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    The U.K.’s Asian-Focused Esea Contemporary Museum Reopens With a More Diversified Staff and Program—But Skepticism Lingers

    The light was back on and jovial chatter was heard again at the corner of Thomas Street in the U.K.’s Manchester this month. After a long hiatus, one of the most prominent centers dedicated to Chinese contemporary art in the west has reopened its doors with a new identity that embraces much wider East and Southeast Asian roots.
    Esea Contemporary opened with a group exhibition called “Practise Till We Meet,” which was a demonstration of the center’s determination to start all over again. Featuring an ensemble of ethnically East and Southeast Asian artists presenting bodies of work that explore the diasporic experience, as well as trauma, this modest exhibition is a deliberate move to bid farewell to its past life as the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art.
    The venue went through a major overhaul following the art community’s allegations of institutional racism (the center’s former management team and its board of trustees was dominated by white names) that nearly got the non-profit defunded. But some are not sure the institution has gone far enough.
    “Practise Till We Meet” (2023) installation view, at Esea Contemporary. Photo courtesy Jules Lister.
    The launch event also coincidentally coincided with the re-opening of the Manchester Museum after a £15 million ($18 million) facelift, which now includes the U.K.’s first permanent gallery dedicated to South Asian art. Although London remains the largest home to Asians, according to a 2021 census, the region that encompasses Manchester also has one of the highest presence of Asian populations in the U.K. Asians, including Chinese and other Asian ethnicities, are among the second biggest ethnic groups in Manchester.
    The selection of works and artists in Esea’s debut show “Practise Till We Meet,” curated by the Guangzhou-based independent curator Hanlu Zhang, can be interpreted as a statement for the center’s direction. Although most of the works on show are not new, they address current, unresolved issues facing many in the Asian diaspora.
    Koki Tanaka, Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) (2018), commissioned by Migros Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jules Lister.
    Memorable works include Koki Tanaka’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) (2018), a multi-channel video installation that charts the discrimination, violence, and trauma experienced by the Korean diaspora in Japan, descendants of Korean migrants who came to the country during various wars. The honest discussion about their psychological struggle with their hybrid identities is particularly moving.
    A colorful series of photos—Matter Out of Place (2017-2018), Souvenir (2018), Unhide Diego Garcia (2018)—by the Manchester-based Audrey Albert, a native of the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, who has Chagossian origins. With these poignant works, she introduces the audience to the lesser known history about her displaced roots.
    Isaac Chong Wai, Two-Legged Stool (2023), commissioned by Esea Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jules Lister.
    Liu Weiwei’s mixed media project Australia (2017) tells the story about the artist’s younger brother Liu Chao, who is adamant about emigrating to Australia. Although the project was created nearly six years ago, Liu Chao’s determination to leave his native China echoes today amid the recent “run movement” in the country, which is seeing Chinese people fleeing their home country.
    Berlin-based Hong Kong artist Isaac Chong Wai presents Two-Legged Stool (2023), the only new work commissioned by Arts Council-backed Esea Contemporary. The work, which creates an optical illusion of a stool that appears to be two-legged from one angle, and three-legged from another, references the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1980s remarks about the complicated relationship between China, the U.K., and Hong Kong. “There have been talks of the so-called three-legged stool. [There are] not three legs, only two legs,” he had noted. The work is shown alongside Chong’s acclaimed video series Rehearsal of the Futures: Is the World Your Friend? (2018), which depicts the slow body movements seen in protests and the police’s tackle of demonstrators.
    While the show attempts to serve as a platform for diverse narratives, and while efforts have been made to be inclusive (the curator’s statement in Chinese is printed in traditional Chinese characters, which are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than simplified characters adopted in mainland China), some members of the East and Southeast Asian communities in the U.K. that Artnet News spoke with remain skeptical about the center’s re-launch.
    A viewer admiring Audrey Albert’s work Matter Out of Place on show at exhibition “Practise Till We Meet” at Esea Contemporary. Photo: Jules Lister.
    The new Asian presence in the institution’s leadership appears to include members who are predominantly of Chinese heritage. “What about the representation of other cultures from East and Southeast Asia on the management level? I would prefer to wait and see what they are going to do next,” said one Manchester-based East Asian culture practitioner who declined to be named.
    In response to such concerns, an Esea Contemporary spokesperson said they “welcome the community’s engagement and reflection to help us achieve what we are setting out to construct: a platform for the ESEA art community at large.”
    “We plan to work with a diverse range of guest curators across future projects, as well as continuing efforts to grow our board of trustees, staff team and artistic advisory panel,” the Esea spokesperson told Artnet News.
    There is reason for optimsim; the center’s director Xiaowen Zhu is busy cooking up big plans for the coming year. Two more shows have been planned, and she is looking into diversifying the center’s programming to include more live, in-person events.
    “No terminology is perfect in terms of representation. We hope we are doing the right thing. We are also figuring things out along the way,” said Zhu. “People’s excitement and curiosity are definitely very encouraging for us.”
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    The Big-Budget Sharjah Biennial Tackles Postcolonial Fallout With Beauty, Sentimentality, and a Sense of Triumph

    In Billy Sings Amazing Grace (2013), Theaster Gates, renowned archivist and lesser-known vocalist, wails and croons in a darkened auditorium alongside the white-haired and stoic soul singer Billy Forston. In its profound sonic resonance, their video performance of improvisational gospel is one of many highlights in “Thinking Historically in the Present,” the recently opened 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial.
    Like the show as a whole, the piece is a work of intimate, visceral storytelling, in both mournful and celebratory turns. Featuring about 300 works from more than 150 artists and collectives, including 70 new commissions, the excellent “Thinking Historically” is biennial director Hoor Al Qasimi’s homage to the late and well-loved Okwui Enwezor, who was originally appointed curator before his passing in 2019.
    In her catalog essay, Al Qasimi reflects on Enwezor’s groundbreaking decolonial legacy, citing his 2002 approach to Documenta 11 as “a lodestar in my curatorial consciousness.” Validating artists outside the canon’s narrow purview, his work had offered her a glimpse into a wider world of possibilities, unhindered by “the social myopia” of Eurocentrism.
    Theaster Gates’s Billy Sings Amazing Grace (2013). Photo: Janelle Zara
    Nodding to Enwezor’s decentralization of Documenta 11 across five cities, the Sharjah Biennial spans five towns across the emirate, in venues that include the polished galleries of the capital city, and the peeling classrooms of a disused kindergarten along the coast.
    A full generation since Enwezor’s groundbreaking exhibition in Germany, the participating biennial artists contend with what are now-familiar themes: the aftermath of empire, foreign extraction, and slavery among others. 
    “Thinking Historically” is a welcome antidote to the academic tropes of recent biennials, some of which, like the Berlin and Istanbul Biennials in 2022, were filled with research-based projects with few formal merits. In the rich textures of works like Ibrahim Mahama’s monumental tapestry, A Tale of Time/Purple Republic (2023), or the gnarled, blackened branches of Doris Salcedo’s Uprooted (2020-2022), form is the defining feature, not an afterthought in service to a predetermined message. (Their scale, which is grand, also indicates just how well-funded this biennial is.) 
    Ibrahim Mahama’s A Tale of Time/ Purple Republic (2023) Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Kalba Ice Factory (2023). Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo: Motaz Mawid
    Like many biennials, Sharjah’s exhibition is video-heavy, ranging from the heart-wrenching simplicity of Erkan Özgen’s Wonderland (2016), a searing account of the Syrian Civil War, to the sumptuousness of Isaac Julien’s immersive black-and-white cinematic installation, Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2022). The show’s weaknesses lie in concept-forward paintings that suffer from a lackluster handling of paint, or photographs of state-inflicted strife that rest too comfortably in a photojournalistic lane. There is notably little, if any work that directly addresses Emirati exploitation of migrant labor.
    Yinka Shonibare’s Decolonised Structures (2022), a series of British imperial statues cloaked in the Dutch wax patterns of West African fabrics, succinctly captures the limits of a now-rote approach to dismantling the West. While its cosmetic intervention sits on the surface, the colonial legacy remains underneath, whole and untouched. 
    Other artists have moved beyond centering the colonizer, aspiring to deeper points of introspection. In Nosferasta (2022), a comically absurd and brilliantly acted 32-minute feature, artists Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer, and the Rastafarian musician Oba frame colonization as a profoundly internalized malady, frequently perpetuated by the colonized themselves. For their Rastafarian protagonist, colonization is akin to vampirism, and Christopher Columbus is a literal vampire. The true villain of this story, however, is the fraught pursuit of assimilation.
    Doris Salcedo’s Uprooted (2020-2022). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Juan Castro Photoholic
    The assimilation theme recurs in various acts of self-erasure, including the portrait series Léthé (2021), in which photographer Mama-Diarra Niang beguilingly dissolves her subjects’ distinguishing features into a smooth, faintly recognizable haze.
    In the video As British as a Watermelon (2019), Zimbabwean-born, British-based artist mandla rae shares shamed confessions, including the origins of scars both physical and mental, and the self-erasure of mispronouncing one’s name for European ears. “How colonized do you have to be to look at an African baby and call it Bridget?” they ask, handling the titular fruit with alternating tenderness and disquieting brutality. 
    Echoing Al Qasimi’s commemorative sentiments, homages to beloved predecessors abound, in monuments and imaginary museums, or Isaac Julien’s protagonist, captivatingly written as a composite of philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke and literary heroes Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, and James Baldwin. Throughout, the refusal of erasure amounts to asserting one’s place in history; it is honoring lineage, especially the legacies that the official record elides.
    Isaac Julien’s Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2022). Photo: Janelle Zara
    Gabriela Golder’s surprisingly charming Conversation Piece (2012) is ostensibly a tribute to the artist’s mother, veiled in the cool irony of two 10-year-olds reading The Communist Manifesto. “What does the bourgeoisie have to do with the discovery of America?” they ask their grandmother, Golder’s mother and former militant of the Argentine Communist Party. Her response exudes a commanding wisdom as she gently and convincingly dismantles the myth of discovery. 
    These works stop just short of excessive sentimentality, arguably the Sharjah Biennial’s most compelling feature. Sentimentality eschews drier forms of institutional critique, which lately feel expressly designed as punitive history lessons for white audiences. Rather than attempt to solve the ills wrought by centuries of empire, artists here lean into art-making as a restorative, generative process, one more adept at asking questions than answering them. 
    My personal favorite works tap into spiritual traditions, as in Gates’ wailing hymnal, or Carrie Mae Weems’ The In Between (2022-2023), a shrine that features a small library of Enwezor’s books and a vessel that appears to sail into the afterlife. Michael Rakowitz’s Borrowed Landscape (30.3193 ° N, 48.2543 ° E) (2023) was ostensibly a large-scale, loose reinterpretation of the Passover Seder, performed in a dust-blown field of decapitated palms in the desert town of Al Dhaid.
    Michael Rakowitz’s Borrowed Landscape (30.3193 ° N, 48.2543 ° E) (2023). Photo: Janelle Zara
    As Rakowitz read from an iPad to a crowd of several hundred people, he passed around objects culled from eBay that recalled the long-lost belongings of his family. Its simplicity was decidedly polarizing, but the performance struck me as a moving dedication to histories one can no longer access. The title’s coordinates refer to a site in Iraq where his family’s date trees stand similarly mangled as the palms that surrounded us.
    The artist designated this site as “a place to contemplate another,” speaking of the hyphen as metaphor, a suture between disparate points, but also between the “irreconcilable binaries” of his identity as an Iraqi Arab-Jew. He ended the piece with the biblical task of supplying an enormous crowd with roasted fish—masgouf, a national Iraqi dish dating back 3,000 years. When denied the right to return, to speak one’s history aloud and to share it with others is what keeps it alive.
    The Sharjah Biennial is on view until June 11, 2023.
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    Why It’s Worth Savoring Leonor Fini’s Enchanted Surrealism at Kasmin + Other Things to See and Read

    Well, one month of 2023 already gone. I started the year with a New Year’s Resolution to write a bit more about art outside of the automatically must-cover big shows or controversies. That’s hard—every pressure of media life pushes towards becoming a brain in a vat plugged directly into trending topics.
    But I do want to try! Despite the general bad vibes of our moment, people go on doing and saying interesting things and trying to figure it all out. We’ll see how the year goes. In the meantime, here are a few things I saw and liked, or read and felt worth recommending, in the last weeks.

    Things to See
    Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Leonor Fini at Kasmin
    Leonor Fini (1907-1996) is a Surrealist great, and also one of those figures who has been greatly under-appreciated. I mean, just a few years ago, it took New York’s Museum of Sex to give her a first big American retrospective. More recently, the Argentinian-Italian artist’s star has been ascendant, with her declaration that she wanted to be seen as a “witch rather than as priestess” making her perfect for the feminist-Surrealist vibe of the recent Venice Biennale. Kasmin’s mini-survey has Fini’s numinous, libidinal paintings accompanied by her theatrical self-made outfits, freaky masquerade ball masks, and even a pair of clip-on gold devil horns. The show contains magic, maybe in metaphorical and non-metaphorical ways.

    Installation view of Alfatih, “Day in the Life,” at Swiss Institute. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Alfatih at Swiss Institute
    The Switzerland-based new media artist’s slick, strangely engaging black-and-white digital animation in the basement of the S.I. centers on the doings of a seemingly super-intelligent cartoon baby, looping endlessly through different permeations of daily domestic rituals (cooking, taking a bath) within the confines of some kind of stylish domestic purgatory. If someone told me that I would be moved by something best described as—I dunno—“Yoshitomo Nara meets Spielberg’s A.I.” or “Limbo meets Boss Baby,” I wouldn’t believe them. But that’s why you don’t judge an art show based on pithy little riffs like that. A vignette where the enigmatic child plinks at the piano as rain pours and lightening strobes all around continues to circle in my brain long after I have left the cartoon creature to carry on with its own devices. More

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    An Extremely Intelligent Lava Lamp: Refik Anadol’s A.I. Art Extravaganza at MoMA Is Fun, Just Don’t Think About It Too Hard

    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is being touted as Artificial Intelligence’s triumphant arrival in the museum-art canon. So I went to see the splashy installation currently in the Museum of Modern Art’s ground-floor annex with a mission, to get a glimpse of what MoMA-approved A.I. art promises, or threatens, for the future.
    Born in Istanbul and currently based in Los Angeles, with a studio of more than a dozen people, Anadol was known for many years more for interactive public-art commissions than for work in museums and galleries. He boasts collaborations and support from the likes of Microsoft, NVIDIA, and Google. In the recent past, his stock has dramatically soared—which makes sense given the fact that his work engages with three trends that have lately shaken up the art conversation: immersive installation, NFTs, and generative A.I. “Unsupervised” combines a bit of each.
    Here is what you see at MoMA: A towering, high-res screen where abstract images morph hypnotically and ceaselessly. Sequences run a few minutes each, toggling between different styles of animation.
    The most crowd-pleasing of these simulates a seething, gravity-defying cloud of colorful fluid, the palette based on colors derived from the works in MoMA’s collection. New colors are constantly swirling into the image and taking over, the whole thing surging in and out restlessly, like a psychedelic, drugged-out ocean wave. The high-res screen renders the simulated rainbow gloop convincingly thick and dimensional.
    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.
    While this mode is the most visually memorable, it is also the one that has the least clear connection to the ostensible Big Idea of the show. “Anadol trained a sophisticated machine-learning model to interpret the publicly available data of MoMA’s collection,” the show’s description explains. “As the model ‘walks’ through its conception of this vast range of works, it reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been—and what might be to come.”
    This premise is more directly enacted in the other two types of animation, which are also harder to describe. One evolves endlessly through blobby, evocative shapes and miasmic, half-formed patterns. Sometimes an image or a part of an image briefly suggests a face or a landscape but quickly moves on, becoming something else, ceaselessly churning. It looks like this:

    A third type of animation does much the same, but with jittery networks of lines connecting different key points as the art-inspired shapes define themselves. I’m not totally sure what these vectors suggest, but they give the image texture and atmosphere. It looks like this:

    Art History, Without the History
    You definitely can tell, in these latter two types of animation, that “Unsupervised” is manifesting art-like images specifically inspired by some constellation of works in MoMA’s collection. However, despite a screen that appears as punctuation between sequences displaying dense graphics and data about what you are seeing, the exact operation is never really clarified.
    The ever-new, synthetic images of Anadol’s “Unsupervised” are blobby and chaotic, and look exactly like what art made via Generative Adversarial Networks most often looked like before the breakthroughs of DALL-E and its A.I. ilk captured the imagination of the public last year: Woozy, semi-random, art-like visual outputs, with wispy, unresolved edges. They look a little bit like preliminary sketches for art you might have seen in the original data-set (or in the galleries)—if you squint.
    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.
    The effect is pleasant. What it is not is anything like what MoMA says it is: an experience that “reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been.”
    MoMA has spent recent decades trying to move beyond the formalist ideas of art that it inherited from its founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. with his famous graph of Modernism as a bunch of styles mechanically branching off of one another. Generally, contemporary art historians would insist on rooting meaning in culture and context. Abstraction means one thing when its Gee’s Bend Quilts, another when it is Abstract Expressionism, still another when it is Tibetan sand painting, and still another when you put a bunch of images into an A.I. blender and remix them.
    It’s striking to see MoMA tacitly let a new high-tech formalism through the door, one even flatter and less historical than Barr’s—as if the curators were so excited by the wonders of A.I. that they didn’t notice. What the endorsement of “Unsupervised” as an alternative-art-history simulator insinuates, for its audience, is that art history is just a bunch of random visual tics to be permuted, rather than an archive of symbol-making practices with social meanings.

    Dreaming… Reimagined?
    Describing his works that use A.I. to make generative art out of huge datasets like “Unsupervised,” Anadol speaks of them as akin to “dreams” or “hallucinations.” But the terminology, once more, mystifies what is going on.
    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.
    As Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, citing Coleridge, in dreams (I guess I have to specify here, in human dreams) emotional causality is reversed: “Images take the shape of the effects we believe they cause. We are not terrified because some sphinx is threatening us but rather dream of a sphinx in order to explain the terror we are feeling.”
    But there is no emotional text to Anadol’s endless animation at MoMA. At most, the installation conveys a generalized awe at the machine’s superhuman capacity of visual analysis. (The fact that the soundtrack is a kind of shapeless, droning synthesizer score that is almost a cliché in “futuristic” video work doesn’t help.)
    I sat through two hours of “Unsupervised.” I can’t think of a single image in it that evoked any feeling in me besides curiosity about what it might be referencing. As one might expect, they are just aleatory acts of syntheses and recombination of properties, expressing nothing about anything in particular except for the machine’s ability to do what it is doing.

    Mis-recognizing Dystopia
    I would contend that scraping away the ill-considered metaphors (e.g. reimagined art histories, dreaming) helps to better see what’s really happening in front of your eyes.
    This would be nitpicking, though, if it weren’t for the fact that these poetic readings of the technology are selling us on a certain style of thinking about A.I. as a creative proposition, at a time when A.I. text-generation and A.I. image-generation are being deployed so fast that society is racing against the clock to catch up with the implications (as if “move fast and break things” hadn’t been discredited as a motto).
    It is because Anadol has created such a purely decorative, cheerleader-ish style of A.I. art—so different than the critical lens that artists such as Hito Steyerl and Trevor Paglen have brought to the subject in recent years, with great impact—that he received so much support along the way from the tech giants. Indeed, his positivity is probably an unstated condition of that support.
    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.
    In the last few years, I’ve noticed a pervasive and perverse rhetorical sleight of hand in the art-tech conversation. Call it the willful misreading of dystopia. You hear technologists reference artworks that are meant as sci-fi cautionary tales but, weirdly, purely as positive design inspiration, divorced from their prophetic moral or ethical substance. The recently trendy idea of the “metaverse,” which comes from Neal Stephenson’s grim take on virtual reality in Snow Crash, is an obvious example.
    Anadol is a notable dystopian mis-reader. When he refers to his works as “machine dreams” and “collective hallucinations,” he often says his inspiration is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In a TED Talk, he describes having his imagination fired by the moment in that movie when the android Rachael realizes that her memories are not real, but implants. “Since that moment,” Anadol says, “one of my inspirations has been this question: What can a machine do with someone else’s memories?”
    Blade Runner is a melancholy work about the uprooted sense of self and collapsing sense of reality in a future where humanity and machine are no longer distinguishable. None of this seems to register with Anadol, just the idea that machine-generated memories are cool.
    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.
    Anadol’s first work that used A.I. to generate infinite new outputs based on a massive dataset was Archive Dreaming, executed in spectacular installation form in 2017, as an application of the experiments he had been engaged with at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence Program. It looked at 1.7 million documents and generated ever-new images based on them.
    In that same TED Talk, Anadol claims that Archive Dreaming was inspired by Borges’s famous short story The Library of Babel, which envisions a universe that is one never-ending library, whose books contain every possible combination of characters. But The Library of Babel was an intellectual horror story, a parable about the nihilism that results when all meaning collapses into nothing. When the inhabitants of Borges’s library finally realize the implications of the world they live in, they commit mass suicide!
    Keep that in mind when you are sampling the bottomless brunch of art-like A.I. imagery at MoMA.
    Mainly, the point is that these science-fiction references are mined in the most superficial way—very much as MoMA’s archive is sucked up into “Unsupervised” as context-free visual inspiration. As a result, this style of art feels emblematic of a moment in which a tech aesthetic of perpetually novel gadgetry is culturally dominant while the humanities, with their unprofitable baggage of historical and moral concerns, are being allowed to wither.
    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.
    And Then There Are the NFTs
    Don’t get me wrong. “Unsupervised” is amusing enough on its own, if you look past the cloud of mystification. It’s a bit like an extremely intelligent lava lamp.
    But if it seems a little vacant, there is reason to suspect that MoMA is incentivized not to ask too much of it.
    With his background, Anadol was well-positioned to become one of the biggest stars of the NFT art scene during the crypto boom of 2021. In fact, his “Unsupervised—Machine Hallucinations—MoMA Dreams” line of NFTs based on MoMA’s collection is being sold on Feral File, the NFT marketplace from the well-respected art-technologist Casey Reas (one of Anadol’s former teachers at UCLA). “Ten years ago, when we asked, Can we mint machine memories and dreams in the blockchain of one of the world’s most inspiring archives? I wouldn’t have imagined that was possible,” Anadol enthuses in MoMA Magazine. “I mean it was a very Philip K. Dick idea, but I feel like we are, right now, truly doing it.” (Finally, a way for MoMA to help bring the happy world of Total Recall closer to reality!)
    MoMA itself gets a percentage of the sales of the digital artworks—17 percent of primary sales and 5 percent of secondary. Surely showing “Unsupervised” prominently at MoMA has to be considered as a great ad for the associated line of NFTs that sends profits back to the museum (you can see the spike of trade in them that coincides with the show opening on OpenSea). The curators have been promoting the show with conversations featuring both Anadol and Reas, where they talk as much about NFTs as about the installation.
    It may be that the exact same thing that makes this genre of work commercially appealing for people buying crypto-art—its untroubled techno-philia—is what makes it feel flat to me as an artistic statement. The suspicion that MoMA is incentivized to fast-track this kind of art is going to linger.
    Sadly, the melting of commercial and non-commercial borders strikes me as more prophetic of “what might be to come” in art than any of the images summoned up by the machine in the gallery.
    “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, November 19, 2022–March 5, 2023.
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    An African Photography Biennale Makes a Case for Mali as a Creative Hub—But the Global Art World’s Bad Habits May Hold It Back

    During last month’s edition of Bamako Encounters–African Biennale of Photography, as dusk arrived following a captivating artist talk by revered Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi, southern winds carrying Saharan dust settled over Mali’s capital and clouds of bats took flight between the trees across a lavender-hued sky. 
    Pioneering photographers such as Seydou Keita, Abdhourahmane Sakaly, and (of course) Malick Sidibe loom large here. And at such moments, even an untrained eye can understand how Bamako is an image-maker’s paradise, and a seemingly perfect setting for a photography biennale. The city’s endlessly compelling, starkly geometric architecture—angular and curved, Sahelian, colonial, and contemporary—is magnificently illuminated by the light. 
    In early December 2022, dozens of artists from across the world convened for the 13th edition of the Bamako Encounters, which runs until early February 2023. It is titled “On Multiplicity, Difference, Becoming, and Heritage,” a theme that invites the audience to consider moving past understandings of the world that focus on singularity and essentialism, creating room for movement, change, and malleability. Mali is a country with diverse geologies and geographies, inevitably yielding varying ways of living and cultures. This biennale thus explores a universally applicable theme in a place where liminal spaces are ever present. 
    Spread across seven key sites, including the National Museum of Mali and a disused train station that formerly connected Bamako to Dakar, a standout feature from this edition of the biennale is its substantial inclusion of artists from across the African Diaspora.
    Still from Baff Akoto, Leave The Edges (2020).
    One of the noteworthy works from the biennale, Leave the Edges (2020), which won the biennale’s Grand Prix/Seydou Keita award, came from artist-filmmaker Baff Akoto, who was raised between Accra and London. The work explores African and Diasporic spiritualities, and how they have mutated and transformed across time and in different spaces, as a metaphor for a wider conversation around cultural exchange.
    An exceptional and meditative piece, employing tender cinematography, subtle lighting, and mesmerizing soundscapes, Leave the Edges is a poetic movement film melding performance art and commemorations of slave rebellions in Guadeloupe.
    Installation view of works by Anna Binta Diallo, both 2022. Photo by Photp by Tobi Onabolu.
    Meanwhile at the National Museum, Anna Binta Diallo’s futuristic looking work explores the historical roots of folklore and storytelling. Employing a variety of maps, prints, and images superimposed onto outlines of human forms, Diallo invites us to consider what it means for humanity to exist in symbiosis with the natural environment. Concurrently, she explores concerns such as migration, identity, and memory. 
    Installation view of works by Anna Binta Diallo, both 2022. Photp by Tobi Onabolu.
    Sofia Yala works in the same vein, but on a more personal level within the setting of her own family, questioning the notion of the body as an archive. Yala’s work involves screenprinting her grandfather’s archives—whether private notes, I.D. documents, or work contracts—onto photographs taken by Yala in domestic spaces. Through the process, she is able to uncover deeper layers of identity—a poignant exercise in the context of reconnecting with the artist’s Angolan heritage.
    Installation view of works by Marie-Claire Messouma, all 2022. Photo by Tobi Onabolu.
    Over at the former train station, sub-themes of magic, the ethereal, and eternity emanate through more conceptual and abstract works. Marie-Claire Messouma’s mystical, melismatic photography aims to spark a conversation about humanity and the cosmos, mixing textile sculptures, ceramics, and other materials, and evoking the feminine.
    Similarly, in Fairouz El Tom’s work, the artist questions where the “I” ends and the “you” begins within the discourse of human ontology, prompting vital discussions around the interconnectedness of humanity—or, perhaps, the lack thereof, in this age of uncertainty.
    Installation view of works by Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo, all 2019. Photo by Tobi Onabolu.
    In Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo’s haunting works, we are invited to reflect on the legacies of human violence and the enduring trauma that comes from it. Drawing on his own past and personal experiences, Hlatshwayo has converted the tavern where he grew up—a site of intense trauma—into his studio, demonstrating a tangibly curative element within his practice. 
    Who Is It For?
    With a high-profile curatorial team attached to the biennale under the artistic direction of superstar curator Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Bamako Encounters is a triumph for the artists, and undoubtedly an impressive notch on any exhibition C.V. Yet the hyper-conceptual nature of “On Multiplicity, Difference, Becoming, and Heritage,” married with sub-par scenography that often attempts to emulate the white cube model, also creates a disconnection between organizers and audiences, prompting questions, the most pressing of which is: “who is this really for?” 
    The well-curated, robust program of artist talks and conversations was predominantly attended by the artists themselves, alongside other industry practitioners, once again creating the all-too-familiar echo chambers that the art world is known for. The same problem is felt with the text-heavy, exclusive language of art that accompanies this exhibition, often using insular vocabulary that very few people outside of the industry even understand. 
    In recent times, the scrutiny of these echo chambers, and the industry at large, have become well popularized by the likes of the Instagram-based account @freeze_magazine. Such critiques often touch on how the art world perpetuates harmful capitalist tendencies, whose victims include both humans and the environment; the flaws and hypocrisy of institutional spaces; and general elitism. And at points, the 13th edition of Bamako Encounters might be guilty of all three offenses, even if to only a fraction of the degree of the Venice Biennale or other biennials in the Global North, or the market at large. 
    Installation view of works by Adama Delphine Fawund, all 2020. Photo by Tobi Onabolu.
    “If the art only exists within institutional spaces it makes you wonder who is it really for and how is it functioning?” exhibiting artist Adama Delphine Fawundu told Artnet News, reflecting on these challenges. “I think most artists are making work that deals with subject matter that actually interrogates the institution. Therefore, what’s important about this biennale is the way that it’s documented, through the books and the text. Fifty years from now, what will people be saying about today? And if the work is not being documented at least for the future, then the biennale has to be interacting with people. How do you take it outside of the museum or the gallery space, and actually engage with real people that we see around? Because this is what we’re actually concerned about.” 
    And although this edition of Bamako Encounters has a central theme that relates so directly to contemporary realities in Mali, access to these conversations is largely limited to industry practitioners and socio-economic elites, many of whom were flown in specifically for the opening weekend (inevitably producing excessive quantities of carbon emissions just for the biennale to take place). In African contexts, the debate around the most effective modes of presentation and sharing critical artistic work with new audiences continues to bubble.
    Nevertheless, perhaps the biennale’s biggest strength was that it became this meeting point for important, unfiltered conversations between artists and practitioners who may never have met otherwise. Indeed, amidst an onslaught of almost-farcical organizational errors, including missing baggage and overbooked hotels, the artists rallied together, evoking the power of the collective through their inter-generational and cross-cultural collaborations and exchanges. With the sheer number of artists present for this event greatly outnumbering overbearing know-it-all curators, hard-to-please institutional overlords, and opportunistic dealers, Bamako provided the platform for real connections to emerge between its exhibiting artists.
    And so, despite underlying political uncertainty in Mali, fears of a global recession, and the overarching problems of the global art system, the 13th edition of Bamako Encounters emerges as a success, albeit with a plethora of concerns left to consider. 
    The 13th Edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography, is on view at venues throughout Bamako, through February 8, 2023.
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    Parallel Art Shows in London and Berlin Conjure Up Political Utopias… Using A.I. and Celebrity Deepfakes

    This will sound terribly jaded, but, in the spirit of honesty: artists Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas presented two types of exhibitions I normally would have walked out of.
    On the first floor of their show at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a political video documentary; on the second an all-too familiar Ab-Ex relaunch. So many biennials later, I’d rather read about a political uprising in a book by an anthropologist than hear about it from an artist. Abstract painting, for its part, can be enjoyable in a straightforward way, but, these days, it is often employed not because of what it is, but because of who made it. These kinds of encounters are often with art that doesn’t need to be art, but rather art that is promoted simply because it supplies a window onto a subject of importance.
    “Another World,” where the focus is on the Tamil Tigers, an ex-militant organization once based in northeastern Sri Lanka, is not that. Rather, Kulendran Thomas and Kuhlmann’s exhibition is so self-conscious as to what it means to think through and with art—and so forceful in that self-consciousness—you cannot help but be intrigued. And so I stayed; it stayed.
    Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Frank Sperling
    Kulendran Thomas, a Berlin-based artist of Tamil descent, alongside his German collaborator Kuhlmann, created “Another World” as two parallel exhibitions simultaneously on view at KW and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Its central work, The Finesse, a newly commissioned video work, is projected onto a mirror, and facing it is another screen showing slow-panning footage from a forest planted by the Tamil Tigers. Sandwiched in between the two are the viewers, collapsing three image-situations into one. The video itself is based partly on early 1990s archive footage featuring a member of the group who speaks with other-worldly eloquence about the Western fictions of democracy and freedom. A democracy should allow us to choose between different systems, she says, but in the West, there is only one. Her wit and charisma are of a type made for political influencing; her TikTok would be irresistible—and this, partly, is what the work is about. 
    The narrative of Tamil Eelam’s independence movement (a proposed autonomous Tamil state that the Tamil Tigers were fighting for) is neatly slotted into the context of the media spectacle of OJ Simpson’s trial, which took place at the same time—so neatly that I am not sure which parts of the film are authentic, and which not. It is not so difficult to manufacture a VHS grain, recreate an old Yahoo search, nor, it turns out, render a deepfake of Kim Kardashian, who appears in The Finesse, though slower, more immovable, and perfectly mesmerizing. With the same eloquence as the young Tamil, and with reference both to her Armenian roots, and, indirectly, to her early adjacency to the media vertigo of the Simpson trial, Kardashian’s avatar argues that certain people are less prone to believe in the fictions of capitalist hegemony. Certain circumstances—such as that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, we can infer—require you to be more realistic when it comes to how stories are fabricated as truth in newsrooms and on the internet.
    Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin2022. Photo: Frank Sperling
    In another segment of The Finesse, contemporary recordings follow another young Tamil investing in the legacy of the once-imagined Eelam state, now more than ten years lost. But the possibility of that history and its politics to become wearable as an identity for the young woman in the present is put into relief by a phone call she gets from an older friend or relative. It was a fantasy we had, says the voice on the other end of the line, who questions what it is that the younger generation expects to get out of identifying with it now. And the viewer— themselves caught inside the projection—wonders too.
    It is through such sober, whip-smart interjections that Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas consistently install self-consciousness into their narrative while smugly escaping the dangers of romanticism. What I like about the work is that it does not allow us to take its politics at face value; rather, it is laced with an irony that has generally not been tolerated in the art world since the DIS-curated Berlin Biennial in 2016 (where Kulendran Thomas also participated). There is a critical tension without which we would risk collapsing into the neo-essentialisms of post-truth. Eloquence, charisma, and charm, too, are art forms, which each cease to function as modes of manipulation once we accept them as such. In parallel, the extent to which these conversations and monologues are scripted, made deepfake, or not, likewise loses importance.
    Upstairs, Being Human, a video work from 2019, is screened on a translucent wall, dissecting the space. The rooms on either side of it are lined with the abstract paintings, which, it turns out, are generated by AI and executed by Kulendran Thomas’s studio, as are their sculptural counterparts. Climaxing like a pop song, the screen occasionally lights up to reveal the other side of the room. Art and modernism are part of the same ideological image circuit as Kardashian and Taylor Swift (whose deepfake reflects on the possibility of authenticity in Being Human) and the propaganda machines that would render the Tamil Tigers terrorist insurrectionists, or not. The theoretical implication is that we are completely immersed in the simulacrum, but it is also plain beautiful; as an experience, enchanting.
    Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin2022. Photo: Frank Sperling
    In The New York Times, critic Travis Diehl wrote about the London-chapter of the exhibition, a mirror of the KW show. “If Kulendran Thomas genuinely aims to offer new political possibilities, count me as a skeptic. If his goal is to ruin contemporary art, he just might,” he says. Here, Diehl refers to the zombie abstraction that is part of the installation of Being Human, and, perhaps, to the generally unplaceable morality of the tone. But this is far from a threat to contemporary art. Rather, after a summer where structure, relational aesthetics, and good intentions stood in for artworks at ruangrupa’s Documenta 15, “Another World” retains a medial self-consciousness that presents a hopeful glimpse for its future. The element of spectacle in both works—The Finesse peaks in an exhilarating rave scene—might have come across as cheap in its pop appeal, but it is precisely this hint of cynicism that makes both works at once disturbing and intelligent.
    In recent years, the discourse around politics and art has seen a loss of distinction between the sphere of representation and reality, taking, for instance, images for actions, depictions, or reflections on violence as that violence itself. But “Another World” does not let reality become subsumed by its image; instead, it asks the audience to continually observe the line between the two, even as it blurs. And the experience of sitting inside of Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas’s infinity mirror, oddly, makes you quite sure of what parts of reality that survive the spectacle of media and what truth rises to the surface of a deepfake. There is so much, in fact: the intelligence and humanity of the protagonists (real or not); the pleasure and fun of imagining another world, and in being surrounded by images of it; how political dreams and artful fictions can overlap in certain moments, and in others, crucially, diverge. And while you may not be able to spot the difference, you will feel it.
    “Another World” is on view through January 22, 2023, at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, and through January 15, 2023, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.
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    Two Thumbs Way, Way Down: Here Are 6 of the Worst Artworks We Saw Around the World in 2022

    Who says criticism is dead? Sometimes, despite an artist’s best intentions, an artwork misses the mark—at least according to some opinions. Art is delightfully subjective, and we are sure that many people hold dear some of the art our editorial staff found, well, less than perfect.
    Poncili Creación’s Boring White WallOn view at NADA Miami(November 30—December 3, 2022)
    A scene from the NADA Miami performance Boring White Wall by Poncili Creación. Photo by Eileen Kinsella
    Okay, maybe it wasn’t the “worst” of the year, but the live performance I stumbled into at NADA Miami a few weeks ago, after a day of viewing great art, was certainly among the most jolting and bizarre. It started with a performer in a white hazmat suit entering the room with a rake, frantically swiping the floor, reaching under people’s chairs, and randomly sniffing startled audience members.
    After Poncili Creación’s performer made his way to the white wall—the title of the piece which was a standing foam structure at the front of the room—he proceeded to let out wild screams while alternately hiding behind the wall, attacking it, tearing holes in it, and, eventually, ripping it apart in two with the help of an identically dressed partner performer.
    At times a mannequin, also in a white hazmat suit, was tossed wildly in the air and various bright red sponges and appendages that appeared in mouths and hands flew around, seemingly suggesting bleeding or heartbreak.  The whole 40-minute-ish performance was accompanied by an equally dissonant live music score with sporadic drums and keyboards that had me wondering the whole time whether or not there was an actual structure—or if the obviously talented musicians were just making it up as they went along. I felt a measure of relief when many others in the packed audience burst into laughter at some of the antics, a reaction that did not ruffle any of the performers in the slightest.
    —Eileen Kinsella

    Uffe Isolotto’s “We Walked the Earth”On view at the Danish Pavilion(April 23—November 27, 2022)
    Uffe Isolotto. “We Walked the Earth.” Pavilion of Denmark, Biennale Arte, 2022. © Ugo Carmeni.
    I was bewildered by the Danish pavilion this year. I don’t exactly know what the budget was for this pavilion, but in general I feel keenly aware of how much money is floating around the Scandinavian art world, which makes the task of turning out a flashy pavilion in Venice a lot easier. Well-funded artists, take heed: just because you can, does not mean you should.
    The Danish pavilion struck me as an immensely overproduced work without a powerful message—at least, the message was not delivered. I found it unequivocally graphic, which left little room for interpretation. The concept of “We Walked the Earth,” so I read, was to evoke a Danish pastoral scene with a surreal and disturbing twist that speaks to modern society. And so, one view were many bales of hay alongside a lifelike centaur with dead eyes lying on the ground post-birth wearing a Uniqlo t-shirt. Another centaur in fetish wear appeared to be dead by suicide. I guess the hyperrealism was supposed to incite macro-contemplation, but it was so under-edited that I left feeling thoroughly annoyed. The over-offering also brought out the worst of our selfie addled culture, and so it continued to haunt my social media feeds all week.
    —Kate Brown

    Paul Cézanne, Les Courtisanes (The Courtesans) (ca. 1870–71)On View in the Barnes Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania(Ongoing)
    Paul Cézanne, Les Courtisanes (The Courtesans) (ca. 1870–71), installed at the Barnes Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Tim Schneider.
    My first visit to the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia this January was one of the most fascinating, disorienting, and memorable art experiences of my year, largely because of the gargantuan variance in quality among the hundreds of works crammed, salon-style, onto every available square inch of wall space. The collection mixes up gems from Hieronymous Bosch, Matisse, and van Gogh (among others) with what looked to me like the laziest castoffs and most catastrophic experiments some of the canonical Modernists must have ever produced.
    A reverse standout from the latter category was this blobby, erratic rendering of four courtesans in an illegible mess of a space. (Interior? Exterior? Who can say!) It would be unrecognizable as the work of structural visionary Paul Cézanne if not for the placard unintentionally indicting him at the bottom of the frame. Even at less than seven-by-seven-inches, the canvas made a powerful enough impression to leave me wondering, still, whether Paris’s emerging greats used to quietly compete with each other to see who could saddle the voracious Barnes with their worst dud as part of the bulk purchases that also landed him so many good-to-classic canvases. If so, Cézanne laughed all the way to the victor’s podium.
    —Tim Schneider

    Damien Hirst, The Currency (2022)On view in “Damien Hirst: The Currency” at Newport Street Gallery(September 23—October 30, 2022)
    Damien Hirst at Newport Street Gallery for the grande finale of The Currency. Photo by Naomi Rea.
    Time is a precious commodity for a journalist, and especially for an art journalist during Frieze Week in London. Still, I wanted to watch the completion of Hirst’s debut NFT project—a wager that pitted NFTs against physical art—which would see him burn thousands of works on paper potentially worth millions of dollars on behalf of every buyer who had opted to keep one of his NFTs instead. I trekked over to Newport Street Gallery mostly for the anecdote. Hirst is one of few artists whose name extends far enough beyond the art world bubble that it has resonance with my friends and family. And he famously knows how to conduct a spectacle, from his infamous formaldehyde shark to his 2008 market-decimating auction to his phony shipwreck in Venice. 
    But when Hirst slumped out to take part in the event, it was…really boring? I don’t know if something happened to Hirst—all his previous headline-grabbing stunts happened before my time in the art world—or if this is just what a spectacle looks like in our increasingly digital world, but his utter lack of enthusiasm totally put a damper on the flames. Filmed from multiple angles, it was clear that the main audience was the larger one online than the select audience invited into the room. IRL, it felt kind of like a meet-and-greet with your favorite influencer and seeing the “I’m just here for the paycheck” energy up close.
    —Naomi Rea

    “KAWS: New Fiction” (2022)Serpentine Gallery, London(January 18—February 27, 2022)
    A general view of the “New Fiction” Exhibition showcasing paintings and sculptures by artist and designer KAWS at Serpentine North. Photo: by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images.
    I wanted so much to believe that KAWS’s art is interesting. The first-time collaboration between the respectable Serpentine and the online video game Fortnite seemed also like a partnership that could take art to a new frontier in the digital realm, and make art more accessible to the public. But no matter how much the Fortnite players raved about the experience when it was launched at the beginning of this year, I decided to side with the rest of London’s critics who almost unanimously panned KAW’s show. It was not a particular work—the entire art-viewing experience was a let-down.
    The only way to appreciate KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly) is to be his fan, and I have yet to convince myself to become one. Seeing the blend of sculptures and paintings based on the artist’s trademark crossed-eye figure Companion did not help. The A.R. versions of Companion sitting on top of the gallery building in Hyde Park or floating inside the gallery space did not make the show more interesting—there are other A.R. works out there that are far more inventive. And the exhibition in the Fortnite game? I don’t play video games, but from the YouTube videos I saw, I hardly observed any players who managed to have any interaction with other players in the virtual gallery. I thought it would be a virtual space that allowed players from all walks of life to meet and greet but, instead, most of them seemed to wander around alone and aimlessly. This could’ve been a wonderful project but, as Alastair Smart suggested in his review, it was a bit of a “lost KAWS.”
    –Vivienne Chow

    “Michel Majerus: Progressive Aesthetics” at the ICA MiamiNovember 28, 2022—March 12, 2023
    Michel Majerus, Progressive Aesthetics (1997). ©Michel MajerusEstate, 2022, Private collection. Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin. Courtesy of neugerriemschneider, Berlin.
    I was tempted to call out the life-size bronze of reclining female angel, nude and masturbating, that I saw at Scope Miami Beach, but I will avoid such low-hanging fruit in lieu of a choice that might make me look like the philistine, rather than the artist.
    First, I’ll confess that I had never heard about Luxembourgish artist Michel Majerus before the current raft of shows honoring the 20th anniversary of his death. (There are 19 in Germany, and this one in Miami’s Design District, his first solo at a U.S. institution.) Second, I’ll admit that I was completely mystified as to the appeal of his work upon seeing it for the first time. It was large and colorful, heavy on text, and rife with appropriated imagery from brand logos, cartoons, and other artists—not unlike, I might point out, the kind of pop culture-saturated work typically on offer at Scope. The massive canvases seemed like art in the lobby of a trendy hotel, intended as edgy but in actuality blandly inoffensive. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe Majerus was an artistic genius. (My colleague Taylor Dafoe wrote a great explainer about his career.) ( Or maybe this is a “the emperor’s new clothes” deal, where a bunch of rich old guys have invested in Majerus’s work, and orchestrated this wave of renewed attention to drive up the prices on these uber-boring canvases so they can make a killing on the auction block. Feel free to skewer me for my unsophisticated taste if you disagree—but I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not the only one who was underwhelmed when I finally encountered the work of this (IMHO) overrated artist. 
    —Sarah Cascone

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    Truffles, Private Collection Tours, and Tons of Prizes: Turin’s Contemporary Art Scene Shines During the Artissima Fair

    Before heading out to Turin last week, a U.S. collector offered me an unforgettable review of the city’s Artissima art fair: “It’s the only fair where you can trade art for truffles.”
    The comment turns out to be more about attitude than actuality (though the prices are somewhat comparable, Italian truffles go for about $1,500 a pound), and though I did not see any knobbly fungi circulating the fair, I ate them elsewhere over handmade tagliatelle during my visit. What the collector meant is that, in Turin, food, wine, and art are parts of a whole, much more so than in other fair towns like Basel, Cologne, or even Madrid. This is Italy, after all.
    The city of Turin, nestled as a posh base camp of the Italian Alps, is one of the country’s richer cities, and the region in and around it is a heartland of big industry and banking, as well as nobility. Among the companies with headquarters there are car manufacturers Fiat and Alfa Romeo, Italy’s largest bank Intesa Sanpaolo, and coffee brand Lavazza, to name a few.
    Turin is also the old seat of the royal family of Italy, the House of Savoy, and this history lingers in the air along its parade-ready avenues. The fair’s VIP list, in turn, is clustered with deep-pocketed, cultured shareholders as well as some distant dynastic wealth, and, crucially, the eagle-eyed curators of these two sets’ various foundations.
    Artissima 2022, Photo credit: Perottino – Piva – Peirone / Artissima
    Some of these important people from the region dined together on Wednesday night, around white-clothed tables at Castello di Rivoli’s Michelin-starred restaurant. They were brought to the museum to celebrate the opening of Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition “Trembling Horizons.”
    In the other wing, a maze of palace rooms contain the storied Cerutti collection, as well as Beeple’s rather expensive Human One, a digital sculpture of a walking astronaut, on loan from digital art collector Ryan Zurrer. It stands alongside Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait IX (1956–57).
    One Italian collector I ran into was sitting near the pair of works. “If the French had an inch of the taste and talent of the Italians…” he said, speaking of neither Bacon nor Beeple, whose work he did not care for in the least, but of the castle architecture itself that surrounded it.
    Human One by Michael Winkelmann (Beeple) at Rivoli Castle Modern Art Museum, Turin. Photo: Roberto Serra—Iguana Press/Getty Images.
    Anything that takes place in Turin is certainly imbued with a bit of aesthetic magic, because the sites and landscape of the city are so particularly lovely. The late artist Carol Rama’s studio is here, on the top floor of a historic building, where she blocked off all the windows because Turin was too beautiful and distracting for her. It remains intact and, since her death in 2015, is open for tours.
    To build his world at the Castelo di Rivoli, Eliasson also darkened the museum’s tall and long Manica Lunga gallery wing, which has been broken up with kaleidoscopic sculptures that you can step inside. The wobbly light projections create an illusion (sort of) that the projections go beyond the walls of the room.
    Though the Rivoli’s show seemed to be aiming for embodied sensation and immersion, it was less engaging the installation by U.S. artist Arthur Jafa at OGR Turin, housed in a late-19th-century steam engine repair facility, yet another testament to the old industrial power in Turin. Viewers sat on a large wedge of wood that trembled and vibrated under the weight of a booming soundscape accompanying an 85-minute video of a waving sea made up of computer-generated black rocks. The ocean of stones ebb and flow, rising at points to seemingly threaten to submerge the viewer before receding again, and the horizon returns.
    The cinematic installation, conceived together with London’s Serpentine Galleries, was another brilliant manifestation of Jafa’s nuanced inquiry into Black identity through the avenues of visual archives and music. He described the abstract film work, a bold step away from his rapid-cut found-footage works, to the Giornale d’ell Arte as “a [James] Turrell while chained to the bottom of a ship.”
    View of Arthur Jafa’s show “RHAMESJAFACOSEYJAFADRAYTON,” at OGR Torino. Photo: Kate Brown.
    Meanwhile the art fair Artissima, around which all these high-budget openings were coordinated, is known for being ripe for fresh discoveries, a reputation that I found to be true.
    It is hosted at the former Olympic sports arena from the 2006 winter games in Turin. And while there is a more collaborative spirit here, it was noticeably international, gathering 174 dealers with footholds in 27 countries. This is not a regional fair, either—Italian galleries are outnumbered by visitors.
    Seven curators are involved in the fair’s selection of works or galleries in different capacities, which brings an array of positions. There is, for example, a curated section dedicated to drawing, and emerging art is at its core in another centrally located sector called “Present Future,” not tucked in a back corner like many other fairs. Artissima’s new director, Luigi Fassi, is also a curator.
    Rossella Biscotti Trees on land (Alberi sulla terra) (2021) at Mor Charpentier, Paris and Bogotà. Photo: Perottino-Piva-Peirone / Artissima.
    Delegations of institutions were omnipresent. “I hate art fairs, but I like Artissima,” one German museum director told me between sips of cold Barrolo wine. And while there is a nearly dizzying amount of different awards handed out across the four days of the fair, they are a good-natured effort to offer concrete engagement from the fair’s sponsors.
    There was also a roll call of acquisitions: the Fondazione per l’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea CRT acquired 10 works; Castello di Rivoli bought a group of poignant sculptures—large reconstructed clay urns made with the ashes of burned olive trees by Rossella Biscotti—on view at Mor Charpentier; and work by Simone Forti, on view at Raffaela Cortesi, was among the work acquired by GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna di Torino.
    All in all, dealers seem pleased with the quality of the fair and the interest and engagement its visitors bring, not to mention a more intimate access to the Italian elite than one might experience at larger fairs like Art Basel. Though, as one dealer said, you might need to give a heavy discount for a work here, it is usually because what you are selling is entering a formidable public collection.
    Foreign collectors were in town, including Frédéric de Goldschmidt and Alain Servais, among special attendees to Patrizia Sandretto re Rebaudengo’s annual dinner at her home, which included curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, artist Oscar Murillo, outgoing Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler, and Jafa. The artfully choreographed and sumptuous dinner is hosted by the influential contemporary art patron, a cornerstone of Turin’s art scene. A testament to this is her foundation, which has a large display of Victor Man’s contemplative paintings and a new commission by Beirut artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan. At her home on the main floor, there is work by Avery Singer, Maurizio Cattelan, and Jana Euler; the house understandably has its own floor map available to visitors.
    Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s home. Photos Maurizio Elia, Courtesy Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Collection
    “I’m quite happy that at my hometown fair, there is the right quantity of people,” Sandretto re Rebaudengo said, speaking in reference to Paris+ and Frieze, which were marred by overcrowded halls and long cues. “You can move around and speak with the galleries,” she noted.
    That said, in Italy, much like everywhere else, the effects of the pandemic still linger, one of which is that the art world’s venues have experienced dips in attendance—and, in tandem, ticket revenue—as well as more precarious situations for funding. This is helped in no way by the war in Ukraine.
    Just before Turin’s art week events began, over in Florence, the Uffizi director Eike Schmidt was forced to keep the museum closed over a public holiday due to cost-cutting around staff. After a prickly comment was received from the new culture secretary Gennaro Sangiuliano, Schmidt reminded his new boss that Italy’s museums need economic “reinforcements.” No one I spoke to in Turin is quite sure what exactly the new government, headed by a right-wing coalition, will mean for the cultural field, to say nothing of wider society.
    View of Intesa Sanpaolo Publifoto Archive at the Gallerie dItalia Torino, the fourth museum from Intesa Sanpaolo Bank. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images.
    As such a junction, patrons like Sandretto re Rebaudengo are perhaps increasingly vital to the city’s art scene, as emblems of stability in times of flux. A museum curator from Turin emphasized this to me, saying that private money has helped them pull through the past few years and continue to organize ambitious shows. Artissima and Turin are especially well-equipped, not only because of the apparent high-net worth of the area, but because there is an ingrained spirit of working together, between the state, the art market, the institutions, and private companies.
    Take for example, the banking group Intesa Sanpaolo’s new Gallerie d’Italia, its fourth museum, which opened this year and is focused on image-based media. The private collection also has a public mandate: during Artissima, film works by a few galleries participating in the fair were on view at the Gallerie d’Italia.
    “I really believe it is important to find ways to collaborate between all of us in Turin,” noted Sandretto re Rebaudengo as she poured over her map of Artissima and outlined her week of exhibition plans and prize-giving. “It’s the best way forward in this moment.”

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