Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kentridge films/ Dumas & Kentridge in Conversation

There has been a discernible shift in William Kentridge's art-making. Film has remained his primary mode of expression but the thematic focus of his work and its visual persona have altered considerably.

He no longer seems to be held prisoner by the legacy of apartheid or this continent's colonial history; thus, the grainy and feverish charcoal drawings marking memory and loss in Joburg's contested and troubled landscape that once characterised his oeuvre now seem quite clearly of another epoch of art-making.

This shift appears to have had a liberating effect on his work, giving him the space within which to engage with the dynamics of film and form, which manifest in his trilogy of films titled (Repeat) from the beginning 'Breathe, Dissolve Return'.

These video artworks were first conceived for the fire screen at the Teatro La Fenice - Venice's main opera house - so some contextual nuances may have been lost in their new setting at Joburg's Goodman Gallery.

Ever influenced by his growing preoccupation with opera, they are said to be inspired by Puccini's Gianni Schicchi or more specifically the aria O Mio Babbino Caro, so for those visitors to that famous opera house these films certainly would have resonated.

At the Goodman it is the films' fine art dimension that takes centre stage and the artist's experimentation with form in its physical and ideological dimensions that is of interest.

Kentridge assumes to challenge the fundamental essence of form in that he denies its supposed cohesiveness, demonstrating forms to be only momentarily solid.

Such ideas have all sorts of philosophical ramifications among which rational thought is explored, tying in with the artist's fascination with the Enlightenment era and its influence on the imperialist paradigm. But such references are only hinted at through his experiment and perhaps are only discernible to those who saw his rendition of The Magic Flute.

In the film one assumes functions as Breathe, pieces of black paper are only temporarily conjoined to form the silhouette of a woman before a gust of wind blows them apart and they once again become insignificant and banal bits of rubbish. This creates a sense in which image-making or art becomes incidental, reliant on the forces of nature that allow certain forms to coalesce and then scatter apart, imparting an ethereal quality to form.

There is also the feeling that when we see the image of woman it is because we are looking for her, and that we, humanity, are constantly searching for meaning, which we do by organising shapes in such a way that they become significant, reflecting images of the human form. Kentridge appears in the forefront and as he waves his hand in the air the pieces of paper fall into place, implying that he, the artist, is like some sort of magician or conductor.

Kentridge achieves this effect by reversing the film so that what we see coming together is in fact how it appeared in the beginning. This recalls a video artwork he showed at his retrospective in 2005 called 7 Fragments of George Méliès, in which he employed a similar technique gleaned from the French filmmaker. Conceptually, this effect has an intriguing resonance in that it suggests that what the audience perceive as the coming together of forms is in fact an illusion that the artist creates.

As the title of the films implies, Kentridge is also interested in the temporal character of film or video art, where always played in a loop it never truly begins or ends. In this way a linear sense of evolution is denied and the film is caught in a process of becoming.

Few insights into Kentridge's work are apparent in Kentridge and Dumas in Conversation, a documentary directed by Catherine Meyburg, which focuses on these art world luminaries. The conversations recorded in this documentary appear slightly forced and stiff; perhaps this is because Kentridge and Dumas have little in common in terms of their artistic practice.

And so it is that a series of generalised questions are aimed at the artists - about their use of colour, for example. Maybe herein lies the documentary's central flaw - Dumas and Kentridge are too heavily directed in terms of their exchange. Meyburg should have permitted them to converse more freely, allowing them to determine the content. It would have been more interesting to witness an unimpeded conversation between them.

While it is interesting to hear how differently they respond to questions, the film does little to bring the true character of each artist's aesthetic to the forefront, giving viewers a very superficial glimpse into the ideas that inform their practices. Some effort was made to bring some "behind the scenes"realities into the frame by showing footage of them in their studios. Perhaps Dumas with her proclivity for self-deprecation (why is this trait so common among female artists?) is more open to revealing herself than Kentridge.

In these scenes Dumas's status as a world-acclaimed artist are debunked when she shows her unsuccessful paintings. Of course, it is in seeing these duds that one is left with an enhanced appreciation of her work and one begins to grasp the elements that define a successful work for her. As for Kentridge, although viewers are privy to the interior of his home, his most intimate space, he remains aloof. This might well have been Meyburg's own doing in which she projected her own desire to cast Kentridge as the mysterious male artist/genius.

This documentary may be of interest to fans with a perfunctory interest in these artists but those looking to discover deeper insights will be disappointed. What this documentary ultimately proves is that Kentridge and Dumas have very little in common other than being two of the country's most internationally acclaimed artists. Unfortunately that doesn't prove sufficient basis for a stimulating exchange. - published in The Sunday Independent, July 5, 2009.

Nation State at the Goodman Gallery Joburg

This exhibition could have so easily been trite. We could have been treated to yet another politically-correct investigation into the constructions of Afrikaner nationalism and its long-standing repercussions or have been served up a litany of literal depictions of nation-building tactics in the New South Africa.
It is refreshing to view nationalism within a wider context, which artworks hailing from other parts of the world establish. Perhaps our navel-gazing period is drawing to a close?
Certainly viewing nationalism from a multitude of perspectives enhances our understanding of the ideologies that have shaped our national identity or desire to settle on an identity that encompasses our diverse society.
Unpacking the mechanics of nationalism was a popular theme on the art circuit in the
late 1980s and early 1990s in places like Britain, where marginalised communities fought their way into galleries and destabilised notions of Britishness. In this context all it took were photographs of black or Asian British citizens in traditional English settings or English garb to undermine the status quo.
Curators Liza Essers and Storm Janse van Rensburg have succeeded in creating a group show that does not challenge notions of nationalism in such obvious ways. Nevertheless it should be acknowledged that this theme does lend itself to an obtuse form of expression.
Because nationalism is built on shared experiences or worldviews, it draws upon overstated or generalised commonalities in its objective to unite diverse groups of people in order to achieve a common end. Easily recognised symbols are, therefore, readily, drawn upon to forge a sense of interconnectedness.
Doing it for Daddy (a Cape Town-based collective, which counts Bettina Malcomness, Renée Holleman and Linda Stupart as members) summon the rhetoric of nationalism in their work, Nation State (2009), an installation piece that sees rows of chairs situated in front of a screen on which the 2009 election slogans from political parties’ campaigns are displayed.
Elections are thought to be empowering for citizens, as it is during these occasions that they are permitted to actively engage in the political process but this artwork implies that the public are passive receivers. The installation conjures an educational setting in which ideas and opinions are instilled in vacant minds. In this context the people appear to have no power, they are receivers of empty rhetorical phrases such as “ready to deliver” and “together we can make a difference.” The latter statement has particular relevance to nationalism where it is commonly implied that transformation can only be enacted when one acquiesces to the collective will.
Slick phrases are the powerful triggers that activate such forms of acquiescence.
Drawing on a vocabulary particular to advertising Stuart Bird’s RSA (2009), a tube lighting sign that reads “For Sale” best articulates the persuasive tactics that nation building is reliant upon. Kadia Attia’s Oil and Sugar #2 (2007), a video work, reaches towards an abstract representation of the (forced) unification of two disparate and conflicting substances.
As one watches the sugar cubes and oil separate from each other the futility of establishing and trying to maintain a national identity comes sharply into focus.
The Austrian artist, Pieter Friedl, highlights the dangers of unquestioning collective thinking with Kill and Go. Friedl’s sign also draws from the advertising idiom but here the message references more devastating actions spurred by nationalistic pride: war.
A collection of collages by Sam Nhlengethwa document life under apartheid. Ranging from landmark events such as the Sharpeville massacre to more quiet moments of suffering such as Candlelit Studying (2003), Nhlengethwa literally pieces together the past with torn images retrieved from a multitude of sources. The result is an artificial form of documentation that while referencing a reality is fabricated by the artist. In so doing he is able to articulate the suffering of the individual without locating it
within the realm of an actual individual. It is this communal experience of suffering that acts as a binding agent for a new nation.
Taysir Batniji’s Mirador (2006), a triptych of grainy photographs of a guard’s tower from multiple viewpoints, conjures the artificial physical boundaries that divide states from each other. A role reversal is afoot here: the guards are being watched and studied. Such a close investigation infers a planned insurgency that will threaten the borders and the ideologies that keep them intact.
It is a collection of photographs by Mikhael Subotzky that deliver the most incisive view into the varied states of our nation.
Photographs of luggage outside a refugee camp and a street party in an affluent Johannesburg suburb, which shows a group of whites caught up in the frivolity while a black security guard sits alone in a chair slightly removed from the party, speaks of the kinds of inclusions and exclusions that are made based on ethnic and economic criteria. The photo highlights the deep divides that continue to keep South Africans adrift and yet despite this lack of homogeneity among South Africans outsiders –refugees – are rejected. – published in The Sunday Independent, June 14, 2009