BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 JAN 20
Featured in
Issue 208

How Has the Art World Changed Since 2010?

What we were looking at (and what we missed) in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of frieze

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 JAN 20

Ten years. 3,652 days. Millions of minutes and billions of seconds. In the scheme of things, it’s nothing. And yet – the past, as the Bard says, is prologue. Flashback to a time capsule: the 128th issue of frieze, January/February 2010. The 44th president of the US, Barack Obama, is not-long elected; Donald Trump is a running joke on The Simpsons (1989–ongoing); and Gordon Brown, the UK’s Labour prime minister, is about to be replaced by the Conservative politician David Cameron. In six years, Cameron will hold a referendum to decide whether the UK should continue to be a member of the European Union. In nine years, his autobiography, For the Record, will be published. One review is headlined: ‘David Cameron’s memoirs reveal anguish at Brexit purgatory.’

Gustav Metzger, Historic Photographs: Kill the Cars, Camden Town, London 1996, 1996–2009, photograph, car and audio, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Andrew Testa; photograph: Jerry Hardman-Jones

In 2010, the world seems, from today’s perspective, relatively peaceful – although, of course, it’s far from it. (Appearances were as slippery then as they are today.) In his ‘State of the Art’ editorial for that issue, Dan Fox describes the zeitgeist as ‘a confused mess’. He writes: ‘At the same time as the Serpentine Gallery is showing Gustav Metzger, people are posing for photographs licking a giant chocolate facsimile of a Jeff Koons sculpture and throwing themselves on giant mounds of peanuts at the gala opening of PERFORMA 09.’ (File under plus ça change.) In another article in the same issue, Fox writes about ‘pop music held in the retro grip of zombie’, while Douglas Murphy talks about the ‘zombie-capitalism’ that led to the creation of the tallest building in the world: the Burj Dubai (later named Burj Khalifa). ‘It will’, says Murphy, ‘be interesting to see if anybody attempts a construction quite so mad as this one in the near future.’ The madness didn’t abate. Not one but two new structures are currently battling for the ‘tallest building’ crown: Dubai Creek Tower and Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia are both set to open later this year. Speaking of big buildings: the issue makes no mention of the scandal surrounding the construction of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – the largest of the museum’s franchises. In 2010, three years after plans had been unveiled, a group of 43 international artists, concerned by the appalling conditions experienced by migrants labouring on the site, sent a letter to the Guggenheim Foundation requesting it obtain contractual guarantees that the workers’ rights be honoured. Frustrated by a lack of progress, they formed the activist group Gulf Labor ‘out of a sense of necessity, to think collectively about our obligations as artists, scholars and cultural practitioners, to respond to the large-scale cultural developments being planned in the UAE’. Their demands have still not been met and they are still protesting. The museum is expected to open in 2023.

In issue 128, with a few exceptions, race, gender, sexuality and class are hardly mentioned – something that seems extraordinary in 2020. Although the civil-rights activist Tarana Burke had founded ‘Me Too’ on Myspace in 2006, in order to promote ‘empowerment through empathy’ among sexually abused women of colour, the widespread online #MeToo movement wouldn’t take off for seven years and #BlackLivesMatter was still three years away. There are 24 full-page advertisements for solo exhibitions: 22 of them feature the work of (overwhelmingly white) male artists. Damien Hirst’s exhibition is titled ‘Nothing Matters’.

There is an interview with Francesco Bonami about curating the 2010 Whitney Biennial, which, for the first time in history, includes the work of more women artists than men. Bonami defines what he calls ‘American-ness’: ‘I don’t think it has much to do with anything nationalistic,’ he says, ‘despite what people think. I think it’s more a way of digesting things […] and a way of telling stories.’ He also explains that ‘there’s not so much political art’ in the exhibition, which is titled ‘2010’ so that ‘no artist could ask: “What the hell do I do with that?!”’ In just over a year, Occupy Wall Street – a grassroots movement protesting social and economic inequality – will take over New York’s Zuccotti Park, igniting debates about myriad issues, including the social function of art.

frieze’s astrology chart, featured in issue 128, Jan/Feb 2010

In a city report on Ramallah, the writer T.Z. Toukan (a pseudonym) asks a question we still haven’t answered: ‘Does trauma – presented in an art context – become aesthetically appealing, telegenic, so to speak, and, if so, can the telegenic aspect be a productive thing?’ Featured artists Mike Kelley and David Goldblatt are alive, as is the philosopher Mark Fisher, who pens a typically brilliant column on the state of philosophy – in particular, ‘speculative realism’ – reflecting on new books by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. ‘Culturally,’ he writes with great prescience, ‘this has been the most conservative decade since the 1950s. But suddenly it starts to feel as if something new might happen again.’ 

A group of curators nominate the emerging artists they think have the most potential: I hardly recognize any of their names. ‘Identity politics’ isn’t mentioned; neither is the climate crisis nor problematic sponsors. No one has been forced to resign because of dodgy dealings. No one seems to worry about flying or the financial investments of board members and museum directors. Frieze has unpaid interns. It joined Twitter less than a year ago and Instagram is still but a twinkle in a programmer’s eye. The magazine is getting to grips with having a website. On the contents page is a list of the ‘most read on’. It looks a little proud.

Rajendra Roy, commissioned to write about the year in film, describes the first decade of the 21st century as ‘one that started with a misplaced sense of paranoia, culminated mid-decade with reason-crippling fear and appears to be ending by a slamming of the “re-start button”’. He nominates Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008; released 2009) as his film of the year: it would go on to win six Academy Awards, including best picture and director. Stuart Comer – who was then curator of film at London’s Tate Modern and has since moved to the Museum of Modern Art in New York – observes that: ‘If the staggering number of 16mm film works at art fairs in 2009 was any indication, the return of the repressed and the revenge of the obsolete were in full swing.’ Interestingly, I saw hardly a single film work at an art fair in the past 12 months. Writing about the year in design, Eugenia Bell focuses mainly on failed re-brandings; social responsibility, an important focus of design today, doesn’t get a look-in.

The reviews section leads with David Hockney and Frances Stark at the newly opened Nottingham Contemporary, which, since then, has welcomed more than two million visitors. Its current director, Sam Thorne, was, in 2010, frieze associate editor. The year was the start of a boom-time for new regional museums in the UK: the Hepworth Wakefield, which would win Museum of the Year in 2017, was under construction and Margate was still a depressed town without a museum. In under a year, Turner Contemporary would open, and Margate’s transformation into Shoreditch-on-Sea would begin.

 Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, 2008, film still. Courtesy: the artist

To celebrate the beginning of a new decade, frieze has its astrology chart done. It’s weirdly accurate. We discover that the magazine’s dominant zodiac sign is Gemini, with Scorpio rising: ‘You can be reserved and, at times, quite difficult to understand.’ The Sun is in 24 degrees Gemini: ‘You have an agile mind, but a short attention span. You love the external, kaleidoscopic aspects of life. You become listless when things are dull.’ The reading comes with a warning: ‘Be careful of a tendency to be snobbish and uppity – it does not become you.’ The future, according to our online soothsayers, holds ‘an intense period of research and discovery in areas that were heretofore considered mysterious, remote or taboo’.

The artist Chris Ofili is the respondent to the back-page questionnaire. We ask him: ‘What should change?’ His answer? ‘Everything, always.’ 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 208 with the headline ‘What Did We Miss?’.

Main Image: Cover of frieze issue 128, Jan/Feb 2010, featuring invitation cards and posters from exhibitions in 2009. Photograph: Maria Satur

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.