Welcome to our pick of the best London exhibitions to see right now. We've roughly split the list by London regions and exhibitions outside the M25 to make it easier to navigate. Due to social distancing requirements, advance booking is required for many of the exhibitions we've listed.
Exhibitions in Central London
VIRTUAL WORLDS: Stand among an army of sunflowers as they are burned to a crisp, rise up off the ground and be buzzed by helicopters, and try to find a way past an infinitely long wall. All of these experiences are delivered through virtual reality artworks, in an annual exhibition which has become a favourite of ours. It delivers once again with thrilling, political and intense artworks this time around.
Enter Through The Headset 5 at Gazelli Art House. Until 17 October, free. ★★★★☆ (Monday - Saturday)
PICASSO BABY: Step inside the world of Picasso as Mayfair gallery Bastian reimagines his studio in the south of France. There are posters and photographs on the wall and ceramic artworks on the shelves in the immersive exhibition, which is split across two floors. While there may not be many knock-out pieces here, it is a brilliant concept that gives us a peek inside the mind of the creative genius that was Pablo Picasso.
Atelier Picasso at Bastian. Until 12 December, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
NEW LIFE & DEATH: Two airport-style boards stand in the courtyard of Somerset House, with announcements of births marked out on the arrivals board, and deaths on departures. Anyone may submit dates and names for those born or lost recently, or to remember events from the past. In a world where visiting others is severely limited this is a beautiful gesture to celebrate and commemorate others while remaining socially distant.
Arrivals + Departures by YARA + DAVINA at Somerset House. Until 5 November, free. ★★★★☆ (open every day)
ALGORITHMS & ART: A barrage of sound and images overwhelms the senses every 10 minutes in this exhibition. On the left is an artwork and on the right, an algorithm attempts to match it to similar images — so an abstract Jackson Pollock is viewed as similar to a Where's Wally illustration, and MMA fighters are compared to an Old Master painting of the Massacre of the Innocents. This exhibition covers lots of themes including how fast we digest images today and the link between art and technology, even if these themes don't always come together neatly.
Toby Ziegler: The sudden longing to collapse 30 years of distance at Simon Lee Gallery. Until 14 October, free. ★★★☆☆ (Monday - Saturday)
REWRITING HISTORY: The busts of important black figures including singer Nina Simone and nurse Mary Seacole are created in white plaster and hidden behind tribal masks in this exhibition. Meanwhile downstairs, an encyclopaedia of invisibility challenges the Western view of the world. This is an information-dense exhibition that asks us to consider how we learn about history and the figures that have been excluded, as well as providing snippets that encourage visitors to do their own research later. While it's confusing at times, it's a rich exhibition that only becomes more powerful when a performance breaks out and a secret element of the show is revealed — but we won't spoil the surprise for you.
Tavares Strachan: In Plain Sight at Marian Goodman Gallery. Until 24 October, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
LATE SUMMER: Any visitor to previous Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions knows the drill — over 1000 works of art hung floor to ceiling, with big names placed next to emerging artists, and many pieces for sale. The pandemic means this year's Summer Exhibition has been delayed, so the 250+ year streak of this annual exhibition remains unbroken. The downside is there isn't an overarching theme this year, other than the fact that it is later in the year. There are some highlights including the first two rooms largely dedicated to black artists, and a rather chaotic sculpture gallery where you have to tread carefully. It's not a vintage year for this show, but it's still great to see it going ahead at all in 2020.
Summer Exhibition 2020 at Royal Academy of Arts. Until 3 January, £20-22. ★★★☆☆ (open every day)
Exhibitions in North London
BRENT IS CALLING: The current London Borough of Culture is hosting a biennial with works scattered throughout the borough, including a permanent mural to George Michael in Kingsbury, where he grew up. Many of the other works are situated within local libraries, a great way to get new audiences to engage with these vital civic spaces. Most impressive is Imran Qureshi's large swathes of paper that appear blood spattered — definitely not something we expected to come across in a library. It's a lovely combination of thought-provoking art and a chance to explore a borough that this South Londoner shamefully knew little about.
Brent Biennial at various locations. Until 13 December, free. ★★★★☆ (opening times vary by venue)
HEBREW HISTORY: Historic documents whisk us along on a journey from the Middle East to Europe, including a Hebrew bible in an Islamic art style, and the confessions of a Rabbi as part of the Spanish Inquisition. Visitors have to work hard for it, with a lot of reading involved, but are rewarded with records of love, persecution and influences from other religions in this historically revealing exhibition.
Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word at The British Library. Until 11 April, £8. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday - Saturday)
Exhibitions in East London
THE LIBERAL ELITE: One of the nation's favourite satirical artists has turned his lens on the US, just before the election. A map of Manhattan takes us from tax havens to the liberal elite while a map of the US has Zuckerberg lording over it all. Perry's trademark pots are present, and one exclaims 'I am very tolerant except when people disagree with me', summing up Twitter in one statement. This is Grayson Perry back on sparkling form and you will chuckle to yourself as you walk through this show that coincides with his Channel 4 series of his road trip through the US.
Grayson Perry: The MOST Specialest Relationship at Victoria Miro. Until 31 October, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday - Saturday)
Exhibitions in West London
REVIVING PLANTS: Artist Jan Hendrix has drawn inspiration from the plant life that used to live in a bay in Australia, and was destroyed by colonialist urbanisation and climate change. Drawing from the 18th century illustration, he creates his own on silkscreen prints and in platinum to sit alongside the original illustrations as a beautiful contrast. The centrepiece is a mirrored, immersive installation based on the illustrations, which you can walk inside to see how it reflects and filters the light — the effect is breathtaking.
Jan Hendrix: Paradise Lost at Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew Gardens. Until 14 March, £17.50 for access to the entire gardens. ★★★★☆ (open every day)
FOE TO FRIEND: Think of our relationship with Germany and thoughts tend to move towards the two world wars. However, there's a rich history from the second world war onwards, which is explored in this exhibition at National Army Museum. It starts off pretty hostile, with troops stationed there being told to not fraternise with Germans. The barriers break down over time as British troops are withdrawn, with stories of British soldiers marrying German women. There's lots of material in this tour through Britain's military relationship with Germany, and while it isn't a complete picture of the politics of the time it does contain some fascinating nuggets.
Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945 at National Army Museum. Until 1 July 2021, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday - Sunday)
BLING FOR BIRDS: Do ducks wants to nest in blinging golden palaces? Artist Jonathan Wright is about to find out — he's installed a waterborne replica of the stately home that used to sit on the land that's now home to the London Wetland Centre. It's also a not-so-subtle dig at the duck island expenses scandal and is one of five art installations that merge with the natural settings of the Wetland Centre. Other works float on water and change colour, and we were drawn to Alec Stevens' work where different styles of building reflect the rising sea levels in parts of the world, with an art deco Miami building right at the water line.
Wetlands Unravelled at London Wetland Centre. Until 26 March, £13.40 for access to the entire centre. ★★★★☆ (open every day)
Exhibitions in South London
BURN THE ART: Life, death, religion, colonialism and consumerism. Each one is a huge subject and artist Danh Vo has taken them on in this immense exhibition. Flowers bloom at one end of a gallery, while at the other, a giant American flag made of wood is slowly fed into log burning fires piece by piece — it will be all gone on the night before the US election. Broken altar pieces recognise a general move away from religion while a gilded Coca Cola sign heralds the new gods of consumerism that have taken their place. There is so much in this exhibition that it can be overwhelming at times, but the scale and ambition makes it an unforgettable experience.
Danh Vo: Chicxulub at White Cube, Bermondsey. Until 2 November, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday - Saturday)
ALL THAT GLITTERS: A giant pile of glitter has been casually tossed across the floor, coloured lights create silhouettes when we stand in front of them and glass bubbles distort the traffic rolling by outside. Ann Veronica Janssens' playful exploration of light is fun, and shows art at its most accessible. The downside is that it doesn't seem to have a lot to say beyond the fact that it is fun and it's very photogenic.
Ann Veronica Janssens: Hot Pink Turquoise at South London Gallery. Until 29 November, free. ★★★☆☆ (Wednesday - Sunday)
STRANGER ART: There's a definite Stranger Things vibe going on here as we enter a gallery where tendrils appear to be growing out of the wall, as if we've stepped inside a giant beast. It gets stranger when we don the virtual reality headset and navigate through a sequence of laboratories using a creepy horned joystick. This immersive world of specimens in an ominously empty lab with no visible staff makes for a very unsettling visit to the Upside Down in Deptford.
Samuel Capps: Exudater at Seager. Until 25 October, free. ★★★★☆ (Thursday - Sunday)
BLACK MARINERS: Did you know that a frieze on the base of Nelson's Column shows a Black man fighting for the British at the Battle of Trafalgar? This exhibition charts the history of the black mariners who served in the Royal Navy. It's important to note the black mariners were a mixture of free and enslaved black men, and this important exhibition seeks to redress the fact that this part of history doesn't get much attention. Not much has been preserved of their time so there are very few original artefacts on display but their histories are an important part of British naval history.
Black Greenwich Pensioners at Old Royal Naval College, visitor centre. Until 21 February, free. ★★★☆☆ (open every day)
Exhibitions Outside London
PLYMOUTH'S BOX: Plymouth has revealed its new arts centre that contains local history, natural history and contemporary art all within one complex. One of the biggest draws is a gallery that recognises the history of the Mayflower 400 years later, including the devastating outcomes for the Native Americans from both violence and disease brought to their lands. The contemporary art contributions are very impressive including a spectacular installation by Leonor Antunes in an old church — the combinations of glass, light and everyday objects used in sailing creates a stunning meditative space.
The Box, Plymouth. Opens 29 September, free / £5. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday - Sunday)
This is a section where we flag the exhibitions that didn't cut it for us, but you may be interested in seeing nonetheless.
HOGARTH IS HOME: Hogarth's famous work 'A Rake's Progress' showing a man's descent through society returns to its original home of Pitzhanger Manor after a 200-year absence. It's accompanied by a series of contemporary works referencing London, but it's disappointing that they aren't in the same league as Hogarth. Many espouse the usual message we find in art about the gap between rich and poor and the gentrification of London. Yes, it's important, yes, we've heard it many times before and no, it doesn't offer anything new. The one interesting contemporary work is a barber's chair where visitors can have their hair cut as they talk about their London — a great concept that may not be realised due to understandable pandemic concerns.
Hogarth: London Voices, London Lives at Pitzhanger Manor. Until 31 December, £7.70. ★★☆☆☆ (Thursday - Sunday)
COAL & CONFUSION: Set in a fantastic empty church, three videos, can be viewed from two floors. They start slow before upping their tempo. The films cover topics from gender norms to coal mining using rapid fire text and images. The artist, Elizabeth Price, has clearly done a lot of research on these topics but how it's presented makes it very hard to follow at all times and we stumble out of the dark none the wiser.
Artangel commission - Elizabeth Price: Slow Dans at 82 Borough Road. Until 25 October, free / £3. ★★☆☆☆ (Thursday - Sunday)