The Top Ten Shows Around the World in 2023

From the ‘horizontal’ methodology of the 35th São Paulo Biennial to Suki Seokyeong Kang’s immersive landscapes in Seoul

BY Lisa Yin Zhang in Critic's Guides | 29 DEC 23

The presence of several biennials in this list underlines the growing presence of this exhibition format in the international scene. But solo exhibitions underscore the developments of individual ecologies across the world as well, such as Michele Chu’s rituals of grief on view at PHD group, Hong Kong, or Na Chainkua Reindorf’s cosmology at Nubuke Foundation. In no particular order, here are the best shows from around the world in 2023.

São Paolo BiennialBrazil

Iole de Freitas, Glass Pieces, Life Slices, 1975. Courtesy: Coleção Iole de Freitas and IMS Paulista; photograph: Julia Thompson

Initiated in 1951, the Bienal de São Paulo is the second oldest in the world, modelled after the Venice Biennale. Since its inception, it’s consistently mounted some of the most influential exhibitions in Latin America. Associate editor Marko Gluhaich was on location for this edition.

In a review in the November/ December issue, he noted the – at times, conflicting – ambitions of the four curators, Manuel Borja Villel, Grada Kilomba, Diane Lima and Hélio Menezes. Their ‘horizontal’ methodology, as they refer to it, led to a ‘fragmenta[tion] which serves as a boon to its decolonial, transhistorical enterprise.’ In a sprawling exhibition featuring 121 artists, one highlight was Arthur Bispo do Rosário’s fictional maps, brought to life with details such as flags and buildings.  

Gwangju BiennialSouth Korea

A number of woodcut-like prints on cotton of various colours
‘Soft and Weak like Water’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Gwangju Biennale Foundation; photograph: glimworker

Gwangju is a site of historical pain, established in 1995 to commemorate the violent suppression of the 1980 protests against military dictator Chun doo-hwan. But this iteration suggests a different stance than the at-times predatory plumbing of this bloody history, offering instead the possibility that radical softness can be a form of resilience. Writing in the September issue, Jaeyong Park observed that ‘Soft and Weak like Water’ ‘allow[s] subjects the right to opacity.’ If you want a deeper look at some of the outstanding artists of the exhibition, revisit the April issue, in which Hayoung Chung writes on Oh Suk Kuhn; Andrew Maerkle on Yuko Mohri; Christine Han on Robert Zhao Renhui; and I on Minjung Kim.

Michelle Chu, PHD Group, Hong Kong

A dingy glass holder with dripping chains with a black and white family portrait in it
Michele Chu, rocking cradles, wet blankets, 2023, emulsion lift and engraving on window glass, stained glass, chain, wax, lace, solder, copper alphabet pendant, 27 × 11 cm. Courtesy: the artist and PHD Group, Hong Kong; photograph: Felix SC Wong

A dense, oppressive fog, courtesy of a humidifier and heat lamp, billows over the gallery’s terrace; glass pendants dangle bodily detritus; a bitter smell drifts alongside the artist’s voice, which croons ‘You, trickling, sinking…’. One of the most talked-about exhibitions in Hong Kong this year was Michele Chu’s liquescent solo at PHD group. The artist’s mother’s terminal diagnosis served as the trigger; the effect, therapeutic rituals for grief. In twisting, turning belly button (2022), the artist casts that original point of separation between mother and infant in bronze, suspending it with chains adorned with pearls, lace and more. ‘A painful inevitability courses through the show,’ Ophelia Lai wrote in our summer issue. ‘Chu seems to be quantifying her sorrow: in objects made, in tears shed.’

Thiago Honório, Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo, Brazil

Thiago Honório, Corte (Cut), 2020–23. Courtesy: Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; Photograph: Edouard Fraipont

A walk through Thiago Honório’s solo exhibition at Galeria Luisa Strina is akin to joining a procession: Texto (2020–23), for instance, includes a roca, a 17th century religious figure. Standing amidst bunches of cotton and facing a screen of the same material, the piece also evokes Brazil’s colonial past, and the twin instruments of historical control in slavery and religion. In the September issue, Camila Belchior noted that ‘Honório’s successful coupling of artisanal and industrial object-making alludes to the power of framing knowledge and art-display systems and, in the context of a gallery, to the role of markets within which society and its by-products exist and operate.'

Kapwani Kiwanga, MOCA, Toronto, Canada

A wall of what look to be dried leaves cascading up between to pillars
Kapwani Kiwanga, Residue, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; Galerie Poggi, Paris; Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin; and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and London. © ADAGP, Paris / SOCAN, Montreal (2022); photograph: Laura Findlay

For her first major solo exhibition in her native Canada, Kapwani Kiwanga – who will be representing the country at the next Venice Biennale – surfaces the socio-ecological complexities of our relationship with the natural world. At MOCA Toronto, a section of floorboards have been burned, a condemnation of scorched-earth policies and an allusion to controlled burning of forests, which can lead to regeneration. In the video work Vumbi (2012), the artist wipes naturally occurring dust from Tanzanian foliage. ‘It reinforces a poignant idea that runs throughout the show,’ Neil Price wrote in our September issue. ‘Humanity can coexist with nature through acts of care for the environment – but we also have the capacity to intervene negatively in natural processes, even in the name of aesthetics.’ 

Suki Seokyoung Kang, Leeum, Seoul, South Korea

Installation shot: various colors, materials, and shapes of rounded sculptures installed in an almost all-black space
Suki Seokyeong Kang, ‘Willow Drum Oriole’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Leeum Museum of Art, Seoul; photograph: Cheolki Hong

A series of curved reliefs, following the undulating outline of a mountain range, dangle delicate metal threads and chains. Suki Seokyoung Kang’s training is in Korean painting, but her sculptures and videos transcend the flat surface – and the visual. Her ‘Jeong’ series (2014 – ongoing), for instance, is inspired by traditional musical scores, expanding her explorations across artforms. Indeed, the title of the exhibition, ‘Willow Drum Oriole’, derives from a genre of Korean song that imagines the movement and sound of the bird flying between trees, as if, ‘weaving a thread into the fabric of the landscape,’ as Hayoung Chung put it in our upcoming January/February issue. Wonky, wobbly, anthropomorphic and sweet, Kang’s sculptures are all encompassing, occupying an environment of her making.

Elif Saydam, Oakville Galleries, Canada

A wall with Turkish tiles and spray painted letters and hearts
Elif Saydam, THIS TENDER THAT RENT, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens; photograph: Laura Findlay

In their first major exhibition in their native Canada, ‘Eviction Notice’, the Berlin-based artist Elif Saydam expresses the aesthetics of neighbourhoods where immigrant, queer and artist communities overlap. In THIS TENDER THAT RENT (2022–23), they pun on the simultaneously warm and transactional elements of living in a such a city. In others, they draw upon the signage of late-night shops in Berlin; convenience stores in Oakville; decorative motifs in Turkish tiling. ‘Think of this show as a neighbourhood,’ Xenia Benivolski suggested in her review for the upcoming January/February issue, ‘and the small works anchoring it… as functioning like the cherished storefronts that dot the working-class areas in most large cities.’

The 15th Sharjah BiennialVarious locations, UAE

Doris Salcedo, Uprooted, 2020-2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Juan Castro 

Conceived by the late great Okwui Enwezor, the 15th Sharjah Biennial expands on his concept of ‘thinking historically in the present’. Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, a native of Sharjah, this edition includes more than 300 works by more than 150 artists and collectives across five cities and towns in the United Arab Emirates. In an interview with Róisín Tapponi, Al Qasimi spoke of her desire to decentralize the model of a biennial, undoing the idea of a geographical core: ‘I banned the word “offsite” in our office.’ One highlight of the biennial was Michael Rakowitz’s Borrowed Landscape (30.3193° N, 48.2543° E) (2023), which probes the changes experienced in the Iraqi date industry due to war and climate change.

Na Chainkua Reindorf, Nubuke Foundation, Accra, Ghana

Na Chainkua Reindorf, Grasp, 2022, acrylic gouache on claybord, 30.5 cm × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Isaac Gyamfi for NUBUKE FOUNDATION

Inspired by West African Vodun, a religion practiced in the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now Benin, Na Chainkua Reindorf’s solo exhibition of paintings at Nubuke Foundation, Accra, introduced us to her own cosmology of seven female shapeshifters. Our associate editor Vanessa Peterson reviewed the show for our April issue. ‘These women,’ she wrote, ‘cannot be contained on the canvas.’ Peterson carefully observed the devious details of the paintings, the ‘sharp, pointed teeth’ of Bite (2022); the ‘sensual hands gripping fleshy hips and breasts’ in Grasp (2022). Drawing also upon robust aesthetic traditions such as Kente cloth and Asafa flags, Reindorf’s vivid works, Peterson wrote, offer rich layers of meaning.

Mithu Sen, ACCA, Melbourne, Australia

Insallation view: some works on wall in uneven grid, a projection with a South Asian woman in front of comic sans slide, various neon
Mithu Sen, ‘mOTHERTONGUE’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Australia Centre for Contemporary Art, Naarm / Melbourne; photograph: Andrew Curtis

At the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Naarm/Melbourne, Mithu Sen’s videos, drawings and found objects engaged subversive wordplay and references to internet culture to undermine the gendered and racialized hierarchies embedded in colonial institutions. Sen moved from West Bengal to New Delhi in 1997, finding herself having to communicate in English or Hindi instead of her mother tongue, Bengali. At ACCA, as Hilary Thurlow wrote in our September issue, she staged a ‘Borgesian mind map of videos, projections, poetry, framed drawings and curios.’ In How to be a SUCKcessful Artist (2019), the artist uses Comic Sans – a font seldom found in galleries and museums – to mount an ‘instructional’ video work that gives tips for success such as ‘3. develop their museum aesthetic with your exotica’. ‘Sen is acutely aware of her position as a South Asian woman practicing art both for and in a Western art world,’ Thurlow elaborated. ‘She is the joker, and we are, rightly, the butt of her joke.’

Main image: Vivian Suter, exhibition view at 14th Gwangju Biennale, 2023. Courtesy: Gwangju Biennale Foundation; photograph: glimworkers

Lisa Yin Zhang is assistant editor at frieze.