Thursday, August 6, 2015

We Have Moved

Finally, Incorrigible Corrigall has found a new lovely little home in another interhood:

It is a pretty place, which you should visit if you want to continue reading this blog

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

When history is broken

As with all the new works created by the recipients of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYAA) who make their debut at the National Arts Festival, the visual arts winner’s exhibition is always subjected to intense scrutiny. It is the source of such focus for the visual arts community mostly due to the fact that the festival continues to sideline this sector. The organisers say it is due to a lack of appropriate venues for art and down to the fact that exhibitions don’t fit into their business model: they can’t charge tickets for people to view them – only for walkabouts – and those are limited.

And so it is that the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist award carries the burden of presenting the ‘highlight’ for the visual arts for the festival. It sucks because they also have to present their work in one of the worst venues for visual arts, the Monument Gallery, which reminds me a bit of my dreary office in Sauer Street. Please god may an artist who wins the prize in the future make some sort of architectonic intervention in this space. In truth the SBYAA winner usually grows the exhibition over time as it moves from venue to venue, finally landing up at the Standard Bank Gallery, where it exists in its optimal state. Unfortunately, by then everyone has stopped writing and analysing their show – the story has gone cold, so to speak.    

The Grahamstown showing presents the moment in which the artist must prove they are worthy of the accolade they have received.  Kemang Wa Lehulere found the ideal solution to this custom; in History Will Break Your Heart he mostly presents the work and life of other artists, thereby cunningly shifting attention away from himself. This was clearly articulated in the publicity material available at the exhibition, where his biography is preceded by that of artists Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu and Ernest Mancoba.  In this way he sort of also inserts himself into history – joins them.
In presenting the works of Mgudlandlu and dated footage of Mancoba narrating his life story, Wa Lehulere has seemingly found an expedient way to avoid risk and fill a room with art (in a short amount of time) that is above criticism.

Fortunately, this novel solution is clever in other ways too – he appears to have found a way to reinsert (art) history into the present/the now – this exhibition is always viewed as being an expression of what’s hot in contemporary art. In so doing he also poses the question that art perennially asks: what is art? Is curating works, making documentaries, art? Might a curator or art historian get a bash at winning this award in future, stretching the definition of artist a little further?

You could argue that Mikhail Subotzky posed these same questions a few years ago when he took the prize and also ‘curated’ existing work (drawn from his own photo collection) and footage, though he too made a new documentary.
Not that Wa Lehulere limits his talents to curating. Each Mgudlandlu work he presents is pared with angled blackboards bearing crude drawings in white chalk, drawing attention to gaps, absent works. This refers to not only works that are missing from the archive but were never made – the times in which Mgudlandlu made her art limited what it could be. These also function as ‘mirrors’ as alluded to in the title, Does this mirror have a memory, though they do not reflect the image which they face but rather operate as a site of retrieval, where memories of her work, both real or fictional can be re-imagined, reconstructed and erased – it’s a never-ending process, as is the act of remembrance and digging into history, beyond art history.

There is an installation too – Another Homeless Song (for RRR Dhlomo), an arrangement of salvaged school desks at the centre of the gallery, further driving home this school, instructional theme. We are in the process of relearning the narratives about people who were erased from the history books and reclaiming those “firsts” – was R.R.R. Dhlomo’s first novella, An African Tragedy, the first work of fiction by a black South African to appear in book form? Mgulandlu was also supposedly the “first” black woman to stage an exhibition – a fact that Nontobeko Ntombela, the curator of A Fragile Archive, challenged in an exhibition of her work, in which she made clear the gaps in this artist’s ‘narrative’ via blank spaces on the walls of the Joburg Art Gallery, where it was staged in 2012. Wa Lehulere’s exhibition is impossible to imagine without Ntombela’s – in a way it is an extension of it, if not with more expressive interventions. Does Wa Lehulere take it far enough? How does he extend the discourse? We have to ask this because he has entered into the space of art history, where these questions become pertinent in assessing the ‘value’ of the show. He could take it further not only conceptually, but visually too and he probably intends to as the show travels.

Wa Lehulere brings these legendary ‘firsts’ together in a room without challenging those titles – which Ntombela showed in a Fragile Archive to be not only inaccurate but as such they act as a foil for the messier histories they conceal. The blackboards facing Mgulandlu’s works which are angled to face them could be an instructive way to reveal what they conceal, or they function as this blank space upon which anything can be projected. In this way the act of retrieval is as corrupt as the narratives that they are meant to displace and the art object functions as this silent witness to history that appears to ‘reveal’ so much – it is a visual manifestation of a time and place – yet speaks in a vocabulary that is vulnerable to reinterpretation.

Ntombela made this point – the only way Wa Lehulere takes it forward is via inserting his own abstract response to the work – which is his “work”  - in this way he continues in the tradition of western art where he responds to a history that preceded him to take him forwards – except he ends up in this no-mans land, because his ‘anchors’ are seemingly unstable and he appears interested in returning and recouping a place in the past rather than moving forward.  

History hasn’t ‘broken his heart’, history is broken, and the chronology is disrupted because of this desire to recuperate that which is lost.  In the film, The Bird Lady, in nine layers of time, Wa Lehulere documents a process of trying to uncover an artwork Mgudlandlu created in a home in which she had lived. It cannot be reclaimed – there are too many layers concealing it. This is an obvious metaphor for the difficulties entailed in cultural recuperation in the post-apartheid era.
Art historians, curators, theorists and writers have long focused on the incompleteness of archival records, which prevent reconstructing history. Wa Lehulere follows this line, but also seems to direct our attention to the ways in which the narrative is immovable. In the stop-motion footage of recreating a Mancoba work, it seems obvious that every one of Mancoba’s strokes was informed by the moment – his background in South Africa, the racism in France and the inability for anyone to see him and his work beyond his racial identity. This is the tragedy of his existence; he tried to outrun his identity when he moved to France, but was immured to white supremacist societies and no re-reading of history, no act of recuperation can set him free. Even in this exhibition, which is not bound to art historical conventions as such, Wa Lehulere himself is trapped within this well-worn narrative of failed retrieval as the conceptual pivot rather than the art itself. In other words Mancoba isn’t  represented in this show because of his art or contribution towards it but due to his inability to ‘contribute’ – this becomes the marker of his place in history. – an edited version of this was first published in The Star, Cape Argus July 10, 2015.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Breaking the cycle of "national chauvinism"

 Dana Whabira's installation at Museum Africa

African sushi. It sounds like an oxymoron and is more enticing in theory than it is when you are faced with trays of it. Instead of sushi rice, the base is pap, and raw fish is replaced with biltong. It's pap sushi and it is not a very popular snack at the openings of Towards Intersections. Yes, openings for this rambling exhibition curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe is in four locations in Gauteng - the Unisa Gallery in Pretoria, the Museum Africa in Newtown, the Gordon Institute of Business Science, or Gibs as it known to Joburgers, and Point of Order, a Wits-run gallery in Braamfontein. In other words, it is probably one of the most ambitious visual arts programmes to be staged in the country since the last Joburg Biennale - it is hard to think of an event of this nature that has spanned so many venues. 
Africa Remix, held at Jag in 2007, could be considered its forerunner, given the African slant to the show, but it may have encompassed more works and been more representative of contemporary art from the continent - South African artists dominate Goniwe's show.  The other notable aspect is that it is sponsored by the Department of Arts Culture. You don't need to read any of the publicity material to be aware of this; the quality and quantity of the booze and food at each opening are a hallmark of government-funded events. Sad, but true. Not that anyone was complaining as they quaffed Haute Cabriere sparkling wine - it's such a pleasure to sip on something that is not a few hours from turning into vinegar. There is live jazz at several of the openings too - job creation for musicians?

The organisers pulled out all the stops - you could smell the money behind this event - African sushi may not be palatable but it does not come cheap. Yet at the same time, the manner in which the openings functioned as enjoyable "evenings out" may be a step towards encouraging audiences to engage with art and the broader social and political statements it makes. You have to try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The African sushi isn't an incidental snack. The caterers must have been apprised of the theme or objective of the exhibition: to present art from artists across the continent and its diaspora, forging links with cultures beyond our borders. 

It was planned to tie in with Africa Month, a programme driven by the Department of Arts Culture. In light of the tragic xenophobic attacks that rocked the country and the terse relations between South Africa and other African states following the violence, our president's careless remarks on it, the government's inadequate response, the exhibitions and other events that formed part of the Africa Month - such as Rain, a dance-musical created by the Vuyani Dance Theatre - are quite transparently part of a campaign to address the issue and do a bit of damage control. In other words, art is being used for good and bad ends; to shift perceptions about fellow Africans, but then also to make the government look good, better. 

The questions that lingered like an elephant in the room during the launch of the exhibitions and most certainly during Rain was this: Is art functioning as some kind of plaster (of that transparent kind)?  Plaster was the word that came to mind for two reasons: none of the art engaged with the drivers of xenophobia and the Department of Arts Culture's position on this issue has been muddied by declarations by the department's chief director of social cohesion, Sandile Memela, outlining that the violence that took hold in townships was due to criminal behaviour and not intolerance. 

In other words, as usual, the programme felt slightly at odds with the department's public face.
This may explain why the art didn't address the issues in any nuanced way. This was particularly the case with Rain, a simplistic musical centred on a strange precolonial story around a desperate hunt for water and a struggle to survive that turns ugly and is then magically resolved. An infectious celebratory finale got everyone on their feet clapping and dancing. 

In this way, the complex drivers behind Afrophobia - as it is also been called - and the government's role in exacerbating the levels of intolerance through an institutionalised form of prejudice - such as a change in laws that has rendered legal migrants, illegal - is not addressed. Setting the musical in a bygone era, where Africa was seemingly united and then split through competition for limited natural resources ensured that when the audiences piled out of the Market Theatre, they left feeling upbeat and certain that xenophobia was linked to mob behaviour at the bottom echelons of society.

It was not Vuyani Dance Theatre's best work, although it ended with a standing ovation. It was a feel-good piece that disabused everyone's consciences of a deep-rooted prejudice, which the public intellectual Achille Mbembe attributes to a form of national chauvinism and an inability to embrace authentically democratic ideals in which "there are no longer settlers or natives. There are only citizens."
This national chauvinism that Mbembe refers to underpinned the African Month programmes in the sense that they were all driven, curated by South Africans. It's as if we want to be in control of the stories about the continent, and how these narratives serve our own political ends.
In the late 1990s we embraced the continent and pan-Africanism in attempt to reconfigure our new African identity. Now, we do it to prove to ourselves that we did not fail so dismally at doing so. Goniwe might have tried to avert our opportunist exploitation of forging this link by creating a series of shows that was not overly curated - in the sense that the uniting thematic was so open, so vague, you could argue, that no meaning was imposed on the works. As he indicates in his curatorial statement he set out to create exhibitions without "collapsing the singularities of each imaginative contributing force". In other words he didn't want to override the latent potential in the works, which could elicit different connections between them. As such the works would function as sort of free-floating objects that could be constantly open to (re) interpretation, which might allow viewers to connect them to some of the other works on show. 

In line with this approach each exhibition more or less presents works by the same artists in each venue - Blessing Ngobeni's distinctive "body within a body" works, in which crowds of people and stories are contained within larger figurative representations of bodies, are shown at least at three venues.
Zimbabwean Dana Whabira presents an installation of mannequins at Unisa and another sartorial-themed one at the Africa Museum.
Anthea Moys's portrait exchange - the artist and participant make portraits of each other - takes place at three of the openings, as does an excerpt of Neliswe Xaba's Fremde Tanza (Foreign Dances).
In this way the exhibitions superficially appear to be replicas of each other, but contain differences that are sometimes nuanced or marked - most prominently in the different performance art pieces by Buhlebezwe Siwani. 

This reinforces this free flow of links, or relationships between works, although it is probably unlikely that the average visitor will visit each venue. On paper, Goniwe's approach sounds great, albeit a little abstract: "a space of influx, entries and exits".
This idea of free flow obviously extends to the notion of migration as universally, personally and politically defined, which allows it to sit quite neatly in an Africa Month cultural programme.Goniwe started out as an artist and clearly that heart still beats within - the sense of ambiguity he embraces and also his clear respect for the art itself. He doesn't want to "instrumentalise" the art - give it a clear social or political function as per its historical role during apartheid and now in line with the government's new resolve to reignite this purpose for its own ends. In this way and most probably unbeknown to the Department of Arts Culture, Goniwe appears to commit an act of subtle resistance, or does this kind of curatorial openness make the art more vulnerable to being (mis)used to serve political ends and operate as that veritable plaster? Is it arrogant for us, given recent events, to assume to continue to fashion narratives about expression on the continent? 

Shouldn't an Africa Month of cultural programmes at least include a platform for African nationals settled here to treat us to their creative expression, take us into their worlds and the societies they left behind? Surely this would have had more impact in terms of healing wounds and fostering a better understanding between South Africans and African immigrants and the continent? Does the department fund art by African migrants? Are its funding policies barriers to "social cohesion" - identified in the draft of a new White Paper on arts and culture as a main function of art? 

The department appears to be more interested in advancing a superficial form of "social cohesion" to direct attention away from the government's inability to deliver and possibly its own role in disrupting the social fabric of the country. So why are artists playing ball? Are they playing ball? Artists, curators, choreographers are vulnerable, due to the fact that funding for the arts remains limited - and is conditional, comes with a price.
Vuyani Dance Theatre's performance was a far cry from those modest ones, with one or two dancers, that would conclude in an appeal to the audience to make donations to sustain the company. Gregory Maqoma's (its director) struggle to grow and build this company without or with sporadic government support is well-documented.  Could he really have created a piece that tackled the government's role in the intolerance and attacks against foreign nationals given the company's growing dependency on the government?
As with the Towards Intersections exhibitions, you can smell the money poured into Rain - the cast is massive, the costumes are lavish, lots of changes, musicians and the like - and that's in front of the stage, what of behind?
On the one hand it is rewarding to see Vuyani Dance Theatre finally working with big budgets, it does not seem to have resulted in good work.  Populist and entertaining - yes, but the conceptual and even choreographic integrity that is Maqoma's hallmark felt absent from Rain. It was literally an empty song and dance, a parade of pseudo Afro motifs, which South Africans love to mobilise when they want to embrace their inner-pan-African.  Like the African sushi that sat untouched on plates until unabated hunger drove people to sample this odd dish, our attempts to discover our connection to the continent remains slightly unpalatable or is too vaguely evoked to have impact. We can't complete the imaginative task that Goniwe sets us because we first need to overcome or confront our ignorance and prejudice. - first published in The Sunday Independent, June 6, 2015. 

Towards Intersections exhibitions ran at the Africa Museum, the Unisa Gallery, Point of Order, Braamfontein and Gibs until the end of the June. For more information, go to

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

An Artist's work is never done

This is an installation shot I took Gush refused to supply images of his images. Read into that
what you will. 

It is hard returning to the office after perusing an exhibition by Simon Gush. His ongoing thesis on work, which exposes how unnatural an activity it is, usually, if only temporarily, relieves you of the compulsion to, well, work. But can it really be removed? Even if Gush is able to convince you to make a beeline for your sofa where you binge on series while grazing on crisps are you disconnected from work? It’s a question I try not to ask when lying on my sofa licking my salty fingers, but Gush forces it on you. 

In person Gush tends not to gush about much, not even his work, but I imagine he would say you can’t ever stop working. For the purposes of journalistic research, I have spent many workday afternoons trying not to work and have found it virtually impossible, because it is either done under the guise of journalistic research (work) or I will spend much of my slothful time justifying how this free time, will better equip me to be more effective during work time. In this way lounging around is a preparation for ‘work’ and is only permissible or acceptable because it will be balanced out by a productive activity at some point. And then there is the fact that whatever I am doing – I remain an art critic. Even if the paper tells me not to write about art ever again – which they have done -  I’ve been doing it for so long now, that not only has it become an integral part of my identity but even if I want to carve out another identity separate from my profession, people around me prevent me from doing so.

Gush drives all these points home pretty strongly in the film Calvin and Holiday, a wry play on the Calvin and Hobbes comic, while referencing Calvinism and its opposite – holidaying. I’m not sure what Gush’s day-job is – I sense it is something he hates as his resistance to work and his observation in this film that most work is basically menial (is this true in the post-industrial age?) implies it is hugely unsatisfying. I suppose the only pleasure he can derive from engaging in work, is that by making work about work, turning it into art and something that can be sold, might be proof that he has subverted the system in which he finds himself quite thoroughly trapped. That is if you agree that art is not ‘work’ or is anti-work or, maybe in Gush’s instance – ‘meta-work’ – that is work centered on exposing the foibles of work. In this way Gush’s meditation on this topic almost always becomes the lens through which he attempts to discover what art is, or isn’t – sometimes its easier to find proof of its opposite. 

Cheekily, he exploits his inability to be liberated from work as an essential part of his art and his exhibition at the Stevenson Joburg, Workplace, is basically a display of “work” he made while holidaying in Mozambique and Europe. Gush makes work on holiday not only because he loves the contradiction, but as is the case for many of us who are slaves to one entity during the day, at night we try to (re)claim the part of ourselves that is repressed, which is prevented from ‘breathing’ – call that your ‘art self’.  Most of us keep our arty selves to ourselves – we make ashtrays in pottery classes or arrange vegetables artfully on a plate. Perhaps it is this kind of irrelevant creative expression that really isn’t work, because it isn’t sold and truly has no purpose other than pleasure.
Another photograph by me. The images are
pretty are they not?
Gush, however, squanders his free time luxuriating on the culture of work – which could only ever be a leisure activity really, because those who work for a living are seemingly unable to really pursue such a whimsical pursuit. It would be self-defeating and would take up time that would be unproductive. Or is exposing the artifice of our ingrained work ethic more important than work itself? In harnessing the political, social, economic and philosophical aspects tied to work, Gush gives his resistance to work, his leisure time meaning. If Gush was truly free from work – he would have no art to show us – his filmic works would consist of him lying on his bed staring at the ceiling, which might be preferable to the stark black and white films of banal city scenes with the noise of ‘work’ (drilling and such) going on in the background with overly determined phrases in between that eliminate any kind of ambiguity the images might offer. He does like to do the work for his viewers. Maybe he knows how lazy they are, when they step into galleries.

Thing is the real conversation about art and work isn’t really present in this show. Artists like to think they evade all the pressures us ordinary working folk confront – such as being persistently exploited. Most people are paid considerably less than their worth – that is how capitalism works. Some artists do quite obviously sidestep this, but they are very few and mostly dead. As someone quite succinctly phrased it the other day: “there is a reason why Ross Douglas has retired in France and I am still saving for a holiday in France.”

Gush believes he can work while rejecting the activity. He is clever at accruing meaning for his work and adding value to it by attaching it to fashionable discourses;  invisible histories, exploitation, etc and then shaping it into slick artworks that make his work appear so monumental, collectable. Its all so tasteful and right, you can hardly fault it and that may be its weakness, if you know what I mean. There is fuck all risk. Its too clean and neat given he is so entangled in this work mess. Maybe this is because it is a Stevenson show, the fountain of controlled art chaos.

In his Yellow Jersey series of photographs he maps a journey from the borders of Mozambique to Maputo, tracing historical ones that relate to the relationship between our countries with a specific focus on the recruitment of labour for South African mines. This pattern was set as far back as the late 1800s when the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, Wenela, was established by South Africans to recruit labourers from that country and others on the continent. This isn’t an unknown phenomenon, though we might not have realised how far back it dates, but it is one well-worth taking an interest in, given the seemingly deep-rooted form of ‘Afrophobia’ that our society is trying to rid itself of, or even understand. You see: the show is über relevant.

While Gush is interested in the life and culture surrounding work and labour, he doesn’t depict people in these images. This has always been part of the strength of his work centered on work; he is interested in patterns not people per se and as such his projects are not about extracting our middle-class feigned sense of outrage or pity, empathy or problematic (over) identification with subjects.

There are a number of defining aspects to Gush’s off-beat Yellow Jersey series of images, which give it weight and evoke an inner friction. The first and most obvious being that it is quite irresistible. Seductive, mesmerising and tactile are some of the adjectives that come to mind and are a product of processing his photographs onto aluminum. These smooth, silver surfaces turn these images into objects. They are things rather than windows into the world – as photographs tend to be. The result of this is that the time and place in which these images were taken seem more immovable, have more significance though they depict fairly banal scenes of this journey – landscapes, buildings, facades of factories. He can't help himself luxuriating in the architectural features of buildings - does he not get a little lost in the aesthetics of industrialisation and perhaps are these images not tinged with a twisted nostalgia for this age? 

Not only does the object-status of the photographs memorialise (and oversentimentalise) the journeys, of those who came before to Mozambique to secure cheap foreign labour, and his own in search of this narrative, story, but they function almost as a template that can be used to keep reproducing the images, the journeys. Work is, of course, always tied to reproduction and the machines or mechanisms that allow for this to occur are prized because they are viewed as the kind of fecund device from which everything flows. Particularly, now in this post-industrialised era where nostalgia has grown around these outmoded objects. I’m thinking here of the old printing-machine that is located in the reception at Independent newspapers, where it functions as an artwork, a sculpture of sorts.

Photography then isn’t a coincidental medium for Gush as it too is linked to reproduction as is film (can be played over and over). By transforming the images into objects could be read as a desire to both present the ‘original’ image – the outmoded source, which now, cannot reproduce itself – it has become a memorial to itself – like the old press in the lobby of our offices – and as such prevents further reproduction from occurring.

This has ramifications for the work as art objects and for the content. Presumably, the photographs can’t be editioned or are less likely to be, given the cost. This allows Gush to halt the reproduction of his work – and the way in which art has increasingly become subject to hyper-commodification – though in doing so the works due to their rarity then attract more value. But it is this value that in some way lends credibility to the subject-matter – the sociopolitical cause that beats at the heart of the work – it ensures that it is not a product like any other. Yet isn’t Gush cashing in on other people’s exploitation? 

Does he counter this by memorializing these journeys and not depicting subjects? Or do these journeys really only belong to him and the narratives he creates around them. In other words, do these images only make concrete his own rather peculiar “work” as an artist – in his investigations into the notion of work, he never overlooks his own position and indeed in this exhibition it is no different as he also makes reference to it in one of the texts coupled with a series of images.

The work of an artist has no meaning without art products, especially in the context of a gallery and our consumerist culture. The inherent tactile quality of the images, their undeniable appeal, is in contradiction not only to the banal subject-matter but also this history of exploitation, which is evoked but never revealed, visually or through the texts. But these images do conform to this object-based obsessed world of ours, where we like to see the labour – hold it in our hands and weigh it so to speak.

Gush can’t really weigh in on work without touching on our history, not only to make his work relevant but there are topics that cannot be entered into without opening it up, particularly work, which is so tied to apartheid and its exploitative policies – it was the ideological tool of an extreme form of capitalism where securing cheap labour, and exploitation was tied to racial politics and prejudice.  Foreign nationals perhaps suffered the most then (as they do now) – as they were paid less and on the receiving end of the worst of it.

This link between the liberation struggle, labour and politics is touched on through a suite of photographs that presumably refer to a text about Ruth First and how in exile in that country she worked at destroying these recruitment stations and policies by the South African industry.

This brings us to another defining feature of this body of work – the role of the text, the image, text pairings. The texts are much more than captions, they establish the body as a narrative, a journey, while also harnessing some of its poetic nature, and asking questions, leading us towards layers of meaning that are not readily accessible. Does this point towards a failing in the communicative function of the artworks, or is it just a mode of working where text and image complement and drive each other?

In the films they overstate the meaning and leave no loose ends. Has Gush overworked his material here – is there a line at which he should stop making sense of his own work, perhaps this fixation he has with work is rooted in his inability to surrender not only to work, but the peculiar form of work that we call art, which sometimes works better when it has no determined or known conclusion.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Jenner: a sexist in women's clothing?

So, Bruce Jenner is a woman. I wish I could say I swallowed my TV remote when I heard, but I didn't. After eight years of Kardashiana I have come to expect anything from this limelight-seeking family. They run what must be the biggest reality TV franchise since MasterChef or Survivor, and to sustain our interest have pretty much done everything with the cameras turned on. I've seen them give birth, puke, piss, chase crocodiles, men, money, fame and food.

Ironically, as Bruce (this was prior to becoming Caitlyn) pointed out during his now-famous interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC, the biggest and most shocking revelation that might have featured in the Kardashian franchise escaped the cameras. Our gaze was on Kim and the girls, all the pretty women in the family who vied for attention and the fame and wealth it brought them.

The men in the family were pretty overlooked, apart from Scott Disick, Kourtney's husband, who attracted interest due to their rocky romance and his drinking and aggression. Bruce was in the background. He was this odd-looking character, who looked like he had spent too much time under the plastic surgeon's knife. In retrospect he didn't really fit in - probably because he wasn't as eye-catching or attention-seeking as the others and also, as we have now learnt, was trying to stay under the radar due to a big secret about his identity that he concealed, not only from the glare of the cameras but perhaps from his family.

Did Kris Jenner know? During his interview with Sawyer, when he surely must have broken the internet, he admitted he had told his first wife, who had brushed off the revelation as some kind of kinky fixation with women's clothing. Many people have assumed that Bruce's revelation is part of a publicity stunt. It is too painful and terrible a burden to be exploited, he purred during his interview. Hello? We are the Oprah generation; pain and struggle have more currency on TV.

Why did he need to turn his gender transformation into a TV moment and now a Vanity Fair break-the-internet moment? The Kardashians are ending, his relationship with Kris had come to an end, he could have slunk off into the sunset in a pair of kitten heels. No, my guess is his new identity is probably the grounding for his new TV incarnation - the Caitlyn Jenner reality show? (Why did she not go for a Kaitlyn with a 'K' like all the other Kardashes?)

After years of living in the shadows of those big-booty Kardashian girls has she worked out that being a woman is how you get noticed? Or at least that power is accrued via the 'image' - not just as a woman, but one that is already celebrated, like Jessica Lange. The revelations about his transgender identity surely must signal the death knell of these vacuous reality shows, given the "reality" factor, the truth, was concealed for so long - almost a decade.

When these sorts of shocking confessions come to light about someone starring in a fictional series they are received with surprise. But when someone in a reality show is revealed not only to have been acting, but playing a man, which is almost always viewed in a patriarchal society as an impossibility, given that masculinity is set up as a natural and irrefutable state of being, the whole illusion of authenticity that supports a reality show is eroded.

Bruce was playing a man instead of a woman, his true identity. And if Bruce isn't a man, who the hell are Kris, Kim, Khloe? The whole alliterative family dynasty crumbles under the weight of its artifice and reality TV is revealed to be nothing more than a distant and cheaper cousin to its fictional competitor.

This TV moment with Sawyer also revealed that the real confessional space in American popular culture remains the old-style one-on-one interview with the seemingly anachronistic figure of Diane Sawyer - the old-school journo who apparently has less and less place in the post-journalism world in which we have peculiarly found ourselves. The real stuff, the behind the scenes stuff doesn't happen in the reality sphere - who would have thought it?

Frankly, Sawyer was annoying as she embodied the voice of this unenlightened American, who understands gender and sex only in binary terms. If I had two hours with Bruce on a couch, I would have asked him to describe "a woman's soul", as I haven't the faintest idea what that is. It was such a sexist comment.

Caitlyn may have long hair and claim allegiance to the fairer sex, but she is the ultimate chauvinist - or does turning into a woman now preclude him from this  - as she assumes that not only are women different physically, but their 'souls' are distinctly shaped by their physicality. She may well wish to reject masculinity; it is hard being a man and living up to the expectations entailed, but does becoming a woman really present an escape from that?

Initially, after the interview, I was annoyed with the fact that Jenner appeared to be able to choose when and how he would become a woman, the terms of his femininity. That was before I saw
Caitlyn's appearance and what kind of woman he would choose to be. Now, post the Vanity Fair, break the internet image, it is clear that he embraced the stereotypical female ideal, which he was always hinting at in the interview with Sawyer. Yes, if you are going to become a woman it would be wise to make sure you chose to be beautiful, because our society continues not to celebrate women who do not conform to this. In this process of refashioning his identity, he chose well. All women would chose to be beautiful; this is apparently the only position from which we can really draw power.

In the widespread celebration of Caitlyn, our society has further confirmed that this is indeed the case. If Caitlyn was not beautiful would we have celebrated this transition? We also need to ask why the transgender moment and similar moments in popular culture (Laverne Cox, Conchita Wurst) have been heralded by men who have transitioned to women and not the other way around.

Back to Caitlyn. If Caitlyn's identity and shift in identity hinges on being a beautiful woman, what does that mean for women? Caitlyn's sexist attitudes, which were revealed not only in her notion that women have a generic 'soul'  but the patronising tone she took with Sawyer - "so do you understand?" she reiterated as if she was a child - showed that while he was coming out as a woman, there was an old-fashioned man buried under that long hair. How can he assume to know a woman's soul, when he is drawn to the aspects of womanhood that woman are trying to escape - the limits of being defined by their bodies?  Has he appropriated the best of what he assumes women enjoy and remained a man at heart? We have to ask these questions.

The world has remained silent on his appropriation of femininity because it is always assumed that men 'own' women - as Judith Butler has suggested the female identity is conceived as an extension of masculinity. It is defined by men as a means of shoring up their identity. Jenner has not collapsed the binary gender positions, because he can only conceive of gender through the lens of binaries, and has further entrenched them by embodying the cookie-cutter female identity. In his mind, it appears as if being a woman means looking like a beautiful Vanity Fair pinup. Unfortunately, for most women and transgenders this isn't the lived experience and it signals a condition where their acceptance by society remains conditional on their appearance? How does this advance the liberation of women? If my soul is not a woman's soul, does that mean I am not a woman. Oh Jenner!  - an edited version of this first published in The Sunday Independent, May 3, 2015. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Been there, done that but left with a different T-shirt.

Painting is a bit like art criticism. Well, not really. But it is a good opening line, and I wish it were true because while both art criticism and painting have survived several well-publicised deaths, painting’s renewal seems to be well within reach. Particularly, these days when despite the fact that we thought its life had come to an abrupt end when abstract modernists worked themselves into a lifeless black hole and pop, found objects and appropriation become the mode du jour, burying the notion of the new under the rubble of a well, weighty history, contemporary painters do appear to be reaching towards invention. Note: ‘reaching’; much of these efforts have relied on superficial gimmicks – painting with toothpaste and detergent, emulating digital renderings of painted lines with paint (so very-very meta-meta) and appropriating other canvases or compositions from famous paintings as in the work of Cullen Washington Jnr and Paul Bloodgood, two artists who showed at Saatchi’s Abstract America Today exhibition last year. Or making a thing out of the oil stains. No names. Have painters ever been so up their own…?

A renewed interest in abstraction, which that Saatchi exhibition signals, has paved the way for novelty and invention to be part of the painter’s vocabulary again, though at times these gestures seem so empty. The title of Lisa Brice’s show at the Goodman Gallery, Joburg , Well Worn, denies the notion of the new, or renewal, and indeed it shows her returning to the gender themes she has mined before and a societal condition that appears inescapable. Her subjects are ‘well-worn’ too – they appear like fifties models in their cross-your-heart bras.

Nevertheless the work feels fresh and clever. This is mostly down to a sort of gimmick: striped fabric that serves as her canvas. It allows for a rewarding trompe l'oeil that seduces you into believing you are viewing her subjects through a set of blinds or filter.  This creates the impression that the female subjects – usually half-dressed women with ideal bodies – are obscured by the thick black lines that run uniformly horizontally and vertically through the artworks. These invasive lines carve up their bodies as much as they obscure them, further enhancing this voyeuristic gaze that the allusion to blinds evokes.

This visual device is more than a gimmick to refresh painting, or her practice; it is incredibly powerful because it acts as a screen that can be thought of as independent to the subjects or inextricably fused to them. As such the art begins and ends with the canvas – which of course, is always the case but is overstated in this context – despite the illusion of ‘separation’ it generates (as if we are looking through a small window into a larger world that exists beyond the frame.) In this way the striped canvas works at eroding and supporting the visual illusion inherent to painting. This all has ramifications for the ontological condition of painting but also, significantly for the gendered theme.

This striped ‘screen’ also speaks of the act of seeing via digitised lenses and screens. In this way these lined paintings suggest a number of ‘filters’ and layers of gazing and modes of consumption of female bodies. Significantly, most of these figures are looking at themselves, in mirrors, or are posing as if they are being watched or will be watched. The only time or space that they are freed from this is in this state of undressing or dressing up - before they have put on their clothing. An act that interestingly holds little interest because they are not posing - they are not active 'subjects', engaging or assessing their subjectivity.  

As such even if they are alone  – they are never ‘alone.’ In this context the black lines are a metaphor for the noise, the visual and psychic noise that interrupts, shapes conceptions of the self but also prevents individuals from ever truly existing without the pervasive expectations of how to behave, look. Of course, these are not new issues or ideas, and certainly, they are not new to Brice, whose work since the Sex Kitten series in the early nineties has been concerned with how women perform for men and derive status and visibility socially, culturally through doing so.

What makes this series interesting or takes this discourse further is her interest in this state between being undressed and dressed, a space where the female body exists between the public and the private. Or is it? This intimate act demands our voyeuristic gaze yet doesn't pander to it. The subjects don't scrutinise themselves while dressing or undressing - they are absorbed in an act that doesn't require their gaze.

The visual filter also adds interest and develops the discourse.  Embedded in the image – as the base medium for a painting it cannot be removed or manipulated – the body must “fit’ in between but also suggests the manner in which clothing or dress in relation to the body cannot be detached. This draws attention to the inescapability of the societal pressures that are imposed on women – how the gaze is shaped and remains constant in private settings. In this way the filter makes clear that the space in between the private and the public does not exist - as it embodies the pervasive 'public' eye and the ramifications for women that it presents - particularly in this era where those boundaries have been eroded via social media.  Even when female subjects are alone, their guilty pleasure is to assess and scrutinise their bodies more closely and critically then would be done in public. Are they thus more free in clothing, dressed, in public? Or does clothing impose different sets of limits on the body?

As such while women are celebrated for “looking after themselves” this act of preservation is also one of self-destruction and a painful form of denial of the self, the body. This is articulated by depicting female subjects alone in bathrooms, in front of mirrors – the settings where they confront their bodies unadorned by clothing. Not that they appear to be tortured souls. In her use of the painterly trope of women gazing at themselves, she shows how even the act of scrutinising has been aestheticised and romanticised thus disallowing women to even claim this space for what it is and setting up the performance that must inevitably occur. In this age, Selfies enhance this performance of the self in private.

The striped canvas and the title of the exhibition obviously refers to clothing, which seems to be in contradiction to the images where the subjects are either naked or are posing in their underwear or are about to be dressed or undressed. This places them in such ambigious space; without their clothing on we cannot locate them in time, place or their social status. In this way they are both free, but also vulnerable to whatever we wish to impose on them.

This is where the paradoxical illusion of separation and inescapability comes into play again; the ‘garment’ denoted by the striped fabric is depicted at a remove and facilitates the gaze (at a remove) as well as embodying it as this screen through which the body is analysed and cannot exist independently from. Clothing, embodied in the stripe canvas, only partially obscures or conceals the body and also operates as this lens through which the body must ‘perform’.

Well worn, the title, refers not only to the female body as a stereotypical subject for painting, art, but the way in which women cannot avoid scrutinising their bodies over and over in the mirror and from this ‘remove’ as they imagine others observing them as they observe themselves – these two positions from which their existence is concretised and cannot be escaped. This art historical trope is like this embedded stripe in that it is internalised by women, ensuring they are always ‘posing’ for an anonymous sitter that never appears (or is depicted.) This celebration of the ideal female form through art and other media is thus turned into a twisted culture facilitating a never-ending performance that ‘erodes’ the subject, who gradually loses visibility as their body ages and no longer can be enjoyed by a ‘sitter’ or confronted in the mirror.

Brice never depicts this condition or the 'imperfect' subject. I’m not sure if this is a flaw or through this absence she directs us to it, her, this subject that cannot be depicted as the act of doing so ‘unwrites’ her agency, identity etcetera. None of the ‘bodies’ Brice depicts are ‘real’ – they are illustrative renditions; most probably copies of other images. We are thus spying through these blinds on products of the imagination or media projections. As such this act of viewing from a distance and being privy to these private moments is just a game, an empty set-up engineered to appease our desire to see what cannot be seen or in this context given the gendered baggage, watch a familiar scene, set up to obscure what is actually taking place – a body prepared or preparing (through dressing or undressing) to be seen and a subject who is always trapped by this ‘well worn’ dynamic.

Ultimately, therefore, the gimmick Brice adopts isn’t artificially adopted to generate attention. In the title and the repetitive subject-matter, you sense she wishes she could reach towards a new topic, a non-painterly one even. But instead of fighting to break free from the ‘well worn’ she digs in, she aestheticises the process of aetheticising she wishes to challenge as a way of harnessing the multiple gazes that dissect the female subject, including the subjects who are captivated and imprisoned by their  fixation with their bodies and the viewers, who are positioned as voyeurs and implicated in the imprisonment of the subjects due to their fixation with her and her body.

Brice's adept execution and manipulation of her medium also contributes to the show’s strength and subject-matter. You find yourself standing right up against the canvas to scrutinise what is seemingly obscured, while standing back to marvel at this visual device she has adopted. In some works the bodies of her subjects are distorted by this screen and partially melt into abstract shapes. This occurs not because they are placed at a distance but are too close. This is a sophisticated show despite the well-worn themes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Robin Rhode's great "escape" plan

Robin Rhode is fixated with breathing life into objects. Even his own creations; such as his filmic-cum-installation Recycled Matter. On the day of the press launch for it at the Stevenson Gallery in Joburg the live drumming at the entrance fills us with expectation and situates this hybrid-exhibition as a ‘live-show’ rather than a life-less installation, which is what it will be for its run after the opening night - unless you count its audience as the live element (which Rhodes does). Joost Bosland, the gallery director, motions me to the entrance of the rear gallery, which is concealed by a curtain. Only a limited number of people are able to enter at a time, he says. When he pulls back the curtain I’m half expecting a nail-biting scene with an acrobat performing a wire act, suspended between life and death. It’s the circus drum-beat that has engendered this fantasy.

The room is more like a backstage area where nothing takes place; the space where the objects are pregnant with the ambitions of a performer, director. It is a collection of arbitrary objects affixed to walls on which a faint grid is marked out. They could be art objects or installations, though there are no labels, titles or such; a window frame, old suitcases and uniform bicycle parts arranged in a group. Black smudges on a wall imply something has taken place here. It is only when you watch the film that you are able to grasp the significance of the props in the ‘backstage’, which in a gallery context is presented as the front stage. Turning the gallery into a backstage area tickles me; instead of treating this space as a hallowed one where objects are elevated, he situates the art act, the veritable stage, elsewhere. Or at least momentarily displaces it, until the film begins. But even then the gallery space is upturned into a cinema – the walls are black and padded.

People don’t immediately register that the rear gallery is a ‘backstage’ area. Due to the display being part of a Rhode show (his international status makes him an art star) set up in a gallery, everyone is lingering a little longer than normal around these objects in the hope they might unlock their significance. Collectively they don’t make sense. The most obvious clue to their ‘meaning’ or role could be gleaned from an installation of roof tiles in a corner with a rope hanging over it, which brings to mind a film set and how the medium is able to transform these flimsy makeshift mise-en-scenes into something seemingly coherent and substantial, architecturally speaking.

This is probably why Rhode is drawn to film; film facilitates the kind of magic he is interested in; bringing the inanimate to life and locating it within a context that is both real and synthesised. Maybe this is the ambiguous space where all art resides, or artists aspire for it to, for art can never accrue cultural or financial value if it isn’t synthesised on some level. We need to perceive the hand of the artist, or in the case of Rhode’s practice, his doppelganger - an anonymous man who like the Stig in Top Gear, performs almost unbelievable acts that are further mystified by his unknown identity – though many assume that the man in Rhode’s films is the artist. This unknown character is ironically, one of the defining symbols of his films and photography. Is it part of a cunning strategy for Rhode to exist as a performance artist without his own identity interfering with the work?

As soon as you start to watch the film it becomes pretty obvious that the objects in the back room are merely props – their meaning is defined by the film, though the way in which they remain part of the exhibition in a separate room, also allows them to be physically and psychically liberated from the ‘art’ factor – it is performance that gives them purpose but also these things make the performance possible. Certainly, conceptually this is how the work was conceived, he tells me. The props were all objects that were lying around his Berlin studio - except for the window frames which he flew in from South Africa - and he allowed each one to dictate and shape the narrative that unfurls in the film.

Recycled Matter presents a reversal of performance props and their role vis-à-vis performance art or live acts – they are not supporting accoutrements or ‘documents’ that merely substantiate what has occurred, material to help us archive the transient, but drive the performance. In doing so Rhodes has touched on the interesting and elusive space where performance and object-based art overlap and feed into each other or even mirror each other – art making becomes a “performance” to give objects meaning. Rhode simply exploits this reality by exaggerating this process, laying it bear and finding ways of trying to make visual this strange if not mystical act of transference that draws people to galleries and buying their products.

Belying this installation/film/exhibition’s playful almost Charlie Chaplin-esque comedy is a cheeky analysis of this process of transference and a self-reflexive comment on the manner in which the artist is trapped not only in the cycle of investing meaning and divesting it into objects but how performance too is trapped by this process and the spatial, physical constraints that support it. That is the gallery – where performance must be located in order to complete the act of transference of meaning and value. No performance artist can escape this – hence even Marina Abramovic with all her clout must still “perform” in a gallery and as such makes work in response to this setting and all the baggage it entails.

Rhodes illustrates this conundrum in the film with a narrative involving a character trying to escape the film set. As with any journey, he packs his suitcase first, which proves difficult – the objects (Rhode’s oversized sculptures) can’t fit into it. He opens doors, windows and runs across a roof in search of a way out of this flat, empty and non-descript setting, where only the props keep him tethered to reality. Exploiting filmic tropes such as a chase scene on the roof, generates tension that the drumming soundtrack enhances. There is always the expectation that something will occur, but the only outcome that could really release the subject exists outside the bounds of the film, the set, the gallery. In this way art doesn’t provide a doorway into the world, but a synthesised exit that can never really be accessed. This is perhaps where Rhode’s interest in magic, art, performance, the circus all intersect and the pay-off that these ritualised acts provide. As with watching a circus performer walk a tightrope, or observing an artwork, we want to vicariously step into the site of our own psychic and physical annihilation, knowing all along that when we look over the edge, that what exists beyond it is not real.

The narrative also echoes Rhodes conflicted position as an artist who evinces such a clear allegiance to ‘the live’, performance and its politics, but must advance a practice in galleries and museums. Ironically, he can only exist as an artist and maintain his international status if he locates his practice in these spaces. This is a compromise he has exploited; his distinctive vocabulary and approach, as illustrated via this new work, has been formed in response to it. If he was given the freedom to perform anywhere he would probably not know what to do – at least to start off with, before he started to evolve in opposition to that new context.

For now, the only way he can sustain a performance practice in a gallery setting is to enter into dialogue with objects, while trying to escape becoming objectified himself. This filmic work and installation distils his solution, while cheekily employing the limits as the source of the narrative. Oddly, we, the audience want him to succeed in his escape – as we do when we root for the heroes in an action movie – for we do not visit galleries to visit galleries. If he escapes so can we. Galleries are meant to function as portals to imaginative spaces that cannot be contained and not present the veritable prison that prevents 'the escape'. Is the real prison capitalism and the hyper-commodification of art? Artists don’t like to ask this question; the answer means making a kind of art that will never feed their egos or pockets.

There is one last metaphor to be drawn from Rhode’s film and the persistent desire for escape that pervades it. The superficial one-dimensional visual character of it, which is distinctive of Rhode’s aesthetic is not one he can escape or tamper with too much. He has to play/make art with the limits which he himself has set or which now others hold him to, while similarly expecting that he ‘crosses’ the line and manages to escape just long enough to maintain their/our interest. Great work, go see it before the exhibition closes.