Star critics select their best shows of the year
song Dong's Waste Not at The Curve in London's Barbican Centre consisted of a plethora of household goods saved by the artist's mother over decades.
Living frugally is a salient feature of the developing world and China was for decades no different. As such Waste Not is a powerful paean to humility, resilience, hope, human folly, lifelong attachments and love.
And as a poetic record of one life mirrored a million-fold globally, it is the embodiment of universality.
Much in the way Howard Carter must have been astonished by the sight of the clutter of objects as well as the material wealth in Tutankhamun's burial chamber, Dong's exhibition similarly perplexes and intrigues as to its ultimate purpose.
In both instances it is to preserve life, or its memory, for eternity. What we experience is an archaeology of the present. The initial mystery of this installation's geographic, political and cultural separateness rapidly unravels through its poignant familiarity. It offers the cathartic reflection that we are all one and this is perhaps Song Dong's most telling achievement.
Strange personages took up residence among the gentle knolls of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the exhibition Miro: Sculptor. The figures' presence induces unease akin to the feeling of being watched and this is reciprocated by a perplexed curiosity about their intentions.
Andre Breton, the French poet and eminence grise of the surrealist movement, called the Catalan artist Joan Miro "the most surrealist of us all." The surrealists were variously influenced by Marxist dialectic, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse and significantly by Freud's work with free association, dream analysis and the unconscious.
There is a childlike wonderment in these jovial earthy figures imbued with individual characters and the kind of benign madness that is imperative to remaining sane.
The engaging, imaginative forms might be invested with a "palpable feeling of fecundity" but are often intrinsically comical in a way that will particularly resonate with children - who are bound to sense a kindred spirit of exploration through fun - and they make it a perfect introduction to modern sculpture which they are allowed to touch to their heart's delight. Highly recommended.
In Beyond The Frame at the Lighthouse Gallery, a dove struggles free out of a cage and flies across darkened skies to reach the base of the Jose Marti monument in Havana. Painted by Antonio Guerrero, the image from the series Flight To Freedom symbolises the fate and aspirations of the Miami Five, imprisoned in the US in 2001.
Beyond The Frame aimed to highlight the plight of the five and raise funds for the campaign to have them freed. It included internationally recognised Cubans Kcho, Choco, Diago, Mendive, Lesbia Dumois and British artists John Keane, Susan Hillier, Steve Bell and Kennardphillips.
Dumois, whose playful, colourful figurative work is permeated with a characteristic Cuban penchant for light-hearted irony, is particularly proud of the large numbers of women now practising in all disciplines, including the previous male preserves of sculpture and etching.
Supported by trade unions, art collectors and rank-and-file activists, the exhibition raised thousands for the Miami 5 campaign.
FOR THE majority the economic recession impoverishes cultural life as much as material life. In 1960 Henry Moore sold his Draped Seated Woman to the London County Council at below the market price so that it could be enjoyed by council tenants. This October its current owner Tower Hamlets council cannot even afford to pay its insurance and is selling it to pay for front-line services.
Public arts funding has suffered from national to local level with resultant reductions in museum exhibition budgets, loss of experienced staff and the ever increasing and time consuming need to chase private sponsorship.
Entrance prices rise and exhibition programmes are reduced. Institutions such as the Royal Academy and the Tate typically charge £14 entrance to major exhibitions to which must be added the high price of fares and a restorative cup of tea.
For many people visiting major art exhibitions has become a rare treat or impossible as the cost of living soars and wages stagnate.
Meanwhile museum staff struggle with the often conflicting demands of meeting commercial targets and adhering to cultural values.
Crowd-pleasing blockbusters such as Tate Modern's Damien Hirst and the Royal Academy's David Hockney exhibitions were likely to attract maximum corporate sponsorship and media partners, so ensuring the media hype guaranteed to bring high box office returns.
Such uncontentious content and dazzling displays provided entertaining spectacles unlikely to provoke social or political discontent.
Yet these also serve to subsidise lower-budget exhibitions on less familiar themes. Thus the magical installations by Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern were accompanied by less spectacular but arguably more intellectually challenging paintings by Alighiero Boetti.
The rash of photography-based exhibitions in major institutions, including those at the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Modern, perhaps also resulted from restricted budgets, since photographic prints are relatively cheap to transport and insure.
One of the most thought-provoking and emotionally affecting of these is the Barbican's ongoing exhibition Everything Was Moving: Photography From The 60s And 70s which vividly conveys the social and political injustices and struggles of the era's colonial liberation and civil rights movements.
Restricted budgets provoked many institutions to draw on their own or other British public collections in innovative ways, so reducing insurance and transportation costs.
Inspired curating of Tate Britain's Picasso And British Art exhibition produced one such tour de force.
Well focused and based on expert scholarship, it opened new vistas on our understanding of familiar works by linking them to the issue of changing public responses to Picasso as a symbol of modernism.
Equally impressive were some smaller public institutions' ability to retain free entry while still curating imaginative exhibitions or displays. The Hepworth-Wakefield - whose purpose-built museum by David Chipperfield alone is well worth a visit - made the most of its tall, well-lit spaces as fitting surroundings for sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and the plaster moulds from which some were cast.
The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne's exhibition John Piper In Kent And Sussex made excellent connections with its local public who were familiar with many of the subjects which he depicted.
Top prize for one of the best exhibitions of the year, and doing so for free, goes to the British Museum's Prints And Drawings department for its intelligently and unobtrusively curated Picasso's Prints: The Vollard Suite.
Such is the crassness of current values that these rare and stunning works were seen by fewer people than far inferior exhibitions simply because it was free and so it got less media hype than sponsored paying ones.
London is still a major international centre for commercial dealers, some of whom have built galleries whose size rival small museums. There, art can be seen for free.
Six tapestries by Grayson Perry, inspired by William Hogarth, were on show at the Victoria Miro gallery providing acute observations on the social pretensions and vanities of contemporary Britain.
The White Cube gallery showed installations by Doris Salcedo honouring the memory of 1,500 young Colombian ghetto dwellers murdered by the state. It was profoundly moving not least because of the intelligent delicacy and understatement with which she approached such an emotive theme.
Overall there was a welcome tendency for artists to turn away from the recent fashions for cynicism, superficiality and confessional or adolescent themes.
This was reflected in this year's Turner Prize short-listed artists, all of whom engaged with ideas or events about the world.
The best was the film installation by Elizabeth Price in which technically expert and formally innovative editing of complex, multilayered subject matter produced absorbing and moving content.
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