I sit drinking my usual lunchtime small glass of 2010 Vosne-Romanée Burgundy at my humble local on the Hackney Road. The barman is kind enough to keep my bottled stoppered over the days it takes me to finish it, sitting here alone and apart from the unseemly throng. I pick at my beef and barley bun and ponder this dark and dramatic year. Next to the plate is my open copy of W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety. For this has been the year where truly civilisation ‘stares in the glass/To meet one’s madness.’
And yet, thank god for the artworld! For it is here that together we can begin to articulate a shared yet rhizomatic response to the year’s outpouring of hatred from the masses towards our cosmopolitan, liberal, metropolitan values. Take David Hammons, who I first came across in 1983 during his Bliz-aard Ball Sale in Cooper Square. Then, he brilliantly positioned his practice alongside street vendors to comment on the futile exchange of capital. This year this subversive spirit continued through his counterintuitive siting of his much-anticipated career survey at Mnuchin Gallery, the Upper East Side gallery owned by Goldman Sachs old boy Robert Mnuchin, presumably also to comment on the futile exchange of capital (or something along those lines). The great news is that Bob’s son Steve – always a high-flier, particularly when he so kindly bought up lots of distressed mortgages during the financial crisis – is soon to be anointed Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury. For me, the Mnuchins are very much the street vendors of 2016, if of course street-vendoring were to include mass foreclosures and slashing of corporate taxes. I am saddened that my good friend Jerry Saltz did not quite see it that way.
Over here in Blighty we have our own version of Hammons – Grayson Perry, who so very kindly caught the mood of 2016 for us. The loveable potter offered wise words on Trump’s rise and Brexit: “For me as an artist I love it when something comes along and makes me think ‘Wow that’s a bit shocking’.” I fully expect for my dear Grayson to get a few more of his shocking thrills next year if he spends some time on Marine Le Pen’s campaign trail and I propose that we have some sort of whip around to make this happen for him. I think about Grayson’s increasingly robotic media appearances and recall Donna Haraway’s words from ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’: ‘Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves are frighteningly inert.’
And if Trump and Brexit were not enough to ponder on for our leading artists, there was always Syria. Chilean poet Raúl Zurita recently unveiled his work Sea of Pain at the Kochi Biennale. Curators and collectors were forced to wade through a large hall of shallow seawater to reach a text dedicated to Galip Kurdi, the brother of three-year-old Alan. Then we waded back again thinking about Zurita’s poetry of hauntingly complex rhymes: ‘Won’t you come back/Never again/In the sea of pain?’ The answer of course for us visiting curators was: ‘Yes, we will come back as we’re just wading back through the ankle-high water which isn’t so bad after all.’ The answers for the Kurdi brothers was, of course, ‘no’. The waters, Raúl, were not ankle-high enough for them.
With artists like these operating around the world, there is much to be hopeful for in 2017. The artworld can fight back against the forces of repression, nativism, prejudice and bigotry. I feel buoyed and ready for the fightback! But first perhaps for the rest of that Burgundy. All of it.
Online exclusive published on 21 December 2016.