The Culture24 review of 2011: A look back at Contemporary Art

By Mark Sheerin | 21 December 2011
Colour photo of a woman in a pendulous blue art installation, listening to a speaker
Susan Hiller, Witness (2000) (Tate Britain Installation shot). Audio-sculpture, dimensions variable. Original commission Artangel© Susan Hiller, Tate Photography/Sam Drake
As 2011 slips from diaries into the annals of history, the first week of January offers an overdue chance to pick out some highlights from last year's contemporary art fare. Economic realities being what they are, it should have come as no surprise this year to find many of the year's exhibitions facilitating escape from the everyday...

In a year of growing unemployment and city centre riots, four major shows required the suspension of disbelief necessary to carry on, calmly or not. Susan Hiller directed our attention away from the real world to that of the supernatural with a powerful and unsettling show at Tate Britain.

A photo of two people dancing in front of an artwork showing a grand historic building inside a gallery
Pablo Bronstein, Tragic Stage (2011). Costumes by Mary Katrantzou. Exhibition view of Sketches for Regency Living at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, June 9 - September 25 2011© Steve White
Later in the year, Huang Yong Ping also offered visitors to Nottingham Contemporary a chance to forget about civil war in Libya and clamber round a plane wreck. True, his Bat Project installation is a resonant comment on Sino-US relations - but on another level, hey, it was a spy plane full of bats.

Another ambitious installation which offered a large measure of wonder along with any geopolitical comment was the British Pavilion at Venice. Sculptor Mike Nelson built a trademark warren of rooms inspired a 17th century traveller's inn in Istanbul. Lengthy queues at the 54th Biennale suggest there was a real appetite for this magical brush with the Islamic world.

And 2011 could not have been further away in September as an intervention by Pablo Bronstein took the ICA back to its 19th century roots. A main exhibition space became a Regency courtyard, which the Argentine artist populated with a pose-striking dancer. The effects were both serious and deconstructive and, in an archaic sense, quite gay.

A photo of blocks of sculpture in an alleyway during the day
Oleg Bilenchuk, architect's impression, Copeland Book Market© Oleg Bilenchuk
Away from such transports of delight, 2011 was a good year for low-fi art. Despite the recession, it was boom time for art in Peckham and when the money did come to London during Frieze week, a new emerging art fair pitched up in Mayfair.

Evidence, should it be needed, that South London is thriving includes the Copeland Book Market in June which drew 20 publishers and galleries, plus untold scenesters, and the Peckham Artist Moving Image festival in September. A dozen venues took part; no sponsor required.

One of the more interesting developments of the year took place 15 minutes' walk from Frieze Art Fair, as Sluice rocked up in South Molton Lane. Unlike most art fairs, it offered a platform to not-for-profit spaces and peaked with a panel discussion about the nature of such events.

So there is room for optimism, if you believe in technology as a utopian force. Social media is beginning to level the playing field between those with and without budgets. And the culture of the web influenced four more of the year’s most notable projects.

The Palm D'Or at Venice went to what might be compared to a 24-hour YouTube clip. The Clock, by Christian Marclay, launched late last year but really took off in 2011 as public institutions across the world bought up the mesmerising, crowd-pleasing piece of supercut cinema.

An image of a computer graphic of white landscapes against a black background
Simon Faithfull, Limbo (2011)© Simon Faithfull
It may not have been on everyone's radar, but artist Simon Faithfull is also pushing boundaries with a work called Limbo. This ten-year project saw the launch of a web site and iPhone app earlier this year. So now anyone with access to the internet can browse or receive quirkily addictive drawings made solely with handheld devices.

And finally, at Halloween, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard tied a virtual event to a real life light sculpture as Romeo Echo Delta hit the airwaves. This was one part update of the War of the Worlds from 1938, and one part analysis of the way news stories grow. Listeners in the North West would have seen a sinister red beam over Birkenhead.

In these post-postmodern times, technical innovation may be the only kind left to us. Media art offers hope, but not much of it. In February, Cory Arcangel hacked 14 game consoles to ensure that as many pixelated players were bowling gutterballs on a loop. The work at Barbican was amusing and poignant, but does not give us much to look forward to.

Read Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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