To celebrate the end of a great year for culture, both in the UK and abroad, we’ve decided to share some of our personal highlights. For this entry, we turn our gaze to art and theatre.
2016 marked the welcome return to the stage for one of its greats, Glenda Jackson. Absent for 25 years as she turned her attention to politics, Jackson took on one of the most challenging characters of Shakespeare’s portfolio – King Lear. Part of an all-star cast, her short-run at the Old Vic Theatre put her up there among the best Lears of all time. An unflinching, non-linear portrait of the volatility of old age, the audience were carried on a journey from madness to sanity, anger to tenderness, vocal force to physical frailty.
From one man’s breakdown to another, our second nod goes to The Gate Theatre’s Diary of a Madman. Taking Golgol’s 19th century short story and applying it to 21st century Scotland, this offered an incisive look at both national history and mental health problems. The play balances Scottish legend, ancient and very recent, with an uncomfortably close look at one man’s complete breakdown and the people caught in it. Funny, foul-mouthed, and surprisingly moving, this was a memorable, and particularly suitable, piece for 2016.
With an office based in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Fringe always provides highlights (and lowlights) for Theatre. This year’s best of Fringe goes to Counting Sheep, an interactive musical theatre experience from Canadian band, The Lemon Bucket Orkestra. This immersive theatre piece depicts the Euromaidan riots in the Ukraine that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Audience members ate borscht, flung bricks and were inspired by a 15-piece folk punk band singing in traditional Ukrainian polyphony. An unforgettable experience.
Across London’s big museum and gallery spaces, it was all change as Nick Serota and Martin Roth chose to follow Neil MacGregor’s lead and bow out at the top. While Tate Modern launched its mammoth new wing, one of the lesser known exhibitions to feature this year was one of their most intriguing and satisfying. A retrospective of the late Indian artist Bhupen Kakhar divided critical opinion, but we warmed to the exuberant, deceptively complex narrative depictions of personal and political life in twentieth century India. More programming from outside the well-trodden canon of contemporary art should surely be one of the key purposes for Tate 2.
Over in Bloomsbury, the British Museum’s Sunken Cities exhibition was a standout. Although the curation and interpretation is always first rate at any BM exhibition, sometimes the artefacts themselves can be a bit meagre – not so here. Exploring the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus that lay at the mouth of the Nile and that have been submerged for over a thousand years, Sunken Cities had some simply stunning exhibits that were generously displayed and sensitively supported by evocative footage of the underwater archaeology which discovered them
A highlight from Barcelona was Andrea Fraser’s L’1% C’EST MOI at MACBA. Based on an ongoing institutional critique of contemporary ‘art worlds’ in late-capitalism, this exhibition presented Fraser’s work from the last twenty years in a playful, and sometimes brutal way. Directly influenced by sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker, and presented as a commentary on a sector that often struggles to reflect on its broader societal role and relevance, it left a lasting impression on how the elite world of contemporary art needs to reconnect with the rest of society or risk being consumed by the thin end of the wedge that structures it. Contemporary art will eat itself, perhaps.
Another fantastic exhibition from the Iberian Peninsula was Mexican artist Stefan Bruggemann’s To be political it has to look nice at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea in Santiago de Compostela. Like Fraser, his work is a commentary on the role of art in modern society, although his execution is less performative; instead focusing largely on the role of language in how we define and negotiate aesthetic experiences in everyday life. Essentially asking us to question how judgements (political or otherwise) are constructed, and by whom, he made us think about how we produce and consume language in art, news and everyday communication. Another example of an artist inviting the viewer to directly consider the role of art in a ‘post-truth knowledge economy’, and all the more powerful for it.