Articles

Best of 2017: Our Top 20 Exhibitions Around the World

We traveled around the world this year to look for some of the best art exhibitions and found some gems in Germany, South Africa, Spain, UAE, UK, and beyond.

View of Christodoulos Panayiotou, “Untitled” (2017), at Sharjah Biennial 13. Amarelo Vila Real granite, various pseudomorph minerals, 18 ct yellow gold, 18 ct white gold, silver, waxed polyester thread and paulownia, leather and leatherette boxes, various dimensions (courtesy of Rodeo, London, and the artist, image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation)

This year may have brought out some of the worst in humanity, but many of us found inspiration and solace in art. This list is the best of what we saw around the globe and reminds us that great art and curation continue to make an impact on the world. From larger themes (Russian Revolution) to major biennials (Sharjah) and smaller shows, we were traveling a lot this year and present our favorites.

1. A Hundred Years of the Russian Revolution (Various)

A view of works by Malevich at REVOLUTIJA: From Chagall to Malevich, from Repin to Kandinsky at MAMbo (Bologna) (photo by Ari Akkermans for Hyperallergic)

Various dates

One Hundred Years of the Russian revolution was an unavoidable theme, with many exhibitions around the world showcasing art from the period, offering different layers of historical and political commentary. Two exhibitions in Yekaterinburg delivered the best commentary without actually referencing the revolution directly: Soothsayers of Oncoming: Russian avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s, at the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts, focuses on a narrow period, and while it doesn’t have any of the big pieces from major museums, its strength lies in showing many lesser known, previously unseen, pieces by Russian artists from Malevich to Lentulov to Exter to Goncharova across a range of styles. All the pieces were drawn from the collections of local museums. The 4th Ural Industrial Biennial curated by Joao Ribas, on the other hand, embodied with its topic, new literacy, the kind of (post)industrial revolution that contemporary societies are undergoing and the new forms of knowledge emerging with them, addressing the difficulties of historical change. Works by Alexandra Paperno, Forensic Architecture, Where Dogs Run, Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, or Harun Farocki set the stage for a profound meditation on politics, technology, and history — the heart of avant-garde movements. Some remarkable historical exhibitions outside of Russia completed the picture: A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art not only displayed the museum’s impressive (its Malevich and Lissitzky collections, for example, are unparalleled), but also gave a prominent critical place to women artists (Goncharova, Popova, Exter), and showcased material culture and publications from the period. REVOLUTIJA: From Chagall to Malevich, from Repin to Kandinsky, curated by Evgenia Petrova and Joseph Kiblitsky recently opened at MAMbo, is perhaps one of the most comprehensive surveys of Russian art (on loan by the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg) from the period; yet many key pieces in this exhibition, from Malevich to Matyushin, from Sebebriakova to Larionov and Kandinsky, have not been seen even in Russia in a long time. It encompasses all the periods and styles within the movement, and it’s constructed as a timeline, so you can watch the transition all the way from their early radical demands against representation, to the beginnings of Soviet social realism. —Ari Akkermans

2. Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017 (Münster, Germany)

Installation details of Nicole Eisenman’s “Sketch for a Fountain” (photo by Alpesh K. Patel for Hyperallergic)

June 10–October 1

For this fifth edition of the decennial, founded by Kasper König and Klaus Bussmann in 1977, over thirty public art projects were commissioned and strewn throughout the city of Münster, located in the northwest of Germany. Pierre Huyghe’s contribution After a Life Abroad,” involved taking over a ice rink, which closed in 2016, and transforming it into what he refers to as a “network of self-organizing systems” — including algae, bees, and cancer cells whose growth is dependent on sensor readings of the surrounding environment. Particularly noteworthy is Nicole Eisenman’s “Sketch for a Fountain”: plaster and bronze, standing and reclining, larger-than-life figures whose gender is ambiguous. Though it has been vandalized more than once, the city has decided it will keep this work permanently. Alpesh K. Patel

3. The Other’s Gaze: Spaces of Difference at the Prado (Madrid)

Rosa Bonheur, “El Cid” (1879), oil on canvas, 95 x 76 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado (via Prado)

June 14–September 10

The Other’s Gaze: Spaces of Difference made visible aspects of queer histories and imagery in iconic works in their collection, among them Caravaggio’s “David With the Head of Goliath” (c. 1600). Rather than segregating the works, curator Carlos Navarro presented an introductory text and visitors could find the works with a special museum map. Supplementary labels were placed besides the existing ones, and provided information related to artists’ biographies, history of collecting, or iconography — I wish those special labels would remain permanently on display. Visitors could choose to follow this itinerary or encounter the texts, mirroring the dynamics of invisibility and disclosure of queer sexualities. For those who were unable to see the show, I would also recommend the excellent exhibition website and catalogue.  —Miriam M. Basilio

4. Definitely Monochrome at the National Gallery (London)

Titian, “Portrait of a Lady (‘La Schiavona’)” (c.1510-12), oil on canvas, 119.4 x 96.5 cm, The National Gallery, London (Presented through The Art Fund by Sir Francis Cook, Bt., in memory of his father, Sir Herbert Cook, Bt., 1942
© The National Gallery, London)

October 30–February 18, 2018

Probably the biggest surprise of 2017’s exhibitions was the National Gallery’s thoroughly left-field, almost non-survey of the history of painting in grisaille. Its poster featured a greyscale copy of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, yet this doesn’t hint at the astonishingly diverse — and at times obscure — selection crammed in the display spanning art history from the specific religious function of medieval altarpieces, through to more wider-influencing developments such as the emergence of print and photography. What a pleasure too to finish on Olafur Eliasson’s brilliant ‘Room for one colour’; a welcome contemporary piece in an institution too often associated with dusty centuries past.Olivia McEwan

5. Inextricabilia, enchevêtrements magiques at La Maison Rouge (Paris)

Anonymous, “Nala Charm from Madagascar” (undated) (image courtesy of Musée du Quai Branly, Paris)

June 23–September 17

Inextricabilia, enchevêtrements magiques was impressive for its display of visual styles that stressed the compositional imbroglio of entanglement. The show wickedly mixed contemporary art with magical charms, sorcerers’ amulets, witchy spell thingies, and other knotty cultural objects. Included were numerous anonymous creations: a human skull trophy from Borneo, a voodoo Nikisi divination statue from the Congo, an undated Nala charm from Madagascar, and multiple 18th-century French and German reliquaries. One of the most powerful entanglements was a Doton magical amulet from Togo (Lome) that was created before 1832. Even when understanding the art historical context of the contemporary art of Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager, their work here took on the associative voodoo of anti-modern non-causality. Also effected were mysterious string sculptures by Judith Scott and eccentric pieces by Arthur Bispo do Rosario, Pierrette Bloch, Cathryn Boch, Jules Leclercq, Man Ray, The Philadelphia Wireman, Marc Moret, Michel Nedjar, Virginie Rebetez, and Borbála Remmer. Ending the show was Michel Nedjar’s cunning wall installation of twisted “Dolls” (1998), in which hexing disorder and spell-like savagery jostle each other, vying to preside over an emergence of the grotesque that is typical of the private dream register. —Joseph Nechvatal

6. Michelangelo and Sebastiano at the National Gallery (London)

Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo
“Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà)” (c. 1512-16), oil on poplar, 248 × 190 cm (Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo)

March 15–June 25

My heart sank when the National Gallery announced what looked like another excuse to shoehorn a ticket-selling artist’s name into a show in actuality about something else, and indeed there’s no denying Michelangelo solidly comes off as the undisputed genius in this exhibition examining his friendship and rivalry with contemporary painter Sebastiano del Piombo. What a joy then that solid, convincing examples of real collaboration, fallings out, and deliciously Machiavellian manoeuvring to further their own careers takes centre stage in the form of drawings provided by Michelangelo, realised by Sebastiano in paint, and compelling letters between the political movers and shakers. —OM 

7. Candice Breitz’s Love Story at KOW (Berlin) 

Installation view of Love Story (image by Alpesh K. Patel for Hyperallergic)

April 29 – July 30

When visitors descend into the basement of the gallery, they find projected on a large screen well-known actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore acting out the narratives of six refugees in front of a green screen. The artist Candice Breitz has edited the film to a little over seventy minutes so the individual stories tend to get lost. One more level below, refugees themselves tell their stories across six much smaller screens. The videos are each several hours in length and demand a different kind of attention from viewers. That Breitz stages the individuals in front of  green screens, too, suggests this seven-channel video installation is a commentary on the modes through which viewers are willing to empathize with others as much as it is a critique of Hollywood. —AKP

8. Verboámerica at the Museum of Latin American Art (Buenos Aires)

Yeguas del Apocalipsis, “Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas)” (1989) (all images courtesy Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires)

Permanent Installation

The reorganization of a permanent collection isn’t always an occasion worth visiting, but that wasn’t the case with Verboámerica at the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires (aka Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, MALBA). Contemplating whether Latin American art can be classified according to movements commonly associated with European or American art movements, the exhibition instead chose to focus on the recurring themes that keep Latin America so tethered to its colonial past. So many of the images within this show were reminders of the violence and political instability that persists across the region today — from arresting photographic images assigning a serial number to members of a native Amazon tribe, to the larger-than-life mixed-media paintings of Argentine figurative artist Antonio Berní. Interspersing well known masters among contemporary icons like Julio Le Parc and Lygia Clark, the show manages to reshape the dialogue surrounding Latin American art without completely reinventing the wheel. —Nicole Martinez

9.  You & I at A4 Arts Foundation (Cape Town)

The Propeller Group, “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music” (2014), Film 21 min 15 sec. (via contemporaryand.com)

September 13–November 30

The A4 Arts Foundation inaugurated its multipurpose space in Cape Town with this playful, semi-interactive group exhibit featuring a roster of local and international artists, both young and old. In a city marked by historical segregation and exclusion, this show curated by Ziphozenkosi Dayile and Kemang Wa Lehulere, asked visitors to question notions of community and in doing so, served as a platform for questioning how art could function in such a contested space. This was articulated through photographs, interactive sculptural installations and a series of live performances, screenings and discussions that included work by Yoko Ono, Zanele Muholi, Santu Mofokeng, Glenn Ligon, Moshekwa Langa, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Malick Sidibé, and The Propeller Group among others. —Rob Scher

10. Sharjah Biennial 13 at the Sharjah Art Foundation (Sharjah, UAE)

Joe Namy “Libretto-o-o: A Curtain Design in the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love (2017) (image by Seph Rodney for Hyperallergic)

March 10—October 22

The Sharjah Biennial this year was one of those singular art events that not only made looking at art feel like an adventure, but also a learning process. The breadth and depth of the work was staggering and through it all the film, video and installation work kept surprising at every turn. It was once a commonplace platitude to say that painting is dead, but the work in this biennial did convince me of the bounty of innovation available in these other media, as well as the superabundance of meaning available from artists and institutions practicing in West Asia. —Seph Rodney

11. Anne Imhof’s “Faust” at the German Pavilion in the Venice Biennale (Venice)

Anne Imhof’s “Faust” at the German Pavilion (photo by Paddy Johnson for Hyperallergic)

May 13–November 26

The Venice Biennale always presents at least a few fantastic offerings, but this year’s stand-out beat pretty much everything else I’ve seen this year. “Faust,” a four hour opera (and Golden Lion winner) by Anne Imhof, and hosted at the German Pavilion deftly alludes to the German legend by the same name, suggesting that the knowledge we gain as a result of the internet might come at too great a price. Outside the pavilion caged Doberman Pinschers stand guard, while inside a handful of performers dressed in black athletic wear perform underneath and on top of a transparent glass stage, bare but for a handful of cell phones, chargers, and other personal electronics. The whole thing reads like an act of ritualistic endurance, as the performers often move and and around semi-transparent glass, creating a ghost like presence. That ghostly quality is a bit outside the otherwise omnipresent health-goth aesthetic of the performance — an aesthetic that seemed to further the idea that sensitivity and vulnerability need not preclude the possibility of toughness and anger. —Paddy Johnson

12. Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War at Haus der Kulteren der Welt (Berlin)

Lene Berg, “Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of Woman with Moustache, facade-banner” (2008) (image courtesy the artist and HKW)

November 3, 2017January 8, 2018

In June 1950, The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was established in West Berlin by a group of writers tasked with amassing an “anti-authoritarian” intellectual community to counter the specter of Soviet influence after the Second World War. The group went on to establish offices in more than 30 countries, subsidizing countless cultural programs from Europe to Latin America to Africa to Southeast Asia, establishing a complex network of journals, exhibitions and art works covertly supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). At HKW, the vastness and enormity of their efforts is tackled in a new exhibition, Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War, which presents perhaps for the most comprehensive overview to date of how the CIA used front organizations such as the CCF to entangle the art world in what became known as the “battle for Picasso’s mind.” Bringing together archival materials with works by contemporary artists, the exhibition investigates how the CIA promoted modern art movements, such as abstract expressionism and the work of modernists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, as a means of establishing soft power to express aesthetically ideals of freedom and liberty. —Dorian Batycka

13. The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (Auckland, New Zealand)

Gottfried Lindauer, “Pare Watene” (1878), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mr H E Partridge, 1915 (image courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

October 22-February 19

This beautifully hung exhibition gave visitors important lessons on New Zealand’s colonial past, told through some very dynamic lives of its indigenous people. Bringing together the largest assembly of portraits painted by Gottfried Lindauer, a Czech immigrant to Aotearoa, it revealed fascinating aspects of traditional Māori culture but also underscored how complex relationships between Māori and colonists were. Most importantly, curators Ngahiraka Mason and Nigel Borell thoughtfully considered what this representation meant for Māori at the time: they were not only portraits, but images that asserted power and identity during traumatic times. The confidence and dignify of each sitter, seen together, was overcoming. —Claire Voon

14. Zach Blas’s Contra-Internet at Gasworks Gallery (London)

Zach Blas, “Contra-Internet” (2017), installation view (commissioned by Gasworks; Art in General, New York; and MU, Eindhoven, image courtesy the artist, photo by Andy Keate)

September 21–December 8

Just because the internet’s infrastructure is invisible doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Zach Blas’s Contra-Internet solo exhibition at Gasworks Gallery in London smartly refrains from bloviating about the dangers of social media and digital communications in the Trump era; instead, he focuses on reifying the economic architectures of power that dominate today’s web. The queer “contra-internet” Blas desires will only come when we destroy our current digital landscape. This new network is a polyphony, a digi-web of ostensibly plagiarized radical manifestos that nevertheless aim toward true freedom from government and corporate surveillance. With the annihilation of net neutrality, we are closer to a dystopian digital future than ever. Blas suggests we scrap the whole thing and find some electro-queer enlightenment. —Zachary Small

15. Les Éclaireurs at four museums in Avignon, France (Avignon, France)

Yinka Shonibare MBE, “Egg fight” (2009) at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France (image Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

May 19, 2017–January 14, 2018

The Palais des Papes, a stark medieval fortress that, for six decades during the 14th century, was the residence of the Popes and the seat of Christianity, makes for a stunning backdrop for this exhibition of contemporary African art drawn from the collection of holiday lighting mogul Jean-Paul Blachère. The palace is the show’s main venue, making for dramatic juxtapositions like an El Anatsui sculpture of recycled metal draped in the center of the popes’ ornate filing room, or the two gun-toting mannequins in a Yinka Shonibare MBE installation facing off in the palace’s grand audience room. Though the exhibition includes some underwhelming works as well, the impact of the strong pieces is enormous, from the bewitching, mutated clay figures of Senegalese sculptor Seyni Awacamara to the startling weavings of Nigerian Australian artist Nnenna Okore. A personal highlight was also a small, colorful, architectural construction by the Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez, whose upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is one of the shows I’m most looking forward to in 2018. —Benjamin Sutton

16. Late Polishness: Forms of National Identity after 1989 at Ujazdowski Castle (Museum Of Modern Art/CSW) (Warsaw)

Installation detail of Peter Fuss’ Santo Subito (2007/2017) (photo by Alpesh Patel for Hyperallergic)

March 31–August 6

Art and visual culture have always played a pivotal role in establishing national identities, the starting point of a recent exhibition at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. The exhibition, Late Polishness: Forms of National Identity after 1989, brings together the work of over 30 contemporary artists who untangle the complex history of Polish identity from below, inclusive of queer and feminist narratives, to forms of identity repressed since the nationalist-Catholic rightwing ‘Law and Justice’ Party (PiS) came to power in the autumn of 2015. The exhibition detourns many of the central images, symbols, and figures associated with the patriotic propaganda of official PiS Polish history, using ideas informed by postcolonialism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism that instead emphasize how Polish culture has been influenced by religious and sexual tolerance, diversity and openness to other cultures and religions. Case in point being Karol Radzeszewski’s “Insurgents” (2011), a work originally commissioned by the Warsaw Uprising Museum, but censored on account of authorities deeming it too erotic, displayed in the Late Polishness exhibition on a much larger scale than had been originally planned. The exhibition comes at an especially important time in the country. With the ruling party deliberately supporting divisive right-wing cultural policies that severely undermine the rights of immigrants and refugees, the exhibition serves as a counterpoint to narrow interpretations of Polish identity according to ancestral heritage and Catholic religious denomination. Accordingly, the exhibition foregrounds how the problems of cultural identity and the past are playing out in the present, at the same time underlying how tensions between art, ideology, and geopolitics are causing intense divisions within Poland and Europe more broadly. DB

17. Adrian Paci’s “Interregnum” at Protocinema (Istanbul)

Adrian Paci’s “Interregnum” (2017) on view at Protocinema’s Beyoglu space (image Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

September 9–October 14

Adrian Paci’s film project gave me hope, which might seem like a strange thing to say about a project that focuses on the official funerary footage of various 20th century dictators, but even in the staged choreography, the cracks seem obvious, as the despair of the public seems contrived, and the images seem to have lost some their power in retrospect, like canned laughter in early television sitcoms. It’s a good reminder that the power of centralized regimes dissipate when their leaders are gone, and the theater that propped up their regimes look hollow after the fact. As I wrote back in October, “The master dies and the slave weeps. It’s a reminder that we can only let go when the threat disappears, like children fearful of an abusive parent, the processing and healing can only take place somewhere else, when the trauma subsides.” In Turkey, where this was shown, it’s pretty clear who Paci is subtweeting, and I’ll give you one hint, his initials are RTE. —Hrag Vartanian

18. Kudzanai eChiurai’s We Live in Silence at the Goodman Gallery (Johannesburg)

Kudzanai Chiurai, “We Live in Silence XV” (2017), pigment ink on fibrer paper, image: 173.5 x 130cm; paper: 193.5 x 150cm, edition of 10 (via Goodman Gallery)

August 31–October 14

In We Live in Silence, Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai reformulated the familiar African colonialism narrative through a series of arresting staged images, which subversively place black women in positions of power and victim hood typically reserved for men. The exercise, which involved working with a large production team to produce a set of photographs and slow moving videos, is Chiurai’s rejection of inherited versions of history. Chiurai was successful in this endeavor thanks to his use of familiar tropes drawn from popular culture and art history to inspire the imagination. —RS

19. Rabih Mroué’s “The Pixelated Revolution” at Ramallah City Hall (Ramallah, Occupied Palestinian Territories)

A still from the screen presentation at “Pixelated Revolution”

August 14, also performed September 15 in Haifa, Israel

The artist Rabih Mroué would not have been allowed into Palestine since he is Lebanese, so his solution was to train a Haifa-based writer and performer, Asmaa’ Azaizeh, in Berlin to take his place. The result was a fantastic production that drew attention to the limits of the internet, the circulation of images, the power of art to overcome challenges, and the fact that theater — and performance lectures — can help us understand how digital revolutions not only worm their ways into our imagination, but offer another voyeuristic battlefield for audiences around the world. I thought this was the highlight of the Ramallah leg of Sharjah Biennial 13, and deserved a shout out by itself. Also, the power of Mroué’s work in this context was pitch perfect, particularly at a time when the once hopeful tone of the internet has been replaced by the troll-laden reality that we live in today. —HV

20. Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980’s to Now at Mori Art Museum and National Art Center (Tokyo)

Jompet Kuswidananto, “Words and Possible Movement” (2013) (via sunshower2017.jp)

July 5–October 23

Exhibited at the Mori Art Museum and the National Art Museum in Tokyo, Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980’s to Now was a marvelous survey show of art from the region. 86 artists and several collectives represented the diverse mix of ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religions that coexist side by side. But what was most compelling were the nine sections — beginning with the struggle for decolonization from the 1940s through the 80s in many Southeast Asian countries, to more recent concerns with democracy, freedom of expression, and the reappraisal of identity by a current tech savvy generation — that mapped the ASEAN countries’ (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) remarkable art scene. —Bansie Vasvani

Honorable Mentions

Tali Keren’s The Great Seal at CCA Tel-Aviv (Tel Aviv)

Tali Keren’s The Great Seal at CCA Tel-Aviv (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

June 15–August 19

This exhibition was a pleasant surprise, but it was also very very disturbing. Keren mines the extensive archive of US evangelical speeches at the annual summit of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and creates an eerie digital experience that gives you the illusion of speaking to conference’s right-wing audience. The result is strangely exhilarating, as she focuses on the theater of persuasion, but she also includes the historical aspects of contemporary Christian Zionism (for instance, Thomas Jefferson designed a “Great Seal” for the US that depicted Americans as Israelites flees the Egyptian Pharoah). Curated by Yael Messer, I hope this project is seen far and wide, particularly since all these issues very much inform our contemporary reality. —HV

Wenzel Hablik – Expressionist Utopias at Martin-Gropius-Bau (Berlin)

Wenzel Hablik, “Self-Supporting Cupola with Five Mountain Peaks as Base” (1918/23/24), oil on canvas, 166 x 191 cm (© Wenzel-Hablik-Stiftung, Itzehoe)

September 2, 2017–January 14, 2018

Nobody expects a blockbuster show from Berlin’s often dusty Martin-Gropius-Bau, but deliver they did with Wenzel Hablik – Expressionist Utopias. The crystalline clarity of this exhibition effortlessly illuminates a long-undervalued player in German art. Wenzel Hablik, a technicolor utopian from the early 20th century whose early work waves between pointillism and a fauvist palette, may initially seem more like a follower than a leader. Yet the latter half of his career is an exquisite, unrestrained adventure into paradise. Explosive images of the cosmos. Cavernous glass structures reaching toward the sky. This is a rare exhibition that requires little help from wall texts to convey its message of constructing a better world. The proof is in the pigments. —ZS

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