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.