Thursday, December 17, 2009

Moshekwa Langa's Thresholds at The Goodman Gallery

AS IF we were in any doubt, Moshekwa Langa has once again confirmed that he is the master of ambiguity. In his characteristic fashion, he has left all the work in Thresholds untitled. It is a strategy that he has employed since the beginning of his career, when he exhibited at the now defunct Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery at the Market Theatre in 1995. Back then, his scheme to keep the meaning of his works open-ended somewhat backfired as critics and art theorists from here and abroad interpreted his works in a manner that fulfilled their own agenda to identify a progressive black South African artist. He was summarily classified as a neo-conceptualist and thus the first black contemporary South African artist - the former designation enabled the second.
Clive Kellner, former director of the Johannesburg Gallery, confidently declared after that solo exhibition: "Langa provides the sense of a future, where aspiration can be granted at the end of the proverbial yellow brick road.
"By mimicking Langa's success, albeit in his shadow, we are all offered the opportunity to be part of what is coming, as Langa epitomises everything that the establishment has been seeking - he is a young, black, conceptually based artist."

The weight of these expectations weren't lost on Langa: it set him on a trajectory engineered to either evade the question of his race and origins in relation to his work, or to critically challenge such narrow interpretative rhetoric. In this exhibition, Langa has adopted a diverse array of art-making methodologies, from scripto-visual forms associated with conceptualism, collage to documentary photography, to abstract expressionist works with cotton threads, to minimalist and semi-figurative painting styles. This is proof of his continued efforts to resist being pigeonholed. Of course, today you no longer expect artists to employ a single idiom or even medium, but these multifarious artworks do not parade as a cohesive body of work .

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Putter-ing about...

I have been admiring Andrew Putter’s African Hospitality series from afar. A couple of blogs ago I introduced a work from this series in a discussion on Alexis Preller’s retrospective, where I observed a connection between curator Karel Nel’s emphasis on the fact that Preller’s Africanised idiom was rooted in his desire to connect with an African identity.   But in retrospect I think it was a disservice to Putter’s work, which I am aching to write about independently.  I have this last week been compiling my annual list of the top exhibitions of the year for The Sunday Independent: ordinarily I kind of scoff at list-making for the simple fact that it is often used to underscore the status of the list-maker rather than the folk or works that appear on said list. But I find it a useful exercise for two reasons: 1) I almost always write a preamble undermining the authority of the art critic so as to remind myself and my readers that my opinions are just that, opinions.
2) It forces me to isolate those features or characteristics that excite me about art.
Regarding the latter; I have come to observe that those artworks or exhibitions that compel me to write tend to be the ones that stand out for me. Such shows keep me awake at night as I begin to unpack them in my mind and even after my review has gone to the press I am still pondering the work.
I haven’t actually got to see any of Putter’s African Hospitality series in person – it showed at Michael Stevenson in Cape Town – but I have a review of his work taking form in my mind. I must check with David (Brodie) whether he is bringing this show to Joburg – that is the one bonus of the Brodie/Stevenson alliance: we get to see Stevenson’s Cape Town shows.
I am not going to deliver my full review of Putter’s exhibition here (it would require a face-to-face encounter) but I will say this: they bring to mind the highly-stylised work of the (in)famous French graphic design/photography duo, Pierre et Gilles, whose work partly enabled my transition from the world of fashion into art. Of course, Putter is employing this mode of expression to achieve quite a different end – albeit it one that summons a kind of traditional portraiture that Pierre et Gilles similarly sought to appropriate and subvert. But the real power of this series of Putter’s is its ability to conjure a number of pertinent discourses; from ethnographic photography and painting (think Thomas Baines) and its relationship to the colonial project, (yes, an overly exhausted topic but I think Putter revives our interest in it) to the white identity and the politics  attached to whites asserting their connection to Africa. At the same time I am particularly excited by the relationship between these works and those of Mary Sibande, Athi Patra Ruga and some of Nandipha Mntambo’s art, who all manipulate identity with the aid of props – clothing. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Retrieving the Past

If you miss seeing a performance art piece it is incredibly difficult to retrieve the full experience, its visceral character. Such was the lesson I learnt last week when I attended Rites of Fealty/Rites of Passage at the Bag Factory, where photographs from that one-night performance art event that was staged at the venue last year went on exhibit. Having missed what has become in art circles a bit of a legendary affair, I was eager to somehow recover or reclaim the experience through the photographs and video footage on display.

Rites of Fealty/Rites of Passage was a one-night event spearheaded by Johan Thom, a recognised performance artist, which presented some of the rising talents in this fairly marginalised branch of the visual arts, such as Bronwyn Lace, Mlu Zondi, who has since gone on to scoop the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance, Anthea Moys, who won the Everard Read Brait Award this year, Ismail Farouk and Murray Turpin, Rat Western and Dinkies Sithole. Unfortunately the only traces left from this renowned performance art extravaganza are a series of 10 photographs taken by John Hodgkiss and video footage, which was screened on a PC monitor. Hodgkiss has become a vital witness to performance art and the performative work of artists such as Mary Sibande and Moys, who were both reliant on his photographic eye for the execution of their solo exhibitions this year.

His role in the production of their work and other artists' products and the promotion of their work is often overlooked; he has very much become the silent witness and, at times, collaborator. Naturally he turns in the best results with a more stagnant form of performance, where the dress worn by the artist and or the setting become the active forms of the performance, such as when Sibande posed in costume in a studio setting. His documentation of Rites of Fealty/Rites of Passage feels partial, incomplete. It is clear that the evening comprised dynamic performances; Lace is seen hitting a ping pong ball with a bat that appears to be attached to an intricate web of fishing gut in her piece entitled Deuce. And Moys moves between cycling on a bicycle and running among the audience, drumming up participants.

The photographs and video footage allow one to get a sense of what the performance pieces entailed, but between these two mediums something has been lost: the details and visceral character of the performances are absent. The fact that we have cameras attached to our cellphones and websites such as YouTube providing public platforms of expression have contributed to this heightened desire to document, but what this exhibition makes clear is that nothing can substitute actual experience. It is rewarding to be reminded of this fact: it keeps one aware that blogs, video clips and twitter messages are simply small fragments of the truth and most importantly that some art is so ephemeral that it cannot be owned, (re)packaged and (re)interpreted.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pet Cemetery: Image of the Week

There are those images that become so embedded in your consciousness that you wish you had never seen them at all. Such has been the case for me with this one, which appeared on the front page of The Star, a couple of days ago. Surprisingly, or not too surprisingly (in my experience newspaper folk in this country are visually illiterate), this photograph of Jennifer Bruce’s wasn’t the main image: instead a photograph actually showing an SPCA worker dumping dead animals at this rubbish site was used to substantiate that organisation’s culpability in this nasty deed. But for me this one is aesthetically and ideologically more powerful: the rubbish strewn among the cadavers highlights the fact that the animals are as disposable and redundant as a day-old newspaper. It also kind of conjures for me Gothic/Medieval painting (interestingly Gothic is said to have been a synonym for barbaric) of the likes of Hieronymus Bosch: it expresses a similar kind of excess or extreme malaise.
Though much of the debate around this story, titled the “Pet Carcass Scandal”, has centred on the fact that the SPCA shouldn’t be dumping dead animals at rubbish sites, for me what is more poignant is not the way in which in the animals are disposed of but that animal lives are so disposable, that they are simply part of the detritus of urban living. That all these animals bodies are being dumped in the same place where  empty milk cartons land up brings this fact sharply into focus, nevertheless, to me it is no worse than their bodies being incinerated at a proper establishment. Thousands of healthy animals are being put death because they have become redundant. Where and how it is done does not obviate this actuality.
Thus I think this powerful photograph captures the disposability or redundancy of living beings in our consumerist society. This photograph also demonstrates that while artists may spend days, months or years conceptualising a photograph, now and then a photo-journalist stumbles upon a story, an unexpected incident that offers a kind of richness, which a contrived or premeditated image simply could not summon. This image's power is directly related to its ‘uncontrivedness'.
This photograph of the dead dogs is obviously sensationalist; nothing quite tugs at our emotions than mistreated domestic pets – Carte Blanche’s popularity is partly due to their continued concern with this topic. But I am equally intrigued why we find this kind of topic and or imagery so compelling.   Ultimately, this photograph, and the features which we perceive to be lurid, articulate the paradoxical relationship we have with domestic animals: we care about animals but only so far as it is convenient for us to do so.  They were discussing this story on the radio and someone phoned in to tell about her neighbour who puts her dogs down everytime they get sick.
Keeping focussed on the means of disposal of the dogs rather than the phenomenon itself is obviously a more comfortable line of enquiry for our society to pursue – we don’t want to be implicated by this grotesque photograph. Nevertheless this photograph allows us to confront what our society has become; viewing it is like a form of self-flagellation.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Unseen Works: Rooke Gallery

ONE of the most memorable moments in Catherine Meyburg's documentary film Kentridge and Dumas in Conversation (2009) is a scene with Marlene Dumas in her Amsterdam studio, where she turns over canvases propped up against a wall that have not been seen or displayed. These artworks are considered failures. Naturally, it is rewarding to learn that this great South African painter, one of the best-selling woman artists in the world, sometimes has an "off" day. But it also draws attention to the fact that a valuable aspect of Dumas's trajectory - albeit less visually satisfying - has been off-limits.

Just because these works are considered by her to be unsuccessful does not mean they have no worth: these failed artworks contribute towards our understanding of the elements - both visual and ideological - that Dumas and the art market consider notable, worthy of attention and adulation.

At the Unseen Works exhibition at the Rooke Gallery, the focus is not necessarily to show "failed" works - although the implication is that because they have not been on public display before, they are lacking in some way. There are other reasons why some artworks do not see the light of day. Such as in Roger Ballen's case. He is known as a prolific photographer, which means that not all his works can be accommodated in books or exhibitions. Also, there is a very distinct narrative binding his exhibitions and books - some photos presumably do not make the grade for the simple fact that they do not make a meaningful contribution to the discourse he is pursuing.

With Mark Kannemeyer, it is for a very different set of reasons that this series of paintings have not been on show before. For starters, he is not prized for his painting but rather his socio-political comic-art illustration. Kannemeyer's paintings were also student experiments conducted from the late 1980s to the early 1990s while studying at the Hochschule der Kënste in Berlin, Germany, so they are not really examples of his fully formed character as an artist.

They also do not really coincide with the predominant art modes at the time of their conception. Certainly in the South African art scene, conceptual and installation art was all the rage. So Kannemeyer's pseudo-abstract paintings, which strongly echo the work of Francis Bacon, the British painter best known for his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), would not have found favour. Plainly speaking, Kannemeyer's art was a bit out of sync with what his generation was producing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Art Reality TV

I was trawling through the wires at the newspaper yesterday and came across a story about School of Saatchi, Charles Saatchi’s new art reality TV series, which is showing in Britain at the moment. It was quite an illuminating article: the reality TV show is bringing sharply into focus the public’s concept of contemporary art and their (traditional) expectations of ‘art’.
Firstly, the writer, a certain Sean O’Grady, from our Independent offices in London, suggests that “modern art is supposed to shock” and his distaste for the offerings from all the wannabe artists in the series is predicated on the fact that the “shock” factor is absent from their practice. I find it so interesting that the British public have this expectation from contemporary art; that art is meant to fly in the face of good-taste and push at the boundaries of middle-class morality. Is this an inherent feature of art or a contrived element engineered to steal attention? Certainly, this is not a criterion that factors into my assessment of contemporary art; yes, I hope to be challenged, but not necessarily ‘offended’.
It seems as if art has become to be seen as less of a visual spectacle and more of a spectacle of ‘obscenity’. Nevertheless O’Grady evinces a desire for art to similarly fulfil a traditional concept too, when he expresses his disgust that artists in the series can no longer “draw for toffee” and he finds amusement in the fact that he too can apply to art school and produce art because his writing is “an art installation, this piece of prose a work of performance art, and can use, if you wish, this newspaper as a "found object". Turn it upside down if you like, or put it on a turntable and let it run round and round for ever. Or pulp it. Whatever you like; I'm an artist, you see.” 
Thus there is this sense that because artists no longer create figurative or representational work – which is not necessarily true: many contemporary artists employ or should one say appropriate this mode of expression – that the profession demands no specific skill set; that it is open to any old Joe Bloggs: because art can be anything made by anyone. Yes, it can and it can’t.
What interests me the most about O’Grady’s naïve and dated observations is what appears to be the ever widening gap between the general public’s misconceptions about art, especially in a country like Britain, where I found when I lived there for awhile, that the average person is a lot more visually literate than the average South African. Will, can or should the reality series act as a mediator between the public and the art world? Is it the appropriate vehicle to do so? (I kinda doubt it) Or will this reality series simply further misconstrue the public’s notions about art?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Ponte: Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse

Initially I had planned on doing a straight review of Subotsky and Waterman's two part exhibition that was showing at The Goodman Gallery in Joburg and their Project Gallery at Arts on Main. My editor was on the lookout for a feature story and I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to write a feature on the Ponte, the main focus of their exhibition at the Goodman on Jan Smuts Avenue. I have been writing about the regeneration of Joburg for years; it's an ongoing project that has thrown up an endless range of juicy angles. I felt almost immediately that Subotzky and Waterhouse's images articulated some of the themes that I have been writing about, especially one of my latest features on the Mythologizing of Joburg, where I attempted to unpack the myths surrounding Joburg’s inner city. Nevertheless had I simply reviewed their exhibition I would have come off feeling slightly underwhelmed; as thrilling as it is to see work that relates to my own, it is slightly disappointing: I want to be confronted with images that surprise and challenge me. This two part exhibition did neither, especially the second part at Arts on Main, which focussed on Subotzky’s interest in the crime phenomenon: another topic that I have mined from hard news pieces, to softer more abstract investigations. I wanted more from this exhibition: I wanted it to offer more than a journalistic analysis- perhaps the documentary genre isn’t up to the job?  

This is my feature on the Ponte and Subotzky and Waterhouse's survey of this Jozi landmark:

AT FIRST it was simply a symbol of architectural innovation. With its cylindrical construction and hollow inner core that would allow natural light to flood the apartments, Ponte, or Ponte City as it was called, was envisioned to be an ingenious architectural wonder that would not only be visibly intriguing but would alleviate some of the drawbacks inherent to conventional apartment blocks. But architect Rodney Grosskopff's vision was flawed. The building's cylindrical design meant that when strong gusts of wind circulated around the inner core it created an eerie hum. Sometimes the wind even sucked out glass windows. The extensive rubbish shoots, which ran the length of the 54-storey building didn't function properly, spewing rubbish into the inner core, according to a leading property developer. Some of the balconies proved inadequate for children and are rumoured to have caused at least one fatal accident. Consequently, the building quickly lost its cachet as a symbol of utopian urban living. And when the inner city's persona began to change from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, turning into what many perceived as a dystopian African city Ponte, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, became emblematic of the city's demise - and failed dreams.

To a certain degree Ponte lived up to its illustrious reputation; reports suggest that at its nadir five-storey high layers of debris filled its inner core, prostitutes and drug dealers operated out of the building and it became a popular site for suicide. In other words the Ponte was one's last pit-stop if one had given up on life altogether. Its proximity to Hillbrow - believed to be the apotheosis of Joburg's slide into iniquity and still considered a no-go area of Joburg - sealed its status. At one point it was reported that ANC Youth League had suggested that it be turned into a prison. Consequently people projected all their fears, anxieties and negative perceptions about Joburg on to Ponte and its character grew to mythological proportions. A base jumper once quipped that his jump off the Ponte tower wasn't half as terrifying as entering the building. Its status made it a popular source of interest for artists, writers and film-makers, with some exploiting and intensifying the myths surrounding the building and others choosing to confront and unpack those myths. No doubt British film-maker Danny Boyle, who is turning Norman Ohler's 2002 novel, Ponte City, into a fast-paced thriller will probably fall into the former category.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Putter and Preller, who would have thought it?

When I saw this image of Andrew Putter’s, entitled Joao the Portuguese from his recent African Hospitality series, I immediately thought of Alexis Preller and his latest retrospective now showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg. Putter and Preller have almost zip in common but for me this photograph quite succinctly articulates Preller’s superficial desire to connect with Africanness. Or at least curator Karel Nel believes that Preller’s art is a manifestation of a compulsion to claim his African identity. Here is a review I wrote of Preller’s exhibition, which might better bring to light the relationship I see between the exhibition and Putter’s wry image, which actually also makes me think of Johnny Clegg and that famous cross-cultural band Evoid.

ALEXIS Preller's art was due for a re-reading. Or so asserts Clive Kellner in the new box set published to coincide with this retrospective - the last was staged in 1972. Pegged as sharing close ties with the Symbolism, Surrealism and other western art movements it is suggested that Preller's art should no longer be viewed through a Modernist (European) lens.Kellner and Karel Nel, co-author of the book and curator of the exhibition, furthermore suggest that, if anything, Preller was a "pre-postmodernist" because he forged a unique vernacular that rallied against "dominant colonial orthodoxy".

It all sounds good and in their text Kellner and Nel make a fairly good case, using terms such as "appropriated" and quoting from the likes of Rasheed Araeen, the recalcitrant English artist and writer who has made a habit of challenging western hegemony. But, unfortunately, Preller's paintings tell another story. One that, regrettably, appears to confirm a primitivist impulse at work. In other words there isn't too much difference between his outlook and that of Modernists, such as Pablo Picasso, who also took their cue from African culture. Without a doubt Preller's motives for employing an African idiom diverged quite considerably from European Modernists, who were mainly interested in the formal qualities implicit in African cultural products - and, of course, their own projections of what African culture embodied.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Market Photo Workshop's 20 year celebration

A couple of week's ago I attended the Market Photo Workshop's 20th birthday celebration. All of Jozi's hot-shot photographers - David Goldblatt (of course), Mikhael Subotsky and 'Lolo Veleko - were there to swig a bit of champers and commemorate this institution's anniversary. But among the crowd were unhappy staffers who confided in me about the problems that plague the workshop; organisational woes, big egos, limited funds and an inadequate curriculum. Not that it came as a surprise. The exhibition that was curated to mark the event was disappointing: their were a limited number of photographs that were blown-up too large for their own good, drawing attention to the photographers technical flaws. Here is the review that I wrote: 

SHORT CHANGE, the exhibition curated to mark the Market Photo Workshop’s 20th anniversary, teeters between being a journalistic endeavour and a fine art exhibition, consequently embodying the dual outcomes that the institution attempts to achieve with its students, preparing them to enter both realms or to be able to grasp the nuanced, albeit sometimes elusive, distinctions that separate journalism and art. Some of its graduates have done so with aplomb; Zanele Muholi and Nontsikelelo ‘Lolo’ Veleko, for example, both started out in the social documentary genre but have been able to manipulate that language to create work that transcends its boundaries.

Other graduates have, even after years of exhibiting, struggled to compete with the conceptual photographic work that fine artists have been generating. Thus one can’t help feeling that this institution perhaps only offers a foundation of knowledge on which students must build. The curators of Short Change, John Fleetwood and Lester Adams, have tried to locate the work outside a purely journalistic realm, evidenced in their expressed desire to probe “change as a state rather than methodology or subject matter”.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Award Season Ahoy!

The visual arts community have done well this week pulling in a number of awards; aside from MacGarry’s win David Goldblatt was honoured yesterday with an Arts and Culture Trust (ACT) Lifetime Award for the Visual Arts and Paul Emmanuel won the Africa-In-Motion Short Film Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I am particularly thrilled about Emmanuel scooping an award for his 3 SAI A Rite of Passage film, which was part of his Transitions exhibition. As I observed when I first saw the film; he is one of a small handful of artists who actually takes the film medium seriously. Here is what I wrote about his film earlier this year:

It wasn't the typical setting for a film preview. With an array of garden, lounge and dining chairs lined up in front of a white wall that would function as the screen, Paul Emmanuel had created a makeshift cinema in his loft apartment in Milpark for the screening of 3 SAI A Rite of Passage, which is part of his Transitions exhibition at the Apartheid Museum. Haunted by the Hansie movie preview, the small clutch of arts journalists gathered in Emmanuel's loft apartment looked apprehensive. It also didn't help knowing that the discipline of film is a completely new avenue for Emmanuel. He is a fine artist by trade, and though he has five solo exhibitions under his belt, he is not known as a video artist. Video art has experienced a bit of a revival on the South African art scene. The Spier Contemporary Award exhibition earlier this year boasted quite an array of video artworks and the exhibition that Simon Njami curated for the Jo'burg Art Fair, called As You Like It, was dominated by video art. In fact almost every important exhibition of late has featured a video artwork.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Standard Bank Young Artist Award

At a swish award ceremony held last night in Joburg  Michael MacGarry (or is it McGarry?) walked off with the 2010 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for the Visual Arts. It was a good choice: his solo at Brodie/Stevenson last year, titled When enough people start saying the same thing, was strong.  There were a few pieces I would have snapped up at the exhibition if I had had a bit of loose jink in my pocket such as any of the images from his African Archetypes series. I also had a weakness for the Fetish series (the image above is part of the series). But I think most importantly the work he created for the MTN Young Contemporaries (which came before the solo)  really stood out among the other finalists exhibitions: I particularly loved his Tipp Ex Politics, which consisted of white 'blobby' sculptures that resembled big piles of dung but actually represented six apartheid leaders (Malan, Verwoerd et al). They were all identical, implying that they were end-products of the same ‘mould’. MacGarry was robbed of that award; in my mind he was the clear winner but it ended up going to Dineo Bopape. So I am glad to see that he has been recognised and, in fact, this award has more kudos than the MTN Contemporary Award.  MacGarry’s work will get to tour the country after opening at the National Arts festival in Grahamstown. One can only hope, however, that they give him a better venue than the one that Nicholas Hlobo was stuck with this year, which was a small, damp, pokey office at the back of The Monument. In any case he will get to show at The Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg, which is a grand venue. I look forward to seeing what he creates for the shows. MacGarry wasn't his usual cynical cocky-self last night: could the award have softened his disaffected persona? During his acceptance speech, which followed after a slightly cringy video starring MacGarry wearing one of his "All Theory no Practice" T-shirts (no doubt done with his tongue firmly in his cheek), he thanked his fellow Avant Car Guarders, Zander Blom and Jan-Henri Booyens, but he also drew attention to David Brodie’s valuable assistance in steering his work away from its purely theoretical, slightly solipsistic drive. Some guests thought that with his anti-establishment stance that MacGarry would turn down the award: as if – this is his first big award. No one is that anti-establishment.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Art Books: Helen Sebidi

A flurry of new art books have been released recently; The Alexis Preller box set penned by Karel Nel and Esme Berman and, of course, Sue Williamson's book on contemporary South African art. I have recently finnished reviewing the Preller retrospective, now showing at the Standard Bank Gallery, and have been a bit dissapointed by the book, which lacks a level of objective criticality that Preller's art demands. Such was the case with the new Taxi art book on Helen Sebidi too. Perhaps it is just my allegiance to the journalistic realm but art writing in this country really lacks objectivity; authors seem to have this tendency to 'fall in love' with their subjectmatter to the point that they are willing to suppress all the uneasy truths or antinomies that their work presents. Such was the case with this book on Sebidi where the authors  were more concerned with how they represented Sebidi than actually engaging critically with her work and her status within the South African canon. It was a frustrating read, which so far has been the case with the box set on Preller. I haven't even glanced at the Williamson book yet, I really hope it is going to have a bit more meat on it than her last books, which felt like address books with their  A-Z format. Reviews of the latter and the Preller box set will follow. For now here is my review of the Sebidi book:

Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi has been forgotten. In the last decade the focus has been on black male artists. For this reason alone this book, the 14th title in the Taxi Art Book series, presents a significant shift in the historiography of South African contemporary art. Its value also lies in the fact that Juliette Leeb-du Toit, the author, and the editor, Browyn Law-Viljoen, have made concerted efforts to revise the manner in which Sebidi's work has been read by historians and critics until now, who have
 situated her art within stereotypical, and often pejorative, discourses that have delineated art produced by black artists. These, as Du Toit observes, have tended to "obscure the many rich and complex" responses Africans have had to modernity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spring Art Tour Joburg: more detailed reviews

SPRING Art Tour seems an inappropriate title for what took place in Joburg last weekend. Spring art frenzy more succinctly captures the frenetic pace of the plethora of art openings and events squeezed into the Thursday night and Saturday programme. Art lovers were spread thinly across the city, leaving many exhibitions looking under-patronised. It was a pity because most galleries delivered with aplomb, offering stimulating shows.

David Krut presented Alastair Whitton's Patmos and the War at Sea, an unconventional series of photographs presented like pages of a valuable book. Whitton reworked photographic and filmed footage from WW2 into an array of photographs that had an abstract and ambiguous quality. One had to study each image closely to perceive what they represented - a satisfying twist on the documentary genre, which usually offers no impediments in discovering visual information.

This kind of photography is supposed to offer viewers undeniable truths, the ambiguity of the imagery challenges this feature. By obfuscating the nature of his images, Whitton slows down our consumption of them and forces us to engage with their textural and abstract qualities. This has theoretical ramifications, in terms of how we digest history and how our obsessed gaze into the past, and particularly our fixation with World War 2, a predominant theme on the History Channel, often takes us beyond the events and leaves us meditating on the mode of representation. By keeping us distanced from the images, Whitton encourages us to engage with the content anew, even if it hails from a time in history that has been the subject of intense study in popular culture. Even when we are able to identify what the images represent, such as a man lying down and looking through a pair of binoculars, we are still unable to penetrate the full nature of the image. He is just barely visible and we cannot perceive the object of his gaze. This echoes our relationship with events that happened in the past; though photographs and films allow us to have some access, it is only ever partial.

The blurred and abstract forms that dominate these images impart a surreal flavour, leaving one feeling as if one has entered a dream-state over which we have no control. We are left with snatches of obscure information, which we try to decode and interpret. In this way Whitton reaches towards conjuring the experience of intense trauma, such as war. Certainly for the post-war generations, the events of those times appear senseless, so our study of the events is motivated by a desire to unravel the logic that led to such extreme loss of life and destruction. Each photographic image is teamed with a page of what appears to be Braille or some sort of coded message, which, like the photographs, resists being decoded. Printed on thick, textured paper, the artworks appear as if valuable documents or pages from a book that has been dismantled. This relates to the process of deconstructing and reconstructing history, two activities that appear to happen almost simultaneously, further obscuring the truth. In other words while we are presented with an open book, the information it contains is closed to us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kagiso Pat Mautloa


Kagiso Pat Mautloa has a penchant for old spades. He likes them worn, rusted and weather-beaten. To find spades at this phase of their life cycle, he pokes around in dumps. He also looks in people's yards in Alex. To persuade folk to part with their old gardening implements, he offers to replace them with new ones. Mostly, he draws puzzled looks. For those familiar with his art, it comes as no surprise: these objects that are embedded in his abstract paintings or are fashioned into sculptures are essential to his aesthetic, which articulates conceptual narratives centred on degradation, renewal and transcendence.
In the context of these themes, aged spades prove a useful leitmotif.
"They are man's tool for reconstruction," observes Mautloa, in his modest studio in the Bag Factory, a disused industrial space a stone's throw from the Oriental Plaza. There aren't any canvases in his studio. Apart from a poster advertising his solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery last year, titled Other Presences, there aren't any indicators that this is the studio of a prominent artist. Papers, files and books cover his desk making his studio look more like an unkempt office than a place of creative contemplation.

Mautloa evinces an understated intelligence; perhaps, after decades of interest from the press, he is no longer in a rush to relay his artistic ethos. Now in his late fifties, a degree of nostalgia for his youth has set in. Not an overt sense of longing; nothing that Mautloa does is overstated. Even the socio-political subject-matter in his art is subtly addressed. Instead of depicting the dispossessed, he shows their tools of toil; the green-matted patina operating as a metaphor for the scars of time and the constant battle to survive.

Mautloa associates spades with hardship and toil, but he also associates these prosaic objects with his childhood. Back to a time when he used to roam the township looking for a "bob a job". (A "bob" was a shilling, then about 10 cents.) Now Mautloa only picks up a spade when it is no longer fit for any purpose. "I like to get them at that point because one can read the history from them."
He is intrigued that these mass produced objects take on individualised qualities as they age.
"We can all buy the same pair of shoes, but they take on a different look depending on how often each person wears them and how they walk in them."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Spring Art Tour Joburg: Quickies

WTF? There were ten art openings in Joburg last night: I nearly wore my kitten heels into the ground dashing from one gallery and skidding into the next. Next time Artlogic really need to ensure that the openings are staggered – I can cope with three a night. Not that Artlogic are keen to take advice from moi! I would also suggest that they dump Grolsch – does anyone drink the stuff? Besides beer and art just aren’t a hot combo. Beer and Rugby: Yes. Beer and Art: No.  Art is best paired with wine or spirits – according to one gallerist I spoke to last night they quite like the Art & Collinson’s combo: “you can make great little cocktails with the stuff.”
A Grolsch bottle is only good when its empty and you can use it to put salad dressing inside. But I digress: most of the art last night was great. Will go into more detail with my grande review, which is in the process of being knocked into shape but here are a view quickie reviews of the top three shows:

Coming in at Number 1: Colin Richards at AOP:  this show kind of denies and encourages the art of quickie reviews. In one sentence: it reaches towards the rematerialisation of the object and the marginalisation of ideas. A reverse of the  conceptualist mode while still being conceptual: it’s a self-reflexive probe of conceptualism. The images are obsessively detailed and are breathtaking… what a clever, clever man

Number 2: Patmos and The War at Sea by Alistair Whitton: blurred photos from WWII teamed up with what appears to be Braille or a coded communication.  The images like the code need decoding not just semantically but visually.  The images are abstract, surreal and require an effort to grasp. He meditates on how we consume the past and the manner in which the past is always just beyond our grasp.  There’s a lot more to this, read my proper full length review to come…

Also Number 2: Gabrielle Goliath’s Murder on 7th Street at Momo Gallery: this could be Joburg’s version of Kathryn Smith’s exhibition at Goodman Cape with Margie Orford. Would have been interesting to compare the two. In this twist on the whodunit genre Goliath relates it to the crime phenomenon. Photographs of would-be victims or suspects are displayed on CCTV-type fixtures. Below each subject is a square of carpet, wood or tiling denoting their position in the domestic home – a nod to Cluedo. An amusing video artwork features a compendium of whodunits from CSI to Angela Lansbury, wryly commenting on our consumption of the genre.

Check out Robert Sloon's take on Spring Art Tour Cape Town: here

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Us" at JAG

Ever keen to probe the unseen forces that shape our collective consciousness, artists are continuing to explore the factors that led to the xenophobic attacks that took place around the country last year. This exhibition owes its genesis to the attacks but is largely an effort towards unpacking the dynamics that bind communities, that give them a sense of togetherness. It is these properties that in turn become agents of exclusion.
During the attacks on foreigners the mass media focused their attention on the victims; this exhibition redirects the spotlight on the social forces that feed political and social dominance. As the title suggests, the focus is on the “us”, a dominant social entity, rather than the “them”, which is typically the marginalised and unwanted ”other”.
It’s a nice reversal but one that obviously has resonance for Africans, who have habitually found themselves marginalised to the fringes of a Western-dominated world. The title also recalls an abbreviation of United States, a powerful cultural and economic authority that has in its foreign and domestic policies displayed a degree of paranoia and rejection of the unfamiliar or strangeness of others.
But of course, the attacks on foreigners in South Africa proved that these power dynamics play out at micro levels too. All these factors contribute towards making the exhibition highly relevant but this aspect similarly renders it a little expected.
Some of the artworks on the exhibition are predictable too: such as Dan Halter’s Space Invader (2009), which was an obvious choice with its depictions of those large plastic carrier bags that migrants use to transport their worldly goods. In one image Halter configures them to resemble the characteristic icon from the Space Invaders video game. These same bags are pictured outside a barbed wire fence in a photograph by Mikhael Subotzky. Such obvious references to the ways in which migrant communities have been excluded in South Africa are few; mostly, the artworks delve into the phenomenon in more abstract ways.
An interesting dialogue is elicited through the works of Subotzky, Tracey Derrick and Laurence Bonvin, who all in various ways display how communities are defined and define themselves via geographic, environmental and architectural states. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

4th World Summit Arts and Culture

The arts matter. When one stripped back the ideas raised at many of the discussions at the 4th World Summit on Arts and Culture, one inevitably arrived back at the underlying communication driving this summit, and perhaps all the previous summits: the arts matter as never before. Marginalised by governments, civil society and business, particularly on the African continent, the arts community clearly needs to create spaces where it can assert the value and worth of creative endeavours and be surrounded, albeit briefly, by those who do not need reminding of this fact. So, of course, it was a bit like preaching to the converted; no doubt all of the 450 delegates that congregated at the Africa Museum in Joburg for the summit already had committed their bodies and souls to this sometimes trying sector.

In selecting topics which probed the role the arts play in intercultural exchange, or how the arts could facilitate world peace (or conflict) or whether the arts should be conscripted in propagating national interests, Mike van Graan, the programme director, cunningly and irrefutably established, whatever the outcome of these discussions, the arts as a powerful social weapon thus underpinning their value not only to the broader public but to political entities too. Of course, one could ask why it is necessary for art's worth to be tied to its ability to advance social agendas. In South Africa we may have a history of co-opting the arts to further political ideals but is it necessary for art to have any purpose? In the realms of the visual arts such objective-outcomes-based art is rarely ever taken seriously, it is usually an adjunct to a more serious oeuvre that is more concerned with rallying against art history than government policies.

Brett Bailey and Gregory Maqoma's 3 Colours production, which was presented at the grand opening night of the summit at the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein, was a good example of how the arts in this country is co-opted to tackle social objectives - and employed to address a particular political agenda. Though the performance started out as a bewitching abstract piece with a host of "birds" in flowing white costumes emerging from a seemingly solid mass, it quickly became a didactic piece showing how one dominant, pure group of beings were intolerant of the new arrivals (read migrants) to their country. A violent battle ensued between the two groups until a third, enrobed in outfits fashioned from rubbish bags, piled onto the stage, further complicating the conflict and implying that migrants were a fact of life. By the end of the performance, facts about migrants were projected onto a screen behind the dancers, driving the message home with a hammer.

One of the most startling figures was regarding South Africa, where it was said that 89 percent of residents would like to see stiffer laws put in place to prevent migrants from settling in the country. Locals in the audience recoiled with embarrassment. Nevertheless this unpleasant statistic did remind the audience that given the xenophobic attacks last year, South Africa probably wasn't the ideal place to stage a summit geared to come to grips with the dynamics of intercultural exchanges. But perhaps the performance needed to air our dirty laundry before the summit, thereby fixing in the minds of delegates that South Africans owned up to their failings in this area and that the arts fraternity as a whole were seeking ways of trying to shift attitudes about foreigners. Of course, the fact that the National Arts Council (NAC), the main sponsor of the event, does not provide funding to those artists toiling in our country who hail from different parts of the continent, remained a moot point. And at the concluding media conference, Annabel Lebethe, the CEO of the NAC, made it clear that her organisation wasn't in any hurry to reappraise this policy.

In Professor Njabulo Ndebele's keynote address, he attempted to probe the barriers that hamper intercultural exchanges. He suggested that intercultural contact is about "being exposed to the unfamiliar and then having to decide to accommodate the new experience or to resist it. There are threats and opportunities both ways."
He distinguished between strangeness and difference, asserting that "strangeness is not necessarily about difference. It is about figuring out new experience; the uncertainties that accompany our encounter with what is unusual. Strangeness invites curiosity. It engages. It accepts the lack of prior knowledge and engages without judgement. It works with open-mindedness."
He warned against the efforts put forward by South Africa's new democracy to "celebrate difference", implying that it led to a false sense of harmony. "The different entities being celebrated for their difference really still remain separate, despite any political intention to suggest otherwise. The risk in this situation is that unity and solidarity are more evoked than experienced."
He implied that for "celebrating difference" to have any constructive meaning it requires "engaging with the strangeness that can sometimes result in the perception not only of difference, but also of familiarity, or even similarity. What is experienced as strange is not always different. Thus the celebration of difference or diversity, without a prior process of engagement with the experience of strangeness, may lead to the appearance of bridge-building, and restore, by another name, the past divisions it was intended to overcome."
Ultimately Ndbele's intention was to discover how best art could be harnessed so as to bring about change in society. He recommended that arts and culture institutions should identify opportunities for artworks to be vehicles of learning.
"It is about situating oneself in the time lag between the absorption of the impact of the artwork and the reaction that may follow from that impact. That is the space of planning, of designing school curricula, of holding festivals, of engaging communities in communal artistic activity designed to enable them to encounter the strangeness in their midst," observed Ndbele.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stephen Hobbs: Creating the Ephemeral

IN 1996 Stephen Hobbs offered a rainbow up for sale. Not a photographic, sculptural or two-dimensional representation of a rainbow but the genuine multicoloured arc that sometimes spreads across the sky after a heavy downpour. Surprisingly, he had quite a few takers. But this was hardly astonishing for an artist who launched his career with an ice block (presented on a stand), attracting the attention of art dealers such as Warren Siebrits and South Africa's one-time enfant terrible, Kendell Geers. Hobbs wasn't just an art prankster poking fun at the art world. Well, not completely - he was fascinated with the notion of the ephemeral and how it manifested in architecture.

His ice block may have found a buyer in the Belgian collector, Pierre Lombard, but ultimately it was a transient object that could never be claimed. But it wasn't altogether motivated by his rejection of the commodification of art. "The idea was that by the time my lecturers came round to assess my artwork, it would have melted," recalls Hobbs. He sees a kind of poetry in the transient or that which remains physically beyond one's grasp. For him there is nothing more beguiling than that which leaves no trace. His fascination with this phenomenon ties in neatly with the conceptualist ethos that drives his practice. For the conceptual artist, ideas take precedence over the art object. Its full existence resides in the ideas that informed it.

"For the artist, the power of a statement is as good as the artwork. For me, the significance of what I do resides in the texts and essays I write about my work because I think that is where the integrity of one's work lies - not in making the art object per se, but in questioning it," observes Hobbs.

It's an ethos that has given life to a number of cerebrally and sometimes visually startling artworks such as 54 Storeys (1999), video footage of a trip down the inside of the Ponte Towers, once a popular site for suicides, and consequently the ideal manner in which to visually explore the darkest depths of Joburg's inner city. Hobbs's obsession with ephemeral phenomena has also been influenced by living in Joburg, a city in a constant state of flux, and the role he has played in the regeneration of the city through managing most of its high-profile public art projects as co-director and co-founder of Trinity Sessions. Hobbs has come to resent the time and energy that the Trinity Sessions steals from his own artistic practice and how it has overshadowed his persona as an artist - he calls it "the beast" - but it has further cemented his obsession with the fleeting quality in architecture and the urban landscape.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Art and Fashion


Ephemeral, trend-driven, concerned with surface embellishment and most often a product of  mass-production, fashion and clothing are often thought of as a superficial manifestation of popular culture. A craft rather than art object. Nevertheless, since Andy Warhol demonstrated how the symbolic value of commercial design could be applied in the realm of art and postmodern theory turned the art world on its head - redefining and expanding the definition of art - the lines between craft and art have blurred.

The last decade in South Africa has seen a growing affinity between art and fashion. Though it's hard to pinpoint the genesis of this new phenomenon, it's possible it could have been helped by an identity crisis and a desire to forge a new national culture, which clothing is uniquely equipped to address. Certainly it was helped along by a number of high-profile exhibitions of African material culture such as Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape, which was held at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 1993. The beaded garb that was displayed at this exhibition was never referred to as clothing - there was a desire to elevate its status - but shown in a gallery created the notion that clothing had a symbolic significance that aligned it with fine art expression. Just as African material culture can be viewed as valuable markers of cultural and social mores and identity, so too can these elements be gleaned from Western dress. In this regard, fashion's immediacy and its ability to translate often complex cultural issues into readily consumed garments is now viewed as an asset and no longer a characteristic that undermines its value. The ability of fashion designers to capture a moment in time in a trendy fashion item has also meant that such items could be no different from photographs.

As the most obvious marker of identity, clothing has proved to be a useful medium for a generation of artists trying to redefine identity or at least challenge the fixed identities of the past. Lolo Veloko, Lawrence Lemaoana, Nicholas Hlobo, Nandipha Mntambo, Mary Sibande and Athi-Patra Ruga are part of this group of artists employing clothing as their main vehicle of expression. There are also a number of fashion designers who employ a fine art approach to their craft, while there are others who move between both realms - showing their work in galleries and on catwalks. The Strangelove label, headed by Carlo Gibson; Lisa Jaffe of the Guillotine fashion label, David Tlale, Ruga and Black Coffee, whose gallery installation won them the Mercedes-Benz Award - which has traditionally been an award reserved for fine artists - are part of this burgeoning faction of designers.

Ruga had always intended to become an artist but opted to study fashion as one of his central concerns had always been the politics of the body - he felt that studying fashion would better equip him to engage with that theme. After completing a degree in fashion he became embroiled in the seductive world of fashion, but when he resisted taking part in the Afrochic fashion movement - which started in 2000 - he found himself a stranger to that industry.
"I was concerned with the body not expressing a nationality or a South African identity. I felt isolated; I was going against the spirit of the time," says Ruga.
Always imbuing his clothing with layers of meaning, Ruga often found himself creating unwearable clothing and became frustrated with the short life span it enjoyed on fashion catwalks.
"A fashion show is just 20 minutes; I wanted to give my work longevity, an extra life, which I found I could do through performance (art). I became more interested in using fashion and clothing as a mode of expression in art rather than in fashion," said Ruga.

Ruga exploits clothing's metaphorical or symbolic values. He sees fashion as more than a functional object but as a powerful medium of expression.
"It communicates to others who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Before someone even talks, we know something about them just based on what they are wearing."
But just as fashion reflects identity, it can similarly be the tool to redefine one's identity, giving us control over how we are perceived. It is this aspect that has largely appealed to artists seeking to challenge ways in which South Africans are defined by their physicality. Clothing can also help refashion the body.
"It's a way of transforming your body. You can transform your entire silhouette. You can have broad shoulders or a tiny waist," observes Jaffe.
"Everything has become physical and the way things look, the facades. The outside that is the new inside. You may have issues but if you wear a certain jacket you must be feeling good inside."
In this way clothing and its more ephemeral derivative, fashion, are part of a visual lexicon no different from any used in the visual arts - hence its appeal to artists. For designers who are more steeped in the business of fashion, this visual idiom has allowed them to reflexively unpack the nature of their trade.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Steven Shore at JAG

IN SOUTH AFRICA our view of American culture is most readily gleaned from the glut of mainstream cultural contrivances that find their way to this end of the African continent. On some level they might be illuminating of American society but rarely do they evince a level of self-reflexivity that might offer us a glimpse into the heart of this multifaceted global power. However, this exhibition, which is sponsored by the Roger Ballen Foundation and presents two bodies of work from Stephen Shore, one of that country's most respected photographers, offers us a unique perspective. Not only does it capture the visual texture of American life in the Seventies, but considered an innovative photographer of his time, Shore's work gives us a window into the development of art photography in that country and how the photograph operates as a cultural object.

Certainly in setting out on a journey to photograph the length and breadth of America, Shore had intended to get a handle on the elusive character of the American urban landscape. American Surfaces and Uncommon Places, the main bodies of work on this exhibition - which are, incidentally, his most famous series of artworks - document this trip. Such journeys of discovery aren't just a staple theme in Western culture, but the "road trip" is a leitmotif of American film and literature.

In American Surfaces Shore offers an alternative twist on this theme, because in his desire to capture and analyse his experience he ends up celebrating the physical or material persona of the scenes he encounters, thus denying the inner reflection which these physical journeys are supposed to awaken. It is not in the natural landscape that Shore fixes his gaze but rather the urban locales through which he travels, such as motels, gas stations and roadside diners - all ubiquitous markers of American culture but also places that cater for transient dwellers in a state of transition. It is the mundane minutiae of these locales that Shore presents; silver trays containing apples and carrots, a plate of salad drowning in mayonnaise, a table and lamp, a television. It is also the facades of stores, houses and motels that he captures, implying that the traveller never really is able to probe beneath the surface. A few feature human subjects but always the image is banal and prosaic. There is nothing startling about his encounters nor is there a sense that they are psychologically nourishing, thus they evoke a pervasive and inescapable sense of ennui and emptiness, a kind of restlessness.

Shore is known for a dead-pan brand of photography and with his American Surfaces series, which are all small snapshots displayed in a grid in much the same way he first exhibited them in the mid-1970s, he presents his audience with a familiar style of photography: the holiday snapshot. He tries to replicate this kind of photography, but his voracious visual consumption of everything around him is an exaggerated form of this everyday compulsion to record the unimportant. In this way he is able to draw our attention to the manner in which it is the trivial details that best allow people to reconstruct the past. Consequently the snapshot operates as a visual anchor that keeps people moored to a certain time and place. Because not every detail can be captured, the occurrences and experiences that take place outside the frame fall victim to the imagination, elaboration and obscurity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rape of Europa


I know that I have already posted this image by Nandipha Mntambo before but encountered it for the third time at an exhibition last night; the opening of Umphatsi Wemphi, her new solo show at Brodie/Stevenson. This has to be the hottest image in town: why else would everyone want it... chatted to Nandipha about it last night I told her how our photography department at The Sunday Independent (one guy) argued that it was too dark to be printed. I knew that Mntambo had intended for it to be dark and not just in a macarbe sense but actually visually dark. Her explanation: she wanted people to have to look at the image really closely to make out the details or for the details in the image to be revealed slowly. I quite liked her explanation; there is something poetic about her intentions it also challenges the speed at which we consume imagery in our image-saturated world. She said something else that was surprising and peculiar: she had never really given much thought to clothing even though her aesthetic is so closely related to it - especially all the cowhide works that are moulded on her body. It contradicts what I have written about her work. Aside from a series of some rather ghastly charcoal drawings it was a stimulating exhibition. I particularly liked her Penis - Vagina One Man Capsule work it echoes the ever popular Rape of Europa in that the female and male (aspects of the self) are unified, here of course into one singular object that one can inhabit and step into. But I enjoy the symbolic significance, the blurring and unification of the genders, it is like sex the male and female become one instead of it being conflicting entities that fight for supremacy as evidenced in the work of Nicholas Hlobo.

The Aliens have Landed

A spaceship looming over Joburg's characteristic skyline is an incongruent and unexpected sight. It is an image that local cinemagoers are unlikely ever to forget. Not just because an extraterrestrial invasion of Joburg is far-fetched or even because we tend to associate such staple science-fiction scenes with Hollywood products, but because this (mostly) home-grown cinematic product heralds a new era in South African film-making. Foremost, District 9 is a visual spectacle like no other. It feeds at the intersection between the imagination, history and popular culture, giving rise to a truly transcultural hybrid product. Further contributing to District 9's hybrid character is the fact that Neill Blomkamp, the writer and director, has employed a heady mix of genres to narrate his unusual tale; from sci-fi and mockumentary to action-drama, with a heavy political subtext thrown into the mix, Blomkamp has produced a film that is tricky to pigeonhole. Consequently, it presents a peculiar visual and ideological aesthetic that breaks out of any established cinematic mould, making it the first of its kind.

Because it draws from so many familiar film genres, it has broad appeal; action lovers to academics will all be titillated by Blomkamp's sci-fi spectacle. It is likely, therefore, to be the first bona fide South African blockbuster - Leon Shuster's record will finally be broken - thereby ushering in a new epoch in homegrown cinema. But, most important, it is the first local film that probes our dark and tempestuous past and present in such a unique manner. And this is where the sci-fi impulses in the film come into play: all the fantastical or otherworldly features create distance. Thus segregation, violence and prejudice play out in an alternative reality to our own, althoughthe setting and earthly characters are eerily familiar. In this way, South Africans will be able to view their culture from an objective standpoint - a perspective that has escaped our cultural producers thus far. But are we ready to view our history from such a position, particularly when it comes packaged in a satirical action drama tailor-made for American viewers? Does the sci-fi angle only serve to trivialise apartheid?

By employing a sci-fi idiom, Blomkamp does fix his audience in a remote position that evinces our society's proclivity for violence and prejudice, which manifests or is amplified whenever it is presented with an unknowable Other. Here, of course, the outsiders come in the form of aliens or "Prawns" - the sobriquet that the Joburgers assign to this crustacean-like population that come to seek refuge in their city when a malfunction occurs with their spaceship. The "Prawns" couldn't have picked a worse place for a breakdown: they are summarily rounded up and dumped in a township called District 9. Here they lead an impoverished existence, forced to scour rubbish dumps for nourishment and objects to build shelters. And if this isn't bad enough they must also contend with Multinational United's (MNU) heavy-handed forces. MNU is a private defence contractor that the government has engaged to deal with the relocation of the "Prawns" to another locale, where they will be more closely monitored and isolated from mainstream society.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Kentridge Tapestries launch new Goodman Gallery project space

I am starting to enjoy all these little open-door soirees at Arts on Main – David Krut launched their new space at the centre a couple of weeks ago with a champagne brunch. This past Sunday it was the Goodman Gallery’s turn with an informal celebration of their new project space and what better than to use William Kentridge’s six metre long tapestries to draw crowds to the new exhibition space. Maybe it was because the launch was held early on a Sunday morning but Kentridge followers tend to be on the dark-side of fifty and a well-moneyed lot: I don’t think folk this side of town have seen such a concentration of Jaguars parked in their midst. Art critics and media folk were thin on the ground: has a Kentridge showing lost its cachet? The tapestries were undoubtedly beautiful; in itself the scale of the works is enough to engender awe. However, one can’t help wondering whether tapestry is the appropriate medium for his brand of art, which is defined by its collage properties. The process of tapestry naturally works towards interweaving divergent materials into a cohesive whole and while collage embraces a similar goal, with collage it’s never about creating a seamless sense of unity; the rough edges and multiple textures are given room to assert their own idiosyncratic visual persona. In such works the nature and process of bricolage can articulate the work’s ideological significance. The maps that Kentridge displays in his art for example are shown to be dated items appropriated for his art: redefining old artefacts adds gravitas to his work. In the tapestries this aspect is obviated.  None of the tapestries were displayed with any titles and one was left with the distinct feeling that they simply functioned as decorative pieces that simply pay homage to a visual signature – dark silhouette over map - that Kentridge has made world-famous. Not good. When I spotted Danny K and Lee-Anne Liebenberg I knew I should have stayed in bed and carried on reading Everything is Illuminated, which is much more brilliant.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Women themed exhibitions: Aaargh!

Women-themed cultural products seem to dominate the cultural scene in August, to tie in with a public holiday created in their honour.
It can be daunting for a member of the fairer sex to be inundated with representations of the self, but above and beyond that most of these products and shows tend to be highly contrived. Too often cultural products with an intended social objective feel overly simplistic and didactic. In the context of art exhibitions centred on gendered tropes, the ideological dimensions implicit in some of the artworks that transcend the gender slant also become muted.

Excessive attention is drawn to the artist's gender, creating the impression that their oeuvre or aesthetic is shaped by their identity. That may represent the approach of some, but it is not the case for all female artists.

A surplus of women-themed exhibitions - in Joburg there are at least three - also contribute to the idea that such a thing as "women's art" exists. This is a precarious notion, one that ghettoises women's expression, relegating them again to the periphery. The post-modern age may well have "refined our awareness of difference," as French philosopher and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard has observed, but surely such blatant and mostly obtuse exercises in asserting difference surely risk undermining the great strides that women have made in freeing themselves from the shackles of their gender?

It's a conundrum that African artists and curators who label their products African have also had to negotiate on international plaftorms. Nonetheless, there are ways and means of constructing gendered exhibitions in such a way as to avoid stumbling into the pitfalls that recovering one's place at the centre seems to entail.

Jeanine Howse and Amy Watson staged an excellent show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2006 titled Women: photography and new media, in which they located the female identity outside of the physical self and, in so doing, allowed women to transcend the entity that has held them prisoner since time immemorial.

Three gendered exhibitions under way in Joburg are: Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists, curated by Bongi Bengu, Face Her, curated by Ingrid Masondo and Rita Potenza, and Domestic, curated by Melissa Mboweni and Jackie McInnes. Each has a different angle on the theme. In Innovative Women, the emphasis, as the title suggests, is on black women who are perceived to be creating "innovative" and "contemporary" work. The fact that innovation is no longer the objective of so-called contemporary artists is perhaps a negligible detail. Of course, such a title neatly pigeonholes all the artists as black female artists and their art as a product of that identity, which does limits one's reading of their work.

Take Nadipha Mntambo's The Rape of Europa (2009), a highly stylised image which sees the artist posing as the defenceless and nubile Europa and her rapist Zeus (disguised as a bull). This work articulates themes and ideas that extend beyond her identity as a black female. In assuming the roles of both Europa and the bull, Mntambo subverts what could have been a dialogue between the self and the other into a discourse with the self and divergent aspects of the self. In this way, Mntambo is both aggressor and victim, male and female, coloniser and colonised. Given that she tries to shirk fixed notions of identity through this work, it seems ironic that it would find its way to an exhibition that pigeonholes her as a black woman. Mntambo also engages and challenges Western myths and how its pervasive influence shapes one's concept of self.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anthea Moys: Everard Read Brait Award

WITH high-profile artists and academics from Wits University's School of the Arts on the judging panel of the Brait-Everard Read Art Award, one is almost always guaranteed an exhibition that is a cerebral and visual turn-on. Previous winners such as Natasha Christopher and Alexandra Ross certainly didn't disappoint on either score. This year's exhibition of winner Anthea Moys may have been accompanied by her novel concept Fast Art Girls - a mobile truck selling take-away art - but it was not as readily likeable as her predecessors' offerings.

It is not that the ideas underpinning her work are clichéd; they just feel expected. She treads in the footsteps of a number of artists whose work has centred on the city of Joburg, without surpassing what they have done or offering any new insights. Nor is it unusual that her actual art, her performances which have taken place outside of the gallery, are not directly within viewers' grasp.

Much of the interactive and site-specific artistic projects in Joburg are only ever gleaned from documentation. In her favour, however, the photographs of her incursions into Joburg's no-go areas are more than banal records or by-products of her ephemeral practice; they are carefully construed art objects in their own right.

Mostly, the photographs are well taken and visually arresting, such as the images of Moys exploring a Gautrain construction site. In one, she is covered in the bright orange soil and in another she is seen standing looking vulnerable in between two giant machines. These images are obviously posed and Moys clearly is performing for the camera - with no audience present the camera is the only witness - thus her brand of performance art is intrinsically tethered to the photographic image. In her Nessum Dorma (None Shall Sleep Tonight, 2008) series in which Moys sleeps in a bed in Joubert Park, it is clear that the scene has been heavily styled with a pristine duvet, a book titled Don't Panic and petals that are strewn across the bed adding to its visual flavour.

The photographs are supplemented by video footage of her performances, but with the video-screen tucked behind a corner there was a sense that the photographs were the focus of the exhibition.

As the title of her exhibition designates, Moys's performance art is centred on placing herself in sticky situations in a city thought to be dangerous. But the perceived "risk" attached to each endeavour is underpinned by her racial, gender and economic status, establishing the idea that "danger" is socially and politically defined. The risk value, so to speak, of sleeping in the notorious Joubert Park, on the edge of Hillbrow, is directly attached to her status as an affluent white. Impoverished people sleep in this park daily without it being construed as a statement.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Roger Ballen: The Boarding House

At first his new body of work appears to be classic Roger Ballen. With a monochrome palette and a grainy visual texture, Ballen conjures twisted, tortured, uninhabitable realms in his photographs. The walls are grimy and stained, the furniture, torn and soiled.

Naïve drawings of human forms cover walls and surfaces like graffiti inside toilet stalls. Disparate disused objects are co-opted into absurd and seemingly illogical configurations.

In Scavenging (2004) what appears to be a dead rabbit lies sprawled in front of a dilapidated dustbin. Out of one end a human leg protrudes, a half-naked young boy is seen placing his head inside the other end. Loops of barbed wire hang from the dark grey wall in the background.

Ballen's photographic works appear to summon worlds beyond reason, beyond human comfort, beyond comprehension and beyond human experience. It's as if Ballen is driving his viewers to the limit of psychological discomfort and physical uneasiness. He displaces the spectator. But his seemingly unfathomable compositions pique our curiosity and draw us in.

We are driven by a desire to unlock their meaning so that we can subvert their hold on us and relegate them to a place of comprehension where we hold the authority and not them.

While these images are obviously constructed, hinting that they are derived from the imagination, Ballen's mode of expression is such that they similarly remain rooted in reality too, thus he blurs the boundary between fact and fiction.

It's not just that the objects are familiar to us, some even promise comfort, like the tattered teddy bears, dolls and cute puppies and cats that populate his photographs, but his vocabulary or mode of narration, if one could call it that, recalls the classic social documentary style, hinting that these images are derived from reality and in a sense they are - the title of the exhibition alludes to a fixed place.

Because he shoots in black and white, his work recalls that canon of photography that is centred on probing human depravation, but his subject matter and the location of his work - a boarding house - both contribute towards what appears to be a study of existence at the fringes of society.

Ballen too has contributed to this canon with his earlier photographic essays on life at the edges of South African society. Here, however - and this is where this body of work extends his trajectory - he unpacks the significance and mechanics of that genre.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace: Unit for Measure

As I pass through the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Joburg, where the art installation Unit for Measure is located, I notice that it is full of unconventional interactive objects that are designed to aid visitors' understanding of the world. On a superficial level, this no different to the goals of Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace's art, which encourages interactivity and imparts a heightened awareness of the material world.

Despite this affinity, their installation is removed from the science displays and is in a barren structure beneath a staircase. It is an uninviting and seemingly dysfunctional space, but it is the ideal environment for Sadie and Lace, who thrive on redefining and unpacking the politics of space.

The title of the exhibition refers to the scientific tools used to furnish us with a precise measurement of the material world. But it is an imprecise and subjective practice. There are an infinite number of ways to survey the world and in this unconventional exhibition, Sadie and Lace offer a number of structures that attempt to explore the visible and invisible dimensions of this makeshift gallery.

There are three installations, a vertical, a horizontal and another, which, consisting of a bright artificial light placed in front of an almost solid square of fishing lines, attempts to read or make visual the light's refractions. These understated visual and conceptual explorations of space are the result of an artistic and ideological exchange that has taken place between Lace and Sadie over the course of the last two years.

Of course, those familiar with their previous works will be able to pick out their individual signatures: Sadie's heightened awareness and manipulation of the lighting and Lace's proclivity for densely packed and ordered art in-stallations. But their individual take on aesthetics and trajectories aren't discordant.

Their latest artworks - Sadie's Situation exhibition at Bank Gallery in Durban and Lace's installation at The Double Body group exhibition - evinced a common interest in the dynamics of space and a penchant for interactive mechanical objects. To a large degree, Unit for Measure extends those preoccupations.

Here, however, their installations are purposively designed to manipulate our interaction with the space, while making us aware of the mechanical strategies that predict and control movement.

On a purely formal level, the installations all consist of lines, vertical or horizontal, fashioned from wire cabling and fishing lines. In a vertical installation, hundreds of fishing lines are grouped en masse in a square and are suspended between the roof and floor of the room. En masse, they have a presence, but the individual threads are delicate and almost invisible. Suspended along some of these lines are colourful artificial flies used in fishing to attract the attention of fish. This installation is exquisite and undeniably alluring, and therefore fulfils much the same function as the colourful artificial fish, because it attracts and traps human attention. Like fish, we respond to base sensory signs.

The installation is intriguing: the densely packed fishing lines fill a block of space, but their almost imperceptible physicality suggests the space is similarly unoccupied. In this way, this installation presents a wonderful interplay between absence and presence, and, apropos the fishing lines, which are used as bait, the tension between beauty and danger, and how those qualities define how we interact with space.

In stark contrast to this delicate artwork is an installation consisting of heavy wire cabling. It is in the juxtaposition of the verticality of the near inivisible installation with this heavy horizontal structure that the disparate manners of exploring and defining space are discreetly unpacked. The horiztonal wire cabling is fed through 60 pulleys that are attached at considered positions around the upper wall of the space, the wire cables criss-cross each other, creating a complex configuration.

Shadows of the cables are cast on to the walls with the aid of strategic lighting, thereby amplifying the density of the structure and engendering a sense that it extends beyond the confines of the room. The arrangement of the cables isn't random: there is a distinct pattern that creates order and makes for an aesthetically pleasing appearance. However, like the delicate vertical installation, one feels caught within a web.

In this way, the artists seem to be suggesting that we become so caught up in measuring space that the very tools that are meant to facilitate this activity actually become a barrier to our experience of the space. The weight and density of the cables and the extent to which they dominate the room are physically and psychologically overwhelming. Offering a reprieve is a winch situated in the centre of the room allows me to adjust the tension of the cables, which are all interconnected. As I turn the wheel, the cables adjust their position. In this industrial setting, with exposed pipes and wires in view, the cables don't look out of place - in fact, they appear to be part of the architecture. Interacting with the cables creates the illusion that the grey oppressive architectural structure in which they are embedded is in some way malleable, open to influence. Of course, in pulling at the cables I only tweak the structure.

As I exit the Sci-Bono Centre, passing groups of children gathered around garish gadgets, I am left with an acute sense of the role science plays in creating the illusion that the invisible can be made visible, and the dialogue between Sadie and Lace's installation and the museum begins to unravel in my mind.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mary Sibande: Domestic Fantasy

OVEREXPLOITED and positioned within the heart of white South Africa, domestic workers have been the ultimate victims of a skewed social and political system thus their occupation embodies the vexed racial dynamics in this country.

Therefore, the figure of the domestic worker provides the ideal vehicle to unpack the politics of Self and Other. It is this aspect that Mary Sibande meditates on in this exhibition, and while all the sociopolitical baggage attached to this character remains in attendance simply because the domestic worker is such a politicised figure, Sibande's treatment of her subject matter is unexpected and unconventional.

Her sculptures and photographic artworks depicting the domestic worker aren't by any means sociopolitical products employing, say, the documentary genre that tends to evoke pathos, anger, shame and humiliation in the viewer. Their theatrical quality confidently roots them in the realm of fantasy, thus obviating those predictable knee-jerk emotional responses which ultimately have a didactic goal and underscore the domestic workers' role as victim.

Sibande's work grapples with transcending this actuality, which not only has ramifications for the domestic worker but has significance for all of apartheid's victims, perpetrators or beneficiaries - if the domestic worker is able to liberate herself, we can all be free from the past.

It's heavy stuff and these are ideas that other cultural producers have touched on before, but Sibande's expression is exceedingly inventive and elegant; besides, her art reaches towards an unexpected conclusion.

To prevent spectators' viewing the domestic worker as a victim Sibande situates the discourse in the realm of fantasy through several visual strategies. The background of all her photographs is a neutral pale blue, denoting a photographic studio setting - the ideal environment where identities can be remoulded with the aid of lighting, costume and make-up. In this way she detaches the domestic worker from reality.

In the design of the domestic worker's get-up, Sibande activates another level of fantasy. With a bustle, pleating, organza sleeves, layers of petticoats and rouching, the domestic worker uniform is transformed from a functional everyday item into a pseudo-Victorian dress suited only to a sedentary life. In such a get-up all menial tasks would be impossible. So while her outfit fixes her in a position of servitude it can, with adaptions, precipitate her liberation.

The clothing that Sibande has developed for this exhibition is central to her expression. For it is through the uniform that she is best able to manipulate the identity of the domestic worker, transplanting her not only into a bygone era but into the persona of the white European colonial - her mistress. So while the domestic worker appears to have transcended her station, she is similarly trapped in the same paradigm that fixes her as a cleaner. Her liberation is illusionary and seemingly impossible; even when she dreams and aspires for an alternative existence, she is locked into the madam/slave dichotomy. She can't think outside of it even when she isn't limited by reality.

The other intrinsically fictional feature of the work is enacted by Sibande herself, who poses in the photographs assuming the domestic worker's identity (casts of her are used for the sculptures). In assuming both the author and subject roles in her photographic works Sibande subverts the politically loaded relationship between subject and author, which in the context of South African art has been determined along racial lines. This way Sibande has complete control over how she is represented and she creates the conditions in which fantasies can best materialise. Daydreams are the products of an inner dialogue, which explains why Sibande is pictured with closed eyes. She isn't just blocking out the present, or the elements that keep her grounded in reality that deny inventions, she is engaging in a dialogue with herself. Hence, occupying the dual role of author/ subject has significance beyond rallying against artistic conventions.

Most importantly, in dressing as a domestic worker, Sibande herself is living out a "fantasy" of sorts. Given its undesirability and the low status it signifies in our society, the domestic worker seems an unlikely figure to aspire to be, and as fantasies tend to provide individuals with a chance to aspire beyond their present circumstances, Sibande's performance presents the unthinkable.

It is also absurd given that Sibande is asm a well-educated and empowered black professional. In masquerading as a domestic worker, she denies her affluence, her status, which in post-apartheid South Africa is thought to epitomise the goals of the struggle, which were to establish a brighter future for the youth.

Sibande isn't challenging or rejecting her affluence - it is her confidence in her status that allows her to parade as a domestic worker. The domestic worker is a mask, like any other she can slip on and off at will. The ease with which she is able to do this implies that no one is defined by their appearance. In assuming the guise of this highly politicised character, Sibande is able to explore, ridicule and subvert the structures that victimised the domestic worker. It's a cathartic and subversive act.

This is a remarkable exhibition that teases the mind long after one has finished viewing it. Its boldness, both visually and conceptually, is a surprise for a young artist's first major solo exhibition. - published in The Sunday Independent, July 26, 2009