Essential Art21 Documentaries to Stream Now

More than two decades worth of art documentaries are streaming for free courtesy of Art21. Tina Kukielski, the nonprofit’s chief curator, shares her top five recommendations.

Museums and galleries have finally started to reopen after nearly six months of government-mandated shutdowns. For art enthusiasts in quarantine who’d prefer to play it safe and avoid crowded public spaces, no matter how many precautions are being taken to avoid the spread of Covid-19, a wealth of resources exists online to get a quick fix of creative buzz. Luckily, the full archives of the Peabody Award–winning PBS show Art in the 21st Century—the longest-running television series on contemporary art—are streaming online, thanks to the nonprofit organization Art21, which also produces the behind-the-scenes Extended Play series. With more than two decades of documentaries to choose from, including in-depth surveys of works by Theaster Gates, Kara Walker, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, deciding on one film may prove difficult. Tina Kukielski, the executive director and chief curator of Art21, shares her recommendations below.

Do Ho Suh: “Rubbing / Loving”

Remember your first apartment? Do Ho Suh does the unimaginable in this film; he records every inch of the walls, floors, and ceilings of the New York City apartment he called home for 18 years. Suh’s signature fabric replicas of interior spaces are well-known, but his rubbings in pencil over white paper are even more subtle—works that incite memory and feeling with an undeniable tenderness and exacting admiration. Suh, born in Korea and now living in London, says, “I try to understand my life as a moment through different spaces.”


Pedro Reyes in “Mexico City”

In dismantling weapons confiscated by the Mexican military, Pedro Reyes asks in earnest: “How will [they] produce sounds for music?” Interested in psychological and social transformations, Reyes is an artist with a million and one ideas. Applying the problem-solving skills he acquired studying architecture, he unleashes his ideas out into the world with aesthetic charm and a revolutionary spirit. Turning crickets into hamburgers, performing puppet shows featuring Karl Marx, and organizing a mock UN, the field of research explored in this film is vast. Reyes’ inventions in human-object interaction are both inspiring and contagious in the best way possible.


Doreen Garner Sculpts Our Trauma

Doreen Garner made her artistic debut with an exhibition that redressed the haunting legacy of J. Marion Sims, the so-called father of modern gynecology who performed torturous procedures on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or consent for the purposes of experimentation and research. The moody dark quality of this film sits perfectly with the performance Garner conceived to retaliate Sims’ mistreatment, acted out by a group of young Black women. We see Garner at the head of an operating table Gross Clinic–style, dissecting a replica sculpture of Sims’ own body. As she says herself in this film: “You can’t unsee what you just saw.”


Olafur Eliasson in “Berlin”

Surrounded by a group of uber-talented architects, craftspeople, researchers, and artists, Olafur Eliasson’s buzzing Berlin studio is legendary for its collaborative spirit and interdisciplinary nature. Eliasson has big and small plans for his work, from building bridges to distributing mini solar lighting technology to regions in need. His experiential works are what keep his fans coming back, but underneath the transformative nature of the Eliasson enterprise is a humble ambition. “Art can offer the opportunity to do some sort of self-evaluation,” he says with certitude.


Abigail DeVille Listens to History

Abigail DeVille digs up history, literally and metaphorically. Her material salvaging of objects reconstitutes the shards of lives lived, and picks at baggage of the past. “History is the tale of the victor. It’s garbage,” she says. And yet against the odds, DeVille finds joy and endurance in her sculptural constructions. Her recastings of cultural and historical leftovers are as fascinating as her fashion.


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