The World in Fragments

With global politics poised at several precipices at once, the international art scene seems preoccupied with globalism and transgeographic exchange this spring.

Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna III, 2016, Video installation. Courtesy of the artist. From the group exhibition Our World is Burning, Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

If there’s one thing the art world loves more than exhibitions about the effects of globalisation it’s racking up frequent flyer miles getting to those same exhibitions. If this sounds like you, then you’re in luck this spring. With global politics poised at several precipices at once, the international art scene seems rather germanely preoccupied with globalism and transgeographic exchange.

Artists from the Global South have gained prominence in the institutional landscape and in galleries, and this is nowhere more visible than in Paris. On 21 February Palais de Tokyo launches an exhibition series titled Fragmenter le Monde (Fragmenting the World), which opens with a highly anticipated group show titled Our World is Burning, curated by director of the Arab Museum of Modern Art (MATHAF) in Doha, Abdellah Karroum. Produced in collaboration with MATHAF, Our World is Burning is a rambling exploration of contemporary artistic production from and engaging with the Persian Gulf. The exhibition broaches the topics of political conflict and ecological disaster, but also looks hopefully towards incendiary moments of revolution, most notably the Arab Spring. The list of artists includes several names not normally associated with art of the Middle East; Danh Vo, Raqs Media Collective, and Francis Alÿs, for example, show alongside artists with clearer connections to the the region, such as Shirin Neshat, Yto Barrada, and Kader Attia. At the same time, the Palais will open solo shows by Ulla von Brandenburg, Nicolas Daubanes, and Kevin Rouillard.

Fragmenter le Monde continues throughout 2020 with solo and group exhibitions addressing a range of subjects which are generally, if not always accurately, associated with cultural production in the Global South: economic and environmental injustice; colonial legacies and postcolonial identity; situated knowledge and eco-feminism. One can’t help but see this strong anti-hegemonic orientation in the context of France’s recent cultural politics, in particular the 2018 Sarr Savoy Report on the restitution of cultural heritage objects looted from Africa. Commissioned by President Macron, the report concludes that France is obliged to return thousands of pillaged artefacts. This leaves policy makers and curators alike with a lot of thinking to do about the legacy of colonialism in visual culture.

Galerie Imane Farés, a small space in Paris’s Saint-Germain gallery district, picks up this mantle commendably with a programme of African film and video art curated by Brussels- and Lubumbashi-based filmmaker Rosa Spaliviero. Featuring work by Sammy Baloji, Tiécoura N’Daou, Bakary Diallo, Abdoulaye Armin Kane, François Knoetze, and others, La Quinzaine de la vidéo (The Fortnight of video), uses the theme of dreams as a vehicle for explorations of migration, ecology, the digital world, and colonial heritage in the work of a selection of artists in and connected to Africa. The programme runs from 15 January to 4 February, and films on view are changed every two to three days.

Francois Knoetze, Core Dump – Dakar, featuring Bamba Diangne, 2018. Production still by Anton Scholtz. From La Quinzaine de la vidéo at Galerie Imane Farés, Paris.

A short train ride away, in Brussels, thematic group exhibitions give way to moody and meditative solos, with WIELS having just opened Monsoon Melody, an exhibition of recent paintings and films by Thao Nguyen Phan. This exhibition offers a poetic glimpse into the environmental politics along the Mekong River in Phan’s native Vietnam. Particularly in her films, one sees Phan’s interest in literary modes of storytelling; fiction and absurdities blend with history in perfectly cinematic moments, and borrowings from regional folk tales imbue what would otherwise be dry critique with a seductive softness.

In spite of the worthiness of Phan’s presentation, you’re much more likely to have heard about WIELS’s new headliner show, Today is the First Day, by Wolfgang Tillmans. Astonishingly, this is Tillmans’s first solo exhibition in Belgium – one would think he’s already been everywhere in Europe – and takes us on a journey through, in the artist’s words, “what it feels like to be alive today.” The exhibition features many of the series for which he is renowned, documenting underground scenes and everyday life in some of the most unexpected places. The show also includes several new bodies of work. Today is the First Day runs until 24 April and Monsoon Melody until 26 April.

Thao Nguyen Phan, Mute Grain, 2019. Three-channel film installation. Courtesy of the artist. From the solo exhibition Monsoon Melody at WIELS, Brussels.

If you’re in Brussels between 22 January and 4 April, pay a visit to the gallery Mendes Wood DM to see an extensive solo show by the Brazilian artist Solange Pessoa. Titled In the Sun and the Shade, this is Pessoa’s first solo exhibition in Europe (a long-overdue acknowledgement) and offers a comprehensive introduction to her use of organic forms and materials in sculpture and installation.

Yet another first – and another short train ride away – is Mexican artist Carlos Amorales’s solo at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Titled The Factory, this is Amorales’s first retrospective exhibition in Europe and covers work from the 1990s until the present day, including a new commission. The understated backbone of this exhibition is Amorales’s Liquid Archive, a digital bank of vector images which recur in his work in different forms, and from which others have borrowed (with permission from the artist). Amorales sees this as a riff on what he calls “the globalized assembly line” of our neoliberal world, a decentralised “factory” that has “gotten a bit out of hand.”

Carlos Amorales, from the The Factory at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, 2019. The exhibition is on view at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam until 17 May 2020.

In Amorales’s hometown, Mexico City, Galleria OMR presents a solo exhibition by the Danish artist group Superflex (Jakob Fenger, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, and Rasmus Nielsen). Titled There Are Other Fish in the Sea, this exhibition of new sculptural installations addresses the accumulation of value, spatial borders, and ecosystems.

In the Anglophone world, the blockbuster spirit is strong, but small rewards abound if you know where to look. Until 9 February, you can bask in the cathode hum of a massive Nam June Paik retrospective at Tate Modern in London. This comprehensive exhibition situates Paik’s work within the globalisation of media technologies, going so far as to suggest that he foresaw the internet. Also in London, Camden Arts Centre opened solo exhibitions by Vivian Suter and Athanasios Argianas on 17 January. Since a prolific appearance in Documenta 14 (2017), Suter is well-loved in the art world for her take on plein air painting: she paints in the wilderness of Guatemala on unstretched canvases, and leaves her works hung outdoors to catch traces of their natural surroundings.

William Kentridge, from the exhibition Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture, at Norval Foundation, Cape Town. Image: Dave Southwood. Courtesy of Norval Foundation.

If you’re very serious about frequent flyer miles, it’s worth considering a trip to Cape Town to see William Kentridge’s vast double retrospective, Why Should I Hesitate? This presentation is split into two exhibitions taking place at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and the Norval Foundation, and focuses respectively on the centrality of drawing and sculpture in Kentridge’s practice. Both shows run until 23 March. While in Cape Town, be sure to visit Blank Projects, a gallery that began as an artist-run space and still has an experimental bent. On 23 January Blank opens a two-person show by Igshaan Adams and Sabelo Mlangeni that looks at the complexities of queer identities in the world’s peripheries.

Across the Atlantic, in New York City, you can still catch Hans Haacke: All Connected at New Museum until 26 January. This mega-retrospective is proof, if anyone needed it, that institutional critique has been imbibed by the institution. This overlaps by a few days with a new sculptural commission by Latvian artist Daiga Grantina, which opens on 21 January. Titled What Eats Around Itself, this site-responsive work consisting of moulded silicone, fabric, and paint is inspired by the biological processes of lichen.

Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (detail), 1995. Fiftyone-channel video installation. Courtesy of Nam June Paik Estate. On view until 9 February at Tate Modern, London.

Perhaps of greater relevance to the lens of globalism, and echoing Palais de Tokyo’s offerings, is an exhibition at MoMA PS1 that looks at the cultural impact of the American military presence in Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 is an encyclopaedic survey of contemporary art from Iraq and the Iraqi diaspora, and from artists based further afield whose work responds to the wars. Through its breadth of coverage, this exhibition offers both an illuminating overview and a cautionary tale while the United States courts war with Iraq’s neighbour.

The exhibition has also been the scene of a political confrontation between Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz and MoMA. On 13 January Hyperallergic reported that Rakowitz paused his video work demanding that two of MoMA’s trustees, Larry Fink and Leon Black, divest their shares in private prison companies. The paused work is accompanied by a plaque with a statement from the artist indicating that plaque and paused video are now modifications to the work and should not be altered until Black and Fink divest. The museum has ignored the artist’s wishes, unpausing the video and removing the plaque.

Jamal Penjweny, Saddam is Here, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.