Friday, February 8, 2008

Marlene Dumas in Jozi

This was the week that the Dumas circus rolled into town and the media bandwagon jumped in head long, kicking up hype. On Tuesday Dumas gave a walkabout tour of her exhibition at The Standard Bank gallery during the press preview of the show. Having already interviewed her over the phone before Intimate Relations opened in Cape Town last year I had good grasp on Dumas, but it was nevertheless rewarding to see her in person. The voice that I bonded with over the phone from Amsterdam was easily reconciled with her physical presence; warm, reflective, playful and unpretentious that appears to be her character in broad brushstrokes as one watching from afar. Like most famous folk I think Dumas struggles with the public pesona that is ascribed to her. She loathes not being able to control what is said and written about her work. At the conclusion of the walkabout she looked out at the sea of faces - all media - sizing her up her and no doubt shuddered at the thought of what their conception of her and her work might be. "Please don't put words in my mouth," she urged. She should know better. It is not the words or quotes that misrepresent public personas it is the details and discreet observations that serve as padding in between quotes that articulate - and condemn - the subject. Dumas fears were well founded, one so-called art journalist's take on Dumas painted an ugly portrait. I felt enraged - not because I situate Dumas on a pedestal - but I loathe journalists who scrimp on research and root their observations in their limited knowledge. In such a situation the nuance of the subject is lost. This article was an appalling piece of journalism that will no doubt blight the journalists' reputation among those in the know. Those who comprehend and value quality and ethical journalism are a very small group of people... but make no mistake they are there watching from the corner of their eye. As for Dumas, working in the public realm she has no choice but to surrender control. She enjoys writing and has tried to contribute to the multitude of voices that interpret and typecast her work.
"I don’t like being paternalised and colonised by every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along (male or female). I want to participate in the writing of my own history."
While I relish reading what Dumas writes - there is something poetic and perceptive about her written expression - I quickly discovered when I interviewed her that she plays with words, juggling them around and subverting, challenging their meaning to such an extent that she destabilses their significance, robbing them of their concrete value. As such Dumas does not abide by what she has said - so how can she have a hand in writing an authentic history of herself?
Has any artist been able to write their own history?
Also given how self-deprecating Dumas is - "not everything I do is great" - can she feed into the myth that surrounds her as a world-acclaimed artist? She is acutely aware of the mythmaking that surrounds famous artists and seems to be trying to undermine the phenomenon that is "Marlene Dumas." This of course, brings one to the underlying question that her exhibition inspires: Is Dumas great because her work has sold for over $3-million or are the exhorbitant prices her work commands only fitting for art that is intellectually and visually progressive. I think that the (monetary) value of her art has created a vexed relationship between Dumas and her oeuvre as it has for Damian Hirst. In my interview with Dumas she told me she was afraid of "impersonating herself."

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