Monday, November 28, 2011

Thomas Pringle Award for Reviews

The English Academy of Southern Africa announced this week that the 2011 Thomas Pringle Award for Reviews goes to me for a portfolio of reviews I published in the paper during this year. The Thomas Pringle Awards recognise writers who have demonstrated extraordinary insights in their work. It is an annual award for work published in newspapers, periodicals and journals. They are awarded on a rotation basis for: a book, play, film or TV review; a literary article or substantial book review; an article on English education; a short story or one-act play; one or more poems.

The adjudicators of the award noted the following about my work:

“In reading Corrigall's reviews, one is struck by one outstanding quality - her acuity. Whether she is reading words on a page or looking at shapes and colours at an art or photography exhibition, Corrigall has a particularly rare capacity to see things sharply and keenly. Quite apart from Corrigall's sharpness of perception, however, there is also a pleasing lucidity in the way she writes about the different media she focuses on. Her reviews are commendable, therefore, not only for their insights, but also for the crisp and energetic manner in which these insights are expressed.”

 This is the second time that I have won the award. In 2009 I was awarded for a body of reviews published in 2008. So few journalistic or arts awards recognise excellence in art criticism or writing, though everyone acknowledges that quality writing in this sphere must be sustained. For that reason this award is important - it shows that our work is valued!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Kudzanai Chiurai's State of the Nation

It is not unexpected that Kudzanai Chiurai’s exhibition is showing at two locales in Joburg’s inner city – one a makeshift gallery in a warehouse in Newtown, the other the Goodman Gallery’s Project Space at Arts on Main. His work has often exuded a gritty, downtown persona. Mostly it’s the graffiti-style vocabulary that has engendered this notion that his work is “of the streets”. In fact, his ties to street culture are so blatant one reviewer suggested that his art appeared incongruent in a conventional gallery setting.

His work’s connection to the urban environment, however, goes much deeper than superficial links with a pseudo-Jean-Michel Basquiat-like graffiti style. The composition of his paintings and photographs at State of the Nation reflect the palimpsest of an urban African environment populated by diverse signs and iconographies, which reflect the multitude of cultures, traditions and histories that all converge in these modern conurbations. They are places where first and third, African, European and, now, Chinese cultures collide and meld. The signs that populate Chiurai’s paintings – and photographs – should be in conflict with each other. In a painting titled Corinthians (2011) the word “Hollywood” is scrawled across a canvas on which also appears a naked female cadaver, the shadow of a plant, a skull balanced on a stick, a disused tyre and the phrase “time picture for your digital use”.

Despite the fact that these signs, phrases, names, appear mismatched and disjointed from their origins, they now exist as part of the fabric of the African urban experience both virtual and real. The skyline of a city is depicted in the background of Corinthians, alluding to the built environment but it is this incongruent mix of signs that root the painting in the urban African setting. In many ways his work evokes Jean Baudrilliard’s observation about modern reality consisting of simulated signs representing reality, such as a Hollywood sign serving as a shorthand for a place.

Chiurai’s work therefore serves as description of African urbanity. The signifiers of place are always clichéd; the Hollywood sign alludes to American imperialism and a leopard-shaped sofa evokes a generic symbol of Africa. Everything in his pictorial planes have been reduced to overstated forms – consequently what he presents is not the gritty reality of street life but a symbolic shorthand evoking a contested African identity that is expressed in the façades of the continent’s cities.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Embracing Disorder: Clive Van den Berg

The best point of entry into Clive van den Berg’s new exhibition is an oil painting called Man Flails with Maps II (2011). It features the figure of a naked man clutching what appears to be a large map. It is scrunched and he is shaking it so hard that the lines and colours on it are falling off into the air and on to the ground. This painting offers a vital clue to a collection of bold abstract paintings defined by a cacophony of colour and lines that seem quite meaningless – in fact, they are meaningless… but more of that later.

The man shaking the maps could be seen as Van den Berg, who, through a series of the abstract paintings, presents deconstructed maps. In these paintings the lines have been pulled apart and haphazardly arranged to engender incoherent landscapes. Van den Berg is not just deconstructing an object but a visual vocabulary rooted in a pseudo-scientific paradigm. Deconstructing and “decomposing” (a word Rosalind Morris uses in the catalogue), however, don’t quite sufficiently describe what Van den Berg is attempting here, as both terms allude to a methodical act motivated by a desire to understand (and challenge) the mechanics of a construct.

Van den Berg isn’t striving towards understanding but the opposite; he wants to unknow what he knows – and by proxy what we know about the land. To achieve this he needs to jettison the tools of understanding and ordering it.

He subverts the function of the map; instead of guiding the reader/viewer around a territory, these incoherent paintings ensure that we cannot find our way. We are paralysed by the languages that are meant to order space. You could argue, of course, that this is precisely what occurs with maps: that they separate us from the land – the language of map-making becomes a more reliable marker of space than the space itself. Put another way: the land misleads us and maps tell the truth.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Keeping the Faith: Simon Gush

Unwavering devotion to political entities in the face of burgeoning evidence of misuse of power and incompetence can be attributed to a kind of deep-seated faith that is akin to religious fanaticism, intimates Simon Gush in his exhibition Representation. Of course, there are many explanations for this phenomenon – not least the absence of an attractive opposition party. However, Gush’s analogy is powerful and goes some way to explaining how, in the face of overwhelming negative factual evidence, masses of people maintain an unwavering allegiance to a political or social institution.

At the heart of inculcating this level of unquestioning devotion are obviously convincing and ethically robust ideologies that advance social or political transformation. In this way change is always imminent and a reprieve from the status quo appears on the horizon. So no matter how awful the current conditions – in fact, they should be dire – they are seen to be temporary.

Gush doesn’t unpack the mechanics of political rhetoric, nor does he shine a spotlight on the ruling party’s false promises. He is more interested in one of its alliances, Cosatu. Through a series of subtle short films, dubbed Analogues, (written by James Cairns, the Cape Town-based playwright and actor), he maps the moment in which belief is suspended and perhaps reaffirmed. Certainly these narrative filmic works create the impression that faith isn’t an undisrupted state but is rather continuously renegotiated and reaffirmed in the face of evidence that disputes it – hence the adage, “keeping the faith”, which expresses the work required in maintaining it.

The moments of suspension or renegotiation of faith in each short film are easy to detect; they usually occur towards the end and are accompanied by a tense musical phrase on a violin as the camera pans across each setting before settling on the individual who pauses and questions the reality which they have accepted.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The big Horse shebang at Everard Read/Circa

Ricky Burnett emerges from the cool and dark concrete gallery on the ground level of the Circa Gallery. He has just finished a discussion with James Sey, one of the 60 artists showing on the gargantuan Horse exhibition that colonises this imposing circular gallery on Jan Smuts Avenue in Rosebank and the adjacent Everard Read gallery.

He seems slightly distracted and flustered when we begin to chat; it’s a day before the grand opening, which has been billed as one of the social events of the year. Artworks are still being installed and labelled. It’s the end of a demanding process, in which Burnett interacted with each artist who was commissioned to produce a work around the equine theme. The days preceding the exhibition have been the hardest, he has had to negotiate an unknown quantity; though he had a sense what each artist had planned on producing, he couldn’t predict what they would deliver.
“Those who I thought would submit a sculpture, gave us a painting. Those who said they would give us one painting brought a series of 10. Others who promised a triptych delivered only one artwork. I really didn’t know what I would be getting.”

This is not a conventional approach to curating. Not that Burnett is known for adhering to conventions: he made history with his landmark Tributaries: A View of Contemporary South African Art, an exhibition held in 1985 where black artists showed alongside white artists for the first time under the contemporary rubric. This time round Burnett is not pioneering a new take on curating: a different brand of curating seems to have already taken hold in the local art scene.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nathaniel Stern's Compressionism

Impressionism has become so unsexy in the last couple of decades. Well, in art circles, that is. Mostly it’s because this once avant-garde French movement has been embraced with such gusto by the masses. For this reason many overseas public galleries wishing to up the foot traffic in their institutions and assert their relevance to society stage themed shows from this period, or exhibitions by artists connected to it.

The frequency of these impressionism blockbusters has rendered the art from that movement blasé. So it is surprising to find a multi-media artist who embraces what is termed “contemporary practice” to be so captured by the art of Claude Monet and in particular his artwork Water Lilies (1914-1926). As the title suggests they are paintings of the most banal of still life subject matter: tranquil ponds dotted with lilies Monet spied in his garden in Giverny, France.

For Nathaniel Stern the radicalism of the impressionist vocabulary hasn’t quite worn off. He returns to it anew with an eye for reinventing it for the digitised era. Like many viewers who have stood in front of Monet’s large scale paintings in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Stern was seduced by the romantic, hazy lens through which Monet depicted this bucolic scene. In his version of Monet’s Water Lilies he has retained the large scale in his triptych Giverny of the Midwest – the pond he studied was in Indiana. Stern was aware scale played an important role in creating an immersive experience for viewers. He deconstructs and then reconstructs Monet’s approach, but this activity is not in service of demystifying, or satirising it, but re-enacting a moment in art history using digital media.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beneath the Surface: Gary Schneider

Gary Schneider’s mode of photography is highly unconventional. His subjects lie in the dark for hours while he traces their bodies with a pencil torch, illuminating their flesh in front of a camera lens positioned above them. One would expect the result to be a disjointed, if not incomplete, long-exposure photograph in which areas of the body might be left concealed by the dark.

Nevertheless, these studies – such a long-winded and obsessive process could only be deemed a study – appear fairly conventional – aside from the dark patches that fall strategically on parts of their bodies. These shaded areas aren’t accidental; they are all calculated to create depth and visual interest. The interplay between dark and light is particular to photography, but this curious type of photographic approach evokes not only a painterly quality but a painterly mode, which is also rooted in negotiating the balance between darkness and lightness.

In effect, Schneider paints with light; his strokes, if you will, are visible on the naked flesh of his subjects. In this way his invisible gaze leaves a trace. Like a painter he conjures his subjects from the darkness or nothingness  – although, obviously in this context they are fully formed before he encounters them. Nevertheless, painters are also bound to their models and their idiosyncratic features that must be rendered authentically in order for their act of mimesis to be convincing. Schneider might be restricted to his subjects, but he has freedom to decide what parts of their bodies to enhance through his choice of what to illuminate and what to leave cloaked in darkness. Consequently, he gives life to subjects in a manner that defies traditional notions of photography.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How effective is activism in a gallery setting?

IT’S Ironic that Lulu Xingwana’s highly published disapproval of Zanele Muholi’s now landmark photograph of two black naked lesbians spooning brought her cause into the public domain in 2009. Before that, her photographs of this marginalised and stigmatised group had largely been confined to regular gallery visitors, who tend to have liberal views about sexuality. She was preaching to the converted. As a result her documentation of black lesbians in gallery contexts evokes a sense of futility, or at least to some degree dilutes the activist impulse driving the work. Her work’s commercial, aesthetic and art historical values are more significant in this setting. 

Xingwana’s reaction underscored the value of Muholi’s photographic study: if an individual from the high echelons of our society harboured such narrow attitudes, it was proof that prejudice against gay people ran deep. Press coverage of the debacle no doubt inspired Muholi to make a documentary, Difficult Lives, which is part of this new exhibition, Inkanyiso. The documentary gave Muholi a chance to contextualise her work and challenge her critics. It is pitched at the man/woman in the street, and its educational nature makes it feel like a clumsy appendage in the Stevenson gallery. It is not a video artwork  and ultimately its circulation in more public contexts might have more impact than her photographs.

Muholi is not unaware of the power of film:  this exhibition includes a short video work in which a transgender man explains how he has been the target of abuse since he was a child because of his ambiguous status. Muholi probably wished to bring into focus that which was silenced in the photographs: the impact of repetitive abuse on an individual. Certainly, it is hard to believe that behind the beautiful female façade lurks a frightened and harassed person. In some ways the mask is part of his victory over his persecutors, though it also is a convincing camouflage.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Zwelethu Mthethwa: Power to the Poor

ZWELETHU Mthethwa only enforces one rule on his sitters: they must not smile. It’s the antithesis of what one would expect a photographer to demand. This idea is founded in Mthethwa’s belief that smiles are rarely genuine. They’re a knee-jerk response to awkwardness, he suggests.
“I see the smile as a façade, as a mask. When we are not sure what to do, we smile. So for me as an artist smiling becomes some kind of a blockage.”

This ethos has contributed towards an extensive oeuvre of portraiture offering authentic views into the lives of marginalised South Africans. Though he has painted too, it’s his photographs that have caught the world’s attention – he regularly exhibits on international  exhibitions and a new monograph was published by the Aperture Foundation last year.

You could argue that his images of impoverished subjects satiates stereotypical notions of Africa. Undoubtedly the fact that they don’tsmile might underscore their dejection. However, Mthethwa employs a number of devices to foreground the inventive ways in which they respond to difficult circumstances. In fact Mthethwa likens the subjects to artists, and is challenged and inspired by their tenaciousness.

Mthethwa is relieved to be talking about his work; he has a new exhibition on at Cape Town’s iArt Gallery, and has grown weary of discussing his involvement in South Africa’s stand at the Venice Biennale. There has been much controversy around South Africa’s participation in this exhibition because of the manner in which the Department of Arts and Culture failed to follow proper protocol and appointed a commercial dealer, Monna Mokoena, as commissioner.

Mthethwa laughs nervously when I raise the issue. I explain that at this juncture it’s a prerequisite to any conversation with him but suggest he could use the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions. It seems there is one. It was widely reported that Mthethwa refused to participate because of the circumstances around Mokoena’s appointment, but as he explains the back-and-forth negotiations between them, it becomes clear that his withdrawal from what must be the biggest and most important internationalart exhibitions, had to do with a lack transparency and disorganisation.
“No one seemed to know what the budget was. I print my photographs in New York so I needed advance warning.”
When Mthethwa finally received a contract from Mokoena, it was too late and the budget was far too meagre.
“There was not enough time to reproduce the work. I pulled out because I didn’t want to appear to be a clown.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Roger Ballen's Dorps: book review

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in Roger Ballen’s photography. Mementoes from the past, such as threadbare teddy bears, aged family photographs and other disused items from bygone eras have become common motifs in his inimitable brand of photography, which evokes a haunting liminal territory suspended not only between fact and fiction but in time too. His fascination for items that have been degraded by time is linked to his desire to retrieve a lost sense of innocence that one senses has always been sullied or corrupt.

In Dorps: Small Towns in South Africa, which was first published in 1986, one is able to trace the beginnings of Ballen’s fixation with the abandoned, the obsolete. It is an interest which manifests in a photographic study of small towns, dorps, where dilapidated Victorian buildings, empty streets and wall displays of dated imagery conjure up a lost culture. The black and white photographs of these overlooked and unpopulated rural towns, mostly taken in the mid-1980s, have an almost post-apocalyptic quality in the sense that they are caught in what appears to be a spiral of degeneration. Windows are cracked or broken, paint has chipped off the exteriors, signs are faded and corrugated iron roofs have rusted and buckled. The numerous vacant streets and abandoned buildings that feature in this photographic essay hint at a defunct society that has been exterminated. Of course, this offers a politicised reading, which posits these ghost towns as metaphors for a conservative white community that is on the decline.

But this is an oversimplified purview, particularly if one considers this early body of work in relation to his more recent oeuvres, which suggest that Ballen’s interest in entropy is part of an aesthetic designed to challenge the temporal character of photography.Ballen has always tried to undermine the properties of photography. Consequently, while the photographs in this glossy book appear to be the documentation of a society or culture in South Africa circa the mid-1980s, they in fact are quite detached from that era. The architecture, inhabitants’ dress and shop displays hark from a variety of epochs. In this way Ballen presents us with a world in which time has collapsed. Much of the architecture evokes a pseudo-European culture. This connection and the other stylistic throwbacks are motivated by an aspiration which Ballen describes as a “yearning for magnificence”.

Friday, June 3, 2011

'Edgy Watercolour Paintings' Should be an Oxymoron

Watercolour paintings are rarely described as complex. It is not the translucency of the medium that has contributed to this, but the fact that it has long been associated with hobbyist painters.Of course, this is a generalisation: several professional artists have exploited watercolour to great effect, most notably Marlene Dumas and Durant Sihlali.But certainly watercolour landscapes have become the fare of shopping mall art galleries and Sunday art markets.

Perhaps this is why the late Alan Crump’s watercolours come as such a surprise.They are edgy, ironic and intricate and leave you distinctly uneasy, which seems almost incongruent with the medium. We expect watercolour landscapes to orientate and order the natural world in a pleasing manner, highlighting its beauty. The composition of Crump’s landscapes, in particular the series of aerial paintings of mines, is dense and claustrophobic. Every inch of the paper is covered in a dark palette. There is no white space, no reprieve, no lightness. Crump depicts everyday scenes, but there is an implicit violence lurking. Under Crump’s hand the world appears chaotic and in disarray. The angles of his subjects, the absence of focal points, and the multidirectional patterns all work towards drawing you into a dark and frenzied world.

Open Cast Coal Mines, Newcastle, 1994, best illustrates Crump’s modus operandi. In this striking work he presents what appears to be an atomised object. It’s as if the ground has exploded and its insides have been scattered on the surface of the landscape. It’s a crude description of mining, a recurring motif in Crump’s art. His palette is always muted, except for the use of red, such as in Red Giant (1994), a painting of a large building excavation site, or in Earthworks (1997), which presents a tunnel inside the mine. Red streaks line the inside of the shaft before scattering in the interior like pools of blood in the wake of an attack. As Karin Skawran observes in the catalogue, Crump depicts the landscape like a human body. Undoubtedly in Red Giant the red earth reads like bruised and exposed flesh. It is not just Crump’s keen awareness of the environment and its vulnerability that compels this metaphor, but the history of exploitation and domination in this country, which most obviously manifested through the mining industry.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jozi Art Roundup: Goodman, Marx, Kurgan and Rosengarten

It was set to be the art world’s most talked about non-wedding – or anti-wedding – of the year. Though not quite a Middleton and Windsor affair, there was much buzz in Joburg as invitations bearing gold-embossed fonts arrived in the postboxes of art fundis, patrons, critics and fashionistas with an appetite for sartorial spectacles. The invitation conjured a lavish betrothal, despite the fact it was entreating visitors to attend Frances Goodman’s wedding-themed exhibition, Til Death Us Do Part. With a performance rumoured to be in the offing, it was not going to be an ordinary exhibition opening.

And in the weeks preceding the event, the Goodman Gallery’s staff fielded numerous telephone calls and e-mails enquiring whether it was a bona fide catered affair and whether RSVPs were thus imperative. The gallery had underestimated the popularity of anti-weddings: over 250 people flocked to the modest Jan Smuts gallery in anticipation of Goodman’s subversive wedding act. There was no question that it would be anything other than subversive; artists have a tendency to upturn tradition. There was also talk that Goodman’s exhibition might be the final manifestation of an acrimonious break-up.

The performance as such had no beginning or end but simply consisted of a bevy of women parading in their old wedding dresses. Notably, there was not a groom in sight, underscoring the exhibition’s gender bias. Audio recordings of women articulating their vexed relationship with marriage and the burden it placed on their identity emanated from a pole wrapped in fabric supporting a makeshift wedding party tent. Fashioned from blocks of richly embroidered ivory satins, silks and taffeta, the tent evoked the most prominent attraction at weddings: the wedding dress. Undoubtedly the bulk of the billion or so viewers of Kate and William’s televised union were most interested in her dress, as if it would somehow be an astounding revelation. Undoubtedly her future relationship to Britain’s aristocracy was encoded in the conservative white lacy number that evoked princesses of the past.

Goodman’s fabric installation created the illusion of stepping underneath or inside a large wedding dress.Goodman clearly wanted to bring the unspoken sentiments and debates that belie weddings to the surface. Consequently blocks of wedding fabric were adorned with statements by a variety of young women, alluding to the nitty-gritty realities these huge social occasions seem to silence. In this way the work is, de facto, created by the variety of female respondents that Goodman interviewed. As such there was little ambiguity. The work and the statements were ordinary and predictable. Based on many of them, it seemed that women remain victims of this social practice, even when they choose it. The artworks, mostly framed pieces of fabric or car bumpers emblazoned with bitter statements, offered little substance beyond the surface. But perhaps that was the point: weddings are such stylised rituals that the unions are overshadowed by exaggerated theatrics. Consequently, the only way Goodman was able to insert a dissident  voice was to literally embroider it onto the surface among the flower and butterfly motifs. However, by so doing, these gestures were simply co-opted by the system they assumed to rally against. There is no escape, implied Goodman.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Unit for Measure III: Testing the boundaries between art criticism and production

What happens when the formal boundary between an art critic and artists is dismantled? Are there new ways of (re)conceiving the relationship between art production and art criticism?

Artists Bronwyn Lace, Vaughn Sadie and myself decided to find out with an experimental project dubbed Unit for Measure III. We took an existing art project, Unit for Measure, which I had already written about. As my written response to the work shaped its second incarnation at the Durban Art Gallery, so it made sense to discover what would occur if I was brought into the process from its inception. I wasn’t simply a co-conceptualiser; I was involved at every stage, even in the making of the work – a rarity for a critic. I was de facto an artist.

It has been a fascinating process, which will not only help me reconceive of new functions for art criticism but will feed into my other side project: the establishment of an arts writers and critics association (read about it here), which I have founded with the express desire to renew the relevance of criticism and push the boundaries between artmaking and criticism.  

The results of this experiment will be on show this coming Monday at the FADA Gallery at the University of Johannesburg as part of the Collaborations/Articulations group exhibition, curated by Brenden Gray.

It is a three-part artwork, which consists of visual, aural and textual elements. Unit for Measure III is the result of a dialogue between us three collaborators in an effort to not only discover the interrelationship between texts and images but to steer an existing collaborative project centred on spatial dynamics, dubbed Unit for Measure, into new territory.

With a focus on the lasting residue of artworks,  we present a trace of an art object. Thus the artwork per se is removed from the gallery and the residue or trace of its physical existence becomes the focus of the artwork, echoing the function and privileging of text and research in art historical discourses.

Unit for Measure III will show at the FADA Gallery, Bunting Road Campus, Auckland Park, the University of Johannesburg until May 24.

 I will reflect further on the process and result of this experimental project at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 4th at a panel discussion at Think!Fest entitled From Criticism, to Critique to Criticality: Developing Performatory and Participatory Forms of Criticism. Sean O’Toole and Leon de Kok will be joining me for that discussion.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Playing dress-up: Tracey Rose's Waiting for God at JAG

A collection of wigs, shoes, and garish necklaces beckoned from one side of the room. Strewn across a group of tables, it looked as if visitors were invited to play dress-up. Adjacent to this was a group of low tables where books were on display, so upon first glance it appeared as if a children’s education initiative to shed some light on Tracey Rose’s mid-career retrospective had been established in the gallery. It seemed incongruent; Rose’s art is a bit risqué for children, though I noticed a number of them transfixed by a video work attached to the Lucie’s Fur series (2003/4). They were giggling as Rose dismounted from a small donkey and plodded around a manicured garden like a mechanical soldier. With her face covered in black paint, a large papier-mâché penis hat on her head and a target sign attached to her back and breasts, she appeared like a caricature of an African female, a cartoon character.

This is typical of Rose’s modus operandi: she cannibalises popular cultural products, refashioning them into surrealistic mise-en-scènes that appear irrational and disjointed. The kind of dress-up game that Rose plays is less about preparing for roles in the adult world, as per the children’s version, and more about unlearning those roles, illuminating their constructed nature but also reconstructing them and recasting them in new narratives of her making. Hence on closer inspection the educational display is intended for adults
This approach might sound like a common strategy, given the likes of Athi-Patra Ruga, Lawrence Lemaoana, Mary Sibande, Nandipha Mntambo and more recently Gabrielle Goliath, who have all made a living in the art world by playing dress-up for the camera.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Out of Sight: Jo Ractliffe

It is as if nature has overwritten history. A concrete grave is cracked and partially obscured by grass and other vegetation, which has penetrated its hard surface. In time this grave will be completely overgrown and its existence will be obscured from sight. The surfaces of buildings have disintegrated and the iconography that once adorned them has faded. Nothing lasts. Not even the traces of a violent war. The natural landscape might exude a sense of permanence but it is constantly shifting, erasing history.

So, superficially, it seems as if Ractliffe’s attempt to document sites along the routes of the border war fought by South Africa in Angola during the 1970s and 1980s is futile. There is nothing left to see. Hence she maps the edges, the boundary where the visible is passing into invisibility. Like the grave stone that is gradually being concealed.

The landscape’s inability to keep a record of the violent and abhorrent events that have taken place on it has preoccupied a number of South African artists. Driving it is a frustrated compulsion to reconcile with a past that cannot be fully accessed. Without visual or physical markers to substantiate and navigate history, the past becomes indiscernible, ambiguous, and slips into the abstract territory of myth. Thus the landscape’s inability to speak evokes a psychological form of erasure and paralysis – until the past has been recovered it cannot be transcended.
In William Kentridge’s animated films such as Felix in Exile (1994), he inserts bright orange lines into his monochromatic palette to draw attention to the places on the landscape where dead bodies once lay. This sense of nature conspiring to erase the past pervades Ractliffe’s exhibition.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Barking up the wrong tree

It seems rather extraordinary in this day and age for so much attention to be paid to an artist’s bohemian lifestyle. Not only has the stereotypical expectation that an artist should match his iconoclastic stance on the world with a non-conformist life been shattered but in the wake of the “death of the author”, which has shifted attention to how artworks are shaped by society and received by audiences, rather than the quirky traits of the creator, it seems so outdated to be foregrounding an artist’s social habits as if they are testament to his supposed genius.

Nevertheless, such has been the case with Wayne Barker’s retrospective, which is wryly titled Super Boring. During the opening speeches the emphasis seemed to be on his excessive lifestyle and drinking exploits rather than the nature of his art. This brand of machismo back-slapping, which plays out in the catalogue too, no doubt left some guests feeling as if they had stumbled into some sort of American frat-party.
Andrew Lamprecht, the curator and author of the catalogue, does, however, find a way of embedding Barker’s lifestyle within his art practice. It is implied via various quotes from people in the art world that some of his antics were evidence of his artistic sensibility. That Barker is believed to have embellished and fictionalised many of his life’s experiences is thought to substantiate the manner in which he has utilised his life as art. It is an interesting proposition. But you can’t help feeling, given that his art doesn’t embrace any kind of performative aspect – perhaps barring some appalling photographs of black naked women posing in ethnic dress – that this theory doesn’t quite stand up to his art. In other words, his artworks seem quite distinct from him. He is not present in his work – his life cannot be traced through it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jacques Coetzer reflects on the futility of art

An infectious sense of naive playfulness infuses Jacques Coetzer’s latest exhibition. As the title New Adventures implies, the artist has allowed his fervent sense of curiosity to drive his art-making or escapades, which are inseparable from each other here. For Coetzer, art is about adventure. He perceives it as a zone of endless play in which any idea can be explored,  unravelled or upturned. The results of these activities are propelled by a purpose – Coetzer clearly plots out the reasons driving each adventure –  while similarly it is implied that they serve no actual function – they do not shift anything.  Consequently, his adventures are both significant and futile. This paradoxical notion of art underpins the central work of this exhibition, a video artwork, which contains footage of performances (for want of a better description) that Coetzer enacts in different destinations around the world.

These performances or vignettes are preceded by text and are related to one another only by the fact that they are compelled by the same kind of compulsion: to enact a fantasy of sorts. For all the acts that Coetzer performs are fantasies: dressing up like Elvis and playing on a beach or arranging for a musician to play drums on a concrete island on a busy highway – though they are not quite as whimsical as they appear. Playing music is a recurring action; not only does it allow him to mock the guitar-hero status, but it also introduces another vocabulary, which allows him to summon an abstract and sentimental quality. It also conjures that staple form of popular culture: the music video, which is most typically used to elevate the artist’s status.

Because each scenario reads as quite pathetic and pointless – the man who plays the drums in traffic doesn’t draw attention, the cars pass at the same high pace – this stylised form of expression is subverted or shown to be irrelevant. This is best illustrated via a vignette titled Playing Guitar for Goats, where Coetzer strums his guitar in the company of goats. Obviously goats do not make ideal audience members. Coetzer suggests that the significance of any act is inextricably tied not only to a witness to substantiate it, but also to one’s ability to transform that audience – if only temporarily. This idea is addressed in Long Live the Pacifists and the Activists, where Coetzer plays guitar in different locations around Barcelona – the home of the guitar. Significantly, Barcelona is also the city where Don Quixote’s journey concluded.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Life at a Subterranean Level

Peculiar things happen in nightclubs. It is in these dark spaces that social boundaries are challenged and temporarily dismantled and where individuals explore and advertise their sexuality. It is perhaps for all of these reasons that photographers gravitate towards them. Certainly photographers find more amenable subjects in these places; or at least the barriers have partially collapsed.

This might explain why within the past three years this exhibition of Billy Monk photographs taken at a club in Cape Town called Les Catacombs in the late 1960s is the third collection of photographs to document a club scene. Liam Lynch recorded the antics of his peers cavorting in trendy nightclubs in A Claude Glass, which showed at the Rooke Gallery in 2008, and last year at the Afronova gallery Musa Nxumalo exhibited photographs of the so-called “alternative kidz” – a young black subculture that embraces alternative rock music. Interestingly, as with Monk, who was a bouncer at Les Catacombs, both of these photographers were “insiders” – part of the scene they chose to document.

Thus there is a sense that these bodies of works are not only motivated by a need to record the fleeting comings and goings of these transient communities they belong to, but they are personally invested in claiming a place within society for these subcultures. It is quite extraordinary really that communities form in nightclubs; perusing Monk’s photographs one is immediately struck by the fact that they are quite dysfunctional spaces. Certainly the environment of Les Catacombs doesn’t at all appear to be conducive to any kind of socialising: the walls are dirty, stained and chipped, the floors are laden with rubbish and disused bottles. Even the sparse furnishings – mostly rudimentary chairs, of the sort you would expect to find in an impoverished public school classroom – are uninviting. These filthy and dilapidated areas of this club recall the backdrops of Roger Ballen’s images of maladjusted whites locked in their own psychological hell.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gimberg Nerf have expired!!

It seems that Gimberg Nerf have been resurrected simply for the announcement of their demise. I found this in The Star newspaper yesterday. Before any of you surrender to a false sense of grief, though I do believe they would appreciate it, this announcement in The Star does not refer to their physical demise. Physically they have never existed; they are a virtual entity that were endowed with a (virtual) corporeal presence on Facebook recently. So, of course, when they left Facebook, they no longer had a visual sign that referred to their presence, barring their signature, which they do seem to leave on all sorts of peculiar objects.

Who would have thought that they would have turned to an almost outmoded form of communication (the classifieds) to announce their inactivity? I think many artists will take comfort in the notion that inactivity is worth declaring. For those like me who have been following the curious behaviour of this hybrid artistic persona, they will note that once again Gimberg Nerf’s appearance has shifted somewhat. Gimberg Nerf certainly is a slippery chap. The black rimmed glasses – a characteristic that could be ascribed to a number of folk in the art world – are still in place but he has a fresher, younger appearance.  This must be Gimberg Nerf’s late summer/autumn 2011 look. I do like it.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Top 10 Cultural Highlights of 2010

A bit belated nevertheless here it is, in no particular order:

1. Paintings by Nicholas Hlobo at Brodie-Stevenson Gallery:
Hlobo is the country’s rising art star. Since showing solo exhibitions at the prestigious ICA in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the Tate Gallery in London in 2008, he has secured an enviable international profile, which has been further cemented since scooping the Rolex Visual Arts Protégé for 2010/11, which will see Anish Kapoor mentoring him.
But it is not these achievements that garnered him a place on this list: it’s the extraordinary so-called “paintings” - a collection of canvases boasting intricate three-dimensional embroidery - he exhibited in 2010.
In them he upturns the notion of the painted canvas, transforming the traditional western art medium into a sculptural form that straddles the realm of craft.
So far the artist has focused on the exterior embellishments that conceal human forms but, in this remarkable series, he attempts to peel back the surface layers as he explores interiority and the interplay between the two.
This presents an interesting shift for the artist and one that suggests that the fixation with identity that has gripped visual arts production in this country is moving in a new direction.

2. Foreplay, written and directed by Mpumelelo-Paul Grootboom at the Market Theatre:
This was the second run of this play, an adaptation of Arthur Reitzinger’s Der Reigen (The Circle). Grootboom is an uncompromising playwright who is unwilling to pander to commercial concerns or bourgeois sensibilities. In this play he offers uncensored views into the darkest parts of the South African consciousness by probing sexual desire, utilising it |as a metaphor for an insatiable hunger for power and dominance, the two driving forces that have defined our history and have set the conditions for the current political climate.
This idea crystallises in a long, drawn-out rape scene where the perpetrator is a top government official. Though many audience members found the scene unbearable, part of Grootboom’s talent as a theatre-maker is his ability to force audiences to confront the harsh realities of a society that has lost its moral compass.
In Foreplay he softens these truths by infusing humour, music and stylisation in such a way that the pain and horror is aesthetisised, though it remains palatable and haunting.

3. Time of the Berries by Peter Van Heerden and Sello Pesa: the 2010 Dance Umbrella:
Ever interested in dismantling the boundaries between performers and audiences, Van Heerden and Pesa created a performance in which the spaces these two occupy were almost completely blurred.
Not just physically but ideologically too, as they appealed to the audience to engage in a political discussion. They also achieved this by making it unclear when they were performing and when they weren’t.
Though these strategies and objectives are nothing new – particularly within the world of performance art – they exploited these ideas in the creation of a work which aimed to challenge not just the passivity of the |audience but to probe the politics of passivity, particularly in a racially charged environment where acts of violence and abuse continue to play out. They related this idea to the Reitz Four by enacting scenes from this case, where four young white men abused black cleaners at the University of the Free State.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Déjà vu: Pieter Hugo's precursor

This might appear like a photograph from Pieter Hugo’s recent exhibition at Brodie/Stevenson called Permanent Error but it is not. It is a photograph taken by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo from Burkino Faso. For some the most pertinent fact is that Ouedraogo took this photograph and others at, the now famous, Agbogbloshie Market in Accra, Ghana in 2008 – before Hugo. An anonymous commentator on my blog drew my attention to this photograph and others by Ouedraogo, which were nominated for the Prix Pictet photographic award, view the link here.

The anonymous commentator asks whether Hugo had seen this image (and presumably the others) before he had taken his own photographs. I would like to think that he had, as I believe he built on the potential that this photograph promised. I also have an inkling that Ouedraogo wasn’t the first person to photograph this site and the extraordinary phenomenon that exists there: it is such an evocative location that it is easy to imagine that photographers make a pilgrimage to it. 

The post of my review of Hugo’s exhibition attracted a number of comments by people who felt compelled to demonstrate his ‘unoriginality’ by listing a number of potential predecessors (who were all deemed more superior).  I found this particularly interesting but also a futile activity as every artist has a slew of precursors - even those rare individuals deemed to have set art on a completely new course. I am not defending Hugo’s work – but the principles at stake here. I suppose because photography and its potential within the art realm is only just being explored in this country, there is this expectation of the new – that each photographer/artist is compelled to employ it in a distinctive and original way (albeit that the evolution of photography has already played out elsewhere in the world).

This is a particularly difficult objective for those who straddle the social documentary genre, such as Hugo, as off-beat or shocking social phenomenon attract a particular brand of photographer like flies. When I was a judge for the Bonani Africa Photographic competition last year this actuality came sharply into focus.   Of course, there is a distinction between subject-matter and its treatment thereof. In light of this I would argue that Hugo’s series in Ghana is completely different to Ouedraogo’s – even the portrait with the smoke. Hugo is more concerned with the subjects (and portraiture) who inhabit this post-apocalyptic territory, whereas Ouedraogo seems to be giving a broader perspective, encompassing different aspects of this phenomenon and its impact on the landscape: such as the photograph of a bridge over a river of electronic waste.

Because this site evokes quite an obvious discourse centred on unequal power relations between the West and Africa, I suppose the question should be: are Hugo and Ouedraogo saying the same thing? What do you think?

BTW: Just one last little, ironic point: Ouedraogo is so averse to his images being copied in any way that I had to call in an IT expert to help link the above image from his website (he has code in place to ensure that you can’t even do a screengrab) onto this page. I suppose he might be outraged to see Hugo’s series.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Brett Murray's angry retort falls short

Anger often bypasses reason as it circulates around the mind, gathering energy to force an explosion. Hail to the Thief is just such an explosion. It is not that Brett Murray’s anger is unreasonable: like many South Africans he is enraged by the pervasive level of corruption that has permeated the ruling party. Certainly, it is an inescapable phenomenon of our times. One cannot open a newspaper without being confronted with another story detailing how government or ANC members have exploited their position to line their own pockets. That few individuals are ever held accountable has compounded the sense of outrage that so many justifiably experience.

This perhaps might explain why Murray says the same thing over and over again in this exhibition: he is paralysed by an overwhelming sense of disbelief and powerlessness. An ANC logo is emblazoned with the phrase “For Sale”. “Cash is King” is a slogan that appears below a stylised rendition of Zuma, rendered to resemble a famous poster of Vladmir Lenin, the first leader of the communist Soviet Union. “Join the Tender Party” is the phrase that emblazons a wooden sculpture that is designed to appear like a poster. Like the former artwork Murray draws its language from communist visual and textual rhetoric. In another work Murray borrows the title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, Tender is the Night, except here the word “tender” is repeated over and over.

By repeatedly stating the phenomenon Murray evokes or replicates the habitual nature of the corrupt behaviour that all these morally twisted politicos and their collaborators engage in. Consequently this exhibition is almost as excessive as the behaviour it critiques. Certainly some of the visual forms that Murray uses, such as the oversized gold leaf and aluminium coat of arms that dominate walls around the gallery, suggest that he has assumed a mode of expression that mimics the opulent lifestyles which either drive such widespread corruption among the country’s new elite or is a manifestation of extreme wealth.