Saturday, May 29, 2010

In Context: Kentridge at JAG

I know that it has become totally uncouth to enjoy a Kentridge exhibition. But from the moment I stepped into the centre of this exhibition of eight projections, which covered every wall of one room at JAG I was swept up by the imagery. Here is my review:

It seems fitting that artist William Kentridge has become transfixed with Nikolai Gogal's short story, The Nose (1837), a narrative centred on a man whose nose detaches from his face and goes on to lead a more successful existence than its owner. On some level, this metaphoric tale echoes the manner in which Kentridge's artworks and reputation have taken on a life of their own in the wake of his international success.
Kentridge has achieved a level of recognition where the value attached to his art is no longer always determined by the work itself but its association with him. This level of success places him and his work in an ambiguous position within the local art world - although he is revered many look upon his work, his persona, with cynicism. Feeding this contradictory response are efforts by local gallerists to display and celebrate almost any items which have passed through Kentridge's studio or are connected with his talent - an exhibition of dated theatre posters by Kentridge at the now-defunct Warren Siebrits Gallery comes to mind. This is not unusual; it's part of a well-established practice of canonising artistic genius. Thus in many respects within the realm of the media, art history, Kentridge is transforming into someone he has no control over. This idea resonates with the title of his exhibition I am not me, the horse is not mine, an absurd statement alluding to an implausible denial of selfhood. It is not a new work; it was first staged at the Sydney Biennale in 2008 and, like much of his recent artistic output, emerged during the preparation for his production of Dimitri Shostakovich's The Nose, which was shown to great acclaim at New York's Metropolitan Opera this year. This artwork/installation consists of eight projections that are interre-lated and play simultaneously, parading collaged animations and real-life footage relating to Russia's Stalinist era, the visual iconography associated with that period, and amusing drawings relating to the unruly Nose. The eight screens are placed side by side around a room, bombarding one with a cacophony of imagery that is at once confusing and exciting.

Like the nose in Gogal's story, which has legs of its own, this work too has value independent of the opera production. Its worth isn't necessarily based on Kentridge's burgeoning fame either - albeit that it is tricky to isolate his persona from his work. Their importance lies in the manner in which it acutely articulates our current political quagmire as well as local artists' inability or struggle to identify a new vocabulary that addresses/expresses post-apartheid conditions. Kentridge establishes these concepts by summoning the visual iconography of Russian Constructivism, a post-revolutionary language, a sort of East-bloc derivitive of modernism that was designed to serve the needs of an emerging nation with a new political dispensation.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ten reasons why I can't attend another soccer-themed exhibition

1.    I suffer from a peculiar affliction: every time I see a soccer ball my mind immediately goes blank
2.    I have soccer practice on – my version of soccer practice involves practicing at not watching anything that is related to soccer
3.    I have another soccer-themed exhibition to view
4.    My mind still hasn’t kicked back into action since I viewed the last soccer-themed play/dance/exhibition
5.    I am not actually in Joburg – I am in Grahamstown reviewing other soccer cultural products at the National Arts Festival
6.    I have a soccer ball attached to my head and I can’t see anything – absurd but could happen if you did a header and the ball burst
7.    I will be there the moment that a sports event becomes the be all and end all of my life (this is perhaps a bit too truthful)
8.    I was there, didn’t you see me: I was the one with a giant soccer ball on my head (see 6)
9.    I was there among a crowd of German tourists with makarapas on their heads
10.    Sorry, I have to stay home and crotchet  Bafana Bafana scarves for myself and their three other fans

Soccer season certainly hasn’t translated into a go-slow period for cultural producers or institutions; since returning to the office after a three week holiday I have been inundated with invitations to view plays, dance performances and art and photographic exhibitions. Of course, almost all of them are soccer themed: catering for that large group of soccer fans who also happen to be art lovers - NOT.
Ok, they are not all dreadful: my introduction to this peculiar ‘genre’ shall we call it on Friday night at the Market Theatre wasn’t too painful. It was a provocative interdisciplinary piece titled Off-side Rules, which I will be reviewing for the paper next week. It mostly undermined all the hullabaloo around the World Cup, showing it to be nothing but an expedient political sham used to paper over the cracks in our society – that’s the really oversimplified version; in reality it was a challenging piece that  reversed societal conventions or rules.   But frankly my interest in cultural products that engage with soccer is at an all time low: I might be proven wrong but I feel like when you have seen one of them you have seen them all. This is a bit problematic given my Inbox is full of invitations for soccer-themed events. Hence I devised ten reasons why I can’t attend exhibitions during this soccer mad season.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tracy Murinik's A Country Imagined

Recently a prominent academic and writer admonished South African cultural producers for their fixation with the land, implying that this obsession had become clichéd, dull and predictable. He accused artists of either projecting romanticised views on to the African landscape, rendering it as this earthy, barren and unoccupied space that tested the human spirit of endurance, or being confined to narratives that dwelt on the socio-political politics attached to land. Both pursuits could result only in tired, dour and unimaginative forms of expression, he said.

A Country Imagined, which is showing on SABC2 at 9pm on Sundays, focuses on exploring a myriad cultural products that feature or are inspired by the land, so it gives credence to the idea that our artists are preoccupied with this topic. Of course, this subject is not just confined to artistic circles; land reform or redistribution also remains a political hot potato.

But isn't a fixation with the land universal? In 2005 the BBC ran a similar series, A Picture of Britain, which explored the history of pictorial representations of the landscape. Commenting on the series, presenter David Dimbleby noted that "we don't just love landscape in Britain... it is part of our culture and we look at it in a particular way because we have been led to do so by artists".

Dimbleby's observation goes straight to the heart of the importance of such a study, particularly one accessible to a large TV audience, it allows us to see the ways in which our view of our country has been shaped by representations of it. Of course, those who have spent any time studying representations of the African landscape executed during the colonial era will know how influential these portrayals were in perpetuating or justifying the political imperatives of the day. With respected art historian Tracy Murinik behind A Country Imagined, no doubt these issues will come into focus as the series progresses. But it would also be interesting to learn how today's art is propelled by our new political dispensation. This South African series isn't a carbon copy of A Picture of Britain; while it, too, has a non-expert in the form of Johnny Clegg presenting, it hasn't confined its study to rural destinations as the BBC series (and accompanying Tate exhibition) did. It has also embraced urban destinations, which is just as well considering the gazillion artworks and writings on Joburg.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Terry Kurgan's Hotel Yeoville

Yeoville is like another country. This is what artist Terry Kurgan proposes at a press briefing for her latest public art project dubbed Hotel Yeoville. Certainly for liberal whites like her who perhaps squandered parts of their youth in the bohemian cafes and clubs that once flanked Raleigh Street, Yeoville is unrecognisable. Its character and population has shifted considerably since the late nineties when migrants from around the African continent from such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, Mozambique and, of course, Zimbabwe, settled in the neighbourhood and reinvented it to suit their needs. Though a few South Africans remain in the suburb, it is estimated that more than 70 percent of the suburb's residents hail from the rest of the continent.

The physical infrastructure of the neighbourhood is dilapidated, but the streets are buzzing with activity and trade is brisk with an abundance of small shops, hair salons and internet cafes attracting locals. The stylised signage that advertises some of these establishments has a distinctly West African vibe; the images recall the personality of the art of Chéri Samba, a painter from the DRC, whose work was exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Gallery during the Africa Remix exhibition. So for all intents and purposes Yeoville perhaps does look like "another country" - albeit an African one.

Kurgan's statement is not only revealing of the physical changes that have taken place in the neighbourhood, but of the disconnect between South Africans and the migrant communities that have settled in Joburg's inner city suburbs. During the xenophobic attacks which saw thousands of African nationals victimised by South Africans in 2008, this unseen community came into focus. Kurgan suggests that the media's gaze directed attention to this community's most vulnerable and disempowered members, creating a slightly false, if not unrepresentative picture of the foreign African population in this country.

Her aim is to counter-balance some of those sensationalist images that ran on the front pages of newspapers depicting migrants as victims of violence by summoning the more everyday details of their lives.
"There is political importance in becoming familiar with the every day life of this community," urges Kurgan.One senses that the Hotel Yeoville project is driven to not only get an authentic grasp on this community which lives on the fringes of our society, but to satiate our curiosity; who are they? Why have they come here?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Nation building lesbians at the "SPace"

Since I first learnt of our Arts and Culture Minister’s narrow perception of art I have been waiting for a close encounter with her; so when I saw that she was expected to open the SPace (yes, the “P” is meant to be upper case thus alluding to the word “pace” too) I eagerly slipped into my glad-rags and practiced making long “BOOs” in the car on the way to the Africa Museum in Newtown, where this new Pan-African exhibition is being staged. But, of course, she was a no-show. It seems we did underestimate her intelligence: while she might not grasp the finer nuances of high art, or even low art (pornography) for that matter, she does seem to realise that she is persona non grata in the art community. Hence she skipped this affair. I was hugely disappointed; half of the reason I attended the “VIP” opening was so that I could emit a long, loud “boo” the moment she took to the stage. Not the most elegant of rebuttals I agree but one that would have been quite satisfying on a primal level. Frederico Freschi (from Wits’ Art History dept) and his friend Neil (a visual consultant) had cooked up a sharp intervention to mark the art community’s protest: a pink triangle badge (circa Nazi era Germany) which boasted the phrase “Nation building Lesbian.” Within hours of the event half of the crowd there were walking about with this pink triangle attached to their breasts. But, of course, there was no Xingwana to witness this wry act. In her place was some councillor who suggested in his speech that artists were “abnormal” people because they kept odd hours, what with penning poetry at 3am in the morning. Speeches by non-art-folk at art events are always a bit clumsy and dull but the guests opening this event really did seem to take the cake with their dated notions of artists that conjured visions of 17th century English poets thus proving that the divide between the art world and government (and corporates) is a deep one.

I will be reviewing the SPace exhibition in depth in the weeks to follow so I won’t get stuck into it now. I will say this: Africa Museum is the worst venue for any kind of display so the curators – Thembinkosi Goniwe and Melissa Mboweni – had a really tough challenge with this one. From Goniwe’s speech it seems that with this exhibition he and Melissa aimed to follow in the footsteps of Simon Njami’s Africa Remix with not only a strong Pan-African thrust but also in their determination to reposition attitudes about the continent via some gargantuan visual display that showed Africa to be more than a perilous “dark” continent. Hence the sub-themes of the exhibition; pleasure, beauty and intimacy – would reflect “the other side” of the continent. Of course, in selecting this (flawed) scheme, this exhibition is bound to generate some of the same criticisms that Njami’s did – perhaps even more so because the underlying themes are overly simplistic and highly problematic (“beauty” and “pleasure” are such loaded terms in relation to the continent) and do not translate as well as they should have in the curating. There were moments when I was gripped by a frisson of excitement as my eyes darted between a new Mary Sibande work (showing her alter ego Sophie tied to a psychoanalyst’s couch) and  Avant Car Guard’s black 20th “anniversary  cake” and the heaps of new Gabrielle Goliaths that prove her to be the new rising star on the Jozi art scene – but ultimately I left feeling a bit deflated.

(P.S. There were lots – too many in my opinion – of Godfried Donkor’s works similar to the one pictured above)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Dumile Feni in the loo

They weren’t serving plonk at the Standard Bank’s recent shindig for the launch of their new catalogue documenting the bank’s art collection – edited by Julie Charlton in between raising funds for the new Wits Art Gallery (she told me in the lift that it would be ready in a year’s time!). It was a good chat fest too: I cornered Nicholas Hlobo and quizzed him about his up-and-coming show at Brodie/Stevenson. After hearing that he was doing “paintings” I had to ask him whether he was just churning out commercial work in a format that would cheer conservative buyers. He told me he was pushing himself in a new direction. I remained sceptical (until I saw his work last week). But the most interesting discovery of the night was the artworks from the Standard Bank collection that were displayed in the loos. The event was held in an executive lounge so valuable works festooned every corner of the corporate setting – Kentridges, Hodgins, Pierneefs, an Oltmann – but I hadn’t quite expected to encounter art in the powder room. In the ladies was a Maud Sumner Self Portrait and apparently in the men’s was a Dumile Feni – not sure which; the Bank owns four of his works. It was with some degree of shock and surprise that a Pretoria curator discovered the Feni – “How could they put a Feni in the loo?” he declared, before taking a long sip of his Johnny Walker (the Bank had a full-bar on offer for the occasion). Certainly the Standard Bank Gallery have too much art on their hands if they are forced to display some of it in such inauspicious settings. Perhaps it would make sense to display art on the inside of toilet stalls, so that you could admire the work while sitting on the bog. But displayed in the more public areas of a washroom the art functions as decoration; it’s like a fresh vase of flowers.