The past year was marked by big losses among those who made films or thought hard about them. Jonas Mekas, one of the leading exponents of experimental film in America, died in January, and his passing was soon followed by the deaths of French New Wave director Agnès Varda (now the subject of a traveling retrospective), queer cinema pioneer Barbara Hammer, feminist filmmaker Carolee Schneemann, and Camille Billops, an underrated documentarian who crafted tender films about racism and her own personal traumas. All of these artists opened up inclusive spaces using a medium that has long been sidelined in favor of painting and sculpture: screens.
Thankfully, many artists have taken up their mandate, creating boundary-pushing digital and moving-image works that take their mediums in new directions. What follows is a survey of 2019’s best screen-based artworks.
1. Ed Fornieles at Carlos/Ishikawa
A tremendous, disturbing solo show by Ed Fornieles at London’s Carlos/Ishikawa gallery included the debut of one of the year’s best pieces: the video installation Cel (2019), for which the artist gathered a group of participants for a role-play game involving psychological warfare and military-style exercises. Over the course of the piece, which documents a grueling days-long performance, these people discover who among them is dominant and who is submissive, and then exploit strange power dynamics between them. This was a reflection on online Live Action Role Play (LARPing), focusing on how aggression that takes place in the digital sphere comes offline—a topic that, in a year filled with digital rage, felt ever more topical.
2. “Miffed Blue Return” at 47 Canal
This cryptic, ceaselessly fascinating three-person show at one of New York’s best galleries focused on jumbled timelines and the aftermath of political traumas. It was heady stuff, but there was no resisting a tender Cici Wu installation about the disappearance of a child in Hong Kong or a melancholy Sky Hopinka video about the aftermath of colonialism. The exhibition’s highlight was something only somewhat within the gallery’s walls: a YouTube video playlist curated by Yason Banal that was viewable via a WiFi network whose internet speed was slowed down to that of the Philippines, where the artist is based.
3. Ed Atkins at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
Ed Atkins pushed his work into new mediums in his astonishing latest show—namely sculptures made of materials as disparate as crocheted threads and dried bread. The British artist’s psychologically tortured avatars and bizarre digital landscapes were still present, though—this time in a series of elaborately choreographed video installations in which his computer-generated characters mysteriously tumble into voids and repeatedly run across idyllic country fields.
4. Jordan Belson at Matthew Marks Gallery
Though Jordan Belson’s experimental films from the 1950s and ’60s that simulate interdimensional space travel via abstractions are relatively well known, it was a nice surprise to see such films shown here alongside his paintings that evoke Hilma af Klint and resemble galaxies, supernovas, and planets—the stuff that Belson’s films only ever hint at.
5. Isaac Julien at Metro Pictures
Isaac Julien is one of the best video artists creating multi-screen installations today, and he produced another great work this year with Lessons of the Hour (which also showed at its commissioning institution, the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York). Spanning 10 screens and multiple timelines, it loosely focuses on Frederick Douglass, with a special eye on the women around him who don’t typically get talked about. It’s long been obvious that Julien is a masterful filmmaker, but it turns out he’s an adept historian as well.
1. Karrabing Film Collective at MoMA PS1
This presentation of Karrabing Film Collective’s unforgiving works about the legacy of colonialism in Australia was unforgettable. The works sear themselves into the brain, broaching issues such as the destruction of Indigenous land and the loss of history with a directness that’s by turns prickly and mordantly ironic. Taking the form of faux documentaries and fantastical retellings of myths, the 30-person collective’s densely edited films are unlike anything else shown in a New York museum this year.
2. Hito Steyerl at Serpentine Galleries
Hito Steyerl, who’s produced at least one of the defining artworks of the decade (How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, from 2013), debuted a lot of new work of varied quality this year—the less said about her Venice Biennale entry about Leonardo da Vinci’s submarine concept the better. But her Serpentine Galleries show—an expansive and epic installation about our obsession with predicting the future using digital technology—was a home run. Filled with videos of flowers blooming, produced with the help of artificial intelligence, it was one of the year’s most relevant shows—and one of its bleakest.
3. Nil Yalter at CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art
Nil Yalter may be unfamiliar to many, but hopefully this show, which traveled from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, to Bard College’s museum in Upstate New York, will have helped to change that. Showcasing five decades’ worth of videos, conceptual pieces, photographs, and writings, the survey of work by the 81-year-old artist dealt with the destruction of binaries—between man and woman, immigrant and non-immigrant, white and nonwhite, and so on.
4. Pedro Neves Marques at Gasworks
New films by the young Portuguese-born Pedro Neves—situated in an installation specifically made for Gasworks in London—were long on ideas. They pondered the biological control of bodies, the pervasiveness of oppressive gender norms, and the spread of the Zika virus in Brazil, all with an unsettling sense of foreboding. Were they documentaries, horror movies, or something in between? Marques never provided any answers, which may account for why his works are so haunting.
5. Gretchen Bender at Red Bull Arts Center and Ericka Beckman at MIT List Visual Arts Center
How lucky were we to get these two shows—both of which placed a spotlight on under-sung female video artists from the Pictures Generation of the 1970s and ’80s? Gretchen Bender and Ericka Beckman were concerned with the representation of women in mass media, and both produced work with a cunning sense for the spectacular editing style of music videos, reality TV, and Hollywood filmmaking. Theirs are video installations that merit repeat viewings, and if the appearance of a Bender installation in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent rehang is any proof, we’ll likely be seeing more of them in the future.
Bong Joon-ho’s baroque sensibility lends a darkly comic edge to this ingenious thriller that starts out with a poor Korean family colonizing the home of an ultra-wealthy clan and slowly morphs into something else entirely. It’s class struggle made literal—and, because this is a Bong movie, it’s made slyly funny, too.
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
The young Chinese director Bi Gan director has only just turned 30, but already, with his second feature-length film, he’s created a bonafide masterpiece. Loosely focused on a man searching for an old flame who has mysteriously disappeared, the film culminates in a 59-minute take shot in 3D. Oblique, lush, and puzzling, Long Day’s Journey into Night is the work of someone who’s already a major talent—and not afraid to take big stylistic risks, like holding the film’s opening title card until an hour in.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A recent sea change in the film industry has finally jolted critics and studio executives into paying increased attention to female directors, and in a way, even though it’s set in the 19th century, Céline Sciamma’s wonderful new film is a loose commentary on that very change. With elegant cinematography from the extremely talented Claire Mathon, it follows a female painter hired to paint a woman who is due to soon be married off; the two gradually launch an affair that changes them both. It’s a film about the importance of women representing to each other.
4. La Flor
La Flor marked one of the few times I’ve wanted to give a film a standing ovation in its middle—and there’s a whole lot of middle in Mariano Llinás’s bonkers 14-and-a-half-hour opus. Divided into five pieces, with the bulk of its runtime made up of three stories that start at the beginning and end in the middle, La Flor spans a litany of genres—from an icy musical to a ghost story with B-movie flourishes—and features a bizarre range of digressions, including a shot-for-shot remake of a famed Jean Renoir short film and a 40-minute credit sequence. In deliberately creating an unsatisfying experience, La Flor is, ironically, one of the most satisfying films of the year.
5. The Souvenir
This is a love story, but one without affect or a happy ending. So it’s natural that Joanna Hogg’s stylish retelling of her own toxic romantic liaison with a man with a dark secret rubbed some people the wrong way. But for those who can appreciate Hogg’s cold style, The Souvenir is highly rewarding—equivalent to watching the director analyze her own traumas in real time.
On My Laptop
How to enumerate the ways in which this HBO TV series is perfect? Leave it to Damon Lindelof (the creator of one of the decade’s best shows, The Leftovers) to take one of the greatest books of all time and completely invert it, turning Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel into an intricately plotted tale about people who play god and inflict terror in the form of genocides and hate speech. Watchmen’s cryptic first season is one for the ages—an explicitly political and oddly hopeful meditation on the difficulty of doing good in a racist, oppressive America.
2. Trevor Paglen and Kate Crawford, ImageNet Roulette
Working with Kate Crawford, an expert on surveillance culture, Trevor Paglen developed a program for a Fondazione Prada show that allows users to upload pictures of themselves and have artificial intelligence explain their personalities based on faces. Often the results weren’t entirely accurate, which only added to its creep-out factor, and turned it into a viral sensation.
3. Sara Cwynar, “Modern Art in Your Life”
Ahead of its reopening this past October, the Museum of Modern Art unveiled all sorts of delicious newly commissioned offerings, one of which was this series of one-minute videos by Sara Cwynar. The artist appears in them wearing AirPods and speaking in art-speak as a cascade of images of works in MoMA’s collection scrolls by. In the last video, she speaks aloud a wonderful quote from the photographer Berenice Abbott: “I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but with the sensibility of a human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it.