Life, as we’re told when we’re young, consists of a series of ups and downs. Each year brings new high points and low points. 2016 seems to have been the exception to this rule, particularly in popular media. It started off with the unfortunate death of rock legend David Bowie on 10 January.
The technological revolution that is artificial intelligence was proven on 19 March with the AlphaGo artificial intelligence programme crushing Go grandmaster Lee Sedol in the abstract strategy board game, Go. Just as our grandparents are afraid of the influence of technology, our generation is afraid of artificial intelligence. Throughout recent years, artificial intelligence has become the focus of scientific development and achievement. A major turning point, this event proves that artificial intelligence might in fact have the power to overcome humankind.
29 March saw the hijack of EgyptAir flight by Cypriot Seif Eldin Mustafa, which became famous across the world with a controversial selfie of an English passenger on board with the hijacker. Under the same terrorism umbrella, the “burkini" was banned by France on 22 August. As the country continues to reel from a series of deadly terror attacks by ISIS supporters, the ban, which was first introduced as a temporary rule in a single resort, imposes a fine of up to £40 upon women who aren’t compliant.
On 23 June, the British population faced what was unarguably the biggest decision of their 2016 year, and potentially of many before, and after - in, or out? Brexit’s outcome for Britain to leave the EU turned the world upside down, with David Cameron resigning from his post as Prime Minister, heightened fears on social media of ‘Italeave’, ‘Frexit’, and ‘Nethermind’, and the pound dropping to a three-decade low.
The reasons to leave the EU are numbered, though weighty. The most prominent of these, as is a theme of the generation, is the migrant crisis. Many of these migrants hail from the war-torn or poverty-stricken countries of Senegal, Eritrea and Syria, and move through Europe according to Schengen, ending in France, where some await visas for Britain. Calais, the main Channel port in France, houses many of these immigrants in the refugee camp the Jungle. On 2 August, the Jungle opened its first church, constructed from random pieces of plastic, wood and cardboard, showing a display of unity and comfort. On 17 October, The Jungle was dismantled, in accordance with French authorities’ requests.
Along with these political, technological and economical changes, came celebrity deaths that caused the world to shudder. Following David Bowie, Sir Terry Wogan and Alan Rickman in January alone, came the death of Beatles record producer Sir George Martin, pop megastar Prince, former heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali, film star Gene Wilder, golf legend Arnold Palmer, Pete Burns, singer Leonard Cohen and writer AA Gill. The year was brought to a even more melancholic close within the last week, with singer George Michael passing away on Christmas Day, Watership Down author Richard Adams and Princess Leia from Star Wars, Carrie Fisher on December 27, and, just one day later, her mother Debbie Reynolds. To tie the year down politically, Donald Trump won the US election with an electoral college majority, securing his place as President from 2017-2021.
2016 was a very different affair in the art world.
Artists produced work that forced people to face painful current events. Ai Weiwei made the migrant crisis the focus of his 2016 year, setting up a studio on Greek island, Lesbos, that has faced an influx of fleeing Syrians. The viral photograph of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi found washed up on Lesbos beach touched the world, illustrating the power of images on the media. Taking this image, Ai Weiwei produced his own, drawing much criticism with it (seen below). However, undeniably, it brought the migrant crisis back to the headlines, and therefore made people think once more. Ai rounded out the year by bringing the crisis to the United States with “Laundromat,” an installation at New York’s Deitch Projects. The massive presentation pays homage to a refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece, culling an overwhelming amount of garments worn by approximately 15,000 men, women and children.
On a separate occasion, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was brought into circulation in March, the first of its kind in the mass market. This allowed it proliferate the artistic market as a powerful new medium. At the Berlin Biennale, Jon Rafman took viewer on a three-minute experience to show the destruction of Pariser Platz, a central square in Berlin. The experience imitated a long-feared apocalypse, ending with the balcony beneath the viewers feet collapsing and submerging them in a vast ocean. At New York’s Eyebeam studio, Niko Koppel unveiled an immersive experience of a police shooting’s aftermath, seen through the eyes of the survivor. This installation brought to life many controversial shootings by US policemen, like that of Alton Sterling on July 5 in Baton Rouge, highlighting another problem faced by the US: gun laws. With virtual reality offering the ability to see the world through another’s eyes, artists will increasingly harness this technology to foster empathy and wonder.
In July, self-proclaimed revolutionary artist Dread Scott raised a flag reading “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday”, outside of Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, New York. The sharp white text was an update of words emblazoned on a flag that flew outside the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) from 1920 to 1938. Both flags display the dangers faced by African Americans, speaking both for protests at the current time as they gripped the country, and for numerous slayings of unarmed coloured people in history. Whilst virtual reality harnesses empathy and wonder, Scott’s flag was a visually impacting statement highlighted by its placement in a frankly unavoidable location.
Museums have expanded, with the Tate Modern spending £260 million to increase their exhibition space by 60%. David Adjaye designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., which opened its doors on September 24 of this year. It becomes the first museum specifically dedicated to telling the story of black Americans in the country. In further museum developments, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened a space for the museum of modern and contemporary art. Named the Met Breuer after designer Marcel Breuer, the building was finished on March 18, and now showcases exhibitions, performances, residencies and educational initiatives. Thanks to this abundant year, many in the art world have begun to question the expansion of these art centres in big metropoles, rather than the opening of new locations in less privileged areas of the world. Art brings together history, culture, and current society, making it of paramount importance in education and improvement.
In late June, an installation set to draw 500,000 people over its 16-day period revolutionised Northern Italy after attracting 1.2 million visitors. Conceived by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers consists of 100,000 square meters of shimmering yellow fabric, carried by a modular dock system of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes floating on the surface of Lake Iseo. Those who traversed the walkway experienced the power of art to viscerally reshape our relationship with the world we live in. A ‘Golden Bottom’ also emerged, created by Londoner Anthea Hamilton, that became an instant Instagram sensation. It was modelled after Italian architect-designer Gaetano Pesce’s unrealised work of the same theme for a New York apartment, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Turner Prize.
On another note, Brexit caused shockwaves in the art world as well as politically. Prominent British artists from Damien Hirst to Anish Kapoor universally advocated for Britain to remain in the EU, many signing petitions and open letters in the lead up to the referendum. The uncertainty in the art market was accentuated with the result, as the value of the pound quivered along with interests in anything, even art. The October Frieze fair emerged victorious with strong results and sell-through rates, and whilst fewer art enthusiasts seem to be buying from abroad, there seems to be more interest in interest from abroad. The art market, as with the UK, has yet to see what Brexit might bring.
In August, forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad re-took the ancient city of Palmyra from the control of ISIS militants, though not before the terrorist group made rubble of many of the city’s cherished historical ruins. GW Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, argued that “among the great cities of antiquity, Palmyra is comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece”. In response to this defacement, several countries have renewed efforts to protect antiquities at risk. The U.K. has announced plans to establish a band of uniformed modern-day “monuments men” to safeguard humanity’s communal history from the dangers of war. They will be art and architecture experts employed by the army to help protect priceless cultural treasures in war zones and choke off terrorist funding from antiquities smuggling.
Amid the US presidential election, political art gained reinvigorated attention. Just a week before election day, Barbara Kruger superimposed the word “loser” over a photograph of Donald Trump for the cover of New York magazine. Artist Marilyn Minter, meanwhile, created work with musician Miley Cyrus to support Planned Parenthood as the election increased negativity towards the woman’s health organization. The artistic world’s response to Trump’s racist, sexist and xenophobic attitudes are less than positive. The market was less outraged, with a rising stock market and solid results during the November auctions and at Art Basel in Miami Beach.
The future was also an important feature of 2016’s art. This summer, Olafur Eliasson created a three-piece installation at the Chateau de Versailles outside Paris, including an awe-inspiring waterfall that is meant to increase our consciousness towards the ecological and built environment. Over five days in Detroit this May, the New Museum’s Ideas City brought together a diverse cross-section of artists, designers, writers, and thinkers to reshape the flawed narratives around the city. In March, Art Basel announce a new initiative, Art Basel Cities, that aims to spur on urban and economic development in metropolitan areas worldwide. With these new programmes, and more, we know that the art world is in the prime position to achieve solutions through generating dialogue.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.