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Looking Back 2017: Europe and Beyond

From the exhibitions attempting to formulate ‘an acerbic language that speaks to our present epoch’, curator Samuel Leuenberger's highlights

Beyond this year’s bumper harvest of Skulptur Projekte Münster, documenta 14 and the Venice Biennale, a series of exhibitions were attempting to formalize an acerbic language that speaks to our present epoch. ‘Territories and Fictions: Thinking a New Way of the World’ at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and ‘Manipulate the World’ at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet were two such examples of institutional efforts to buoy artists’ re-territorialization of authoritative narratives and stories of dispossession. Both were newly attentive to the modalities by which artists are positioning themselves in a world increasingly prone to environmental collapse, inequality and biotechnological governance.

Amongst an ever-expanding calendar of pop-up events and itinerant exhibitions, the institutional programme can sometimes feel like an analogue technology, bowed by neoliberal pressures and forced into circuitous collaboration with one another. But if the past year has offered any sort of reassurance, it is that, in spite of the fatigue engendered by such arrangements, work can, and does, move deftly, with eyes and ears focused on the shifting occupancies of capital and power.

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Courtesy: the artist, Lodos, Mexico City and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: P.J. Rountree

Kasia Fudakowski, ‘BAD BASKET’, 2017, installation view,  Lodos Gallery, Mexico City. Courtesy: the artist, Lodos, Mexico City and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: P.J. Rountree

Kasia Fudakowski, ‘BAD BASKET’, Lodos Gallery, Mexico City

The apples of capitalism’s eye are certainly goods of some description, yet the ‘bad baskets’ of Kasia Fudakowski’s show at Lodos Gallery were hell-bent on mischief. The trio of woven works on view was produced in collaboration with three local artisans. Hyper-attentive to imperialist forays made by European artists and aesthetes to Mexico, Fudakowski was careful not to elide circuits of cultural appropriation or the country’s histories of colonization. Instead, she embedded her complicity as an artist on residency into the fabric of the exhibition, making visible the tensions of labour service and commodity capitalism for which Mexico is continually mined.

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Jenny Holzer, ‘SOFTER’, 2017, installation view, Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, UK

Jenny Holzer, ‘SOFTER’, Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, UK

Blenheim Palace was built in the early 18th century to recognize the various military ‘triumphs’ of the Duke of Marlborough – triumphs that came at the expense of countless silenced by servitude. With her exhibition ‘SOFTER’, Jenny Holzer sought to correct this imbalance, foregrounding the individual testimonies of former detainees and military defectors.

Holzer’s staggering typographic light projections exposed the site’s military history, bringing the brutality of war to the quintessential English genteel establishment: the historic country house. In her use of both the interior of the galleries and the external fabric of the building, Holzer renegotiated the right to narrate histories of conflict. By the same token, she tooled the institutional modus operandi of deploying the artist or artist’s work as a stratagem for public engagement by devising an app for visitors to digest testimonial extracts on a more intimate scale. In a post-truth era whereby testimony may be wildly appropriated, Holzer used her privilege to elevate those narratives that remain largely unheard or unseen, while at the same time drawing attention to the irregular records of conflict itself.

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Dora Budor, ‘Year Without a Summer (Panton’s Diversion)’, 2017, Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk

Dora Budor, ‘Year Without a Summer (Panton’s Diversion)’, 2017, Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk

Dora Budor, ‘Year Without a Summer (Panton’s Diversion)’, Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk

Why produce fiction? According to Dora Budor, the suggestion (or rather, diagnosis) made by anthropological research is that it’s an addiction, not a panacea for our ills. Budor’s ‘reanimated’ relics of cinematic histories, from the frogs of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) to the garage miniatures used in The Fifth Element (1997), pull at the socio-political anxieties underlying cult science fiction.

Budor’s room-sized installation Year Without a Summer (Panton’s Diversion) (2017), which includes original modules from Verner Panton's Landscaped Interior, is included in the exhibition ‘Being There’, at the Louisiana Museum, which brings together ten artists who attend to the evolution of the post-human condition and the new contingencies shaped by ever-expanding definitions of life, technology, time and machine. Budor’s repurposed props, or ‘speculative mirrors’, as she calls them, are perfectly suited to the task, existing as unerring feedback links between reality, special effects fakery and nostalgia. Unmediated by the silver screen, the camera-ready relics of our cinematic imagination reveal themselves to be transparently phony, smirking all the while at our naive belief in fabulation. Here, Budor taps into the presiding symptom of our times, namely that ‘truth’ needn’t be true for it to gain traction.

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Ed Atkins, Old Food, 2017, production still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York and dépendence, Brussels

Ed Atkins, Old Food, 2017, production still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York and dépendence, Brussels

Ed Atkins, ‘Old Food’, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

You wouldn’t dream of touching the fare on offer at ‘Old Food’: this particular spread is one that never rots, but rather installs itself like a virus. The exhibition is Ed Atkins’s largest installation to date, and benefits from the breathing space it’s given at Martin-Gropius-Bau – not least because the tragicomic, chain-smoking personas that litter the institution are confined to the claustrophobic world of computer-generated animation.

Atkins’s avatars sparsely populate slick pastoral glades and Roy Andersson-esque interiors in a so-called ‘concert of sad’, each repeating its own single action: one rocks back and fourth; another runs down a grassy hill. But the real strength of the show is in the backstage view that it affords, of both the hardwiring of Atkins’s vast screens and the loaned costume archive of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which hangs in each room, musky-scented, on rails. In espousing perversely anachronistic fantasies, each of these loops back to what Atkins attempts to illustrate with ‘Old Food’: there’s no chance of escape, not when the great outdoors is continually repackaged and sold back to us, and the penchant of theatre is to circuitously restage elaborate conceits.

Read: Helen Marten's response to Ed Atkins's Old Food, ‘Though It Weeps (in the style of a new and brilliant murder)’

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Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel, ‘The Mammal and the Sap’, 2017, installation view, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main. Courtesy: Portikus, Frankfurt am Main; photograph: Diana Pfammatter

Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel, ‘The Mammal and the Sap’, 2017, installation view, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main. Courtesy: Portikus, Frankfurt am Main; photograph: Diana Pfammatter

Daniel Dewar & Grégory Gicquel, ‘The Mammal and the Sap’, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main

At the core of Daniel Dewar & Grégory Gicquel’s ‘The Mammal and the Sap’, their first institutional exhibition in Germany, was a meshing of handcrafted furniture and cabinetry techniques with classical sculpture. Amongst labyrinthine fabric partitions were intimately staged groups of solid oak and sycamore sculptures and reliefs – some freestanding, others, like Oak cabinet with organs (2017), existing as visceral hulking appendages to items of furniture. Visitors were permitted to touch the works, a rare concession intended to destabilise established conventions of display. Recurring motifs of recumbent males, wild pansies, boots and udders pointed towards rural folk art, but in their tender revival of traditional handcraft by way of digital production processes, the pair succeeded in creating subtle contemporary narratives in what might otherwise be naturalistic territory.

Main image: Jenny Holzer, ‘SOFTER’, 2017, installation view, Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, UK

Samuel Leuenberger is an independent curator. He is founding director and curator of SALTS, an exhibition space in Birsfelden, Switzerland, and curator of Art Basel’s Parcours sector.

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