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.