The year in art: uncertain times


Perhaps the most apt exhibition title of the year was that given by Jochen Volz to his São Paulo biennial: Live Uncertainty. These are indeed uncertain times geopolitically, not least in Brazil, but also in terms of the direction of art. While the Venice Biennale of 2013 prompted noticeable shifts, including a greater attention to so-called Outsider Art, the ripples of the 2015 edition have been less noticeable, perhaps because Okwui Enwezor’s politically dominated show had arguably been anticipated by numerous exhibitions, including some of Enwezor’s own, over many years. Next year might mark a new shift, since it is that once-in-a-decade occurrence in which the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel and Kasper König’s Skulptur Projekte Münster coincide. Still, there have been some clear trends and noticeable developments in 2016.

Clay gets day in the sun

The return of ceramics to the mainstream of contemporary art has been a slow but compelling process, and in 2016, it felt a more ubiquitous medium than ever. Young artists such as Aaron Angell and Jesse Wine have brought irreverent energy to the table, while Betty Woodman, Ron Nagle and other relative veterans are more visible and influential than ever. In a discussion on, Angell suggests that the rise of clay is in part “a reaction against the kind of fabrication fetish that we have been seeing in a lot of work over recent years”, a return to the intimacy of art making after years in which growing numbers of artists outsourced their work, a process in which artists lost “this one-to-one scale of body to material which is so inherent to clay”.

Virtual reality

In a feature in The Art Newspaper in October, we reported that there are still many questions about how museums, galleries and collectors should deal with the increasing abundance of digital art. They will need to move quickly: if ceramics offer artists an intimate and immediate form of expression, so too do the digital tools available to them, including, for the first time, affordable virtual reality (VR) headsets such as the Oculus Rift. 

VR is a growing presence in major galleries, and artists working predominantly in digital are beginning to dominate programming at major international spaces, from the New Museum in New York to the Tate’s galleries in Britain. The Berlin Biennale, too, reflected this digital surge, although it received mixed reviews.

Greatest living painter?

In a depressing American news cycle dominated by the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump, repeated police brutality to people of colour and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, no painter’s work feels more vital or more urgent than Kerry James Marshall’s. 

In an essay for his hugely acclaimed exhibition Mastry, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago this summer before travelling to its current incarnation at the Met Breuer in New York, after which it will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Marshall writes: “I am trying to establish a phenomenal presence that is unequivocally black and beautiful. It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent painting for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so.” 

Infinite possibilities

Two of London’s best shows this year reflected the enduring potential and the increasing variety of video art, flying in the face of those who dismiss video as the exclusive preserve of a dry curatorial echo chamber. 

Surveys of video art can be problematic, since they invariably demand too much of an audience’s time if they are to be properly seen. But The Infinite Mix, a Hayward Gallery offsite project, made a good case for video being the most creative of all 21st-century media, with mostly short but punch-packing works from artists working in Europe and North America, all linked by their use of music. 

Meanwhile, the Barbican’s retrospective of the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, including his nine-screen masterpiece The Visitors (2012), was one of the most critically acclaimed, spellbinding and publicly adored shows of the year.