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.