It’s hard enough compiling best-of lists for single cities — try the world. Our international picks span 11 cities from Taipei to Mexico City, and amount to a small sampling of notable art shows mounted this year. In our various travels, we came across boldly political work, researched retrospectives, and ambitious exhibitions that considered overarching themes like motherhood in art.
#1 – Slavs and Tatars, Mirrors for Princes: Both Sides of the Tongue at New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi Art Gallery
February 28–May 30
#2 – All the World’s Futures at the 2015 Venice Biennale
May 9–November 22, 2015
The Venice Biennale’s main exhibition was a sprawling look at art and politics from a curator, Okwui Enwezor, who takes chances and often succeeds. Oscar Murillo, Theaster Gates, Hans Haacke, Raqs Media Collective, Katharina Grosse, Kutluğ Ataman, Wangechi Mutu, Chris Ofili, and many others never looked better than they did in Venice this year. What I appreciated was the risk-taking. Inviting an activist group like Gulf Labor was tricky, and various artist pairings — like Bruce Nauman and Adel Abdessemed, also Isa Genzken and Walker Evans — were not obvious but worked surprisingly well. It was clearly not a Eurocentric show (though Enwezor has been based in Europe for quite some time) and politics was treated as an integral part of the systems that impact art-making and circulation. I left inspired knowing that the art world can shift its perspective from the convention … sometimes. Also, it’s good to see how the popularity of the main exhibition continues to grow (501,502 visitors in 2015 compared to 475,000 in 2013). —HV
#3 – The Great Mother at the Palazzo Reale (Milan)
August 26–November 15
This vast exhibition was packed with major works by big names — Kara Walker, Sarah Lucas, Nari Ward, Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and even Jeff Koons, for some reason — but what made it so timely and engrossing was curator Massimiliano Gioni’s inclusion of works by lesser-known artists (Leonor Fini was a personal favorite) and political ephemera. Entire rooms and display cases were devoted to 19th-century objects from the suffragette movement, artists’ placards from the Italian feminist movement, and, conversely, historic pamphlets extolling the virtues of traditional femininity. At a time when gender roles are becoming ever more fluid, just as conservative forces redouble their efforts to control women’s bodies, The Great Mother offered some much-needed perspective. —Benjamin Sutton
#4 — Kyiv Biennial (Kyiv)
September 8–November 1
I suspect the Kyiv Biennial neither will be remembered for the civic unrest in Ukraine in 2014 that led to its postponement, nor for the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture’s withdrawal of promised funds six months before it was to open in 2015. Rather, it will be notable for the tireless efforts of the intrepid group running The Visual Culture Research Center that the realization of the biennial can be largely credited; and for the Biennial’s quirky format of integrating the exhibitions with what the Biennial website refers to as “arenas of public reflection,” platforms for academics, activists, artists, and the public. Indeed, despite the fact the Biennial has officially wrapped up, the latter continue in cities across Europe. —Alpesh Patel
#5 – A Century of Centuries at SALT Beyoğlu (Istanbul)
March 10–May 24
This group exhibition, made-up of solo presentations in dialogue with each other, confronted moments of trauma, transformation, and transition from the past century that still resonate in the present. Formed around an ongoing video project by Turkish artist Didem Pekün, the exhibition addressed ruptures in this long century — specifically between 1915 (the Armenian Genocide) and 2015 (the Syrian civil war and the immigration crisis) — as sharing the same historical space. Including work by other artists — among them Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Chto Delat?, and Kapwani Kiwanga — the show was simultaneously an extended investigation on the current intersection between temporality and art, and a survey of the current momentum in Turkey. —Ari Akkermans
#6 – The Hong Kong Art Scene
This year, the Hong Kong art scene is to be commended for its under-the-radar, brave, but extremely strident voice supporting freedom against political and ideological opposition, while maintaining the appearance of being just a normal bustling commercial hub. A spate of shows emerged from the new South Island Arts District in the Wang Chuk Hang neighborhood of Hong Kong Island. Yallay Gallery and Rossi and Rossi mounted provocative exhibits, bringing Tibetan, Syrian, Pakistan, and Afro-Asian artists to the forefront. These include paintings by Tenzing Rigdol that metaphorically depict the horrific self-immolations (now over 140) occurring in Tibet; Fadi Yazigi, who continues to reside in Damascus, Syria, making art despite the raging war all around him; and Rasheed Araeen, a Pakistani, London-based artist who highlights Afro-Asian, postcolonial racial oppression. I would like give an honorable mention to Blindspot Gallery (also in South Island Arts District) for its touching presentation of photography and video by South Ho Siu Nam with the show good day, good night, which explored the poetic and durational aspects of Occupy Central. —Ellen Pearlman
#7 – Agnes Martin at Tate Modern (London)
June 3–October 11
Walking through the first major retrospective of Agnes Martin’s work since more than 20 years was a mind-blowing experience. This immaculate exhibition featured Martin’s early and little-known works, tracing her development from biomorphic abstraction to the minimal grid and striped canvases she’s become famous for. It was also the occasion to see the rarely screened film Gabriel (1976), which follows the wanderings of a boy in rural New Mexico, reminding us that what human beings ultimately need is beauty and happiness. The exhibition is travelling in 2016 to Los Angeles (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and to New York (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). —Francesco Dama
#8 – Carlos Motta: Patriots, Citizens, Lovers… at the Pinchuk Art Center (Kyiv)
October 31, 2015–January 10, 2016
Commissioned by the Future Generation Art Prize, an award New York City-based Carlos Motta won in 2014, his Patrions, Citizens, Lovers… can be seen as part of his larger oeuvre that unearths queer histories and activism while refusing to present them as separate from other discourses, in this case Ukrainian nationalism. Working with a journalist familiar with lesbian, gay, bi-, transgender, intersex, and queer activists, Motta interviewed 11 subjects about LGBTQ issues in times of war. Played on a monitor with headphones for intimate viewing, each interview is sensitively edited and avoids becoming didactic and sensational. —AP
#9 – The Other Edge: Geometric Painting in Peru (1947–1958) at the Museo de Arte de Lima
March 25–May 31
Geometric abstraction appeared in Peru more than three decades after its birth in Europe. But the movement still had a powerful role to play, as the wonderful exhibit The Other Edge: Geometric Painting in Peru (1947–1958) at the Museo de Arte de Lima demonstrated. It was a delight to encounter paintings by the likes of Benjamín Moncloa and Jorge Piqueras, who turned from realistic figures and landscapes and began instead exploring unfettered colors and shapes. These artists’ vibrant works didn’t merely replicate what had already come out of Europe, Russia, and the United States; they also introduced a uniquely Peruvian flavor to the genre — and transformed Peru’s cultural landscape along the way. —Laura Mallonee
#10 – And away with the minutes: Dieter Roth and Music at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum (Berlin)
March 14–August 16
And away with the minutes: Dieter Roth and Music was about the prolific noise music projects of legendary and influential German-born Swiss artist Karl-Dietrich Roth (a.k.a. Dieter Rot and Diter Rot). The show was complemented by the comprehensive Edizioni Periferia edition box set catalogue raisonné of Roth’s work as musician and music publisher. In the course of the research for this show — carried out jointly by Kunsthaus Zug, the Hochschule für Musik / Musik-Akademie Basel, and Edizioni Periferia over a period of several years — a large amount of unpublished material was brought to light from the artist’s archives in Iceland, Hamburg, and Basel. This material includes numerous audio and video recordings, such as the dramatic “Münchner Konzert” (1974) that was performed in Munich’s Lenbachhaus, and Roth’s solo “Quadrupelkonzert” (Quadruple Concerto) (1977), performed at the Basel Music Academy. As part of this research project, 25 hours of interviews with Roth’s co-musicians were recorded, and, if in a tipsy holiday disposition, I particularly recommend Roth’s woozy brass arrangement “Abschopf Symphonie” (1979) and the virtuosic “November Symphonie” (1974). —Joseph Nechvatal
#11 – Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum
May 30–September 6
#12 – Kara Walker: Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First at Victoria Miro (London)
October 1–November 7
After years spent seeing bits and pieces of Kara Walker‘s oeuvre here and there, viewing her work at Victoria Miro in London was a revelation. I felt a connection that was my own — not mediated by hype or condemnation of her work — with her subject matter, skill, and passion. Much of the work had to do with American history.
Like Walker, I’m an American and I study history as well as experience it. But I’m also white and older than Walker. So the history was the same — but not at all the same.
Seeing her work in England brought both the sameness and the differences into blazingly high relief. Thank you, Ms. Walker. —Janet Tyson
#13: GCC: A Wonderful World Under Construction at Sultan Gallery (Kuwait City)
March 10–April 2
#14: Yo, El Rey at the Museo Nacional de Arte (Mexico City)
July 1–October 18
Catering to both art history nerds and mere history nerds, Yo, El Rey (“I, the King”) brought together over 200 paintings, sculptures, miniatures, tapestries, and decorative objects to chronicle the evolving visual iconography of the Spanish monarchy from the 16th century up through Mexican independence, and in so doing offered a thorough account of Mexico’s colonial history. As rulers and dynasties shifted, and certain traditions of art gained or lost favor — from the dour, dark Spanish mode of painting to the frilly, colorful French style — certain symbols, icons, and conventions remained constant, giving the exhibition’s galleries the feel of an immersive timeline. In its later rooms, the contributions of Mexican-born artists offered a refreshing perspective, their double-edged relationship to their European rulers (and patrons) often apparent in their historical, portrait, and landscape paintings. —BS
#15: Till I Get It Right at LABOR gallery (Mexico City)
July 10–September 11
Till I Get It Right stood out as a seamless multidimensional collaboration between artist, curator, and gallery. Interdisciplinary, interactive, international, and intergenerational, the show represented a multifaceted effort by curator Tim Goossens and LABOR gallery to explore the abstractions of “achievement,” or the illusive tangible success we strive for in the West. At once melancholy and hopeful, Till I Get It Right was a mash-up — a mix tape and a love letter dedicated to our beautiful and imperfect struggle toward an imagined Ithaca. The show was a sort of double appropriation, inspired by and featuring Ceal Floyer’s seminal sound work born from Tammy Wynette’s 1972 country hit, suggesting that success and failure are both fetishized as constructs of a capitalist regime, which displaces them as unattainable — hypotheticals that exist only in the future and past. While the show’s title reflects a particularly Western obsession with being right, it also suggested that personal freedom is attained through trail and error. —Devon Van Houten Maldonado
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