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Top 10 Art Events of the Last Decade

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This was a far from straightforward list to put together, and I am grateful to my editor Kimberly Brooks for asking me for a decade's worth of "art events" -- rather than anything more precise -- which made my task at once more difficult and more thought-provoking. This is because the art that excites me is the kind that doesn't seek to separate itself from life, but to embrace it in all its untidy complexities. As I have commented below, that attitude is no more than realistic. So my top ten includes an act of terrorism, a technological development, a geocultural breakthrough, a commercial phenomenon, a performance festival, a piece of public art, a book, and even three exhibitions.

And although I began the decade in England, and will see it out in the Pacific Northwest, this is very much a New Yorker's top ten. New York City was my home for pretty much the entire ten years, and I am more than ever persuaded that it is the world's single most important center for making and seeing contemporary art, and everything else. Anything that is important in New York is important everywhere else as well.

Because "importance" has been my key criterion here: and by that I mean something far more than "entertaining", or even "thought-provoking". Looking back at the key events of the last few years crystallizes my belief that the best art does something far more than interconnect with the events around it, it actually contributes to events that have yet to happen. It creates its own future. Everything I have listed here has done that, and that is what I shall continue to seek out in the next ten years as well.

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9/11 -- In art, as in life, pretty much everything else pales into insignificance alongside the events of September 11, 2001, and their continuing fallout. And while it is obviously absurd to suggest that 9/11 was merely an art event, any artist working in New York City currently (or anywhere else, for that matter) who tells you they aren't influenced by the terrible events of that sunny fall day is making art that is either almost unimaginable or profoundly stupid.

The Internet -- Though we had the internet at the turn of this century obviously, it has changed our lives out of all recognition since then. And that change includes how art is conceived, made, communicated, promoted, thought and written about, and even bought and sold. (I'm very much looking forward to Jim Cohan's first online art fair next month.) On a personal level, the first piece I wrote for web publication was a review of Matthew Barney's Guggenheim show in 2003. Since then, I've probably written ten times as much online as in print and you wouldn't even be reading this if it wasn't for the web. And if somebody had said ten years ago that I'd be running my own website now, I'm not even sure that I'd have known what that meant...

China -- These last ten years have seen the emergence of a whole Chinese art world that few of us imagined existed at the end of the nineties. While some prescient souls might have anticipated the discovery of so many artists of the first rank from China, I suspect that very few would have predicted their range and current ubiquity. Shows from the last decade that I recall with particular pleasure include Yue Minjun at Queens Museum (2007-08), Zhang Huan at Asia Society (2007-08) and Pace (2008), Cai Guo-Qiang on the Met roof (2006) and at the Guggenheim (2008) and Liao Yibai at Mike Weiss (last year and this). And it's not just the artists of course, who'd have imagined that galleries as distinguished as Pace and Cohan would have set up shop in China by now?

The Art Fairs -- The art fair phenomenon has been the enigma of the decade in many ways, particularly given the burgeoning of the internet. It must be something more than the twenty-first century humankind's taste for junketing that means that several times a year - once in New York, once in London, once in Switzerland, and once in Miami (and then in addition in an increasing range of locations from Madrid to Maastricht to Hong Kong) - the contemporary art world decides to come together to buy and sell art, and schmooze, and party. Many artists would say this has very little to with what art is really about, but I am afraid they are wrong.

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Performa -- RoseLee Goldberg has her detractors, but no one can deny the significance of her brainchild, Performa. Her organization has all sorts of other publishing and educational arms -- and it also seems to be particularly good at throwing parties! -- but its really significant contributions to how art is perceived in New York City have been the biennials. The first took place in 2005 and the next one will take place in 2011; they depend upon massive collaborative efforts between practically every organization in the city with even the slightest interest in performance art; and they put together densely-packed programs that most people only have time to nibble around the edges of. Most importantly they present some of the best art that New York audiences get to experience (Jesper Just in 2005, for example, and Allan Kaprow restaged in 2007, and the futurist noise machines in 2009) and have genuinely dragged performance art back into many New Yorkers' sense of the contemporary.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude -- The Gates -- Several decades in the making, and in place for only a couple of brief weeks in February 2005, Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude's undoubted chef d'oeuvre was not only smiled on by the weather (that orange fabric seen against the white snow, the black trees, and the blue sky was the color scheme for millions of digital photographs taken by locals and tourists alike) it also probably did more to change New Yorker's perception of what art might be than any other single art event. Having a Russian-born New York cab driver drive me through the park one evening while giving me an enthusiastic little lecture on the importance of Christo and his work is one of my fondest recollections of the decade.

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Marina Abramovic -- The Artist is Present -- No apologies for identifying something that happened earlier this year as my de facto exhibition of the decade. I genuinely regard Ms Abramovic as one of the most important artists of our time (she might well be the artist of the decade) and her 'retrospective' at MoMA was significant for all sorts of reasons. At its heart was something that was precisely the reverse of retrospective -- the one-person performance that saw Ms Abramovic sitting still in a chair for every moment that the museum was open for three entire months. Rarely can an artist have caused such controversy by doing so little. People who got to sit in the chair opposite her will tell their grandchildren about it.

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Francis Bacon -- A Centenary Retrospective -- By contrast, this 2009 heart-stopper was not only a real retrospective but a bit of genuine art history as well. If you'd told me ten years ago that this list would include an exhibition by a dead painter, and that I would call it "the best exhibition I have ever seen, anywhere, in my life" I would probably have laughed. Some exhibitions pale in the memory, but this one -- put together by the combined forces of the Met, the Tate, and the Prado -- still grips me, and its alchemical mix of biography, imagination, and paint really did make me reconsider almost everything I thought I knew about art and how it communicates human intelligence.

Richard Serra -- Sculpture, Forty Years -- Another retrospective, and another show that even now I'm a little surprised to find myself including. There is something so unsubtly masculine about Richard Serra's work that I had always given it a somewhat embarrassed wide berth in the past. But I was genuinely beguiled by this once-in-a-lifetime accumulation of Mr Serra's largest scale pieces, and by their elegance, their joyousness, and yes, their delicacy.

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Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller -- The Killing Machine and Other Stories -- Quite whether a book qualifies as an art event I'm not sure, but this 2007 volume - and more particularly the DVD that's tucked inside its back cover - struck me as the most graspable manifestation of the deliberately amorphous art activities of this pair of Canadians - Ms Cardiff once got decidedly shirty with me when I questioned her husband's importance in their collaborations. From my first direct experience of their work at the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, right through to their most recent show at Luhring Augustine earlier this year, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have provoked and entertained me more than any other artists I can think of. And this book is the one item on my list that you can still get. Happy Holidays!