The Top 10 Shows in the EU of 2021

From a major retrospective by Renée Green to Małgorzata Mirga-Tas's patchwork quilts, these are the best exhibitions of the year

BY Chloe Stead in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 03 DEC 21

As fresh lockdowns in Austria, the Netherlands and Germany loom, now is a good a time as any to celebrate some of the artists and institutions who, despite the enormous challenges facing them, managed to pull off impactful exhibitions in 2021. Some of these, such as Lydia Ourahmane’s Barzakh and Simon Fujiwara’s Who the Bær, directly reference the pandemic, while others, including Renée Green’s current retrospective at KW Institute of Contemporary Art, look to the past in order to explore ‘the weight’, according to writer Pablo Larios, of inherited histories of language’.

Sissel Tolaas, Liquid_Money_2, 2021, installation view, Astrup Fearnley Museet​​​​​​, Oslo, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Astrup Fearnley Museet​​​​​​, Oslo; photograph: Christian-Øen

Sissel Tolaas

Astrup Fearnley Museet

Oslo, Norway

Since the early 1990s, Sissel Tolaas has been creating works that used smell to trigger emotions and memories in exhibition goers. In this large-scale presentation at Olso’s Astrup Fearnley Museet, the Berlin-based, Norwegian artist has filled seven indoor and outdoor spaces with sensory experiences that range from enjoyable to downright antagonistic. In doing so, Timotheus Vermeulen argues in his review, Tolaas has created ‘what might be one of the most ambitious and evocative exhibitions’ he has ever visited.


Lydia Ourahmane, ‘Barzakh’, 2021, exhibition view, Triangle - Astrides, Marseille. Courtesy: the artist and Triangle - Astrides, Marseille; photograph: Aurlien Mole

Lydia Ourahmane

– Astérides and Kunsthalle Basel,

Marseille, France, and Basel, Switzerland

When Algeria closed its borders in spring 2020, Lydia Ourahmane found herself trapped in Europe. Invited to stage a joint exhibition at Triangle – Astérides and Kunsthalle Basel in 2021, the artist brought her ‘home’ to her, transporting 5,000 objects from her apartment in Algiers to Basel and then to Marseille. As Oriane Durand wrote in her review: ‘By circumventing the cessation of free movement during the pandemic, Ourahmane perfectly exhibits the absurdity of laws and regulations which often result in goods having greater rights than people, rendering “Barzakh” a form of resistance, and even empowerment.'


Renée Green, Import/Export Funk Office, 1992–1993, installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2021. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; photograph: Frank Sperling 

Renée Green

KW Institute of Contemporary Art & daadgalerie

Berlin, Germany

In his review of Renée Greens Inevitable Distances, which runs at KW Institute of Contemporary Art and daadgalerie until 9 January 2022, Pablo Larios delights in revisiting the New York-based artist's first piece in time based media, Import/Export Funk Office (1992–1993), which she made while on a daad residency in Berlin in 1993. Larios writes: ‘There is something awesome about hearing Green’s voice, off camera, interviewing these cigarette-smoking – mostly white European – men about hip-hop. Neither docile nor hostile, like a good journalist, she lets her subjects do the showing.


Michaela Eichwald, Gibt es denn wirklich nichts Schönes, nichts Schöpfungsbejahendes mehr? (Is There Really Nothing Beautiful, Nothing Creation-affirming Anymore?), 2020, acrylic and lacquer on polyurethane fabric, 135 × 95 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

Michaela Eichwald


Munich, Germany

Organized in cooperation with Kunsthalle Basel, Michaela Eichwald’s solo exhibition at Lenbachhaus – comprising almost entirely of new paintings and sculptures – showed why she is considered one of the most innovative artists of her generation. ‘Full of observations about tabloid newspapers, pop culture and social media,’ observes Sarah E. James in her profile of the artist, 'these works are as confident and easy in their conversations and confrontations with art history’s genres and giants as they are with their own material imaginaries.’


Bea Schlingelhoff, ‘No River to Cross’, 2021, exhibition view, Kunstverein München. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein München e.V.; photograph: Constanza Meléndez

Bea Schlingelhoff

Kunstverein München

Munich, Germany

Invited to show at Kunstverein München, Bea Schlingelhoff came across a document that showed that the institution prohibited non Aryan members in 1936. As a result, the artist encouraged the institution, which was one of the venues of the Nazi-organized ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937, to acknowledge its past participation in the Nazi regime. As frieze associate editor Carina Bukuts wrote, ‘While many buildings in the city have historical ties to the fascist regime, Kunstverein München bore no marker of its own affiliation until Schlingelhoff installed four permanent plaques on the facade, naming the only female artists that were included in the Degenerate Art show: Maria Caspar-Filser, Jacoba van Heemskerck, Marg Moll and Emy Roeder.’ 


Natalia LL 'Consumer Art', 1972–1975, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and CAC - Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius; photograph: Ugnius Gelguda

The Baltic Triennial

Various locations

Vilnius, Lithuania

For this edition of the Triennial, curators Valentinas Klimašauskas and João Laia worked with Isora x Lozuraityte studio to create an exhibition architecture that turned the Contemporary Art Center’s brutalist building into a colourful maze. Within this setting, the duo presented a range of contemporary and historical positions that acted as a clear rebuke to the surge of right-wing ideology in Eastern Europe. 'In doing so,' wrote Yana Foqué 'the exhibition offers us a telescopic view onto complex issues that reach far beyond the porous boundaries of this geopolitical region.'  


Diana Policarpo, Bosch's Garden, 2020, installation view, Galeria Municipal do Porto. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Dinis Santos / Galeria Municipal do Porto

Diana Policarpo

Galeria Municipal do Porto

Porto, Portugal

Titled 'Nest of Hyphae', Diana Policarpo's solo exhibition at Galeria Municipal do Porto offered 'a multiplex physical experience of sounds, lights and esoteric knowledge', according to Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva. Emerging from the Lisbon-based artist's interest in 'ergotism', a disease that comes from eating food contaminated with ergot fungus, the show's stand out piece Bosch’s Garden (2020), is based on Temptation of St. Anthony (c.1501) by Hieronymus Bosch, who, Sanchez-Kozyreva explains, 'symbolically depicted its [ergotism's] gruesome torments as the trials of evil forces testing St. Anthony’s devotion'.


dahn -vo-secession
Dahn Vo, 2021, exhibition view, Secession, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman, London, Paris and New York; Photograph: Nick Ash

Danh Vo


Vienna, Austria

Ahead of Dahn Vo's solo exhibition at Secession, Tom McCarthy visited the artist in his Brandenburg farmhouse and studio-headquarters to celebrate the Summer Solstice. While sipping champagne amongst the flowers, the author muses on what the significance of this rural set up is for an artist 'famous for his reconfigurations of eclectic, culturally loaded objects that set fridges, flags and flagellated Christs in dialogue with one another.'


Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, 'Out of Egypt', 2021, patchwork. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Arsenal, Bialystok; photograph: Maciej Zaniewski

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas

Galeria Arsenal

Bialystok, Poland

In many of the works in ‘Out of Egypt’, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas addressed the 'critical tension', wrote Krzysztof Kościuczuk, 'between the objectification and lived experience of Roma culture'. Featuring a series of patchworks of patterned fabrics and wax sculptures, this intimate offering by the Polish-Roma artist was an important statement 'in a country faced with a mono-ethnicity crisis'.

Simon Fujiwara, Who's a Man? (detail), 2021, installation view, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan

Simon Fujiwara

Prada Foundation

Milan, Italy

Comprising a site-specific, mixed media installation, '‘Who the Bær’ was Simon Fujiwara's response to a year and a half of lockdowns. 'Overwhelmed by a period marked not only by the pandemic but also crucial social change,' wrote Ana Vukadin in her review, 'the artist sought refuge in drawing and collage, combining his own original characters with photographs and news stories culled from the internet – from Elon Musk’s space launch to the Black Lives Matter protests [...] The result is a superbly entertaining, wildly inventive show, which sees viewers embark on a fairy-tale journey through a bear-shaped labyrinth made from cardboard.' 

Main image: Simon Fujiwara, 'Who the Bær', 2021, exhibition view, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.