January: Tim Peake’s spacewalk
In the 1960s, writes Catherine Ingram, space travel had a different colour. As the US artist Andy Warhol described it, back then “silver was the future, it was spacey – the astronauts wore silver suits”. This photo of British astronaut Tim Peake’s spacewalk reminds Ingram of Warhol’s 1966 work Silver Clouds, with “a sense of the infinite – that there are no walls or ceiling or floor; that where you are goes on forever”.
February: A soldier in the Free Syrian Army stands guard
Taken as a major ceasefire in the war in Syria came into effect, this photo shows a soldier who “seems forever poised on a threshold”, according to Kelly Grovier. Arguing that the perspective of this photo works in the same way as a 19th-Century trompe l’oeil, he looks at how news photos help break down “the barrier between the stresses of a conflict raging in an inconceivable elsewhere and the retinas of distant readers”.
March: The father who saved his son
Snapped at the instant when a bat slipped from the hands of a baseball player and a fan instinctively stretched out his arm to save his son, this heart-stopping photo went viral in March. Kelly Grovier looked at a 16th-Century painting, the viral image reinvesting it with a horror that time has blunted.
April: Ruins at Palmyra
After Palmyra was retaken by Syrian forces, a photographer captured the extent of the damage wrought by militants. Joseph Eid held up a picture he’d taken of the Arch of Triumph at the ancient city in 2014 – against the backdrop of the arch in ruins, after it was destroyed by the so-called Islamic State. Kelly Grovier looked at Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, a work that Grovier believes is “cruel to be kind by forcing observers to confront an isolated, if vivid, instance of the destruction of heritage he believes is raging all around us in a world obsessed with the superficial rewards of the fast-and-easy here and now”.
May: The woman who defied neo-Nazis
A photo of a single figure standing up against nationalists at a rally in Sweden went viral in May. When Afro-Swedish social activist Tess Asplund came face-to-face with a May Day march of 300 uniformed nationalists in Borlänge, she faced them silently, fist clenched. Her spontaneous reaction was unstaged and yet, according to Kelly Grovier, the image has all the “power of Delacroix’s epoch-defining painting” Liberty Leading the People (1830).
June: A Chinese lawyer with torn clothes
Taken in Nanning, Guangxi, this photo shows a lawyer outside a district court. He told reporters that when he refused to hand over his mobile phone, court officials violently attacked him and nearly ripped his clothes off his body. It reminded Kelly Grovier of paintings in which “a sacrificial figure, humiliatingly stripped of his clothes by brutish authorities, stands before a court of justice”.
July: Kissing policemen
After a kiss between two male police officers was captured during the Pride Parade in London, Kelly Grovier looked at one of Banksy’s most famous images, the 2004 mural known as Kissing Coppers. “Characteristically ambiguous,” writes Grovier, “Banksy’s mural assumes a sense of shock on the part of passers-by,” he says, as if suggesting that such affectionate behaviour is “incongruous for police officers”.
August: A human pyramid
Taken during a festival in Barcelona’s Gràcia district, this photo “shows scores of Barcelonans in a surge of torsos and limbs that culminates in the outstretched arms of a soaring figure atop the living tower”, according to Kelly Grovier. It adopts “an optical technique on which old masters relied to elevate the spirits of those who observed their works” – seen in paintings including Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes.
September: A protestor in Santiago
“Staring is power,” writes Kelly Grovier. “The ability to command another’s gaze, to transfix their mind and muscles by using nothing more than… one's unblinking eyes, requires discipline and courage of purpose.” This photo of a standoff between a protester and a Chilean policeman in Santiago prompted Grovier to consider the meaning of an unflinching gaze. In her 2010 work The Artist is Present, performance artist Marina Abramović stared into the eyes of visitors. It was a reminder of John Ruskin’s belief that “All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”
October: Man and machine
After the world’s first Cybathlon – an international competition for disabled athletes assisted by robotic technology – Kelly Grovier looked at art’s fascination with the blurred boundary between man and machine. The contest, in the Swiss city of Zurich, included “competitors whose physical shapes are a fusion of athleticism and cutting-edge engineering”. Grovier found echoes in Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), “which seems to liquify flesh and machine into a newly discovered amalgam”.
November: A sinkhole in Japan
On the day of the US election, a sinkhole appeared in Japanese city of Fukuoka. Social media users were quick to see the event as an omen, offering competing prophecies attached to the crater. Kelly Grovier found a comparison with Sandro Botticelli’s The Abyss of Hell (c.1485), a “spiralling chasm that connects the realm of reality from the plunging depths of the underworld” – not because it seemed to imply a dark vision of the future, but because Botticelli’s ambivalent point of view reconciled “two divergent vantages without privileging one or disparaging the other”.
December: Stars in time-lapse
We began the year with a spacewalk, and end with the stars – as shown in this time-lapse photo taken in Indonesia. Kelly Grovier describes the image as “an arresting distortion of what the eye actually observes in the universe around it”, comparing it with Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Now one of the world’s most famous paintings, it was dismissed by the artist months after it was painted for being too abstract. “I allowed myself to be led astray”, the Dutch post-Impressionist wrote in a letter in November 1889, “into reaching for stars that are too big”. Many would disagree with his verdict; Grovier concludes with a quote from Calvin and Hobbes: “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently”.
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