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.