The 11 best art exhibitions of 2018 in London

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

Photography and the medium of film had a dominant place in major London galleries and art museums in 2018 – a year fuelled with political uncertainty in UK due to its impending exit from the EU. Major works by a number of powerful artists of unparalleled vigour from across the globe were shown in the capital city. They were clear evidence that art can turn the light on cruel injustices.

Through these exhibitions, I recognised how art can be a powerful political tool. Founding works of documentary practice in all its forms – including film, photography, fashion and music – brought social and political change in the past. 

These are the 11 art highlights of 2018. They all highlighted how artists can effect that change.

Dorothea Lange / Vanessa Winship: A photography double bill

Barbican, 22 Jun – 2 Sep
Vanessa Winship, Untitled from the series Sweet Nothings: School Girl of Eastern Anatolia, Hakkari, Turkey, 2007 © Vanessa Winship

The first UK retrospective of American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), founding figure of documentary photography, was showcased alongside 150 photographs by contemporary photographer Vanessa Winship that told the story of the fragile fabric of our society and landscape.

Tacita Dean: PORTRAIT

National Portrait Gallery, 5 Mar – 28 May
Tacita Dean, David Hockney in Portraits (2016)

The first exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery’s history to be devoted to the medium of film, Tacita Dean: PORTRAIT included the artist’s (previously unseen in the UK) 16mm film-portraits with Merce Cunningham, Claes Oldenburg and Julie Mehretu as well as Cy Twombly and David Hockney alongside her superb work His Picture in Little (2017), a film in miniature featuring Stephen Dillane and Ben Whishaw.

Joan Jonas

Tate Modern, 14 Mar – 5 Aug
Joan Jonas, Stream or River – Flight or Pattern 2016-17 © Joan Jonas : Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York : DACS, London.

A pioneer of performance and video art, this was the largest exhibition of Jonas’s work held in the UK with works from the late 1960s to recent installations exploring themes of extinction and climate change and placing the viewer at the centre to navigate what felt like spaces of sensual gravity.

August Sander: Men Without Masks

Hauser & Wirth London, 18 May – 28 Jul
August Sander Zirkusartistin (Circus Artiste) 1926–1932 (printed 1972)

Another rare exhibition with works by pioneering documentarian August Sander (1876-1964), Hauser & Wirth featured an extensive selection of his photographs from 1910-1931 that tell the diverse story of German society leading up to and during the Weimar Republic.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

V&A, 16 Jun – 18 Nov
Frida on the bench, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

An extraordinary collection of personal items and clothing of the iconic Mexican artist who was inspired by nature and passion. This collection was locked away for 50 years after the artist’s death in 1964 and it was the first time that was seen outside Mexico – an inspiring presentation that brought us closer to Kahlo’s struggle with pain, fierce creativity and tense marriage to Diego Rivera.

Turner Prize 2018

Tate Britain, 26 Sep 2018 – 6 Jan 2019
Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, 2017, installation view, Tate Britain, 2018. Courtesy: Tate Photography

Hailed as the best lineup for years, Turner Prize 2018 honoured the medium of film and digital with works by Naeem Mohaiemen, Luke Willis Thompson, Forensic Architecture and Charlotte Prodger. The “most political exhibition in its history” said Tate Britain’s director Alex Farquharson and the films by all four artists addressed issues of injustice and gender identity. With Charlotte Prodger the announced prize winner earlier this month, the exhibition calls for a four-hour essential viewing to absorb and witness the fabric of truth and our place in a world laid bare.

Concrete Dreams

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, 10-29 Apr 2018
Concrete Dreams: the multimedia performance in the Purcell Room

A celebration of Southbank’s history of performance featuring original plans of the building, a bathroom showcasing images from the Hayward Gallery and a time capsule performance using archive sounds and photo projections, this wonderful project giving access to a limited number of visitors at a time looked back on one of London cultural centre’s legacy through 50 years of archive material.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins

Barbican Art Gallery, 28 Feb – 27 May
Paz Errázuriz. From the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983

One of the first highlights that pretty much shaped the year in art exhibitions, this showcase of works by 20 photographers from the 1950s reflected on diverse realities and parallel complex worlds. Featured artists included Diane Arbus, Alec Soth, Mary Ellen Mark, Igor Palmins and Paz Errázuriz.

Yayoi Kusama: The Moving Moment When I Went to the Universe

Victoria Miro,  3 Oct – 21 Dec
Yayoi Kusama, Beyond the Heaven (detail), 2014

As she approaches her ninetieth birthday and at the height of her powers, this was Yayoi Kusama’s twelfth exhibition at Victoria Miro, London. It featured painted bronze pumpkin and flower sculptures, a large-scale Infinity Mirrored Room and her celebrated My Eternal Soul paintings exploring themes of infinity and searching for peace and love, what has always been at the heart of Kusama’s work.

Bass Culture 70/50

Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 25 Oct – 22 Nov
Linton Kwesi Johnson & Darcus Howe by Adrian Boot

Bass Culture Research, a three-year AHRC funded project, took over the concrete halls at Ambika P3 of the University of Westminster’s in London to feature previously unseen artwork linked to Jamaican and Jamaican-influenced music. Arguably a magnificent showcase, Bass Culture 70/50 exclusively presented a programme of events, film, UK reggae label archive photographs and celebrated the impact of the Windrush generation on British culture and identity.

Andro Semeiko: Polka Dots and Curls

Narrative Projects, 22 Nov 2018 – 26 Jan 2019
Andro Semeiko, Metapolka (detail), 2018

London-based Georgian artist Andro Semeiko’s solo exhibition of a new series of paintings at Narrative Projects, is an engaging take on two literary icons: Georgian poet Vazha-Pshavela (1861-1915) and Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). Influenced by the themes of nationalism, dignity, freedom and imagery explored in their poems, Semeiko’s new work suggests a new kind of painting evoking a rhythmic quality attested to historical symbolism.

Other highlights



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