We look back at the shows that caught our eye and stayed with us, uniting art and and technology to take in everything from frozen plants at Parasol Unit to Bjork's Virtual Reality at Somerset House
As the end of the year fast approaches, overviews of its hits, misses, surprises and memories proliferate. The transition to a new year – a clean slate – inevitably brings with it self-reflection and infrequently-kept resolutions. It has always seemed somewhat arbitrary to take our completed orbit around the sun as the opportunity for these personal reviews; after all, wouldn't a fresh start with earnest good intentions be twice as helpful if it were to be initiated twice a year? Nevertheless, the segue from one year to the next brings with it a certain distancing effect, allowing us to collectively take a step back and survey the scene, as if zooming out on Google Maps.
Of course Top Ten lists, like new year resolutions, are never truly comprehensive, and at times their omissions are just as notable as those included in the final selection. It is a challenge to narrow down to just ten the exhibitions that delivered exciting perspectives and new insight on the interconnections between art and technology. 2016 was a year of ever-growing awareness of the power held in our digital networks, in which political polls were shown to be wildly inaccurate and fake news became truer than reality itself, and it is inevitable that artists and curators reflected this shift. We chose to limit our selection to UK-based galleries, partly to aid in narrowing it down but also to cast light on the work that is being shown in a specifically British context. We have chosen exhibitions that in various ways anticipated, parodied and set out to question the dynamics of how we live now, paving the way for the year to come.
1. FOXP2, Marguerite Humeau at Nottingham Contemporary
15 October 2016 - 15 January 2017
FOXP2 is a protein in humans that is required for proper development of speech and language. At Nottingham Contemporary, FOXP2 is an imaginative look into our ancient past that envisions our most distant future. Several absurdist, elephant-like white sculptures charge the sweetly pink space with their synthetic voices, created by Marguerite Humeau and a team of zoologists and other biological experts in an attempt to reimagine the origins of language. Running until 15 January 2017, this exhibition marks the end to a significant year for Humeau, having originally presented this collection in her first major solo show earlier in the year at Palais de Tokyo.
2. user, space, Yuri Pattison at Chisenhale
7 July – 28 August 2016
As co-working spaces continue to pop up around major cities, from London to San Francisco, these flexible offices and mobile desktops are increasingly shaped to reflect the networked nature of our online lives. Pattison’s new commission at Chisenhale, developed over a two-year period, saw him build an immersive reflection of these new live-work spaces. Cleverly observed details and an arch eye for the contradictory elements of these environments informed Pattison’s subtly conflated representation of the blurred lines between creativity, capital and community.
3. Vertigo Sea, John Akomfrah at Arnolfini; John Akomfrah at Lisson
16 January - 10 April 2016; 22 January – 12 March 2016
Vertigo Sea, Akomfrah’s powerful three-screen film installation first premiered in 2014 at the Venice Biennale, took the journey across the ocean to dock in Bristol. A meditative exploration of the history of slavery, migration and colonialism, it took the whaling industry as its focus to expand upon our relationship with the sea. As the migrant crisis has continued to escalate throughout the year, it was fitting that Akomfrah also turned his eye to Athens and Southern Greece in one of three multichannel films shown in another exhibition at Lisson Gallery. As always in both showings, his sensitive handling of archival material told human stories that were as painful as they were poetic.
4. For They That Sow The Wind, Julien Charriere at Parasol Unit
15 January - 23 March 2016
The Berlin-based artist had his first solo outing in the UK at Parasol Unit this year, an institution that has set a high standard with its consistently ambitious mixed-media exhibitions. Charriere’s led the way for 2016, bringing together sculptural works made from salt deposits and plants frozen in liquid nitrogen. Confronting the growing ecological crisis as advancements in technology consume natural resources, a large-scale photograph of Charriere blowtorching a glacier emphasised the underlying playfulness of the show – finding absurdity even in the face of destruction.
5. Emotional Supply Chains at Zabludowicz Collection
24 March - 17 July 2016
Featuring work from 17 international artists, including Simon Denny, Eloise Hawser and Guan Xiao and David Blandy, this impressive exhibition took a sweeping look at the transitory and fragmented nature of identity in the digital age. Through video, sculpture, animation and online works, artists delved into the instability of the self, and the ways in which technologies have enhanced and accelerated its continued fracturing. The diversity of the works, with a rich backstory behind each piece, made for a hugely compelling show that was able to speak to and reflect the unstable and chaotic world in which we exist.
6. Drunk Brown House, Helen Marten at Serpentine Sackler
29 September - 20 November 2016
The year closes for Marten on a high, having won in quick succession the Turner Prize and the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture. Both are well deserved, and reward her deeply intelligent way of arranging objects and sculptural gestures in carefully balanced assemblies. A quiet logic could be traced between seemingly disparate pieces in her solo show at the Serpentine’s Sackler gallery, leading each visitor on an intuitive path of surprise and discovery.
7. Electronic Superhighway at Whitechapel
29 January - 15 May 2016
Starting in 2016 and traveling backwards to 1966, The Whitechapel Gallery’s mammoth group show mapped out the transforming relationship between artists and new technologies over the past fifty years. Drawing on work from a staggering 70 artists, the exhibition set contemporary digital art within its historical context, creating a trajectory that could include James Bridle’s 2014 airport check in hologram, Nam June Paik’s 1994 video art sculpture and Manfred Mohr’s 1970s plotter drawings within the same story.
8. Björk Digital, Björk at Somerset House
1 September - 23 October 2016
With Björk’s virtual reality exhibition at somerset house, the artist presented the next stage of her surreal and otherworldly audio-visual experiment into the potential intersections between technology and visual art. Through VR rooms, 360 videos and multi-screen projections, visitors were serenaded by Björks on an icelandic beach, in space and even within her own giant, pulsating mouth. While virtual reality provided the opportunity for fans to engage with her work in a uniquely intimate and immersive way, the was most successful was where the sound was given as much importance as the visuals, and where the artist proved to push against and go beyond the limits of the technology before her.
9. The Infinite Mix at The Store, 180 The Strand
9 September - 11 December 2016
Inundated with critical acclaim and widely acknowledged to be one of the shows of the year is Hayward Gallery's offsite installation in collaboration with The Vinyl Factory. The hulking Brutalist building at 180 The Strand was brought to life by ten distinct, arresting and pivotal audiovisual artworks by as many different artists. Varied and yet cohesive in their playful manipulation of history and fiction, the authentic and the staged and the sublime and the quotidian, there were standout pieces from Ugo Rondione, Rachel Rose and Cyprien Gaillard. In a year when ‘post-truth’ became OED word of the year, The Infinite Mix reminded us of the good to be found in the bending edges of reality
10. Syzygy, Katie Paterson at The Lowry
28 April - 5 May 2016
As part of The Lowry’s Week 53 festival, a week-long festival that addressed the growing schism between identity and place, Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson took us on a journey to the depths of the cosmos to find a sense of home in her first major UK solo exhibition. Featuring a collection of her interdisciplinary conceptual works and two new commissions, Syzygy took a far-reaching look beyond the fractured nature of our immediate world to reveal the very interconnectedness of all that is and ever was. Building familiarity where there is seemingly none by providing for each of the senses, from sight to smell, Paterson creates an experience of deep space that is distinctly human.