Art in 2009: Solid gold, Damien's dross, and the grand master of the universe

The Turner prize went to a surprise winner and Hirst's latest paintings were a dead loss
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The Independent Culture

Corker of the Year

Try as I might, I can't whittle a year's worth of shows down to a single winner, so here is a brace of them, a newie and an oldie. In February, the Turner prize-winning Mark Wallinger opened his brain to visitors, and a subtle and capacious brain it turned out to be. His show at the Hayward Gallery, The Russian Linesman, took us gently by the hand from a Dürer woodcut of the 1490s to YouTube footage of an Indo-Pakistani border ceremony by way of a great many other things that had caught Wallinger's allusive eye and mind. Typically of his work, there was no route-map and no set of rules – just a flattering sense of being treated as an equal, and of pleasures equally shared. In Louvain in Belgium, meanwhile, a once-in-a-lifetime show of the works of Rogier van der Weyden, curated by arch-Rogierist, Lorne Campbell, reminded one of the genius of the man who, when painting in oils was still experimental and new, contrived to give us the Beaune Altarpiece.

Turkey of the Year

If corkers can't be easily carved, then at least poultry can. This year's Golden Turkey goes to Damien Hirst for setting belated brush to canvas, the resulting daubs being shown not just at his London gallery but, inexplicably, at the Wallace Collection as well. I can only hope the Wallace was handsomely rewarded for its daring. After decades of making his schtick (and an enormous amount of money) out of getting other people to do his work for him, Hirst has decided, at 44, that he has the right to set himself up as a painter. The sub-Bacon canvases that limp from his studio must have genuine painters tearing their hair, not least because of the seven-figure price tags that go with the works concerned. And, dear God, they have sold, some of them to the bluest of blue-chip collectors. Hubris rewarded: what is wrong with people?

Face of the Year

No doubts here, either: the stony-faced Face of 2009 was Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss-German mastermind who, in November, was voted Number One on ArtReview magazine's list of the hundred most internationally important kunstvolk. Obrist's official job as co-director of the weeny Serpentine Gallery disguises the fact that he secretly runs the art world single-handed, sitting in front of a bank of open-reel computer tapes in his mountaintop eyrie and stroking a white Persian cat. Oh, and organising the Yokohama Triennial and bits of the Venice Biennale, curating funky shows in Basel and New York and turning out unreadably erudite books of artists' interviews and art theory. And that's just since January. Clearly a Martian.

Surprise of the Year

I bow to no one in my admiration for Richard Wright's silent and self-effacing wall pieces, but I admit to being caught off-guard by his Turner prize victory earlier this month. In part, this was because silence and modesty aren't really good things when you are dealing with the rooty-toot-toot and ballyhoo of the Turner, in part because the prize – it is meant to reward work shown in the previous 12 months rather than all-round merit – seemed so clearly to belong to that material wizard, Roger Hiorns. Hiorns's Seizure, a council flat full of copper sulphate crystals, was the art miracle of the year. It's only open for another week, until 3 January (artangel /2008/seizure), so hie down to south London if you can.


And so, alas, Jeanne-Claude, flame-haired wife and collaborator of the wrap-artiste, Christo. When Christo parcelled up the Reichstag in aluminium foil, Jeanne-Claude was by his side; when he enveloped an archipelago of Florida islands in coolie-pink plastic or bound the Pont Neuf in Paris likewise, his wife was there, scissors in hand. Born in Morocco, the child of a French general, she and her husband shared not only a birthday but a birth date (13 June 1935), though not, as she liked to remark, "a mother, thank God". For half a century, the French aristocrat and her Bulgarian ex-hairdresser husband shared their work, she coping with all the mundane accounting as well as the oddity of making Christos. At her death, she was working on a 20-year-old plan to cover a six-mile stretch of the Arkansas river in plastic. With her loss, the world is a less colourful place.