The year that wasn’t

The Editors

View of Precious Okoyomon’s “Earthseed” at Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, 2020. Image courtesy of Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. Photo by Axel Schneider.

December 23, 2020

It’s tempting, when signing off on the past year, simply to bid good riddance to bad rubbish. But we wanted first to acknowledge those who have been cheated by 2020. To that end, we’ve asked some contributors whose work with us was disrupted—because the show they were commissioned to write up was shuttered, or thanks to one of the many incidental consequences of the pandemic, from new childcare demands to the need to assist vulnerable friends and relatives—to nominate a show they weren’t able to experience in person. The idea is to shed a little light on the work that got left behind and offer some small compensation to all the artists, curators, and gallerists whose shows were never seen, or seen only by a fraction of the audience they might reasonably have expected, or were denied the coverage that publications such as this exist to provide. As such, this very partial roundup also hopes to stand in for a larger expression of solidarity with all those in our field whose work was interrupted by the chaos of the past twelve months. Don’t dismay, keep going, and we’ll see you next year. The Editors

Rahel Aima
I was most gutted about not making it to the fifth Kochi-Muziris Biennial, which has been postponed to 2021. It’s artist-led—curated this edition by Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao—a wonderful snapshot of artists from South Asia and farther afield, and consistently one of the few biennials that comprehensively engage local communities instead of using their lived experiences as fodder.

Julieta Aranda
Where I was (or wish I would be): “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning”—the 13th Gwangju Biennale was the one long-haul art trip I planned to make in 2020. Curated by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala, I was very curious to see the sensibilities of these two powerhouse curators in operation, drawing from each other. I won’t see it in 2020 but I will dream of it for sure.

Ewa Borysiewicz
I was especially curious to see Piotr Łakomy’s investigations into the relationships between body and architecture in his home city of Gorzów. “Under the Same Roof” at MOS, Gorzów was meant to juxtapose Łakomy’s futuristic assemblages with predecessors conceived, with similar methods, by Władysław Hasior, whose works are highlights of the gallery’s collection. Alas, the effects of this experiment and the results of interweaving one’s biography with the history of an institution can only be viewed online.

Barbara Casavecchia
I was really looking forward to Geumhyung Jeong’s “Upgrade in Progress” at the Palazzina dei Giardini in Modena, curated by Diana Baldon. That longing for the artist’s erotically charged encounters of machinic and human, possibly—and clumsily—touching and sensing each other, was alert at the back of my head for months, when all I was allowed to touch were keys and vibrating screens. And, again, her performance Rehab Training for the Live Arts Week, organized by Xing in Bologna, was postponed due to the second Italian wave. In my head it’s still there, alive and kicking, waiting for my body to get out of this endless rehab to the absence of others.

Gaby Cepeda
What went on inside Precious Okoyomon’s “Earthseed” at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, when it was shuttered in the spring and left alone for five months led to the most poetic of postponement outcomes. The kudzu vines planted all over the gallery grew, unbothered, lush and luminous, encircling the angel statues made out of brown raw wool that Okoyomon had erected among them. Later, in the fall, Okoyomon came back to read poetry among them, a salute to their beyond-human, evergreen resolve.

Jareh Das
Precious Okoyomon’s “Earthseed” saw the artist and poet populate the gallery with growing Japanese kudzu vines and six sculptural figures as part of a living and evolving installation that probes themes of creative digestion, death, and decay, alongside bodily engagements with text. Okoyomon also uses the kudzu (and other so-called invasive species) to reveal the power of American myth-making and its relationship to Blackness, constructing a narrative around invasion, danger, foreignness, and the distorted way we all view the natural world and each other.

Travis Diehl
Who is art for? “Made in L.A. 2020: a version” is one answer. I’m happy I got to preview (and review) the exhibition—a great show shot through with awkward concessions to Covid-19—but I’m also worried that LA’s banner art event might never open to the public. Will VIPs decide the vaunted Public Recognition Award? I forgot to vote!

Ben Eastham
To dodge my own question, I can’t say what I missed most because I didn’t see it. Broadly speaking, I’ve missed the feeling of encountering a work for the first time and knowing that I’ll return to it for the rest of my life; I’ve missed the consolation of museums; I’ve missed the sense of connection with another consciousness that art can stimulate. But having spent an unexpectedly large part of the year on Ireland’s west coast, looking at songbirds in lieu of exhibitions, I was particularly disappointed not to be able to get back to see the opening phase of Merve Elveren’s EVA International in Limerick. I’ll look forward to the second instead.

Orit Gat
Instead of traveling to Paris to see Rachel Rose’s exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations, the idea of seeing it seemed all the more enticing under a Covid-19 lockdown. I was spending a lot of time thinking about how people reflect on coming up against new conditions and really wanted to look at her work, which thinks deeply about different techniques of storytelling. From folklore to speculation, I see Rose’s work as a process of trying to make sense of unexpected experiences and tell about them, which feels like a necessary strategy.

Jörg Heiser
I regret not having been able to see “We Never Sleep” at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, curated by Cristina Ricupero, an ambitious themed group show about the connection between art and espionage (full disclosure: I wrote for the catalogue). It includes key works from recent years, such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s The Whole Truth (2012), which involves a reverse-engineered lie detector, or Dora Garcia’s The Romeos (2018), a performance with protagonists approaching visitors incognito, like Stasi male honey traps. Covid-19 thus held a special kind of bitter irony in store for this kind of lively exhibition. But at least one newly commissioned work—The Bug on the Ground, by Gabriel Lester and Jonas Lund—has come to full fruition: go to the Schirn’s website to find out.

Patrick Langley
Nikita Gale’s sculptures, installations, and live events—which explore how “listening publics” are constituted through the intersections of sound art, pop music, and contemporary art spaces—were a new discovery this year. But I’ve yet to experience them other than via my laptop. I would have loved to have caught her show “Private Dancer,” an ode to Tina Turner’s eponymous 1984 album featuring a light rig syncopated to a silent concert, at the California African American Museum. Instead I made do with the Queen of Rock n’ Roll on Spotify, finding in her lyrics reminders that imagination can offer escape from isolation: “Now when I lay me down to sleep / I will be dancing in my dreams.”

Natasha Marie Llorens
“Stasis” is a solo presentation of Bardi’s recent paintings and the inaugural exhibition of Rhizome’s new art space in Algiers. The exhibition reflects a surreal vision of society that matches this year in global events and, more pointedly, in Algerian politics. “Stasis” is the Greek term for a multivalent and internal state of crisis in the polis and it contextualizes Bardi’s disarticulated classical forms precisely. Algeria’s borders have been closed since March and its people will likely be under a strictly enforced lockdown through next summer.

Novuyo Moyo
Having won the 2018 Freelands Award, Veronica Ryan was due to stage her biggest exhibition yet at Spike Island in late 2020. Showing a mix of Ryan’s old and new works (including some recreations of older pieces that were destroyed in a fire), I was interested in the exhibition not only for the chance to go outside the M25 but to see an express presentation of how works, their meaning, resonance, and form evolve through space and time from an artist who often focuses on memory and history.

Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz
Over the last few months, I found myself oscillating between two very distinct states of mind: an expansive hope in and engagement with nascent structures for communality, and a burning desire to disengage and float away. Two biennales in South Korea—previously scheduled for September 2020—offered pathways for both dispositions. The 13th Gwangju Biennale, “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning,” now planned for early 2021, proposes to open up to diverse cosmologies and multispecies intelligences for communal survival. Meanwhile, September’s 11th Seoul Mediacity Biennale “One Escape at a Time” will reimagine our perceptions of escapism to navigate this new reality. I can’t wait.

Filipa Ramos
Gabriel Chaile (whose show at HENI Artists Agency, London, was interrupted by the latest lockdown) is an artist about whom we will hear a lot in the near future. I am fascinated by his clay humanoid figures, each a hybrid of a totem and a wood-fired bread oven. These large sculptures activate a fundamental social life, which I miss. Like so much art this year, his work was denied its most crucial dimension: the life around it.

Anton Vidokle
About 15 years ago e-flux presented a part of a visual archive collected by David Alfaro Siqueiros in Mexico City in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s an astounding collection of several thousand photographs, postcards, and clippings. On the one hand this collection is totally encyclopedic, aiming to show all life, but it is also entirely singular in the sense of trying to visualize revolutionary movement. I am fascinated with such image archives and would have absolutely loved to have seen Aby Warburg’s Atlas at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Put together around the same time, the 1920s, his attempt to trace recurrence in visual patterns from ancient times to the contemporary world seems fascinating: both erudite and methodical, yet completely mad.

Wendy Vogel
I’ve relished not attending a single art fair this year, TBH, but I’ve missed the quinquennial roundup exhibition that is MoMA PS1’s Greater New York. I’ve seen every edition of the show since 2005. And paralleling my own growing up from college kid to (arguably) seasoned art professional, the twice-a-decade exhibition has evolved a raucous, salon-style survey of new talent to the historically minded approach of GNY 2015. The 2020 edition—organized by MoMA PS1 curator Ruba Katrib and the writer and curator Serubiri Moses, with MoMA PS1 director Kate Fowle and MoMA’s Latin American Art curator Inés Katzenstein—promised a more international scope than years past. The show has been postponed from its scheduled autumn 2020 slot, with dates to be announced.

Francesca Wade
Plans to spend much of this year in New York were scuppered by a travel ban, which nonetheless meant I was able to see Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “A Countervailing Theory” at the Barbican, an eerie walk through an imagined mythology, with each work forming an episode in a speculative narrative. Sans ban, I’d have loved to see her concurrent show at Jack Shainman, and have a chance to admire the extraordinary detail in her smaller works on paper.

Xin Wang
The Tokyo Olympic Games. (This nomination came through artist and engineer Xin LIU during a recent conversation; I found myself at a loss for a more resonant response.) What some perceive as nationalist and capital-driven pageantries have also served as unparalleled sites for cultural production and collective memory: Dimitris Papaioannou’s sublime Athens, the strikingly synchronized spectacles in Beijing, the emotionally suffused farewell of Misha in Moscow, even Shinzo Abe’s endearing Super Mario stunt at Rio, which had me anticipating an unprecedented showcase of tech and soul. The scope of that cultural production—carried out by athletes, artists, technologists, and designers alike—and a truly international and intersectional spectatorship feel as urgent and seductive as they may indeed be anachronistic.

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December 23, 2020

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