Our 2017 Favorites - Visual and Sound Art
The end of 2017 is upon us, and we're none too sad to see it off. Every other week seemed to bring another terrible piece of policy, another fight to salvage American democracy. On the local level, many of our favorite Austin art spaces announced they will be closing or moving, adding another layer of uncertainty and despair to a year already filled with it. Despite everything, we remain optimistic that art will find ways to survive and thrive, even as the capitalist noose continues to choke off the things we care about. Here we look to some of our favorite art exhibits and events that took place in Austin and around the world, reminding us of the creativity, resiliency, and strength of the human spirit.
The Harrisons at Various Small Fires (Los Angeles)
Since the early 1970s, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison have collaborated on art that benefits the life web. This smartly curated exhibition brought their often-overlooked practice to light, tracing their career through drawing, large-scale collage, video, an artist book, and functional examples of the self-sustaining, poetic ecosystems the Harrisons pioneered. These concerns converged out in the courtyard with the elegant Notations of the Ecosystem of the Cargill Salt Works with the Inclusion of Brine Shrimp (2017), originally installed in the 1971 Art + Technology exhibition at LACMA. The pools of seawater, algae, and Southern California sunshine resemble a liquid color field, but function as a brine shrimp farm, ready for harvest.
Skulptur Projekte Münster (Münster, Germany)
It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited by an exhibition format and tone as this project, which spreads out across the quaint university town every ten years. Installations cropped up in urban crevices: across a river, below an underpass, through an industrial backlot. Each stop was its own delight, from lush postwar allotment gardens (Jeremy Deller); to the back room of an Asian market (Mika Rottenberg); to hyper-slick corporate headquarters (Hito Steyerl); to a defunct ice rink (Pierre Huyghe). We often use “site-specific” to mean that the surroundings contextualize the art. This sprawling, city-sized exhibition suggested the radical inverse: that art can be a way of knowing and seeing the world that contains it.
Chicago Art Book Fair
Few corners of the art world feel as vibrantly inventive right now as small press publishing. This vibe extends to the art book fairs around the country that dot the yearly calendar. Chicago got its own this year, with over 100 local, national, and international exhibitors presenting books, periodicals, and editions at accessible prices, along with a whole slate of programming around the city. While other fairs are held at contemporary art museums like MoMA PS1, the posh Chicago Athletic Association hotel proved a worthy venue. I’ll admit, I got stuck in an elevator and then trapped in a stairwell on my way to the event’s upper floor, but the promise of high spirits, free stickers, and more colorful zines to flip through kept me going.
Contour Biennale 8 (Mechelen, Belgium)
The eighth edition of Contour, organized every two years in the charming town of Mechelen, emphasized various forms of moving image, taking the apparatus of justice as its starting point. With venues set across the medieval grounds of the Great Council—Europe’s first courthouse—part of the allure of the exhibition was exploring the attics and basements of aristocratic 16th century structures like the Court of Savoy and House of the Great Salmon. Contextualized by these historical judicial infrastructures of Western Europe, which mandated much of the contemporary laws still in place across the world, the biennale questions such narrow societal laws and allows justice to be (re)performed through, for example, colonial traces (Otobong Nkanga) and environmental catastrophes (Karrabing Film Collective). Although the art world needs to continue moving away from European-centered exhibitions, Contour 8 took a jab at attacking our pursuit of universal truths and objectivity in the very place they were grounded.
Center of unfinished business at ifa-Galerie (Berlin, Germany)
Commissioned as part of the series Untie to Tie, which looks at colonial legacies in contemporary societies, the Center of unfinished business is designed as a small reading room, complete with bookshelves, chairs, Post-It notes, coffee, free WiFi, and a scanner. The Center also hosts events, where participants awkwardly sit around and inside the shelved structure, confronted with random books blocking their vision. The square structure, like the topics the project engages with, is rather uncomfortable and confusing—you cannot move freely between the shelved bars, there is no ordering system, and the selection of some books does not seem to fit the postcolonial framework at first glance. For example, the Story of Art by Gombrich and essays on Occupy Wall Street sit among books on Germany’s colonial history and video loops of Audre Lorde and hip-hop music videos. Despite my estrangement, I spent hours in the staunch gallery space-turned-library, photocopying books for a research project and reading others at random. The Center is open to visitors through March 2018.
Third Space is an exhibition of contemporary pieces from the museum’s own permanent collection, most of which had previously remained in storage. In applying Third Space Theory, where the ’third space’—an overlap or hybridity of cultures—challenges the homogenization of histories and identities, the exhibition offers the artworks both a new visible space and a lens by which to reinterpret them. Featuring diverse perspectives from artists like Ebony G. Patterson, José Bedia, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, and William Christenberry, connections between the American South and a shared Global South are illuminated. While the exhibition would be moving in any museum across the country, the history and contemporary politics of Alabama, and Birmingham more specifically, make it particularly invigorating. Credit is due to the BMA for facilitating an exhibition in a museum that for once feels as they want people to enter it and get close to the works. The exhibition is open through 2018.
Above image: Barbara Chase-Riboud, She Number One (1972)
—Katie Lauren Bruton
Critical Constellations of the Audio-Machine in Mexico: Ruins and Reconstructions of a Sonic History at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien (Berlin, Germany)
An exploration of sound art and electronic music in Mexico, this exhibit focused on an area of the art world still largely ignored by museums in a part of the world not frequently associated with it. It was akin to discovering a new planet in our solar system, one with as rich and rewarding an environment as our own. Featuring work by artists and composers such as Carlos Chávez, Roberto Morales, Héctor Quintanar, and others, the exhibit proved an exhaustive chronicle of Mexico's experimental music world in the 20th century. Records, recordings, scores, and audiovisual experiences (including a whale ear bone on a pedestal in a room echoing with whale calls, pictured above) created a comprehensive picture of the many areas in which Mexican sound artists were working and continue to work. Never before have I visited an exhibit and been completely unfamiliar with any of the artists, yet so thoroughly engrossed by the work.
We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85 at the Brooklyn Museum
This much-celebrated exhibit culled work from the many Black women making art during this time period, stringing together the threads between the various movements and collectives that were operating at this time, including the Black Arts Movement, COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists), AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, and more. The exhibit gave light to many talented women, and if there was any complaint, it was that there wasn't more of it. The works by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and others were thrilling, and to see them in this context (in the beautiful Brooklyn Museum, no less) was electric.
Above image: Dindga McCannon, Revolutionary Sister (1971)
Spam's: The Internet, the Restaurant at the Museum of Human Achievement (Austin)
The Museum of Human Achievement has become known for its experiential, choose-your-own-adventure-type exhibits, in which viewers are only able to choose a select number of works to interact with. This can be frustrating when visits are timed and require waiting and/or scheduling appointments. However, the format worked well for Spam's, a virtual reality and digital art-oriented exhibit. Viewers were brought to a room with a table, where they were asked to choose an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert—three unique artworks with varying levels of interactivity. I can only speak to the three pieces I experienced, but Brenna Murphy's psychedelic VR (see our interview with MSHR) was the most rewarding use of the technology I've yet seen, and the cute dessert animals (pictured above) were icing on the proverbial cake.
WAREs at Co-Lab Projects (Austin)
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the many great exhibits Co-Lab put on this year, including Expedition Batikback and Good Mourning Tis of Thee, the bittersweet last show at Co-Lab's Demo Gallery space. But WAREs was perhaps my favorite of Co-Lab's shows this year. Presenting a mock-up of a high-end condo (which the space is turning into—hence the gallery's closing), WAREs was a beautiful synthesis of furniture and artwork. Pieces like Andy Coolquitt's overhead light (see above) provided unique form and function, and little touches like the wooden xylophones that visitors were encouraged to play created an interactive element that made the space feel less like a beautiful catalog and more like a real, lived-in home. Featuring the work of 31 artists, designers, and makers, the exhibit was a lovingly crafted, communal dream home culled from many of Austin's most creative minds.