By Alina Cohen | December 8, 2017 | Culture
If you’re reading this, you’re probably either at Art Basel in Miami Beach or you’ve just returned. Whatever your relationship to the fair—collector, gallerist, curator, artist—most likely you’ve been steeped in discussions of financial benchmarks over the past few days. These conversations help identify trends and illuminate the mechanisms underlying most art-world activity. But not all of it. We recruited three seasoned art writers to tell us about their favorite 2017 shows that, in some way, bucked the market. In more and less subtle ways, artists and curators are maneuvering around economic pressures while making and showing today’s most important work. As you reflect on the monetary lessons taught at this year’s fair, also consider the projects offering alternative perspectives on power, place, and what it means to live and work as an artist.
Frank Walter, African Genealogy: Ballerina Legs, date unknown, at Antigua and Barbuda’s Inaugural National Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
This past summer, I had two transcendent art experiences. The first was at the Venice Biennale. Speed-walking over the Accademia Bridge with discreet glances at Google Maps, I figured the pavilion of Antigua and Barbuda would be easy to find. It wasn’t. Google Maps guided me to the reception desk of an arts foundation unrelated to the Biennale, whose friendly receptionist seemed accustomed to pointing the way. The pavilion, around the corner, was in a set of small rooms encompassing an entire life, hung densely, salon-style, with Frank Walter’s artworks, interspersed with vitrines of ephemera (letters and so forth). In one corner sat his well-worn typewriter.
On my final day in Münster, Germany, for a show, I walked on water, courtesy of Ayse Erkmen’s trompe l’oeil bridge. The metal grates dug into my sore, swollen feet. I’d been crisscrossing the city for art, walking too much, but until that moment, so absorbed in what I’d been seeing, I hadn’t felt a thing.
Installation view of the exhibition “Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League)” at SculptureCenter, New York, 2017.
No exhibition this year did more to upend the stale rhetoric around markets and art’s place in society than Ruba Katrib’s sophisticated show at SculptureCenter in New York, featuring the African sculptors known as the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise.
The show’s suite of impressive figurative totems, including a pensive, bespectacled man and a woman bitten by an alligator, were created by artists who live and work on a cocoa plantation in a rural province of the Democratic Republic of Congo; most do not speak French and have never been to Kinshasa, its capital, let alone one of the art world’s capitals. (The smell of cocoa filled the gallery; these works were carved from wood, then 3-D-scanned and cast in Belgian chocolate, a foodstuff for which these artists harvest the raw materials but have never tasted.)
With the help of Renzo Martens—the (white) Dutch artist who happily avows his own privileged place in the global art world—these sculptures, made in Congo, routed through Europe, and now on view in New York, played the logic of the art world against itself. Here was the art world’s economic basis, in front of your face and inside your nostrils, recast so that its least powerful participants could get a larger share. Proceeds from the sale of the CATPC sculptures go right back to Congo. They deserve the money—not as charity cases, but as artists.
Installation view of the exhibition “Philip Guston and the Poets” at Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy, 2017.
During a jam-packed summer chasing the global currents of the art market—New York auctions, Basel fairs, Zurich gallery sales—I had a few chances to take a break from tracking billionaires who trade pictures like baseball cards and, you know, actually look at art.
“Philip Guston and the Poets,” which opened at the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia just before the Venice Biennale, was a glorious testament to Guston’s genius, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.
But what shocked me most in Venice was the German Pavilion: I walked in during the strictly press-only early preview, before three-hour waits arrived the next day and never left. I was blown away. Anne Imhof’s Faust, a gorgeous five-hour performance, was a mesmerizing dance—“an assault of goth squeal, all awash in affectless cool,” I wrote moments after seeing it, still shaken.
Another reprieve came from Skulptur Projekte Münster. One standout was Pierre Huyghe’s After ALife Ahead, which turned an abandoned skating rink into a Martian landscape with a sci-fi pod opening from the roof: land art meets Arrival. Huyghe’s galleries kicked in for the nearly $1 million budget, money they are not getting back—the work was destroyed on October 1, per the artist’s wishes. I was so excited to experience the thing that even though I cut my elbow something nasty in a bike accident on the way over, I bandaged it up and kept trucking. Got a gnarly scar. Worth it.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY HENNING ROGGE, © SKULPTUR PROJEKTE 2017 (ON WATER); BY OLA RINDAL (AFTER ALIFE AHEAD)