Top 10 art exhibitions in London

This city is absolutely rammed full of amazing art galleries and museums. Want to see a priceless Monet? A Rothko masterpiece? An installation of little crumpled bits of paper? A video piece about the evils of capitalism? You can find it all right here in this city. London’s museums are all open as normal again, and the city’s independents are back in business. So here, we’ve got your next art outing sorted with the ten best shows you absolutely can’t miss. 

1. Philip Guston

Get ready to see Philip Guston implode. Because over the course of this big retrospective of the American artist’s (1913-1980) work, you watch one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century fall to pieces, collapse in on himself, and then be born anew. It’s amazing.

He came of age in a time of political turmoil, a turmoil that would never cease. The child of Jewish refugees, he watched racism flourish on the streets of LA at the hands of the KKK and chose to create art of resistance. He painted revolutionary murals in Mexico, portable frescoes for left-wing events, murals for housing projects, a swirling tornado of a painting in protest at the Spanish civil war. Art for Guston at this point was a tool of revolution and protest. His style was sombre social realism; dark, hazy, angry and weird, like a hyper-caffeinated, angry de Chirico. 

But he was hamstrung by figuration and realism. Post-war, things like Pollock and Rothko were happening, and Guston couldn’t resist the lure of abstraction. So he chipped away at reality until all that remained was big fleshy canvases smudged over with pink and blue and black, like vast bruises. They are gorgeous works of bodily abstraction. They feel like Guston imploding, taking everything that made him who he was and destroying it, a whole visual language swallowed up and turned to mush.

And they were necessary, because as he said ‘you know, you have to die for a rebirth’. So out of that destruction comes something new. Real, solid, forms start to reappear in works from 1960. Out of gloopy abstract colourfields, black shapes like heads peer out at you. Guston is being reborn. The room is soundtracked by a beautiful piece of Morton Feldman music written for Guston after his death. It’s incredibly moving, quiet, powerful. You sense Guston’s desperation to create something, but a struggle to know what he wants to create, what he’s meant to create. This is him scrabbling around feverishly for meaning. 

Satirical, aggressive, caked in nicotine, paranoia and obsession

And by the late 1960s, he’s got it nailed. Late Guston is the best Guston. Figuration is back with a bang, or a cartoony splat, as he melds super simple, bold, comic book imagery with dark, tense social realism in a world of pink and red. His figures could be cribbed from early Disney animations with big floppy feet and huge slits for eyes, but they wear the white hoods of the KKK as they drive around town or smoke cigarettes. The ‘hoods’ are symbols of evil, and Guston sees them everywhere, sometimes they’re even him. Come on, he’d just seen the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the KKK, of course he thought evil was everywhere. It was, it is

The same concerns of his younger years appear here, but he’s less constrained now. He paints himself as a cyclops smoking in bed, his wife’s forehead is a sunset, a pile of legs is a monument to what, the holocaust? His brother’s death? To nothing?
His simplified approach gives him freedom, space to say what he wants; everyday things, cryptic things, angry political things. They’re staggering, brilliant paintings, satirical, aggressive, caked in nicotine, paranoia and obsession.

But time is cruel, and the last works are blackened and miserable. Guston was wrestling with his mortality, and his wife Musa McKim’s declining health. Hands hold cigarettes belching out thick red smoke, heads are entangled in spiderwebs. A final painting shows Guston in bed with McKim, clutching her close, with his brushes in his hand. Through all the pain and injustice and struggling, he finally figured out what really mattered: love and art, simple as that.

2. Zach Blas: ‘Cultus’

We might just be designing our own doom. With the pursuit of AI, the creation of ultra-powerful machine intelligences, we’re engaging in the kind of uniquely human and hubristic act that just might spell the demise of the species. And American artist Zach Blas knows that when the world starts ending, we pray. 

That apocalypse isn’t just sci-fi speculation and fearmongering either, it’s a legitimate concern of the tech innovators at the heart of AI research. They speak about AI like an imminent, unstoppable messianic arrival that must be bowed down to. It’s that quasi-religiosity that’s at the core of Blas’s ‘Cultus’, a throbbingly loud, heady, shadowy installation that imagines AI beings as future gods. 

‘Cultus’ itself is meant to be a ‘god generator’, creating AI idols for viewers to worship. In the middle of the space, surrounded by offerings on pyramidal plinths, a pulsating green orb dances with lights. Its undulating surface becomes a series of masked, alien, terrifying faces intoning big, scary religious sermons. These are the four AI gods: Expositio, Iudicium, Lacrimae and Eternus. Four panels hang on chains describing prayers to each god, obscure swirling symbols cover a dais, techno pop chants echo through the dark space. This is the Mithraeum of the future, a temple to new deities borne of some twisted reverse-creation myth. 

The whole thing is kind of like the set of a BDSM episode of Red Dwarf, and it’s visually super impressive. But its future gothic techno immersiveness hides a clever heart. The show feels like a very ancient warning against worshipping false idols, against how we blindly kowtow to Silicon Valley occultism. But it’s probably too late, the gods are already here, already being praised, we just haven’t put on our black robes yet.

3. Lutz Bacher: Aye!

The whole gallery screams and screeches with fragments of clashing sound. A room is filled with sand and blankTV screens, robotic fingers play dissonant chords on an electric organ, traffic roars as glass shimmers with images of the Empire State building. Raven Row has been turned into a Lutz Bacher jukebox, and it’s playing all the hits.

The American conceptualist (1943-2019) was a magpie, a thief, a sampler, picking up bits of visual and sonic culture to reassemble, twist, break and make into something new.

Gentle piano notes and soft romantic voices greet you in that room full of sand as four screens show nothing but white light, like you’re watching a love film after the apocalypse. Upstairs, a tiny split-second clip of Leonard Cohen loops and stutters, two radios blare pop hits at each other, a massive speaker spreads the gospel of Matthew out of an open window onto the streets below. 

4. Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sometimes, big, clever art is there to make you feel small and stupid. Or at least insignificant. That’s what the best work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto does. His retrospective at the Hayward finds him toying with light and dark, reality and fiction, life and death, all to make you go slack jawed in awe at your pitiful place in the universe. 

It starts with vultures and deer; all perfectly posed, perfectly lit, classic nature photography. But they’re too perfect: stare long enough and you realise the landscapes are painted backdrops, the foliage is plastic, the animals are stuffed. They’re dioramas from the American Museum of Natural History, shot to look real, with dramatic long exposures, shifting light, a world of details and idealised compositions that could never happen in the wild. 

These are some of the earliest works here, but he pulls the same trick years later at Madame Tussaud’s, using the techniques and tactics of portrait photography to capture images of the wax works; Napoleon all vulnerable and forlorn, Fidel Castro aged and weak, Princess Diana meek and soft. Down in the basement, he shows images of waxworks of serial killers and psychopaths. He’s forcing you to balance on the cusp of reality and fiction, life and death. But it’s smarter than that, because he’s also trying to make you ask why: why do we preserve these animals in dioramas, these historical figures in a museum? What are we scared of losing? What have we done?

Quiet pictures of the inevitability of time’s passing and your utter powerlessness in the face of it

Sugimoto loves big questions, and his two best series ask the biggest of all. ‘Theatres’ is endless images of abandoned cinemas, their screens glowing a spectral white, their walls crumbling. Sugimoto shot each with an exposure long enough to capture a whole film. A whole work of art, summed up and gone in an instant, reduced to nothing but the light it emitted. No people, no story, no culture, just time disappearing. They’re ghostly, haunting images that shine almost too brightly in the dark gallery, quiet pictures of the inevitability of time’s passing and your utter powerlessness in the face of it. 

‘Seascapes’ is nothing but bodies of water, shot with that same long exposure, their waves smoothed out into soft flat blurs, their horizons now a sharp split of sky and water, creating miserable, monochrome Rothkos. They’re beautiful, meditative images that would have looked the same taken a million years ago as today, just blank, endless grey; all there’s ever been, all there’ll ever be. 

There’s lots to not like here. The images of lighting-like electrical phenomena feel horribly studenty, and the photos of Buddhist statues and mathematical models just look like they’re built for some coked-up banker’s living room.

But at his best, Sugimato makes you feel small, like time is passing and always will, like the universe is huge and you’re insignificant. When I was at the show, Sugimoto was walking around the empty galleries playing ‘Let It Be’ out of his phone and singing along. And that’s the point: the universe is big and you aren’t, time is endless but yours isn’t, but don’t worry about it, just let it be.

5. Avery Singer: Free Fall

A faceless, grey corporate office; patterned carpet tiles, neon strip lights, shredded paper; suffocating, windowless, airless. This is early 2000s corporate America as seen by Avery Singer. But this isn’t just any date in the early 2000s, this is 9/11.

The American artist’s immersive, trippy, beige installation is a meditation on tragedy and collective trauma, on one event which tore apart a country, and shattered Singer’s own youth. She lived down the road from the World Trade Center, her mother worked there. She was 13 or 14, teetering on the brink of adolescence, when tragedy hit. Who she is, what America is, was fundamentally altered by 9/11.

You enter the gallery and face a wall of lifts, portals to a seemingly endless array of offices. Panels over the windows behind you are meant to ease vertigo for high rise office workers. Inside hang portraits of people impacted by the attack, a painting of a severed hand found on a window sill miles away, a police car. One of the portraits is of Marcy Borders, famous for a photo of her outside the World Trade Center covered in dust, staring emptily, sallow and broken. Another is of Stan Honda, who took that photo and helped disseminate and proliferate an iconic image of tragedy. The last is of Rachel Uchitel, whose fiancé died in 9/11, her eyes heavy with mascara, her ears and fingers draped in jewellery. Borders died of lung cancer after dealing with alcohol dependency, Uchitel endured years of substance abuse, ending up on a celebrity rehab show. Tragedy and trauma unfold in so many uncontrollable, insidious, twisting ways. 

All this death, gore, addiction and heartache, but mediated through corporate greyness

In the space next door, Singer has created a book store filled with 2000s-era thrillers and self-help books. Down an office corridor, you find more paintings; Singer’s own avatar smoking crack, an eye, a mass of hair, all rendered in airbrushed digital perfection but somehow off, too digital and too real, paintings that exist in an uncanny valley. 

The show feels dreamlike and nostalgic, but not in a hazy way. It’s all crystal clear but glitchy, fragmented, not quite right. It’s intense but also unemotional, a sort of medicated shock, tragedy through the lens of Citalopram. It’s uncomfortable, but mainly because it’s so cold. All this death, gore, addiction and heartache, but mediated through corporate greyness.

The whole show comes at a time when artists are being ever more policed about their subjects. In 2017 Dana Schutz was widely protested for her painting of the battered body of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial, the Tate’s current huge (and brilliant) Philip Guston show was repeatedly delayed because it featured images of the KKK, there are rumours of disquiet about Chris Ofili’s Grenfell mural at Tate Britain. So is it ok for Avery Singer to make this work? Who owns tragedy, who owns trauma? Who’s allowed to speak, to comment, to commemorate? Who can make art about pain and death? 

I don’t know if I have the answers to any of those questions, I don’t know if this is tasteless, if it’s just a tacky excuse to sell paintings off the back of mass murder. But I do know that in its provocative, tense exploration of a schism in modern society, in its early 2000s dreamy nostalgia, its heady meditation on addiction, pain and media ubiquity, Singer’s installation is deeply, unsettlingly, brilliantly affecting.

6. Anna Uddenberg: Home Wreckers

If you get caught smoking as a kid, the best punishment is to be locked in a closet and forced to smoke a whole pack. It’ll put you off for life. Swedish artist Anna Uddenberg is taking that same approach, not for ciggies, but for rampant over-sexualisation and intense female objectification. She’s shoving it so brutally in your face that you might never find anything sexy ever again. 

She’s become TikTok famous lately for ‘Continental Breakfast’, a series of interactive sculptures that force performers into positions of extreme physical vulnerability, futuristic dentist chairs for sex dungeons, leaving you legs splayed, face down, ass up; that’s the way she likes to make discomfiting sculptural installations.

Here at The Perimeter, the sculptures are almost all of human figures. From the window outside you spot a woman bent double, waving a selfie stick trying to take a picture of her own genitals; as you walk in, a pregnant figure in bondage is tending to a pushchair covered in black zips. Upstairs, more bondage, more twisting, more splaying. The figures wear Balenciaga crocs, bondage gear sewn together out of fake handbags; their bodies are folded in half, heads between legs, contorted in metal contraptions, or spread out over a table, digging their nails into thick carpet. 

I think the chairs of ‘Continental Breakfast’ are probably better individual sculptures, but the works here are still brilliant. It all sits somewhere between HR Giger horror porn, luxury luggage and hand-knit craft aesthetics. But it’s pushed so far that none of it is alluring or sexual. Instead, it’s cold, clinical, somehow repulsive. It’s sexuality and exploitation made so artificial, so grotesque, that it turns the stomach, makes you feel vile, gross, complicit. 

This is art about female identity as a consumable commodity, art about submission to technology, submission to capitalism, submission to power. And in all its intentionally gross hyper-sexuality, it’s a rejection of that submission that will leave you feeling firmly spanked, and not in a good way. 

This is art about female identity as a consumable commodity, art about submission to technology, submission to capitalism, submission to power. And in all its intentionally gross hyper-sexuality, it’s a rejection of that submission that will leave you feeling firmly spanked, and not in a good way. 

7. Gareth Cadwallader: ‘Let Me See The Colts’

A teenage guitarist waits for his audience, a gardener waits for his produce to grow, an empty trophy cabinet waits for its trophies. English painter Gareth Cadwallader’s work (last seen in the Hayward’s big ‘Mixing It Up: Painting Today’ exhibition in 2021) is full of anticipation.

But this isn’t eager anticipation, this is where excitement has tipped over into boredom, and now sits on the precipice of disappointment. Will that produce ever grow, will that audience ever show up, will any trophies ever be won? It feels somehow unlikely.

Cadwallader works on a small scale, reworking each canvas over a period of years. It gives his show a monastic, obsessive quality. Each tiny painting is given its own wall, a vast space to contemplate its little universe of infinite details and unfollowable references with the same kind of semi-religious fervour the work was created with.

You’re left with a sense of unsatisfiable anticipation

The exhibition opens with a father showing his son a starfish.The treeline in the distance swirls with oil slick colours and twisting shapes. The father’s shirt is a concertina of blue lines, millions of shapes flowing into one another. The work is so minutely detailed that you search it for hidden meaning, seeking symbols, words, numbers in the patterns. In the next work, an old man is having his beard trimmed; is this the same father and son duo as before, but older now? The old man is frail and aged, the younger man is mature and confident. Time has passed, life has happened. 

Other works here are filled with dark organic shapes, vines that curl forever, knots of wood, weeds, phantasmal plants that leave their ectoplasmic marks across each canvas. There’s a teenage boy sitting with drumsticks but no drum kit, a kid hunched over his guitar in the shed. There’s no specific narrative here, instead you’re left with a sense of unsatisfiable anticipation, that something is meant to happen, maybe something important, but in the meantime the clock just keeps ticking. 

These are incredibly beautiful paintings that – to me, at least – feel achingly sad, filled with longing, maybe for lost youth, maybe for something else. This a plea to live, to do, to feel, because otherwise, life might just pass you by.

8. Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective

This exhibition starts with a lie. ‘I don’t know if individual photographs contain ideas, worlds, history, humanity, beauty, ugliness or nothing at all. I actually do not really care. I just extract and record things around me, without pretence,’ says influential Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (1938-). And he doesn’t mean a word of it. 

Because what makes this show so good, makes Moriyama’s work so good, isn’t that it’s some objective documentation of the world around him or a philosophical quest for photographic truth; it’s the impossibility of that truth, and the way he intentionally blurs the awkward boundaries between documentary and fiction, reality and what a picture of that reality means. 

It starts with images of Tokyo street life, foetuses in formaldehyde and traditional Japanese theatre. The actors in their thick makeup are caught between tradition and modernity, keeping their culture alive in a country that’s changing, westernising, at lightning speed. This is the closest to classic documentary that Moriyama gets.

It’s all ultra-blown out, super harsh, high contrast, fragmented and dark

After this, he starts to distance himself from truth. He creates a series of ‘accidents’, images of car crashes, assassinations, bodies on streets, crowds being crushed. But the car crash is a rephotographed poster, the assassination is photocopied from newspapers, the crowd crush is just some people at the beach. He’s appropriating, twisting, reshaping, showing that photos aren’t real, they’re not the truth, they’re something else, something darker.

He then gets involved in a magazine called Provoke, creating fetishistic photos that unfold as you turn the pages. It’s real desire supplanted by mediated images. His photos of highways are blurred and close-cropped, his photos of New York are caked in filth, suffocated by the glow of late night TV. 

It’s all ultra-blown out, super harsh, high contrast, fragmented and dark. It’s postmodern gonzo weirdness, documentary photography for people who think that’s an impossibility.

It’s all ultra-blown out, super harsh, high contrast, fragmented and dark. It’s postmodern gonzo weirdness, documentary photography for people who think that’s an impossibility.

It pushed him so far that he totally lost faith in photography and gave up on it for a decade. When he comes back to it in the early 1980s, he’s swapped blur for clarity, splintered fragments for bigger views, but he still has the same eye for grit, dirt, toilets, bare arses, stray dogs, traffic. 

But no matter what he shoots, the ‘truth’ seems to elude him. And it doesn’t matter. Because in this search for the impossible, this photographic journey towards objective reality that doesn’t exist, this trip full of rubbish, grime and lies, he finds something even more honest: life.

9. Sarah Lucas: ‘Happy Gas’

Sarah Lucas’s art isn’t big, and it isn’t clever. But who says art needs to be either of those things? Maybe, instead, art can be vulgar, puerile, obscene, grotesque and childish.

As soon as you walk into this big look back across her career, you meet a mechanical hand tossing off an invisible man, a wax cock on a wooden chair, a wall of tabloid tits, and lists of words for shit and wanking. Not big, not clever, but funny, shocking and, genuinely, deeply insightful. 

Lucas came to national attention as part of the shock and awe Blitzkrieg of the YBAs, but rather than death, love or murder (like her contemporaries Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Marcus Harvey), she was interested in the nitty, gritty, grimy sludge of everyday existence; in sex, excrement, masturbation, cigarettes, filth, the body and putridity. The hows and whys of the things we hide or say under our breath.

It’s an evisceration of norms and standards and societal expectations

After the opening room with its tabloid titillation and foul mouthed nastiness, you get a hall of chairs, each lounged over by twisting, undulating female forms. Her sculptures, made of tights and wool at first, are contorted into impossible shapes, wrapped around backrests and chair legs, their buttocks spread, boobs sagging and tangled. Some are in high heels, some have dozens of breasts, some are bronze, some are resin. They’re all faceless, called things like ‘Slag’, ‘Honey Pie’ and ‘Sex Bomb’, draped over armchairs and office chairs. It’s like the Viz version of Habitat.

I don’t think they’re necessarily brilliant sculptures, and it gets a bit repetitive. But they’re a neat encapsulation of how Lucas plays with the hidden everyday, with bodies and sex and symbols of gender, with questions of taste and acceptability; all mixed with loads of titterring sauciness. 

There’s more of that to come: a bronze figure with a huge red penis, a cigarette popped into a concrete woman’s bum, a chair made of tits. Sometimes it’s titillation for its own sake, other times it’s a bit more nuanced, like the burned out car covered in cigarettes, choked with fears about habits and death. In all this toying with boobs and knobs and rude words, Lucas is asking why one thing is ruder than the other, why one thing is allowed and the other not. This isn’t dense, complex art, it’s an evisceration of norms and standards and societal expectations.

Not all of it is good (the YBA urge to make everyday objects out bronze, in this case an Eames chair, is painfully dull) and over the course of the whole show, the joke starts to wear a little thin.

But at least a good joke, because the best humour is toilet humour, the best swear words are the rude ones, and it turns out, the best art is satirical, cynical, vulgar, stupid, funny and absolutely full of knob gags. It’s not big, and it’s not clever, but it’s very, very good.

Marina Abramović

For Marina Abramović, the simple act of existence can be art. Just look at her now-iconic piece ‘The Artist Is Present’, performed at MOMA in 2010, where visitors were able to sit at a table in front of the Serbian performance pioneer in silence for as long as they wanted. All she had to do was sit there and stare back, exist, and it was enough to move hundreds of people to tears, to feel like they had formed some kind of spiritual connection.

Those visitors’ faces greet you like the world’s worst Zoom meeting as you walk into this long-delayed retrospective at the RA. There are stars of music, film and art (Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Klaus Biesenbach) and everyday schlubs like us too. Marina sits impassive, unmoving, but these mere mortals quiver and weep. They try to match her energy but they fail and collapse. Except Lou Reed who looks like he might already be dead.

And that’s Marina. For decades she has put her body on the line to make big, bold, sweeping, direct art about nothing less than life, death, sex and love. She is totally, utterly committed to the art – that’s why it works, even when it gets a bit silly.

It’s so intrusive that it’s almost stomach turning

A table is laid out here with knives and saws, whips and chains, objects of ecstasy and torture. All around are videos of the performance in 1974 they were originally laid out for, ‘Rhythm 0’, where Abramović stood still for eight hours and invited the public to do what they wanted. And they did. They stripped her to the waist, wrapped chains around her neck, stabbed her, used her. The mob went wild, feral. It was brutal, harrowing, traumatic. And again, that’s Marina. That’s her power; the ability to expose and evoke the basest of human instincts.

She can also evoke profound discomfort. Her 1977 performance ‘Imponderabilia’ with her then partner Ulay is recreated here (there are four actual performances in the exhibition, all reperformed by artists from the Marina Abramović Institute rather than Marina herself). A man and a woman stand in a doorway, fully nude. To pass, you have to choose who to face, figure out what to do with your hands. The couple are too close, you push them aside to pass, their balance gets shifted, their backs get pushed against the wall. It’s so intrusive, so full of questions of intimacy, misogyny and closeness, that it’s almost stomach turning. 

It was with Ulay that she created some of her most extreme acts of physical endurance. In videos here they breathe right into each other’s mouths, tie their hair together, scream at each other, slap each other, point arrows at each other. They push the limits not just of their bodies but of human interaction, of love, of codependency and trust. 

Marina and Ulay couldn’t last, it was all too intense, too much, too far, and they split up on the Great Wall of China, rubbings of which are framed on the wall here. That was the spark for a move away from her aggressively simple, confrontational, full-body performance style and a step towards an obsession with nature and energy. Things, in other words, become more esoteric.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Abramović got into stones and crystals as containers of history and energy. There’s a copper bed, quartz pillows screwed into the wall that you’re instructed to lie on or ‘press your heart, head and sex against’. I did. But instead of feeling a connection to nature and history, I just felt silly.

She pulls faces and carves them into alabaster or pastes them onto crucifixes, creates a portal out of crystals, copper baths filled with chamomile flowers, shoes made of stone. It’s just a bit silly, and the whole journey into New Age spiritualism and semi-Eastern mysticism just feels like one she fails to persuade you to join her on. 

Performances still figure, but their nature has changed. A performer lies underneath a skeleton, the bones rising and falling with her breath, another sits balanced on a bicycle seat with her arms and legs outstretched. They’re both more obvious and less successful than the earlier pieces. 

The videos fare a bit better, with Abramović swapping out physical intensity for quiet stillness, lying on a stormy beach, or balancing a too-full pot of water. This is the silent, contemplative, solemn Abramović of ‘The Artist Is Present’.

She recently had a heart attack so can’t perform here, but Marina Abramović is such a presence, so essential to her art, such a cult of her own personality, that her absence is unignorable. It makes it feel like a tribute to her art, rather than the actual art itself, which is a shame. None of her art really moves me, but I can see that at its best, her work is still influential, pioneering and moving, and still powerful enough to endure, to forge connections, maybe even to bring you to tears

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