Looking Back Looking Forward

This brief appraisal of art and culture in 2010 appeared in the January 2011 issue of frieze.

2010 seemed to divide equally between pleasure and perplexity. Much of the first derived from artists and exhibitions whose reanimation of works and figures from the last century felt dramatically of the moment. Most of the second came from the sinking sense in the UK that the policies of a culturally illiterate Con-Dem coalition government will not only trash arts funding but wreck arts and humanities education. (These last subjects have been explicitly targeted as wasteful luxuries by the new administration.) The two are not unrelated, because if in the late boom years we might have grown tired of recent art’s insistent remaking (especially of Modernist objects and events). It seems in the face of such programmed cultural amnesia that searching for antecedents and inspirations is suddenly charged again with a sense of emergency. It’s one of the paradoxes of contemporary conservatism that its adherents hardly know or care about the past, which means that it might just be fraught anew with possibility.

Gerard Byrne is nobody’s idea of a crudely political artist; the subtlety and wit of his major film and video works is such that History (one of those ‘big words which make us so unhappy’, as James Joyce put it) is always wryly displaced via some resonant specific such as the advent and afterlife of Minimalism, as explored this year in the four films he showed at Glasgow International and at Lismore Castle Arts in Ireland. In the case of Images or Shadows of Divine Things, the photographic installation that Byrne has been making and showing since 2005, the expanded moment in question is that of American consumerist over-confidence in the postwar period: an era of pristine artefacts and architecture that have survived well past the future they seemed to predict. The devious laconism of Byrne’s black and white images – all taken in the last six years but recalling the work of, among others, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank and Walker Evans – suggests that we live today among the ruins of a dated Utopia, but also more pressingly that this future past is still extant and waiting to be invoked, for better or worse.

Tacita Dean is of course also a connoisseur of knotty timescales, her films often mining exactly this sense of a dream rising into ruin. But lately her camera has also been in thrall to certain inspirational figures (Mario Merz, W.G. Sebald via the poet Michael Hamburger) whose physical presence, late in life, is both melancholic and filled with energy and openness to the future. Dean’s Craneway Event (2009) is a portrait of sorts of Merce Cunningham, directing rehearsals at a disused Ford assembly plant in Richmond, California, just months before he died. It’s a miracle of concentration – Cunningham’s and Dean’s – and a gorgeous study of urgency in the face of time’s running out. The year’s other great reflection on late style – as well as on drawing and chance and an entire inspirational oeuvre – was ‘Every Day is a Good Day’, Hayward Touring’s exhibition (devised by artist Jeremy Millar) of the prints and drawings John Cage began to make in the 1970s.

Among the canonical and still radical figures of the 20th century who have an energetic afterlife in recent art is Bertolt Brecht. (A number of Byrne’s early works refer to him, and Anja Kirschner and David Panos’ 2010 film The Empty Plan is concerned with Brecht’s time in Hollywood.) This year, it was Jesse Jones’ film The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany (2009), which I saw in the autumn at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Ireland, that most successfully repurposed his legacy. Filmed in the Australian outback with a whispering chorus of placard-bearing actors, Mahogany is in part a meditation on Brecht’s predictions at the start of the 1930s regarding the ideological opportunism that easily fills an economic vacuum in post-boom times.

As I write this, the UK media is still exercized by the ‘violence’ (in reality, mostly assaults on property at the Conservative Party’s headquarters) that marked the end of a student protest in central London against education cuts. As ever, the same images circulate of glamorous ‘thugs’ kicking in windows, and the spirit of 1968 is invoked in conservative and liberal press alike. Ordinarily, that would sound as inflated and unlikely as it always does when the events of May ’68 are positively invoked in an art-world or academic context. Except that something felt different among the 50,000 on the streets that day – some sense of precedent and history was in the air, if only in the certainty that this was just the beginning.

[Image: Anja Kirschner and David Panos The Empty Plan (2010), video still.]

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