Attempting to write an overview of a year in exhibitions is a frustrating exercise. To keep things simple, I first tried to confine myself to London. But then what about the many-headed dOCUMENTA (13), Anselm Franke’s wonderful touring show ‘Animism’ or Okwui Enwezor’s sometimes thrilling, often frustrating Paris Triennale, which may well be seen as the major exhibitions of 2012? Certainly I spent more time with those than with anything I saw in London. And how about all the shows that I missed though read plenty about? But then overviews are only ever partial, always contingent (on time, budget, life in general). So what follows is a whistle-stop account of some of what I did manage to see in the UK this year, a preemptive report written before the dust had settled.
While this year’s Tate Triennial was quietly cancelled due to renovations to Tate Britain (though I do wonder whether it will actually be reinstated), there has been no shortage of biennials and festivals in the UK and Ireland. Over the summer, Annie Fletcher’s eva International Biennial of Visual Art in Limerick made a virtue out of its limited budget to create a cautiously optimistic vision of a future after collapse – a tightly focused riposte of sorts to the baggy monster that was last year’s Dublin Contemporary. In London, the inaugural LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images was an energetic four-day event, and mustered a series of programmes organized by artists and curators, including Light Industry, Elena Filipovic and Ben Rivers. At the younger, more DIY, end of this spectrum, Peckham Artist Moving Image (or PAMI) celebrated its second year in September, with a five-day series of free-to-attend events that stretched across more than 20 venues in South London.
Not all of these shows were so successful. The patchy sixth Whitstable Biennale seemed calculated to frustrate day trippers, with a programme of films and performances that required repeat visits. Also opening in September, there were high hopes for the seventh edition of the Liverpool Biennial, which – as well as being rebranded the ‘UK Biennial’ – seemed revitalized after the appointment of Sally Tallant (formerly head of programmes at the Serpentine Gallery) as artistic director. But some impressive new venues are let down by scrappy installation and too much indifferent work, despite several standouts, most of all John Akomfrah’s affecting video portrait of Stuart Hall (The Unfinished Conversation, 2012), as well as artist-led regeneration projects from Fritz Haeg and Jeanne van Heeswijk.
Is it my imagination or were public spaces outside of London often organizing more inventive exhibitions than those in the capital? I’m thinking of Focal Point Gallery’s run of shows in Southend-on-Sea (including Marc Camille Chaimowicz and Kai Althoff), firstsite’s first-time major solo exhibitions for Anthea Hamilton and Steven Claydon in Colchester, and Elizabeth Price’s tour de force at BALTIC in Gateshead, one of the best exhibitions I saw all year. Elsewhere, Nottingham Contemporary kept brokering some continually surprising introductions (Mika Rottenberg/James Gilray; Thomas Demand/Decolonizing Architecture), while MK Gallery’s intriguing programme mixed solo shows of younger artists (Daria Martin, Olivia Plender) with presentations of senior artists not often exhibited in the UK (James Welling, Pushwagner). Titled ‘Soft City’, and comprising Pop-toned visions of metropolitan life in the vein of Thomas Bayrle or John Wesley, the latter was the septuagenarian artist’s first solo exhibition outside of his native Norway, and will travel to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, in January. There was also the very sad news of the death of Michael Stanley – Modern Art Oxford’s director – at the age of just 37. Since joining the gallery in 2009, Mike had organized a dynamic series of exhibitions – with Shezad Dawood, Kerry Tribe and Roman Ondák, among others – and will be much missed.
Back in London, the Hayward Gallery took an admirably ambitious break from their run of visitor-figure-friendly summer blockbusters, transforming its galleries into the ‘Wide Open School’, a month-long series of artist-led classes. The summer was, of course, dominated by the Olympics, the corresponding tide of patriotism paralleled by a clutch of major shows for the yBa generation. Depressingly, perhaps inevitably, Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern received close to half a million visitors over its five-month run, making it the museum’s most popular solo show since it opened in 2000. Even though most of his paintings were judiciously filleted out, it was impossible to disguise how low (and how quickly) Hirst slid after his initial burst of post-Goldsmiths ingenuity. Elsewhere, Gillian Wearing had a popular retrospective over at the Whitechapel Gallery, though for me it only served to demonstrate how flimsy her work so often feels – some parochial repurposing of identity politics. And there has been a deserved resurgence of interest in Sarah Lucas’s work over the last few years, prompted by her remarkable ‘nuds’ (2009–ongoing) sculptures, and this year she had a show at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds as well as a year-long series of exhibitions at Sadie Coles’s off-site space in West London.
The second edition of ‘Young London’, at V22 in Bermondsey, did a reasonable job of surveying the work of about 30 (genuinely) young (mostly) British artists who have been very present this past year – among them, Aaron Angell, Benedict Drew, Peles Empire, Hannah Perry and Samara Scott – though some questioned the motivations of this rather opaque, stockmarket-listed ‘collective art collection’. Various young spaces across London – including Supplement, Christopher Crescent, Banner Repeater, Carlos/Ishikawa, Clarence Mews, ANDOR Gallery, Pro Number and Gallery Vela – have stayed busy, with projects often taking the form of event series and online commissions, while a self-sufficient constellation of Peckham-based galleries and collaboratives are also lively (these include The Sunday Painter, Son Gallery, LuckyPDF, Auto Italia, Arcadia Missa, Hannah Barry Gallery and bubblebyte.org, an artist-run online gallery).
As a year can never be properly compressed into 1,000 words, to wrap things up, here are some personal highlights: the July opening of Tate Modern’s Tanks and its 15-week programme of film and performance (especially the two-day screening of every film by the late Mike Kelley, and the ‘Performance Year Zero’ series); Ed Atkins’s solo show at the Chisenhale Gallery; Studio Voltaire and SPACE’s joint survey of Jo Spence; Bruno Munari at the Estorick Collection; and Raven Row’s rich selection from Seth Siegelaub’s vast collection of textiles. I visited the latter probably more times than any other show this year – it was aptly titled ‘The Stuff That Matters'.