From Damien Hirst’s Venice debacle to a misguided documenta 14 performance, here are the 2017 works we wish we could forget.
WORST? ART OF 2017
Damien Hirst‘s “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at the Palazzo Grassi
Always powered by calculated offense, Damien Hirst’s art has curdled over the years as he has become richer, more powerful, and more widely ridiculed. It seems he has begun to regard his audience not as a friend to be ennobled but an cupiditous, infantile enemy to be debased—at least that’s what you take away from his poisoned give-the-people-what-they-want extravaganza in Venice this year.
Positioned as a marvel of imagineering, where the high-quality execution and fabrication of its silly the-legends-are-real premise is a big draw, it also presents a very specific style of “realism,” drawn from the exaggerated desire-gratifying fantasy genres of comic books and pornography. And it’s not just the oodles of gold baubles, fossilized cartoon characters, and high-tech displays that feel like base pandering.
It isn’t sufficient for Hirst to create an ersatz bust of Nefertiti—he needs to show her breasts as well. And it isn’t sufficient to retell the horror story of the Minotaur’s predation of sacrificial maidens—he has to show the monster raping a beautiful (and screaming) naked woman.
Even a statue of a dead woman laid out on a stone platform is not allowed the solemnity of the subject. Instead, the marble sheet covering the cadaver is shown pulled down to expose her breasts, and draped so as to transparently show her genitals. It’s creepy.
In this age of relativism, some things are good and some things really are bad (in both senses), and this is the worst thing I saw all year.
Marta Minujín’s performance Payment of Greek Debt to Germany with Olives and Art (2017) at documenta 14 in Athens
The Argentinian artist Marta Minujín certainly has an impressive career behind her, but her teasing performance piece at documenta 14 was an ignorant oversimplification of a deeply complicated issue. Her work was the centerpiece in the foyer of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. There, one found a square vat of juicy olives, the artist’s proposed sum for Greece’s debt repayment. It was bad, but it wasn’t offensive.
Then, however, came the performance. In the piece, the punky glam artist (wearing reflective sunglasses indoors) and an Angela Merkel impersonator swiveled around clumsily in office chairs, circling the olive vat before the Merkel doppelganger made a fast speech and agreed to write-off Greece’s debt. The artist and Merkel shook hands awkwardly before Minujín gave her a handful of olives to hold.
That was it. Subversion and comic transgression are definitely welcome in this debacle, but this performance missed the mark on both. It was way too self-evident and without any poetry.
Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl (2017) statue on Wall Street
This is a tough one. As crowds took to the streets on International Women’s Day on March 8, there was something undeniably inspiring about the viral sensation that was Fearless Girl, her tiny figure planted in the face of Charging Bull, a shining symbol of the worst of Wall Street greed. But even from the beginning, I had a tiny kernel of doubt.
I knew that Arturo Di Modica had created his massive bronze bull as a guerrilla artwork, installed illegally under cover of night back in 1989 as a symbol of the resiliency of the American economy, which at the time was still recovering from the 1987 crash. And as I read more, it became clear that Fearless Girl was not an authentically feel-good symbol of empowerment, but a calculated ad campaign from a financial firm looking to promote an exchange-traded fund focusing on companies with “greater gender diversity.”
Di Modica cried copyright infringement, and the two companies who commissioned the artwork, McCann and State Street Global Advisors, were outed for having only 27 and 18 percent female leadership, respectively. To add insult to injury, drunken Wall Street bros were spotting dry humping the statue, because Wall Street bros are the worst.
The death knell came in October, when the true extent of the publicity stunt’s cynicism was revealed: State Street’s parent company paid $5 million to settle a massive lawsuit alleging that its female and black employees were paid less than white men in comparable positions. Sadly, Fearless Girl has totally lost her feminist magic, if she ever had it to begin with.
Ai Weiwei, Jacques Herzog, and Pierre de Meuron’s “Hansel & Gretel” (2017) at the Park Avenue Armory
In a year when George Orwell’s 1984 felt less fictional than ever, this installation musing on the ubiquity of surveillance felt more akin to a Dance Dance Revolution-style selfie generator. The artist’s worthy mission to have viewers consider how technology is used for nefarious purposes was eclipsed by the stupidity of the exercise.
“Marc Quinn: Drawn from Life” (2017) at Sir John Soane’s Museum
The turkey of the year in London was Marc Quinn‘s new body of work, “All About Love,” installed all over Sir John Soane’s Museum—like a rash—from March until September. The dozen sculptures created from casts of the artist and his girlfriend, the dancer Jenny Bastet, gave the 19th-century house museum the look and feel of a love hotel. Toe curling.
Teju Cole’s Black Paper (2017) at BKLYN Studio at City Point for Performa 17
I am always pulling for any non-performance artist who gets tapped by Performa to try their hand at the medium. But Nigerian-American photographer, writer, and critic Teju Cole’s Black Paper (2017), which tried to grapple with visceral reactions to Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, offered an object lesson in the perils of venturing, untrained, into live events.
The audience sat in the round, centered on the artist, who pretended to sleep, so the images that unscrolled on the large screens surrounding the audience represented… a dream. We saw a succession of New York Times front pages since the day after the 2016 election, which gradually layered one atop another in a clunky metaphor for the passing of time (it was one year since the election, nearly to the day, you see). The arrhythmic soundtrack was an overt analogue for Trump-induced distress, and when The Donald’s own voice twice intoned the lone word “Muslims,” I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was being hit over the head—a sensation that peaked when the screens went black, the speakers silent, and the artist “awoke” with a scream.
Yayoi Kusama’s Guidepost to the New World (2016) installation at the 2017 Armory Show
I think we can all agree that the quality of a work of art is not proportional to the amount of time it took the artist make it. But I also think it’s fair to say that art should take at least some time to conceive. This was not the case for Kusama’s contribution to this year’s Armory Show, a large, polka-dotted playground.
“Kusama sketched something on a napkin, faxed it over, and we said, ‘Great!’” the Armory Show’s former director Ben Genocchio told ARTnews. The result is a work that is symbolic of an increasingly popular kind of art fair-friendly, mass-produced work. Like cotton candy, it’s devoid of nutritional value and it provides no lasting satisfaction—but it looks really good on Instagram.
Rebecca Goyette and Brian Andrew Whiteley’s Golden Showers: Sex Hex at Volta NY
Art about Trump, like the man himself, tends to lack subtlety and substance. But this gaudy, gross-out video recreating with Cheetos and mustard (so much mustard!) his alleged night in a Russian hotel room getting peed on by prostitutes takes the insipidity to a new level. After watching it, I wanted a shower—with water.
Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light: An Artistic Workshop (2017) at the 57th Venice Biennale
The artist, the curator, and everyone else involved in bringing this workshop to the Giardini were surely guided by good intentions: the artist’s studio collaborated with NGOs helping migrants and asylum-seekers from conflict-ridden countries acclimate in Europe and find meaningful occupation and social contacts while lingering in legal limbo. In return for their labor constructing the Danish-Icelandic artist’s famous modular lamps, participants received meals, legal counseling, and language classes—an admirable initiative, no doubt. (Asylum-seekers are not permitted to engage in gainful employment.) But holding the workshop inside the exhibition space necessarily turned it into a spectacle. Individual participants transformed into a homogeneous group of anonymous “others” who somehow ended up polishing an art star’s image as a do-gooder.
Claudia Fontes’s The Horse Problem (2017) at the 57th Venice Biennale
Look, I know this sculptural group, which occupied a major place at the Biennale, at the end of the Arsenale, is supposed to be about Very Serious Themes. It’s about national identity. It’s about art history (it’s based on a painting, The Return of the Indian Raid). Per its catalogue essay, it’s about the horse as “the protagonist of capitalist and colonial narratives of the extraction of the natural and its reconfiguration into a resource.”
I’ll admit that this is kind of a cheat, but an artist I had the privilege of getting to know very well this year introduced me to an idea that I fell in love with: namely, that there is no such thing as “bad art.” There is only art and delusion. And given how much delusion most of us have had to deal with in 2017, I don’t exactly feel compelled to close December by swinging a spotlight onto more hysteria.
Richard Kern’s photos in 2017
There were a couple of times in recent months when I encountered depictions of women that once might’ve made me merely roll my eyes—the open-mouthed, hard-nippled muses of Tom Wesselmann, say, or 90 percent of fashion photography—but that now, in 2017, struck me as so passé as to almost be embarrassing.
That’s how I felt when I saw new photos by Richard Kern in magazines and on Instagram this year. The onetime documentarian of downtown New York’s drug-fueled depravity was a force for sexual liberation in the 1980s and ’90s. But he has since turned his gaze to far less engaging terrain these days: listless, rail-thin white girls, eyes almost always at half-mast.
I don’t want to deny Kern his legacy. But times change and in our post-Terry Richardson world, I think we can strive to be a bit more thoughtful about how and why we use the female nude going forward. Contrary to some popular fears, the current wave of sexual harassment scandals needn’t turn us back toward more repressive times. We need more art about sex, not less—and we should never censor any of it—but in 2018 I’ll be looking out for more from photographers like Deana Lawson, Catherine Opie, Collier Schorr, or A.L. Steiner instead.