‘Not New Now’ is certainly an unlikely title for a biennale, if not for a secondhand shop. Well played, Marrakech Biennale, you have our attention. What they’re likely to do with it – specifically, what’s been planned by biennial overseer Reem Fadda, the New York-based associate curator of Middle Eastern Art for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – is both timely and logical. The host city is to be situated as a symbolic and literal intersection of different worlds: the Arabic world, the pan-African diaspora, the West. The sixth edition of the event is responding also, it appears, to modish notions of the contemporary by resisting them. ‘How do we surpass the cultural orientation towards newness?’, the curatorial statement wonders, going on to vaunt art as a site of cultural resistance. Expect, alongside all that, artworks to overtake public heritage sites such as the Palais el Badi and the Palais Bahia. As regards further details, at press time the oõcial position was, in effect, ‘Not Releasing the List of Artists Now’; but Fadda did lead us to expect contributions from Yto Barrada, Farid Belkahia, Omar Berrada, Ahmed Bouanani, Khaled Malas, Jumana Manna and Sam Gilliam.
Staying with Guggenheim- and Africa-related projects, February offers a last chance to catch Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design, if you’re passing the Guggenheim Bilbao. Those who mentally categorise African design in terms of, say, hot-coloured patterning should prepare to be thrown for a loop by this 120-practitioner show, curated by Amelia Klein at the Vitra Design Museum, where it originated (with ‘consulting curator’ credit for Okwui Enwezor). Digitally driven, globalised and hopping across boundaries of art, photography, design, architecture and film, the works veer from Cyrus Kabiru’s flamboyantly baroque metal ‘eyewear sculptures’ to Robin Rhode’s already iconic (particularly to advertising creatives) animated art to architecture by David Adjaye and Francis Kéré, while the timeline also tracks back to postcolonial Africa, showcasing not only the pioneering photography of Malick Sidibé et al but also the first flush of confident architecture that came in the wake of African nations’ independence.
The rhetoric underpinning public space is equally a core issue for Jakob Kolding, though differently articulated and skewed towards Western capitalist aesthetics. The Berlin-based Danish artist goes big on the latent effects of city architecture, exploring its subliminal feedback effects on behaviour, specifically how we read, and treat, our fellow citizens. Here, 2D wooden cutouts of figures are blazoned with instantly recognisable photographic imagery – if, as we expect, similar to Kolding’s show last year at TEAM in New York, it may include shooting-gallery targets and nineteenth-century dioramas – as a way of pointing to the manner in which we unconsciously, and immediately, size up and type people. All of which, Kolding stringently attests, points to how the capitalist edifice per se encourages typecasting and stereotyping, and throttles individuality at street level.
Kolding has shown at the Stedelijk Museum, but from January onwards it’s Cally Spooner’s turn. Or second turn: as the London-based artist heads towards the closing stages of her multipart project And You Were Wonderful, On Stage (2013–) – which thus far has taken the form of live performances involving celebrity controversies, aspects of Broadway musicals and high-art performance tropes, plus an exhibition showing the editing of all this into a film – she returns to the venue that, in 2013, originally commissioned it. The Stedelijk, under Beatrix Ruf’s auspices, has a visible yen for live performance (see, elsewhere, the past year’s continuous retrospective for Tino Sehgal). So it’s appropriate that they should work with the London-based Spooner, whose sui generis work not only turns on language – using it as a kind of evolving sculptural material, against the way it is used in corporations and in social conventions – but also, relatedly, concerns itself with the loss of ‘liveness’ in daily life. So here, finally, is the completed film itself, in what the institution’s press corps describes, amusingly enough, as a ‘space-filling multi-screen installation’.
Johnny Knoxville sporting nipple clamps, James Franco in matriarchal drag, Amy Winehouse staring down a querulous cockerel, Dennis Hopper all but obliterated by cigar smoke, Lady Gaga in a dustbin, lots of men with their dicks out and upright: Terry Richardson’s reputation as a subtle and reticent photographer is, shall we say, nonexistent. Instead, this son of a freewheeling 1960s fashion photographer has, since the 1990s, set himself up as the anti-Avedon – a remarkably consistent purveyor of near-the-knuckle, structurally impertinent, brashly colourful celebrity portraiture and fashion-magazine editorial; a figure dogged by rumours of highly ungentlemanly behaviour towards his models (which he denies); and, clearly, an instinctive master at commandeering attention. Synergistically coinciding with the publication of a full-dress monograph, Volumes 1 & 2: Portraits and Fashion (2015), the LA-based lensman and erstwhile punk-rock bassist, who has shown his work in galleries for the last 18 years, cherry-picks from the half of his oeuvre perhaps most suited to such venues: the portraits, which here mix celebs with unknowns.
Guessing what might be included in Mark Wallinger’s first exhibition for Hauser & Wirth is a fool’s errand. From portrait paintings of people who appear to be homeless to a ferry that separates travellers into biblical ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’, to his landmark reconstruction of peace protester Brian Haw’s antiwar protest outside Parliament, State Britain (2007), the British artist has made a three-decade high-wire act out of not repeating himself on a formal level, while frequently concerning himself thematically with affiliations and absurdities that divide and unite human beings. What we do know is that, across both Savile Row galleries, there’ll be multimedia work including the film Shadow Walker (2011), and that Wallinger’s focus, here, is on how the self – one’s identity, one’s behaviour – is expressed in a culture of ever-increasing scrutiny from above.
Scrutiny from above and its vast discontents have also been a leitmotif of Laura Poitras’s bold and risky work as a documentary filmmaker, and the influence of her work – not least Citizenfour (2014), her film about the unfolding situation around Edward Snowden’s revelatory leaks of information concerning NSA surveillance – has filtered into the artworld. (She’s since collaborated with Ai Weiwei, for example.) Snowden is a shadow presence in Astro Noise, her first exhibition as an artist. The title echoes the name he gave to an encrypted file of evidence he passed to her in 2013, and the series of installations that Poitras is presenting – which ‘incorporate documentary footage, architectural interventions, primary documents, and narrative structures to invite visitors to interact with the material in strikingly intimate and direct ways’ – are ‘partly inspired’ by the Snowden archive.
From puppets to comic strips: after Peanuts ended (with Charles M. Schulz’s death), at the end of the 1990s, François Curlet felt his sympathy piqued for the newly unemployed characters and built a peanut-selling stand for Charlie Brown, partly on the basis that this archetypal sad-sack figure, at a remove from society, had overtones of the artist about him. That’s typical of Curlet’s lateral thinking since the late 1980s, which takes familiar cultural forms and inflates and unmoors them: Moonwalk (2002), consisting of signs for pedestrians, serves as a despotic injunction to imitate Michael Jackson’s tricky dance move; Rorschach Saloon (1999), which this writer once encountered in a building in Iceland where the Cold War accords were thrashed out, offers shots of vodka or whiskey, the choice of which positions the viewer on one side or another, East or West. Among Curlet’s other subjects have been Willy Wonka, Benny Hill and a motorcycle marooned on a giant slice of sculptural toast; so if you’re not at least amused by whatever’s contained at Air de Paris in Curlet’s show Frozen Feng Shui, maybe you’re Charlie Brown.
Art often benefits from eluding its maker’s control, but few artists allow that process such latitude as Ian Cheng. The American, who studied cognitive science in Berkeley before making art, now creates digital works that model emergent systems: starting with a few relatively simple parameters, these generative works – which feature landscapes and hybrid creatures – are allowed to proliferate in ways that often register nature’s most brutally Darwinian side, filled with stumbling and sprouting mutants; buzzy, droning and scraping soundtracks; and scraps of broken language. That, one might think, reflects the irrevocable melding of human and technology today: a development that, Cheng’s work suggests, was on the cards and is irreversible. The upside of this, he’s said, is that his art – ‘a live simulation that we can feel, but does not give a fig for us’ – functions as a mode of adaptation to change: a ‘neurological gym’. Here, amid Swiss order and decorum, Cheng will present a new screen’s worth of unspooling chaos.
I’ve been looking at Nairy Baghramian’s work for several years and appreciating its taut atmosphere without ever quite accessing what’s behind it. There is, presumably, a reason why those tasked with describing her exhibitions erect hedging qualifiers like ‘complex’, or merely describe the works’ forms – hooked shapes derived from cranes, for example, cloth sacks stuffed with material, or wiry frames – or resort to phrases like ‘taut atmosphere’. The Iranian-born, Berlin-based artist’s sculptures seem to be waiting for something else, or about to converse with something outside them, and indeed it appears as if the priority for Baghramian, who’s lately moved galleries to Marian Goodman, is contextualisation, the addition of a supplement: how art-theoretical debates shape form, for example. The Museo Tamayo, meanwhile, offers us another chance to get a grip, presenting eight works from 2015, ranging from hollow, furniture-like forms to pale and bulbous sculptural works affixed to the wall. And if you’re still not sure, then as one of the titles advises, Chin up.
This article was first published in the January & February 2016 issue.