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The 2021 Best Exhibitions List

We present our annual round-up per a list of exhibitions seen over the year (near and far; although the pandemic imposed some limitations on the "far" part) that made a significant impact and impression on us and could be counted as favourites of the team.

Tora Schultz Larsen, Stranger Inside, MFA graduate exhibition, Royal Institute of Art

10. Graduate exhibitions: Tora Schultz Larsen, Stranger Inside, MFA graduate exhibition, Royal Institute of Art (Mejan), January 25 February 1, Stockholm Nicola Godman, The Spirit, The Lamp & The Permanent Inhabitant, MFA graduate exhibition, Konstfack, February 4 – February 14, Stockholm Annie Hägg, Play Bow, BFA graduate exhibition Amazegallery, Stockholm, May 15 May 28 Karin Lindstén, the catcher / always home, MFA graduate exhibition, Royal Institute of Art (Mejan), April 9 8, Stockholm It’s easy to imagine people sometimes walking in to see art on art school premises from let’s say behind a subconsciously inflicted “reductive veil” that lets them relate to art, if really good, as though really good for being just that; “art school art”, made at a still early stage of an artistic practice. However, accomplished work is naturally not necessarily at all subject to a timeline of any kind. That was very much felt this year where some of the grad exhibitions that made a lasting impression were substantiated by work that in our view would surely hold its own alongside the output of seminal artist figures at the best of institutions, far beyond the “current” locales of presentation.

While an unusually expansive exhibition, spanning across both and not just the standard fare of one of the gallery rooms inside Galleri Mejan, Tora Schultz Larsen’s Stranger Inside presented as a concoction of gendered history, occultism, popular culture, sex and ingenious wry humour. In its best parts, which arguably were so strong as to alleviate shadow on some few minor parts, there was the feeling of seeing epochal art; such for the surveying books signed Phaidon or Hatje Cantz of where sculpture “is” today. Her The Devil’s Contract putting modified Prada stilettos on a pedestal is as impressive in this regard as it is towering.

Karin Lindstén, the catcher / always home, MFA graduate exhibition, Royal Institute of Art

Karin Lindstén at the same school (she too made use of both gallery rooms) presented a minutely transfixating twilight-zone-like display based on light, shadow, the colour blue, moving imagery and flickers of sound that so well rendered the imposing state of suspension in wide-awakedness. The tie-in affective experience, imperceptible at first, grew on you once after, lingering on, and probing subsequent thought about what had actually been seen. A point of departure for the artist has been the ramifications of light pollution in contemporary cities on the night sky. While that’s certainly very intriguing and a commendable entry into existential queries on ownership, it could as well be beside the point as the real pull was physically being balmed into rich visual poetry and blissful perplexity, based on very precise and impressive technical and meta-layered staging and execution.

Annie Hägg, I PSXCARE (2021), still from video

Due the pandemic, Annie Hägg presented a hors-série BFA solo away from the art academy in Olso, opting instead for her current whereabouts that were Stockholm, per way of Nicole Walker’s apartment-based Amazegallery. A centerpiece, the video I PSXCARE began with the apparition of the artist clad in futuristic armor (think The Matrix), found in stark contrast with her surroundings in a non-descript residential area, seemingly with a vengeance about garbage management. The work artfully morphs from apparent “heightened” reality into animated video game “reality”, with a voice-over narration addressing urban city planning and pollution. The contrast between subject matter and chosen form, supported by a dreamy lullabying sound score by the artist’s frequent collaborator, fellow artist Hannes Ferm, felt invigorating and like a wry, and possibly unintended mirror of the frivolity certain existential threats are met with.

Nicola Godman, The Spirit, The Lamp & The Permanent Inhabitant, MFA graduate exhibition, Konstfack

Nicola Godman’s The Spirit, The Lamp & The Permanent Inhabitant video install saw an austere and crisp Haneke-like cinematic-display; the exterior and interior of an architecturally designed home on the Swedish island of Gotland. The artist masterly casts a mood of The Shining-like proportions as you watch the camera eerily panning around this house, devoid of human presence. This removal of the human also presents as a key jist as the work apparently would appear to stem from an interest of calling to mind unequal distribution of wealth and property. What does it say when a house like the one on view remains empty with its proprietors privileged to use it merely as recreational home? And on a note more specific to the island; what becomes the relationship between the permanent inhabitants and the recreational period-stayers? What does it mean to fully give yourself to a place in the world while others can pick the cherries and the icing and run with it at heart’s desire?

Lydia Östberg Diakité & BamBam Frost, immortal summit, MDT. Photo: Märta Thisner

9. Lydia Östberg Diakité & BamBam Frost, immortal summit, MDT, November 11–21, Stockholm

Despite the dance scene having been hit really hard by the pandemic, the last couple of months of the year saw traction gained and a small boom with some anticipated performances finally meeting an audience. A standout from beginning to end was the joint work of Swedish dancer/choreographers Lydia Östberg Diakité and BamBam Frost at MDT. Electrifying at times, occasionally even borderline menacing in most exciting fashion. The two looked like total lady bosses exuding attitude in matching denim wear and sunglasses. To quote back at what we wrote when attending the premiere: “My mind was running wild! Ferocious moves that made me think of being back on grappling mats, rolling in and out of intricate holds.” Minimalist is well and all, but sometimes you just want to see powerful movements and be reminded of what the human body is capable of. And this was one of those moments at very best.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, Bring Back Lost Love, Göteborgs Konsthall. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler

8. Kemang Wa Lehulere, Bring Back Lost Love, Göteborgs Konsthall, February 9 – August 15 2021, Gothenburg

The South African interdisciplinary artist Kemang Wa Lehulere blew it out of the water with this exhibition. Göteborgs Konsthall presented an array of imposing sculptural works like Black Forest (2021) and Conference of the Birds (2017-2021). The artist also presented a series of colourful landscape sketches bringing forth the artistic heritage and memory of Gladys Mgudlandlu. To create the landscape sketches Kemang Wa Lehulere applied a call and response method (commonly associated with jazz music). Weaving the personal with the collective, the works bring forth a part of history that shaped South Africa but if remain untold risk standing on brink of perdition from the collective memory. The wall-mounted leather briefcases and crutches reflect on the inherent limitations of the act of movement – the state of being forced into exile something which is a part of the South African past. In When the Walls Fall, so Do the Writings on Them (2018), wood from salvaged school desks with students’ carvings still visible pile up to form a wall guarded by black china dogs and amongst them casts of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s aunt's hands are placed around the installation, representing different letters of the sign language alphabet. The work reflects upon the impact of the apartheid regime on the country’s school system but also the violence of the past that still makes it hard to talk about. Kudos to Göteborg's Konsthall for their work with this delectable exhibition.

Teresa Solar, El tiempo de las lombrices, Galeria Joan Prats

7. Teresa Solar, El tiempo de las lombrices (Time of worms, or the infinite powers of the subsoil), Galeria Joan Prats, September 15 - November 20, Barcelona

During this year's edition of Barcelona Gallery Weekend we had the opportunity as a whole team to view Teresa Solar’s second solo show at Galeria Joan Prats. The magnificent sculptural piece Tuneladora (2021)

which consist of a pair of navy blue to white resin fins, extending from what seems like a pile of grey ceramic mud, takes center stage on the gallery floor. At the core of her latest works are the ceramic sculptural figures Hermafroditas (Hermaphrodites, 2021) which in way resemble oyster shells. The material of choice evokes nature’s raw materiality and lie in stark contrast to the bold fluorescent monochrome coating of the sculptures cavities which rather bring to mind a more industrial quality likening material used at construction sites. These are otherworldly amorphic creatures waking up, reaching up to the surface. Are they extra-terrestrial or sub-terrestrial? As the sculptural works’ title implies that they are in defiance of any form of determination and thus unencumbered in their freedom, they possess to assume any shape or form.

Sissel Tolaas, RE________, Aastrup Fearnley, Oslo. Photo: Christian Oen

6. Sissel Tolaas, RE________, Aastrup Fearnley, August 10 – December 30, Oslo

A highlight towards the very end of the year and possibly the most original art experience, extending to sensory triggers beyond the usual was prominent Norwegian Berlin-based artist and smell researcher Sissel Tolaas’s solo exhibition at Aastrup Fearnley, counting as her most extensive presentation to date. We’ve been fascinated with Sissel Tolaas for quite a few years and the exhibition alone would have been worth the visit to Oslo. The bar was set pretty high already by the entrance when given a sample bottle of “the fragrance of money” instead of an ordinary paper entrance ticket. A+ for apt details. Inside on two levels; understated visual elegance and divine smells from scent blocks resting on podiums made to approach, as well as diffusing from a large scaffolding-like process installation alluding to Chemistry class. Refreshingly sparse in terms of artworks, allowing the few works to command the vast space and to really be engaged with. When you see as many exhibitions as we do annually, it’s rare to see something that really feels unique and stands out from most else, like this. Smell and fragrance are underrated and underrepresented notions in art. If that didn't occur before, it certainly did while and after.

Katharina Grosse: Chill Seeping from the Walls Gets Between Us (exhibition view), 2021/ Photo: HAM/Hanna Kukorelli

5. Katharina Grosse, Chill Sleeping from the Walls Gets Between Us, HAM, June 8 – January 23, Helsinki

Coinciding in time with the inaugural Helsinki Biennial on the Vallisaari island, in which Katharina Grosse was a “headlining” name, was this larger-than-life exhibition of Katharina Grosse. While not at all a retrospective, it bore the same capacity of one in so far effectively demonstrating the honed craft of an artist and her own distinctive visual language as a painter and exploration of the potentialities of the painting medium. Two branches of work were presented; a labyrinth-like installation of monumental photograph-printed fabrics in HAM’s northern hall; a study relating to the aftermath and residues of the process and making of actual physical painting. The other in HAM’s southern hall was an immersive spatial display of reportedly over a thousand metres of painted cloth draping from the ceiling and extending down over the floors. Something to get lost in, and something to physically become a part of through movement, with ever changing visual perspectives at hand. It was glorious and for a moment in time, nothing else mattered.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: The Politics of Relation, MACBA. Photo: Miquel Coll

4. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Felix Gonzalez-Torres: The Politics of Relation, MACBA, March 26 – September 19, Barcelona

Let’s be direct; entering the major retrospective of the late and ever so relevant Cuban American Felix Gonzalez-Torres at MACBA was a jaw-dropping moment already from the outset and following the prior anticipation. A long-standing favourite of the team, this was the first time being able to sink into large numbers of works at once, beyond key works repeatedly seen in institutional settings, and many also for the first time in person, not even seen before on images. Generously spread across several of the aerial rooms on the upper level of MACBA, the show was a strong reminder of Felix Gonzales-Torres’s seminal capacity as an artist; his conceptually-driven practice marked by its generosity towards its audience and community and the often mere ingenious simplicity it takes for his work to hit at the core. While displaying most of the iconic works such as Untitled (Perfect Lovers), consisting of two identical synchronized wall clocks installed side by side or the allegorical stacks of lollipops and wrapped candy for visitors to take, it’s the less known works that were the greatest takeaways from the show. A retrospective the way you always wish them to be; extensive, familiar yet unfailingly surprising, ultimately pushing your rapport with and understanding of the artistry in new ways.

Daniela Ortiz: The Rebellion of the Roots, 2021. Installation view Kölnischer Kunstverein, 2021. Courtesy: Collection AkzoNobel Art Foundation. Photo: Mareike Tocha

3. Daniela Ortiz, Nurtured by the defeat of the colonizers our seeds will raise, Koelnischer Kunstverein, October 13 2021– January 30 2022, Cologne

Peruvian-born Daniela Ortiz’s solo brought thought to how to sometimes best disseminate pivotal but complex discourses and narratives; i.e. by lowering the threshold of their reception through form that instantly pulls you in and lets you engage at once. Humour sometimes is key in this regard which Daniel Ortiz appears well-aware of when extensively presenting anti-racist and anti-colonial visual stories using children’s books aesthetics. Take her work, The ABCs of Racist Europe, the pages of which were on view and is an actual book created to educate children in order to denounce racist conditions in the world. In pages based on illustration and collages, M is for Mediterranean and declares how The Mediterranean is a sea where white European middle class enjoys their holidays while in the same sea more than 50 000 migrant people have died or disappeared. Furthermore, P is for police protect and makes according to the artist for the privileges of white people with European passports. Daniela Ortiz’s confronting power holders responsible for institutional and structural racism and bringing light to various colonialisms that persist still in present day truly is as much never-ending fun as it genuinely is enlightening. The agreeably sparsely installed exhibition space presented textile puppet-like sculptures as well, in line with Daniela Ortiz's alleged interest of steering away from the usual aesthetics of Eurocentric conceptual art.

Anne Imhof, Sex, 2021, x-rummet, SMK, Courtesy kunstneren og Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Køln/New York; Sprüth Magers. Photo: Frida Gregersen

2. Anne Imhof, Sex, x-rummet, SMK, April 12 – August 29, Copenhagen

Suffice it to say, Anne Imhof’s carte blanche exhibition Natures mortes at our favourite Palais de Tokyo in Paris appeared as t h a t exhibition this year that by at all cost should really have been seen, and regretfully it wasn’t. However, her film-based exhibition at SMK in Copenhaagen offers a lot of solace still and was deeply satisfying. Presented inside x-rummet; SMK’s experimental venue for contemporary art, at 3,5 hours’ length, SEX presented as Anne Imhof’s first major film and the fourth chapter of the serial work SEX. Essentially the film derives from mediated footage of the first chapter in the shape of the SEX performance that was carried out at Tate Modern in 2019, extended with a sound score, co-signed Anne Imhof’s frequent collaborators Eliza Douglas and Billy Bultheel. In terms of optics, you know what to expect from Anne Imhof and her cast but this sort of core-shaking art experience that hypnotically keeps you on the edge, making hours feel like minutes is rare. The density of sound in relation to space had you feeling like you were meant to follow that inner urge to get up on your feet and join in, in some sort of impromptu choreography of your own in front of that massive screen, aroused in the senses, Pied Piper of Hamelin-style. It felt profound and the fact that video snippets of the exhibition have been “revisited” over and over again on the Iphone afterwards this fall, and continuously rendering a prolonged sense of satisfaction must be a testament of Anne Imhof’s command over her audience.

1. All hail a brilliant double bill:

Naeem Mohaiemen, Jole Dobe Na, February 20 – September 5 Zenib Sedira, Standing Here Wondering Which Way To Go, June 19 - October 24 Bildmuseet, Umeå

Naeem Mohaiemen, from the exhibition Jole Dobe Na. Courtesy of the artist and Bildmuseet.

Zenib Sedira, Standing Here Wondering Which Way To Go. Courtesy of the artist and Bildmuseet. Photo: Mikael Lundgren

These were two exhibitions we were almost not about to see. The panic that dawned upon us the moment we realized Bildmuseet, a world class university campus museum in the north of Sweden, was closed during our short visit this summer... But we’ve never been very shy with pulling strings while travelling, when needed to, to see good art. Having followed the museum programme from afar and applauded many of the curatorial choices made in recent time, the double bill on view exceeded all our expectations. If Naeem Mohaiemen’s solo exhibition with the very poetic title in Bengali Jole Dobe Na (Those who don’t drown) brought attention to the history of Bangladesh by way of photographic archives, artefacts and collective memory, French-Algerian London-based Zenib Sedira’s elaborate Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go in a similar fashion shed light on crucial historical events in her parents’ native Algeria. While the two exhibitions were quite different in form; Naeem Mohaiemen’s visually austere and Zenib Sedira’s warm and very inviting with an impressive 1:1 replica of her own London living room as the centerpiece, both were equally eye-opening. In both instances, there were overlooked histories that don’t make part of mainstream and commonplace discourse and which really resonated with us on a personal level as diasporic children.

Ashik Zaman, Koshik Zaman & Corina Wahlin


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