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.

Colin Richards also meditates on the nature of books and knowledge in his exhibition, Parrot Parrot, which is showing at Art On Paper. This show was undoubtedly the highlight of the tour and might well stand out as one of the top exhibitions this year. All the works, barring photographs of books, are meticulously executed. So much so that one is entranced by the precision of his art making. A two-dimensional semi-sculptural book is fashioned from strips of paper layered over each other in Nothing Book (2008). It is so neatly constructed one can hardly believe it has been produced by a human hand. Such doubts haunt a few of his works, especially the illustrative works that consist of such precise cross-hatching and lines that one is never really sure whether they are the product of digital technology. Richards intends to feed this doubt; it directs our attention to our culture, which has become defined by replication and where we are unable to distinguish between human and machine products or originals and copies. Obviously this has particular relevance in the realm of fine art, where fine attention is paid to the hand-made and the replication of artworks, evinced in the editioning of works so that art buyers know how many replicas exist.

But there is a lot more at work in his art than a discourse on authenticity and originality. What is most intriguing about this exhibition is the attention that Richards has paid to the surface of the artworks, their materiality. His fastidious execution articulates a fascination for the surface dimension of his works, their appearance. It is not just the perfect rendering of subject matter that holds our interest but the textural and tactile qualities. The glass that stands between the viewer and the work is often a cause for frustration; one feels compelled to feel the textured surfaces. This level of sensual engagement seems at odds with the conceptualist ethos with which he has aligned his practice, but it is with a sense of purpose that he presents this conflict. With this exhibition Richards has rematerialised the art object; he has reversed the process by which the art object became an almost irrelevant feature in conceptual art. These aren't simply objects with no conceptual impetus, or are they? Richards forces us to reconcile two incongruent impulses: ideas and beauty/sensuality.

In Nothing Book (2008), we are presented with a beautifully crafted book that has no content. The subject matter in Marginal Book (2008), a racial and political discourse, denoted by key phrases such as "native coloured" is relegated to the edges of the pages, implying that this debate can no longer be accommodated. In other words he presents us with a vacant object, one that has been stripped of meaning. Meaning is contingent on the object but the object is also never stagnant, such as in Slow Literature (2009) where the patterns on the tortoise's outer shell shift and discolour over time. In other words even the most steadfast and least dynamic beings are subject to change, albeit nuanced and almost unnoticeable.

The figure of the brightly coloured parrot in the Parrot (African Grey) triptych, which forms the central image of the exhibition, is a purposely vacuous image on several levels. Firstly, because it is a replication of a figurative and quasi-scientific style of art that Richards obviously does not subscribe to, it is with detached irony that he creates this work. Secondly, the parrot mimics human speech without comprehending the meaning of the words. But this isn't a straightforward thesis on meaninglessness and how it is enacted in the postmodern world of pastiche and repetition. It is about the conflict between objects and ideas which have been forced apart and are subject to different laws. Thoughts and written words are replicated in books without detracting from their value, but their impact is belittled only by those who, like the parrot, repeat the ideas without grasping their intent. This richly rewarding exhibition reflects Richards's refined intellect and artistic acumen.

Gabrielle Goliath's Murder on 7th, showing at the Gallery Momo (on 7th Avenue as the title suggests) is a less intellectually demanding show but one that will resonate with viewers simply because they will be able to identify with the overt references to the whodunit genre, the central theme. Goliath took her inspiration from a quote by famous crime writer P D James, which suggested the genre's value hinges on its ability to return order to the world. This is enacted in the final scene where the killer's identity is revealed. So, while the genre presents a world of chaos, it always resolves turmoil. In the South African context, where murder is rarely solved, the genre obviously proves even more satisfying, allowing audiences to access a sense of peace that is normally denied to them in reality. Goliath uses the whodunit theme to probe crime in South Africa, presenting a series of photographs of people who could be both victims or perpetrators of crimes in fixtures that resemble CCTVs.

Goliath doesn't depict violence or crime so the work speaks of this anxiety of waiting to be attacked or trying to discover the perpetrator's identity. A murder will or has occured. This is fundamental to the formula but is also implied by the references to Cluedo, a game where murder plays out in a different room in the home, denoted by squares of carpet and wooden panelling placed below the TVs. This arrangement imparts the sense that the subjects are disconnected from idealised notions of what these spaces are meant to personify: places of refuge and familial bliss. Goliath also presents a video artwork that features a compendium of whodunits from CSI to Murder She Wrote. She wryly comments on our consumption of the genre, our appetite for violence, how we have become desensitised by these scenes of intimate betrayals. Maybe we use the genre to prepare ourselves for such encounters. - published in The Sunday Independent, October 18, 2009

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