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Dec 22 2020

AAP’s Favorite Books And Artist Projects Of 2020

by The Editors

CHILA KUMARI SINGH BURMAN‘s remembering a brave new world (2020) at Tate Britain, London, 2020. Image via Tate’s Facebook.

Good riddance, 2020! It has taken a lot to get through the past year, including mental agility as well as emotional strength and perseverance. For the AAP editors, an installation with whale song and an archive of well-wishes posted to online medical fundraisers were among the things that helped. Check out some of the books and artist projects we loved this year, and stay tuned for more of our faves in our next blog!

Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s Tate Britain commission

Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s technicolor installation remembering a brave new world (2020) lit up the front facade of London’s Tate Britain. The British-Indian artist juxtaposed neon emblems of Hindu deities and references to Bollywood, feminism, and political activism for Diwali, the festival of lights. In stark contrast to the neoclassical architecture of the building, which houses a permanent collection of predominantly White, male artists, Burman’s playful fluorescent work brightens London’s nights as the city contends with another lockdown. LL

Darren Sylvester’s “Balustrade Stake” playlist

I change my music faster than a Kardashian/Jenner changes their face but I’ve been listening to Darren Sylvester’s “Balustrade Stake” playlist on repeat since the artist released it in April. Created for his solo show of the same name at Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney, the playlist is spooky and sultry, with a dash of luxuriant woe to match Sylvester’s glossy world of storefront psychics and glamorous vampire slayers. OL

Timur Si-Qin, “Heaven is Sick”

The things that stood out to me in 2020 all prodded me to confront some of my mental blindspots. Timur Si-Qin writes in “Heaven is Sick” that “White European culture is for the most part unaware that . . . Christianity has anything to do with today’s ecological crisis, believing it to be simply the consequence of modernity, industrialization, and capitalism.” He might as well have personally stood me in front of a giant, red neon sign that says, “It you.” His eye-opening argument connects Christian views of the Earth as a gift from god with the Trump administration’s rapacious environmental policies, and piqued my curiosity about what else I missed in how religion codes human behavior. CC

Installation view of EKTOR GARCIA’s “Oax.D.F.L.A.N.O.H.K.” at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Michael Yu. Courtesy the artist and Empty Gallery.
Installation view of EKTOR GARCIA’s “Oax.D.F.L.A.N.O.H.K.” at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Michael Yu. Courtesy the artist and Empty Gallery.
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ektor garcia at Empty Gallery

Crocheting with metal, showing sculptures in the dark—unusual propositions that nonetheless worked beautifully at Empty Gallery in ektor garcia’s exhibition “Oax.D.F.L.A.N.O.H.K.” The trio of intricate stitchings in copper wire portales de cobre (2020) shimmered in the dark like haute-couture chainmail, delicate and foreboding. From other works, the gallery’s darkness brought out the monstrous and mysterious—a snake-like form on the floor, a tarantula-like knot of black-glazed clay on the wall, ceramic vessels that seemed to be overtaken by a black mold. There’s both terror and beauty in garcia’s new American gothic. HGM

Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne’s “massive e-card”

Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne’s Get well soon! (2020), comprising over 200,000 unique messages sourced from crowdfunding projects in support of healthcare procedures, speaks to the power of the collective and the lack of affordable healthcare. Presented online like an endless Excel sheet, the archive is laden with messages like “I love you,” “Get well soon,” and “Best of Luck.” This heart-felt piece surpasses political and socioeconomic boundaries in the face of a pandemic that is blind to such categories. LL

David Byrne’s dingbats

David Byrne’s dingbats (2020) are so satisfying to look at. My favorite of the offbeat hand-drawn illustrations, some of which have been turned into GIFs, are the delightfully nonsensical visual puns, such as Handyman (2020), a hand in an upside-down “rock on!” gesture with a face and a trilby. OL

DAVID BYRNE, The Earth is Watching, 2020, GIF. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Pace, New York / London / Hong Kong / Seoul / Geneva / Palo Alto / East Hampton / Palm Beach.
DAVID BYRNE, The Earth is Watching, 2020, GIF. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Pace, New York / London / Hong Kong / Seoul / Geneva / Palo Alto / East Hampton / Palm Beach.
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Clown sculptures by Life of a Craphead

Laughing is good. Laughing in 2020 is especially difficult but good. Life of a Craphead’s Ceilings with Clowns (2019) made me laugh in 2020 and this is excellent. The installation is what the name suggests: clown sculptures lying atop a checkered glass-and-bamboo roof that is just above human height. It is unabashedly literal (something else that felt rare in 2020). In the artists’ own words, “When you stand under the ceiling, you can feel what it’s like to be an Asian woman.” CC

Diana Thater’s whale-song project

Do you ever feel stressed and/or lonely? Of course you do! Self-soothe with Diana Thater’s light and sound installation Yes, there will be singing (2020). Staged at a remote location and broadcast 24/7 to the David Zwirner website through the duration of its run, the project features gently changing colored lights accompanied by the vocalizations of Whale 52, also known as the Loneliest Whale, an unidentified cetacean who calls at a distinctive frequency of 52 Hz. OL

Installation view of LEELEE CHAN’s (left) Celadon Weaver, 2020, ceramic shards (Qingbai ware, Longquan ware, and Yaozhou ware) from Song to Ming dynasties (10th to 17th centuries AD), 925 silver, stainless steel chain mail, steel stand, 70 × 33 × 177 cm; and Surface Morphology, 2020, archival pigment prints mounted on aluminum frames, set of 7 prints, at “Up Close – Hollywood Road,” Hong Kong, 2020.
Installation view of LEELEE CHAN’s (left) Celadon Weaver, 2020, ceramic shards (Qingbai ware, Longquan ware, and Yaozhou ware) from Song to Ming dynasties (10th to 17th centuries AD), 925 silver, stainless steel chain mail, steel stand, 70 × 33 × 177 cm; and Surface Morphology, 2020, archival pigment prints mounted on aluminum frames, set of 7 prints, at “Up Close – Hollywood Road,” Hong Kong, 2020.
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“Up Close – Hollywood Road”

The antique shops on Hollywood Road are famous but rarely does one feel invited to venture inside. “Up Close – Hollywood Road,” an exhibition project curated by Ivan Leung and Hilda Chan, was an IRL exploration of four galleries and a unique chance to see contemporary Hong Kong artists in the context of old and even ancient art—an Oscar Chan video with Tang dynasty funerary sculptures; Leelee Chan’s metal curtain with porcelain fragments in a room with Ming furniture in Gallery 149. Remind me again, why do we keep showing contemporary art in empty white-walled spaces? HGM

“My Body Holds Its Shape”

In a year when the norms of human interaction and communication were completely upturned, “My Body Holds Its Shape” was an exhibition that was compelled to adapt its live elements to the circumstances. Eisa Jocson’s live project Zoo (2020), in which the performers become animal-like, ended up being staged by Hong Kong dancers on-site—at a safe distance from visitors—and homebound performers in the Philippines livestreaming their actions to the gallery. Even the physical works in the exhibition space maintained forms of distance, obliquely alluding to places unseen (a house in Sai Kung, for Jason Dodge), private experiences on the cusp of consciousness (insomnia, in Tap Chan’s case) and events of the past (US bombings of Laos, for Pratchaya Phinthong) that for viewers became places in the mind. HGM

Chow Chun Fai’s protest paintings

Memories of the 2019 events in Hong Kong were still raw when Chow Chun Fai’s paintings of police, protests, and Poly U hit the walls at Gallery Exit in March. In Chow’s renderings we witness the artist processing the experiences and images that came to define the chaotic year that preceded Covid-19’s arrival. Chow’s painting was at its most urgent and best in the smallest canvases made practically as events were unfolding, capturing the tension and fear of a city on the brink. HGM

Image by Peter Chung for ArtAsiaPacific.

Pizza Girl

By Jean Kyoung Frazier

Penguin Random House: 2020

The Korean-American protagonist of Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl is 18, pregnant, and obsessed with a mysterious new customer whose bratty son will only eat pizza with pepperoni and pickles. Pizza Girl’s deliveries, flashbacks, and inevitable mental unraveling form a taut and unexpectedly funny narrative of dislocation, missed chances, and the longing for connection. OL

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson

Doubleday: 2010

A decade old yet ever more pertinent today, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010), in the author’s signature style of combining a loose narrative with tidbits of facts, traverses through each room in a typical household to discover the stories within. Something for the armchair adventurer, Bryson’s book weaves together snippets of history with art, architecture, technology, and commerce, all found without leaving the comforts, or safety, of your home. LL

Blockchain Chicken Farm

By Xiaowei Wang

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2020

Xiaowei Wang traces the roles of technology and China’s rural workforce in the nation’s 21st century evolution. Blockchain Chicken Farm not only dismantles the binaries of urban-rural and digital-physical, but, more strikingly, collates personal reflections and earnest conversations with family, farmers, and entrepreneurs. It is a journey to see oneself and others more clearly. CC

The Undying

By Anne Boyer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2019

Anne Boyer’s stunning memoir lays out in agonizing detail the struggles of a breast cancer patient in a medical system that capitalizes on pain and the hope of a cure. Boyer’s formidable prose is impassioned yet unsentimental, a battle cry for health equity and the right to survive. OL

Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong

Small Tune Press: 2020

Aftershock is a vivid recollection of the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests by a group of Hong Kong journalists. While there have been a number of Chinese journals and photo books published on the protests, this thin, B6-sized booklet is an English-language collection of first-hand experiences, thoughts, and internal struggles, including Holmes Chan’s discussion on the journalist as an “adversary” and Rachel Cheung’s piece on “the daunting fights in the newsroom.” Every turn of the page brought me back to moments in 2019 where I wish I could have been more present. PW

The Vanishing Half

By Brit Bennett

Riverhead Books: 2020

The Vanishing Half starts as the story of two teenage runaways—light-skinned, Black twins Stella and Desiree—and ends a generation removed, concluding an epic arc tracing the divergent paths of the sisters after Stella disappears to take on a new life as a White-passing woman. Bennett’s novel is an incisive and affecting examination of internalized racism, colorism, and resilience to intergenerational trauma across the lives of a Black American family and the people they love in the latter half of the 20th century. OL

One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel García Márquez

Harper & Row: 1970 (first published in Spanish 1967)

Maybe it was the title that prompted me to reread Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel in 2020, but it was not exactly the book I remembered. Confined to one town, isolated far from the rest of the world, the Buendía family experiences “history” (meaning events from the outside world) only as they arrive in their remote home. The sense of confinement and isolation grows as generation after generation tragically repeats their ancestors’ errors, making the novel epic and deeply mythological, rather than magical. HGM

HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy publisher and deputy editor; Chloe Chu is managing editor; Ophelia Lai is associate editor; Lauren Long is web and news editor; Pamela Wong is assistant editor; Peter Chung is photo editor.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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