Our cultural highs and lows of 2013

From Pussy Riot to Netflix and Jeff Koons’s €42 million dog, our critics choose their best and worst of the past year

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 01:00

Patrick Freyne
Arts writer

What were your highlights of the year?
The beauty of Matthew Baynton and James Corden’s great comedy series, The Wrong Mans, was that none of the production crew or characters seemed to know they weren’t in a Hitchcockian thriller. It took setting a programme in a women’s prison to get as brilliant a female-centric show as Orange Is the New Black. The Returned, a French ghost story set in an underpopulated Alpine town, was eerie and worrying. The Good Wife continues to be the best, most tightly written and enjoyable programme on television.

Matt Fraction and David Aja showed that there was life in the old superhero dog yet, both literally and figuratively, with a beautiful, visually witty issue of their superhero comic Hawkeye, told from the perspective of the Avengers’ canine chum, Pizza Dog. And David Byrne & St Vincent’s note-perfect performance with an eight-piece brass band at Electric Picnic was a joyous art-pop, musically theatrical experience that made all other musical performers seem like they just aren’t trying. Get it together, other musicians.


And the biggest disappointment?
Joss Whedon is a pioneering telly auteur whose cultish fans invented the term Whedonesque to describe his brand of brilliant. Sadly, his underwhelming Avengers spin-off, Agents of Shield, is more Whedonish.


What caught you off guard?
I didn’t expect to like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha, but this string of sweet, nuanced vignettes about a youngster in New York seems to have been made with all the heart extracted from Lena Dunham’s Girls. I liked it very much.


What will you be glad to see the back of?
Anti-heroes. Since Tony Soprano came along, “quality television” is all hoodlums, serial killers, sexy vampires and chemistry teachers who deal crystal meth. It’s getting boring. I’d like to see a drama about a chemistry teacher who teaches chemistry.


I have seen the future and . . .
I’d already seen it. I downloaded it illegally after it was on in the US.


Who or what was 2013’s unsung hero?
Netflix helped me take binge-watching to a new level, and it’s also part of a televisual revolution I barely understand.

2013 in three words?
Two Zero Thirteen.


Aidan Dunne
Art critic

What were your highlights of the year?
The Galway Arts Festival exhibitions, including John Gerrard’s Cuban School, worked incredibly well as an ensemble. Impressive logistics went into the Turner Prize 2013 exhibition in Derry, and the effort paid off.


And the biggest disappointment?
Andy Warhol is a name guaranteed to draw the punters. But the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Mac in Belfast last spring didn’t live up to its billing. It was all peripherals and no centre.


What caught you off guard?
One thought one knew Eileen Gray, but the Pompidou survey show, now at Imma, is a revelation in its exploration of the depth and range of an exemplary creative individual.


What will you be glad to see the back of? There are reports of a hesitant, patchy improvement in a dormant art market. Good if true.


I have seen the future and it is . . .
When he appeared for a public talk at Borris House, in Co Carlow, during the summer, Michael Craig-Martin, the artist and former teacher at Goldsmiths University of London, remarked that, in his view, the visual arts are undergoing a transformation more radical even than that of a century ago. Who knows what will happen next.


What was 2013’s unsung hero?
Tadhg McSweeney’s Edifice Complex at Visual in Carlow was a standout exhibition, as was his recent two-person show with Aliza Nisenbaum at Kevin Kavanagh. It also exemplified the extreme commitment of many artists to ambitious projects that have little or no financial return – or, indeed, any other kind of return. There were many first-rate solo shows that illustrated that throughout the year. They deserve more.


Peter Crawley
Theatre critic

What were your highlights of the year?
Plenty will applaud the virtuosity of Olwen Fouéré’s performance in Riverrun, based on an incomprehensible Joycean text, but Bush Moukarzel’s Lippy, for Dead Centre, was a more brilliantly imaginative piece about truth, fiction, death and disorder. Like Moukarzel’s fantastic one-man performance Souvenir, it seemed to stretch the language of the stage while acknowledging various inspirations. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor gave a similarly virtuosic performance in Landmark’s Howie the Rookie, Kate Heffernan and John Morton emerged as writers of comic flair and narrative skill and, combining magic and philosophy, Rob Drummond’s Bullet Catch cast a beautifully uplifting spell on the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.


And the biggest disappointment?
When the Abbey Theatre conducted, and lost, a campaign to have a new bridge named after the building, it suggested an organisation more obsessed with bricks and mortar than with artistic mission. It didn’t help that, a year after acquiring an adjoining property for €1.5 million, it left the Peacock Theatre largely inactive. An anachronistic policy at a time when the future of national theatres might not be based on buildings, it also saw the programme rarely rise above disappointing: the pitifully exposed Shush, the nearly interesting Drum Belly, the dramaturgical mess of The Hanging Gardens and the dull, tardy, derivative palaver of The Risen People.


What caught you off guard?
Dylan Coburn Gray’s verse play, Boys and Girls, was, at its simplest, the story of four young twentysomethings trying to get laid on a night in Dublin. But its intelligence, narrative scope, soulful acknowledgment of interior lives and up-to-the-minute poetry suggested a romantic spirit in an age of LOLs and hashtags.


What will you be glad to see the back of?
The 1913 Lockout. If one company was going to be able to trace the effect of the strikes, scabs and near-revolution within present-day Ireland, it was Anu Productions. The cumulative effect of Thirteen honoured and problematised its legacy in a crumpled society. Too many other tributes were dumbly commemorative. With the centenary of the Easter Rising just around the corner, this is the time to ask serious questions about how we respond imaginatively to our history. Ask Anu.


I have seen the future and it is . . .
Irish theatre as an export good. Once and The Commitments, currently playing opposite each other in the West End, are both commercial musicals based on Irish stories, written by Irish artists, involving Irish talent, but made by overseas producers. Nothing wrong with that, but as Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company ready Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for Sky Arts’s international audience, are there really no Irish producers willing to invest, risk and make big?


Who was 2013’s unsung hero?
DSI Stella Gibson. Gillian Anderson’s character in BBC/RTÉ’s The Fall is more interesting than even The Killing’s Sara Lund, an unflinching detective with human appetites. The show, dark as a Gothic thriller, could either be the most feminist detective show ever created (gender politics are ruthlessly exposed) or the most misogynist (women are brutally and graphically victimised). Infinitely better written than Love/Hate, it’s compulsive viewing.


2013 in three words?
Lucky for some.


Una Mullally
Arts writer

What were your highlights of the year?
The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual show at Electric Picnic, which changed many people’s perceptions of what a live gig can be. Haim opening the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury at the apex of their pre-album-release popularity and then when Days Are Gone delivered. Angel Haze’s totally underattended but lyrically fantastic performance at SXSW. Orange Is the New Black showing that Netflix can break boundaries and put female-led shows first. Mistaken for Strangers demonstrating that the rockumentary is alive and Philomena awakening a hitherto unknown tenderness in Steve Coogan as well as a beautiful performance by Judi Dench.


And the biggest disappointment?
Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s dodgy albums. Sad face.


What caught you off guard?
The biggest pop star of 2013 being Lorde, a 17-year-old from New Zealand; Kodaline becoming Ireland’s biggest new band; and Kanye West releasing a brilliant industrial record.


What will you be glad to see the back of?
Miley Cyrus. Not that I’d be glad to see the back of her. Just the back of her back. Oh, forget it. But the idiotic nudity and uncomfortable stripper antics of Miley and Rihanna, and the disgusting Robin Thicke Blurred Lines video need to stop. Now.


I have seen the future and it is . . .
Bored with luxury. Lorde’s Royals was the sound of the broke suburbs, and the popularity of the sentiment behind Ryan Lewis and Macklemore’s Thrift Shop, although it was released stateside in 2012, makes the champagne-waving, Bentley-driving rich kids of Instagram look ridiculous. Fewer selfies, more self-awareness, please.


Who was 2013’s unsung hero?
Pussy Riot. Revolutionaries, feminists, heroes, punks, intellectuals, political prisoners. Everyone should watch the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.


2013 in three words?
Let’s get naked.


Jim Carroll
Music writer


What were your highlights of the year?
Even at year’s end, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky still casts a spell. Albums from Disclosure, Daniel Avery, Arctic Monkeys, Chequerboard, Blood Orange, Mano Le Tough, Girls Names, Run the Jewels and This Is How We Fly also made me cheer with delight.

On the live side, David Byrne & St Vincent’s show at Electric Picnic was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. The Bruce Springsteen fan in me relished his show in Thomond Park, while seeing Prince in a small club in Austin, Texas, was both a brag and a joy.

Other highlights include watching Derry respond well to the City of Culture to-do, a fantastic exhibition of Chris Killip’s photos at the Renia Sofia in Madrid, Willie Doherty’s Unseen retrospective, the Eileen Gray show at Imma, David Bowie Is at the V&A in London, sublime books from Donal Ryan (The Thing About December), Eimear McBride (A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing) and Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers) and two splendid Irish films of very different stripes in Pilgrim Hill and Good Vibrations.

Some of the most thought-provoking 90 minutes came in the shape of a Brian Eno lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy in New York. It’s online and well worth checking out to hear a master thinker talk about working it all out.


The biggest disappointment?
The way so many arts and culture organisations willingly became social-media pimps for the Arthur Guinness Projects. It was unsightly, ugly and, in the end, all in vain, because most applicants went unfunded. Diageo marketing department 1, Irish arts and culture 0.


What caught you off guard?
Kevin Spacey’s acting in House of Cards was damn good, as you didn’t really didn’t expect him to do a character like Frank Underwood such justice. It’s was a bit like Kelsey Grammer’s great turn as the mayor of Chicago in Boss.


I have the seen the future and it is . . .
More like “heard” the future. It’s the debut album from The Gloaming, which, after many false alarms, will be released at the end of January. It’s a whopper, a mighty coming together of so many threads to create a canvas of great verve, vigour and colour. The boys have done well.


What will you be glad to see the back of?
Homeland. Surely they can’t do any more with this one. It’s always disappointing to see a TV series come roaring in with a great first season and then fail to deliver beyond that.


What was the year’s unsung hero?
The summer weather. Made everything from arts and culture to the hurling look good.


2013 in three words?
Repeat to fade.


Gemma Tipton
Art critic


What were your highlights of the year?
Visual at Carlow came into its own: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, the group show Beasts of England and Tadhg McSweeney’s Edifice Complex all made brilliant uses of one of Ireland’s largest art spaces. It is great to see the OPW opening up Castletown House, in Co Kildare, to new ideas, as the atmospheric Prelude Speaker saw 16 contemporary artists take it on in April. In August, Bob and Roberta Smith’s brightly coloured polemic made Kilkenny Arts Festival a whole lot of fun. Abroad, Ireland looked good, with Richard Mosse feted at the Venice Biennale, and the Changing States exhibition at Bozar in Brussels for the EU presidency proving that some very exciting artists are working here.

What was the biggest disappointment?
Big-money art. People who don’t know what to do with their loot can spend millions on trite rubbish – such as Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), which made €42 million at auction – but that doesn’t mean it’s any good.


What caught you off guard?
Olwen Fouéré’s astonishing Riverrun at Galway Arts Festival was like the best performance art and theatre rolled into one. Totally mindblowing. Watch it take on the world next year when it tours.

What will you be glad to see the back of?
Residue of practice, aka the bits that are left when the artist is done. Artspeak as a camouflage for poor work has had its day. Although it’s time someone told those engaged in the problematic juxtapositions of contextualising discourse that it’s, like, OMG, so over.


I have seen the future and it is . . .
Poised for change. There’s pent-up energy, and between the twin poles of art as a plaything of the super-rich and art as an overcurated theoretical inquiry, there’s a chink of light where a new way of seeing things is due to emerge.


2013 in three words?
Extraordinary in parts.


Shane Hegarty
Columnist

What were your highlights of the year?
The brutal, harrowing TV drama Generation War was a compelling and moving examination of war, complicity and defeat. Also on television, Louis CK’s grimly hilarious sitcom of sorts, Louie, showed genius in his understanding of, and challenge to, TV conventions. Elsewhere, whoever thought of wrapping Liberty Hall in the panels of a 1913 Lockout comic book deserves a Christmas bonus.

In literature it was wonderful to see Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart gain the readership it deserved. In music, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky was a stone-cold classic from the moment a first snippet popped up online. But the most breathtaking few minutes of the year was Bruce Springsteen ending his Irish tour in Kilkenny with a bloody hand, hopeful words and an acoustic This Hard Land.


What was the biggest disappointment?
Friday night at Electric Picnic, when the site was half dark and only half alive.


What caught you off guard?
Saturday afternoon at Electric Picnic, when I wandered into a packed tent in time for Gerry Fish and Lisa Hannigan’s short but joyous set.


What will you be glad to see the back of?
The press campaign for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues started off amusingly enough but proceeded to squeeze the Ron Burgundy joke dry.


I have seen the future and it is . . .
The Irish writer Audrey Magee’s forthcoming debut novel, The Undertaking (Atlantic), which is similar in theme to Generation War but with the focus on a married German couple; one in Berlin, one on the Russian front. Driven largely by dialogue, it is an engrossing examination of universal questions through the German experience.


Who was 2013’s unsung hero?
The two characters in Roddy Doyle’s satirical Two Pints, which is posted on his Facebook page whenever something needs to be said.


2013 in three words?
Don’t be afraid.


Donald Clarke
Film critic


What were your highlights of the year?
Two superb pictures energised Cannes before brightening up domestic cinemas in the autumn: Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour was searing; Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty lived up to its title. Mention should also be made of Shane Carruth’s side-swiping Upstream Colour (existential science fiction) and Joshua Oppenheimer’s bleak The Act of Killing (political documentary as experimental theatre).


Biggest disappointment?
The indulgent mess that was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. A decade after the excellent Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s lads-and-monsters shtick is wearing very thin. Yet the British critics lapped it up. Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 was also utterly terrible, but we expected that.


What caught you off guard?
It can only be the stealthy release of David Bowie’s Where Are We Now? We went to sleep thinking he had retired. We woke to his best single for 20 years. A fine album, The Next Day, and an extensive exhibition at the V&A followed. Sadly, the old geezer’s unexpected annus mirabilis ended with the death of his old chum Lou Reed.


What will you be glad to see the back of?
The exhausting, ubiquitous marketing campaign for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. By the end of the merciless assault, which we have extended by mentioning here, you half-expected Will Ferrell to knock on your door with a tailored joke about your aunt’s recent hip replacement. Goebbels showed greater restraint. See also: hype for Doctor Who (still great); Love/Hate (didn’t watch it); and Breaking Bad (didn’t watch it).


I’ve seen the future and it is . . .
The past remodelled as music for smart young fogies. Ghost Box Records continued its investigation of mid-century electronic spookery with releases such as the Focus Group’s The Elektrik Karousel. Public Service Broadcasting addressed the Battle of Britain and WH Auden on Inform Educate Entertain. Matt Berry’s tuneful, hilarious Kill the Wolf positioned his folk rock somewhere between pastiche and reverie.

2013 in three words?
Twerk to rule.



Michael Dervan
Classical music critic

What were your highlights of the year?
The RTÉ NSO’s departing principal guest conductor, Hannu Lintu, ended his term with the orchestra in style, with blazingly powerful performances of early and late Sibelius, the rarely heard Kullervo, and Tapiola. The violinist-conductor Julian Rachlin made musical magic with the orchestra in Mozart and Mendelssohn. The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s “principal artistic partner” – that is, conductor – Gábor Takács-Nagy, continues to bring a special electricity to all his work. Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, produced this year in Nancy, London and Ireland (Derry, Belfast, Dublin, Cork), was a must-see operatic experience. There were extraordinary choral delights from Mark Duley’s Resurgam, Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen, and Stile Antico, who perform without a conductor. Alexander Raskatov’s Monk’s Music, modelled on Haydn’s Seven Last Words, made a big impression in concert in Dundalk and on disc. And the memorable performances from visiting orchestras were Christian Ihle Hadland’s handling of the Grieg Concerto (with the Oslo Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko), and Mahler’s First Symphony from the Sáo Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop.


And the biggest disappointment?
That the NCH, RTÉ and the CMC so signally failed to get their act together for the first New Music Dublin festival in March. And they’re already at it again in relation to the next festival, by allowing the printing of an incomplete programme in the NCH calendar that features the name of just a single Irish work.


What caught you off guard?
Anyone doing interviews knows certain questions rarely get answered. When I asked the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho about landmarks of the first half-century or so of electroacoustic music (thought of in the same terms as the first half-century of the string quartet or the piano), she demurred, said she would have to think about it and asked for my email address. But she didn’t shirk the question, and sent me the following list: Luigi Russolo’s Corale, Olivier Messiaen’s Oraison, Pierre Schaeffer’s Symphonie Pour un Homme Seul, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, Iannis Xenakis’s Bohor, Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco and François Bernard Mâche’s Kowar.


What will you be glad to see the back of?
It wasn’t that kind of year. Preservation matters more than elimination.


Who was 2013’s unsung hero?
Eamonn Quinn of Louth Contemporary Music Society, who, in spite of drastic funding cutbacks, continues to do innovative work in concert and on CD.


2013 in three words?
Roll on 2014.


Laurence Mackin
Arts Editor


What were your highlights of the year?
This year the more challenging, experimental theatre provided the best rewards for audiences. Rarely does a play terrify you: Lippy had me crawling the walls. A tiny show by young actors and a new writer threatened to steal its Fringe thunder: Dylan Coburn Gray’s Boys and Girls was a glittering jewel of a show that deserves a wider audience. Olwen Fouéré didn’t so much perform as become a piece of art in Riverrun. And Germinal threatened to lose its audience altogether before pulling the strings of the show together in a brilliantly executed, fiendishly clever finale.

No doubt everyone else will rave about how stunning the David Byrne & St Vincent gig at Electric Picnic was, but when Björk lowered a tesla coil out of the roof and crackled it into life I thought my heart might actually burst. Elsewhere, Jon Hopkins released my favourite album of 2013, followed it up with the best gig at the Body and Soul festival, and went one better by blowing everything out of the water at the Airwaves festival in Reykjavik.

Seeing Perm State Ballet perform Romeo and Juliet in Russia and Dublin was a rare privilege, as was getting up close with Chris Dave and the Drumhedz at the Sugar Club for the jazz gig of the year.


And the biggest disappointment?
The lack of strategy displayed by the Government’s funding for the arts and the Arts Council. Blunt cuts again in the budget, with no hint of creative thinking, planning or prioritisation: in tough times, leadership and guidance could do an awful lot to make up for the shortfall in cold, hard cash. At the moment we’re getting neither.


What caught you off guard?
This year I seemed to spend every second week in a different part of the country, usually using an arts festival or event as an excuse: Galway, Valentia, Derry, Inishturk, Kilkenny, Kerry and Derry. Travelling around, soaking up the culture and seeing these corners of our island make you wonder why we ever leave at all.


What will you be glad to see the back of? Breaking Bad. Its last series was superb, but as a whole it’s a good show, not a great show. It’s also nice to be able to talk about something other than meth at the dinner table.


I have seen the future and it is . . .
Two releases early in the new year are going to set the tone: The Gloaming are about to redefine traditional Irish music, and James Vincent McMorrow will step on to the international stage.


Who was 2013’s unsung hero?
Dave Smith, Val Ruttledge, Peter O’Brien and all the others turning disused spaces into creative spaces and doing their best to make sure an often indifferent bureaucracy doesn’t smother their creativity.


2013 in three words?
Don’t give up.

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