Here are four artworks I’ve selected from my favourite pieces exhibited in 2015. They are not intended to be the ‘most representative’ works of the year just gone, nor the best. They simply aim to give a cross-section of what contemporary art had to offer in the past months. And, perhaps, a sense of where contemporary art might be going.
2015 has been a year of intense artistic experimenting. In the UK alone, we had Dismaland, the theme park ‘unsuitable for children’, and Soundscapes, the exhibition at the National Gallery fusing sounds and paintings. There seems to have been a growing interest in Pop Art, with exhibitions at Tate Modern, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Modern Art Oxford – and one just opened at the Ashmolean Museum. Around the world, trends have varied, but the digital technologies and their possibilities have often proved a valid support for the creation of artworks. Here we have selected four international artists working with four different media (photography, sculpture, installations, and sensory experiences).
Theaster Gates, ‘Martyr Construction’
Theaster Gates has been labelled an ‘emerging artist’ since 2009. While he is still to gain worldwide renown, his reputation continues to grow. Last year, his work Martyr Construction was included in the 56th Venice Biennale Exhibition, ‘All the World’s Futures’. The room-size installation consisted of repurposed building materials gathered from the Roman Catholic Church of St Laurence, Chicago. It included statues, roof tiles, and a bell all salvaged from the now-demolished church. On a wide screen, the visitors could see scenes of the dismantling of the church, with the crashing of tiles and wood panels accompanied by a liturgical hymn.
Gates’s first project, ‘Plate Convergences’ (2007), was a notable hoax: in the exhibition, the artist presented his own ceramic plates, claiming that they had been fabricated by a Japanese ceramist of his invention, Shoji Yamaguchi. From then on, his work has always revolved around social issues of contemporary America. At Venice Biennale, he drew the visitors’ attention to “the recurring dissolution and demolition of church parishes in African American and Hispanic neighbourhoods across the United States”, in the words of Paolo Baratta, chair of La Biennale. Indeed, Gate’s installation epitomises the core of his art practice, which is informed by Afro-American culture, poverty, and social intervention, with the addition here of his ecclesiastical interests.
Anicka Yi, ‘The Last Diamond’
Anicka Yi is a conceptual artist born in Seoul, now living and working in New York. In the exhibition ‘7,070,430K of Digital Spit’ at Kunsthalle Basel, she presented (among other things) an olfactory experience featuring the fragrance of ‘forgetting’. The Last Diamond consisted of two dryer doors embedded in a wall. They are intended to be opened by visitors, who can lower their heads into the black void behind. In one, they would smell the artist’s specially designed ‘forgetting’ scent, named Aliens and Alzheimer’s. Behind the other door was the scent of paper burning.
Aliens and Alzheimer’s was created in collaboration with a French perfumer, but the work started on a much more conceptual plane. Yi began by evoking the ineffable process she was seeking to recreate, the absence of memory. She explored this in relation to all stages of life: the scent contains the most disparate notes, from a fetus in an amniotic sac to the sterile smell of hospitals experienced by Alzheimer’s patients. According to the exhibition’s curator Elena Filipovic, “Yi manages to reflect on our contemporary condition and how we are transformed by digital technologies without forgetting that, as beings, we live and love and die”.
Jason deCaires Taylor, ‘The Rising Tide’
The Rising Tide comprises four life-size horses mounted by middle-aged figures, who boldly stare off into the distance. The horses and horsemen are all life-like, except for their grey colour, a result of the reinforced marine cement and steel material, and the horses’ heads, which have been replaced with oilwell pumpjacks. Installed on the Thames foreshore at Vauxhall, London, the sculpture has been positioned in order to vanish and reappear depending on the river’s level.
The work, created by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, was commissioned by Totally Thames festival. Its purpose is both to stress the role of the Thames for the city, and to air serious environmental issues. This year, climate change has been a topical concern: from 30th November to 12th December, Paris hosted the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), with 195 countries agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in reaction to the global temperature increase. Commenting on his work, Taylor explained: “The suited figures are ambivalent to their situation – I wanted to create this striking image of a politician in front of the Houses of Parliament, ignoring the world as the water rises around him. And they are sitting on horses that are grazing, taking as much as they can from the ground.”
Sara Cwynar, ‘Women’
Canadian artist Sara Cwynar works predominantly with photography. On her Artsy profile, she states that she is inspired by the “unnatural cleanness of contemporary commercial imagery”. Her use of combined media is clearly seen in Women, a pigment print mounted to Plexiglas. The work reproduces Picasso’s masterpiece Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), with the addition of a woman’s fingers. While at first sight it looks like someone is simply placing her hands on a reproduction of the original painting, we soon realise that the fingers do not correspond to the anatomy of two hands. They have been added in post-production, foregrounding the artist’s interest in photography’s power to deceive.
Women represents Cwynar’s art in two ways. First, it showcases her interest in joining old and new, nostalgia and futurism. She says that she has “always been interested in how to use all technology available to reanimate the old stuff”. In her work, she sources images from magazines or books, then transforms them into digital files that she can edit freely, and finally re-photographs the outcome and prints it back as a photograph, in a circular process. Second, Women revolves around themes of feminism and women’s bodies, both prominent topics within Cwynar’s artworks, as we can read from her Twitter profile.