partnership between Howie Chen and Gabrielle Giattino established in 2007 as a production office and project space and later transitioned to a peripatetic exhibition model.
Miriam Katzeff formed Primary Information with James Hoff in 2006 to foster intergenerational dialogue through the publication of artists’ books, writing, documents, and editions from the 1960s to the present.
KCHUNG Radio at “Made in LA 2014,” Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
ABSENT FRIENDS—WHERE ARE THEY? Why, pulling their weekly shift down at KCHUNG Radio, of course—or KNOW-WAVE or Clocktower—one of the mostly unlicensed, mostly Web-only, artist-run underground radio stations that have kept the on-air light lit in 2014. It’s a rare program that, given the nearly full-spectrum saturation of modern communication, nonetheless anchors a small and anonymous collaborative; collaboration being the buzzword, for example, of this year’s Made in LA biennial, which (to borrow Thomas Lawson’s phrase) set up “mildly anarchic” collective KCHUNG in the front lobby. In a fragmented aftermath, is it radio that brings people—and increasingly artists—together—à la Art Laboe? Radio’s one-way messages seem to have a ricochet. Pipe them into your dinner or your opening—make a request via Facebook or Twitter—I’ll see you in five to ten years, darlin’, an’ I’ll always love you.
It’s no accident that, while these stations are glutted with free-form and party-ready programming, it’s their talk radio that has broadcast the most multivalent darts into the ether. Here DJs showcase not just arty music taste but interviews and roundtables or laser-targeted reportage, fanzine style. It helps, to overcome the turgid barriers of amateurism, to personally know the broadcasters, but ah, then, and sometimes anyway, it can be good, and often really good, to hear these folks talk.
On LA’s KCHUNG, witness The Healing Light Comfort Zone, a thoroughly researched New Age hour hosted in turn by Ian James and Meredith Carter, or the ungroomed discursive efforts of Nooooooooooooooooooo, aka John Burtle and Guan Rong. But for a most erudite, buttoned-down, and meta take on the genre, see KCHUNG’s long-running The Talking Show, a moisture-sucking showcase of logorrheic art, including, in the past year, bootlegs of pieces by Kelly Mark and Karl Holmqvist. And then there was artist Ian Hoakin, whose story of inheriting the family painting business forms a rambling existential allegory of contemporary painting. With the exception of a handful of recent episodes, artist friends Steve Kado and Nicholas Miller, based in Toronto and Marfa, Texas, respectively, have falsified their on-air banter, closing kilometers and miles through the magic of file-sharing—a method that has the benefit of tempering the pretentious rambling that characterizes independent broadcasting.
Meanwhile, emanating from the land of W- call signs was artist Anicka Yi’s Lonely Samurai podcast. In May she made three posts, all of which in their way cut deep into a different issue pertaining to contemporary art; for example, a conversation between actual perfumer Christophe Laudamiel and scent artist Sean Raspet; or, in the first, hard-hitting installment, a panel discussion about straight female networks—the lack thereof—featuring Stefania Bortolami, Cristina Delgado, Ruba Katrib, Andrew Russeth, and Amy Sillman. A piece like this plainly extends the concern for community pursued in Yi’s other projects, such as her 2013 “Politics of Friendship” exhibition at STUDIOLO, where Yi extended her planned solo show to include three friends; an accompanying pdf became a similar friend-boosting vector, including thoughts on friendship from another two dozen artists. Besides broaching an issue close to Yi’s own heart, her first podcasted convo had the added dimension of one guest, actually satisfied with her support group, expressing unqualified disagreement with the segment’s premise. Honest views were voiced, friends—a wailing solo amid so much soft-pedaled discourse; and the Lonely Samurai had pressed record.
And while your Web player might post a dismal single-digit listener count (and one of those “listeners” is YOU, remember), the real value of each of these stations is in their archives. There we find the perpetual echo—self-indulgent, unedited, all true—of literally hundreds more of our Radioland compatriots, too many to name here, circling the earth in their irradiated capsules, their words laced with “Uh”s and dead air: “Uh, Hello, uh, out there . . . You’re, uh, listening to . . .”
Travis Diehl is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. He edits the artist-run journal of art Prism of Reality.
“WITNESS: ART AND CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE SIXTIES,” at the Brooklyn Museum (March 7, 2014 to July 13, 2014) did nothing less than rewrite 1960s American art history—refashioning the decade as a rollicking, ultrahigh-stakes showdown and privileging racial diversity and stylistic multiplicity over any confected avant-garde. Underexposed painters such as Emma Amos and Barkley Hendricks were revalorized, while artists too long considered in purely formal terms were reinscribed into the conflicts of the age: a Frank Stella black painting eulogized Malcolm X, and Mark di Suvero was represented by a chain-link sculpture titled Freedom Now, 1967, which he sold to benefit the Congress of Racial Equality. (“We didn’t want a dream, we wanted a revolution,” di Suvero says in the exhibition’s catalogue.) I could name any number of unprecedented juxtapositions: Norman Rockwell alongside David Hammons! But in fact, the show worked not by dyadic opposition but through joyous, engaged pluralism—and insisted that the struggles these artists depicted, and often participated in, have not ended: Ferguson needs our engagement as much as Selma needed theirs.
But these days, engaging the world may be easier than depicting it. Camille Henrot’s immensely ambitious Grosse Fatigue, first seen at last year’s Venice Biennale, shows how archive fever boils into malignant hyperthermia—how knowledge gives way to disorder, as the laws of the universe guarantee from the start. Her anthropological gaze, and her insistence that the impossibility of comprehensive knowledge doesn’t mean we can google guilt free, felt even more necessary to me this year. “The Restless Earth,” at the New Museum (May 7, 2014 to June 29, 2014), put Grosse Fatigue alongside Henrot’s instructive ikebana experiments and her excellent earlier films—notably Coupé/Décalé, 2010, which was shot in Vanuatu and sutures out-of-sync footage of bungee jumpers performing for tourists, and The Strife of Love in a Dream, 2011, a nightmare of cultural and pharmacological overload between Paris and Mumbai. And her outstanding, unsettling exhibition “The Pale Fox,” which originated at Chisenhale Gallery (February 28, 2014 to April 13, 2014) in London and which I saw at Bétonsalon (September 20, 2014 to Dec 20, 2014) in Paris, spatialized an anthropology of the present through hundreds of photos, drawings, print-on-demand books, animal pelts, and eBay effluvia. Scurrying on the floor was a mechanized serpent, its little motor whirring: the snake in the grass, the original treachery.
And then, in November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest assessment report, the most terrifying reminder yet that your purchase of organic quinoa at Whole Foods is not going to stop “severe, widespread, and irreversible” environmental disaster. In its shadow, the year’s most important exhibition was surely “The Fifth Season” at James Cohan Gallery (June 26, 2014 to August 8, 2014), an exquisitely depressing summer show, whose two dozen artists proposed a museum for a world off its axis. Starting with eighteenth-century French architectural painting and passing by Charles Burchfield’s starved landscapes, the show placed contemporary works of ecotrauma by Pierre Huyghe, Erin Shirreff, Alexis Rockman, and Mark Dion alongside an indelible video from Fukushima, in which an unknown worker in a hazmat suit points at the camera for long minutes: a speechless, unanswerable indictment. In an art world that prefers its environmental art either as Kumbaya social practice or Rain Room–style inanities, “The Fifth Season” had the rare bravery to insist that whether you depict the world or engage it, you first have to accept that we’re going to burn.
Jason Farago is a critic and columnist based in New York. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the New Yorker.
Eric Baudelaire, The Ugly One, 2013, 35mm, color, sound, 101 minutes.
WHILE THIS YEAR, another wave of East Asian shows explored (Western) modernity—with terms such as Anthropocene, thingworld, and posthuman popping up in the titles and curatorial statements of various exhibitions—two large-scale prodemocracy protests in Taipei and Hong Kong, as well as escalating territorial disputes in the East China Sea, plainly prove that the mission Frantz Fanon set out for the third world in The Wretched of the Earth (1961):—“to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers”—is far from being fulfilled.
The 2014 Yokohama Triennale refrained from attempting to prove art’s relevance to current crises. Artistic director Yasumasa Morimura, himself an established photographer known for his self-portraits impersonating various public figures, gave the triennale a clear-cut structure: eleven chapters, each with a subplot addressing the common theme of “oblivion”—be it the anonymous, the censored, the silent, or the discarded. What might have been a staid combination of museum standards (by artists such as Kazimir Malevich, John Cage, and Agnes Martin) looked refreshingly undogmatic with Morimura’s distinctly personal touch. Eric Baudelaire’s film The Ugly One, 2013, written by legendary Japanese screenwriter Masao Adachi, was a highlight.
Elsewhere, Chinese painter Wang Yin also dealt with the theme of oblivion. Trained in set design in the 1980s, Wang has systematically traced the distortions and displacements that informed both the aesthetic experience of his generation and the modernization of visual language in China. In his recent solo show of paintings, “Wang Yin” at Tang Contemporary Art, Wang continued exploring familiar themes such as folk art and representations of ethnicity, all via a Soviet-influenced realistic style, with a cohesive structure and an eerie sense of lucidity.
Looking back to the past as way of going forward has never been an option for the Shanghai-based artist Xu Zhen, whose acute connection to reality always leads him to take turn after surprising turn. His comprehensive midcareer survey “Xu Zhen: A MadeIn Company Production” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art marked the artist’s reincarnation as a subsidiary “brand” of MadeIn Company, set up by Xu in 2009 to replace his individual artistic identity. Mixing early landmark works such as Shouting, 1998, and Rainbow, 1999, with the newest MadeIn product lines arrayed in a symmetrical layout, Xu made UCCA’s Great Hall itself into a huge installation work, where Xu’s output could either be scrutinized as an artist’s multifaceted and restless oeuvre, or enjoyed as corporate product.
Du Keke is associate editor of Artforum.com.cn and a PhD student in Japanese modern art at Musashino Art University, Tokyo.
Latifa Echakhch, L’air du temps, 2013, chinese ink, wooden cloud scenery, canvas, acrylic paint, and steel wire, dimensions variable. Installation view, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2014.
ALEXANDRA BACHZETSIS’S RIVETING NEW PERFORMANCE and installation piece, From A to B via C, comes in three versions, respectively destined for theatrical, museum, and online viewing. I caught the premiere of the first iteration staged as part of the Biennial of Moving Images at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva (September 18 to 19, 2014). Three dancers—including Bachzetsis herself—mirrored each other as they went from mimicking athletic movements to following an online tutorial on how to dance like Beyoncé and then on to executing ballet instructions. Throughout, they peeled off successive layers of clothing until they were only wearing anatomical suits, all sinew and muscle. This somewhat macabre vision was just as hard to shake off as the pop songs that dealt with the violence of language that the performers sang while simultaneously translating them into sign language in a poignant final scene.
Last year’s Prix Marcel Duchamp winner, Latifa Echakhch, plays with the idea of a negative image in her whimsical prize exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (October 8, 2014 to January 26, 2015). On entering the narrow, elongated exhibition room, visitors are faced with clusters of low-hanging black, wooden clouds suspended from the ceiling. Each formation is paired with an object of the kind one finds at a flea market, including a Kodak camera, a box of vinyl records, and a vintage perfume bottle, all smeared with black ink. In stark contrast with this mournful color, the reverse of each sculpture is painted with dainty blue-and-white cloud motifs. This unexpected shift of perspective has a positively uplifting effect, as one retraces one’s footsteps, drifting amid clouds.
Playfulness likewise characterizes Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Musings on a Glass Box at the Fondation Cartier in Paris (October 25, 2014 to February 22, 2015). The titular glass box, with a nod to Duchamp, is the Jean Nouvel–designed building itself, whose two ground-floor exhibition spaces are surrounded by large sliding-glass panels in lieu of walls. Normally opaque, these periodically cleared up like a mist to reveal the outside garden, illuminated with a phosphorescent green light at night as part of DS + R’s atmospheric orchestration. The larger gallery is empty except for a red bucket equipped with sensors and a camera guiding it towards controlled leaks in the ceiling. Every time a drop falls into the bucket, the sound is amplified to reverberate across the vacant space. Meanwhile, images captured by the camera flit across an LED screen hung low in another gallery, offering visitors a tantalizing glimpse of the building from a robot’s perspective.
Agnieszka Gratza is a writer living in London.