Review: The voyeuristic allure of Art21, PBS’ ‘Art in the Twenty-First Century’

Beijing-based artist Liu Xiaodong paints a family portrait in Eagle Pass, Texas.
Beijing-based artist Liu Xiaodong paints a family portrait in Eagle Pass, Texas. Viewers get to watch in the second Art21 episode.

Over the last six months, the pandemic may have upended art museum exhibition schedules and turned gallery visitation into rather awkward appointment-only events, but some art pleasures haven’t changed. One is anticipation for “Art in the 21st Century,” better known as Art21, the uniformly excellent television series on contemporary art.

Art21 launches its 10th biennial season Friday on PBS.

If you’ve ever wondered why Art21 nabbed an impressive Peabody Award, tune in. Every two years, a number of hour-long programs burrow deep into the artistic process to observe how artists think and work. The only narrators are the artists themselves.

No curators, no critics, no collectors, but many savvy if unseen producers and editors. This season, roughly half of each 15-minute segment watches a different artist at work in the studio. This inevitably absorbing bit of voyeuristic gratification gives physical, hands-on emphasis to art — something usually experienced in a please-don’t-touch way.


The remaining half expands the documentary purview. In three episodes, the camera follows 14 artists and their interests everywhere from the vast, smoggy, rapidly transforming mega-metropolis of Beijing to tiny, sleepy, Norco, La. — population fewer than 4,000 — an unincorporated parcel of land along the Mississippi River just outside New Orleans.

The show’s production smarts are on vivid view. The organizing principle is location, location, location.

Episode 1 centers on artists working in London. Episode 2 goes halfway around the world to Beijing. The final outing is to the borderlands between the United States and Mexico — fraught, contested and fuel for artists at least since the Border Art Workshop launched in San Diego more than 35 years ago.

Made from cigarettes, "First Class" by Xu Bing, 2011, was shown at LACMA.
Made from cigarettes,”First Class” by Xu Bing, 2011, was in the exhibition “The Allure of Matter: Material Art From China” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
(Museum Associates / LACMA)

A social and political context of pressing importance, while never explicitly stated, steadily emerges. It makes the grouping of these three shows unusually well-timed.

In London we visit first with Anish Kapoor, 66, a sculptor born in Mumbai, India, and raised at the base of the monumental Himalaya mountain range. (Chicago’s “Cloud Gate,” popularly known as the Bean, is perhaps his best-known work.) A sculpture’s traditional definition as a mass in space gets turned inside-out when Kapoor’s highly polished objects use concave reflection to manipulate spatial perception.

Next is filmmaker John Akomfrah, 63, who often employs multi-screen projections to form wide, lateral montages that imply a landscape vista. The artist, born in Ghana’s capital, Accra, emigrated to London with his family at age 9. Growing up with the art collections at Tate Britain, he absorbed the classic British landscapes and seascapes of painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner — compositions that have informed his sprawling, cinematic meditations on the Black African diaspora.


California-born and formerly New York-based, media artist Christian Marclay, 65, has lived in London for years. A self-described dilettante — in The Times, critic David Pagel described a recent Snapchat project that appears in the film as being not so different from “an advertising pitch” — his work skims along the surface of our turbulent sea of boundless digital media. Marclay assembles visual montages the way a composer puts together musical notations made from existing sounds.

Finally, the imposing, precarious, environmentally scaled constructions of Phyllida Barlow, 76, reconfigure industrial refuse, inexpensive textiles and cheap materials like cardboard and PVC pipe. Barlow, the only British-born artist of the four, taught scores of students during her 40-year tenure on the faculty at London’s influential Slade School of Fine Art; now she employs lots of young artists as studio assistants.

“Being a mother makes one quite sensitive to what other people are going through,” she astutely observes. The remark could also illuminate her often bandaged sculptures, which sometimes seem like palliatives for an entire culture’s wounds.

Sculptor Phyllida Barlow at work in her studio.
Sculptor Phyllida Barlow, at work in her studio, is the only British-born artist in the series’ London episode.

The selection of artists for this first episode is equally astute — and revealing of the series’ often subtle, topical smarts.

All four are senior figures with major reputations. No young or mid-career artists here. They establish a historical ground.

Barlow, born in 1944, is intimately aware of the ancient cultural cycle of damage and repair epitomized in blitz-ruined London. She represents the era that marks the dissolution of England’s global empire, once fueled by demands of the Industrial Revolution. Kapoor, Akomfrah and Marclay denote the unraveled legacy of British colonial expansion in India, Africa and North America.

None of this is spoken or declared in the show’s narration; instead, it is simply shown. What might seem to be a random selection of artists emerges as a shrewd set of juxtapositions. Series producers and segment directors Tina Kukielski, Nick Ravich, Ian Forster, Bryan Chang, Vicky Du, Rafael Salazar Moreno and Ava Wiland have executed a sharply focused curatorial function.

It speaks directly to our current moment, when colonial trauma is at the forefront of social and cultural concerns. The conversation continues in the next two programs.

In Beijing, five Chinese artists operate within a rising tide of totalitarianism. “The contemporary art world doesn’t come from China,” says sculptor Guan Xiao, the youngest at 37 and least-known of the four. “So we don’t have that inherited history.”

What they do have is a legacy of 3,000 years of Chinese culture, which the husband-and-wife team of Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen convey in cityscapes constructed of edible cookies and candy. A hungry gallery audience consumes, scatters and will finally disgorge it.

Xu Bing, the most widely known and perhaps strongest artist of the group, exploits the traditional Chinese practice of imitating past art but presented in clever new terms. Elegant calligraphy, composed from 4,000 wholly made-up characters that seem to picture meanings but cannot be read, and shadow boxes that re-create antique landscape paintings from bits of cardboard, newsprint and a few twigs perform what amounts to a cultural reboot for a technological age.

Christian Marclay’s “Sound Stories” exhibition at LACMA lands more as novel branding than fully fleshed out art.

Sept. 14, 2019

The final episode’s move to America’s borderlands is anticipated by Liu Xiaodong, a gifted figurative painter whose work is new to me. In Eagle Pass, Texas, along the Rio Grande, Liu assembles a big group portrait of a Mexican American sheriff’s family. Rendered outdoors in the yard, it’s a contemporary history painting of an unexpected kind.

The borderlands episode is the most socially and politically blunt. The wall is its focus, Donald Trump its malevolent guardian.

Richard Misrach’s luscious photographs of the cruel fence are so acutely aestheticized that a viewer begins to question the very nature of the loveliness he is seeing. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer erected a metaphorical bridge of searchlights between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, jumping any barrier with illumination that, in a technical twist, also becomes a communication device: Intersecting searchlights, repurposed from a sinister surveillance function, open a sound channel that allows people on both sides to converse along the beam.

Postcommodity's balloons are partly modeled on scare-eye balloons, used to ward off birds.
Postcommodity’s balloons are modeled on scare-eye balloons, used to ward off birds. The artists were interested in repurposing a cheap consumer good — one that employs indigenous iconography — into landscape-sized sculpture.
(Michael Lundgren / Postcommodity)

Postcommodity, a changing collective here represented by Kade L. Twist and Cristóbal Martínez, crossed the border between Arizona and Sonora with a string of bright yellow helium balloons whose eyeball design is both spy-in-the-sky ominous and comforting. (The graphic derives from Indigenous medicine imagery.) Finally, L.A.-based Tanya Aguiñiga dons a nude bodysuit and sandals, helmet and backpack made of molded glass embedded with rusty chips scraped off the fence in Tijuana, her childhood home, to trace a ritual journey of personal catharsis.

The breadth of Art21’s 10th season is wide. Some work is more compelling than others, but that latitude and space are just what we need right now.

‘Art in the Twenty-First Century’

Where: KOCE
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)