Contemporary art in review 2012: Major shows, spots, games, Biennials and the apocalpyse

By Mark Sheerin | 18 December 2012
Colour photo of an artist dressed as a farmer looking back along a hilltop road
Bedwyr Williams, The Hill Farmer (2011)© Bedwyr Williams. Courtesy Ikon Birmingham
Perhaps our minds were sharpened by the approach of the end of the Mayan world, but 2012 was a year in which a number of British artists got their dues.

Damien Hirst for example, whose fame had not yet rewarded him with a major retrospective, staged the Tate Modern blockbuster he once avowed he would never have. The patchy show broke records for a living artist with 463,000 visitors, and surely the most expensive gifts in the exhibition shop.

Meanwhile contemporary British art’s other household name was appointed Professor of Drawing at the RA. If Tracey Emin had a good year in 2011 with a show at Hayward, things only got better in ’12 as she added a romantic show in her hometown (at new Turner Contemporary) to her newfound academic creds.

Two more artists fast becoming equally well known also had landmark years. Grayson Perry proved that transvestite potters can get along with all social strata as he presented an insightful, profile-raising three part series on class for Channel 4.

Colour photo of a snack bar installed in a gallery
Jeremy Deller, Joy in People (installation view)© Linda Nyling. Courtesy Hayward Gallery
Jeremy Deller, meanwhile, proved that lack of technique is no obstacle to a great art show. His theatrical survey at the Hayward came complete with reconstructed teenage bedroom and working tea bar.

Deller also had a hand in the rehabilitation of one man institution Bruce Lacey. This was the year the art world was reminded of the existence of one of its wittiest octogenarians with a revelatory show at Camden Arts Centre. He was also the star of a beguiling hour-long film by Deller and documentary maker Nick Abrahams.

A non-British octogenarian also made a splash at Tate Modern. This was Yayoi Kusama who left her psychiatric ward in Tokyo to attend the opening of a show which was literally dotty. Her trademark spots were something of a motif this summer as similar spot paintings by the aforementioned Hirst were displayed simultaneously in all of Gagosian’s eleven galleries around the world.

Another grand old lady of art, Yoko Ono, divided critics with her show at Serpentine. And taking into account the Picasso blockbuster at Tate Britain, it seemed as if the art world was determined to look back a few years.

Indeed the very shop window of contemporary art, Frieze Art Fair, was eclipsed for many by the new addition of a show of less than contemporary work next door in Frieze Masters.

With our national focus, Culture24 may be biased, but as usual there was plenty of great work on display in the regions. What’s more it was new.

Colour photo of a gallery filled with pebbles on chequerboards
Mark Wallinger at BALTIC (installation view)© Colin Davison
Bedwyr Williams brought his sardonic sense of humour to Ikon and the gallery sandbagged up their entrance in his honour. Mark Wallinger put on a bewilderingly ambitious show at BALTIC, including 65,536 pebbles set on 1,024 chequerboards. YBA painter Jenny Saville, meanwhile, was given her first major public gallery show at Modern Art Oxford.

But weeks later, news from the Oxford gallery shocked the UK arts community, as it heard about the passing of talented young director Michael Stanley. And he was not the only casualty of 2012, as artists Franz West, Chris Marker, David Weiss, Jeff Keen and Mike Kelley all sadly died this year as well.

Ultimately, no matter how many deaths or how good the work 2012 will not be remembered for its art. Most Brits can now probably name more Olympic athletes than contemporary artists. But with the culmination of a four-year long Cultural Olympiad, the London Games were a lot more cultural than they ever had a need to be.

Colour photo of a narrowboat with young passengers
The Slow Boat departs from Ikon Birmingham© Ikon Birmingham
To take a sample of the wares, Frieze magazine brought uncompromising public sculpture to the six host boroughs in the East End. And Ikon sent a barge down the Grand Union Canal to Chisenhale Gallery, where it brought together young folk from both the West Midlands and Tower Hamlets.

But shortly after the quadrennial festival of sport, the UK welcomed back its largest biennial festival of art. Highlights of the Liverpool Biennial, included a film installation by John Akomfrah and a coach tour of an inner city regeneration zone. But despite the wealth of worthy art to be seen, compared with its previous incarnation, the 2012 festival felt a bit scaled back. A sign of the times, perhaps.

Tatton Park Biennial, meanwhile, goes to strength from strength, as curators Danielle Arnaud and Jordan Kaplan prove adept at eking out site specific potential from the Cheshire Stately Home.

By way of looking forward to 2013 and beyond, it’s worth mentioning two new spaces which opened this year. The first, Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, pleased more architecture fans than local fishermen. And the second was an underground film and performance space at Tate Modern called the Tanks.

Colour photo of two hooded pupeteers
Spartacus Chetwynd put performance on the Turner Prize shortlist© Spartacus Chetwynd/Sadie Coles HQ
Reviews were more widely positive, and the interest in performance art appears to be a laudable reaction against the hyper-inflated art market. One-such artist, Spartacus Chetwynd, was even the first to ever take performance onto the shortlist for the Turner Prize this year.

Her work is unsettling, almost as spooky as a Mayan ceremony, but it could signal winds of change are a-blowin’ through the art world. As collectors become more and more tarred with the brush of the dreaded one per cent, we can expect an interesting 2013. That’s assuming we get there.

Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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