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how artworks are shaped by society and received by audiences, rather than the quirky traits of the creator, it seems so outdated to be foregrounding an artist’s social habits as if they are testament to his supposed genius.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.