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.

Instead of appropriating existing artworks for a themed display, several curators have been commissioning work for exhibitions. In essence, artworks are being tailor-made for themed shows. In this way the art is made in response to a theme, rather than an artwork being ideologically repositioned to fit in with a specific curatorial brief. The differences between these two approaches may sound subtle, but they have a far-reaching impact for art production. In establishing the theme for an artwork before its conception, curators are de facto having a greater hand in the end result, though of course, as Burnett underscores, the final product remains unpredictable. So this shift might just be about affecting a different kind of control.

For Water: The delicate thread of Life at the Standard Bank Gallery, curator Marion Dixon commissioned Karel Nel, Willem Boschoff and Marcus Neustetter to make works that would supplement an extensive collection where water was depicted. Katrin Lewinsky preferred not to think of her role as curator for an exhibition titled Basic Reality, which opened a few weeks ago at the Goodman Gallery Projects at Arts on Main. The rather broad theme of this show presented itself to Lewinsky during a long process of interaction between art graduates and students. Lewinsky’s laissez-faire approach wasn’t as hands-off as it appeared; after commissioning the artists, she still made selections that obviously coincided with her concept of the theme and through engagement with the artists, she must have had a subtle hand in the final product. Similarly, Burnett prefers to think of himself as a “provoker”, who created the context in which artists would be “provoked” to make work relating to an equine theme.

Lewinsky and Burnett’s rejection of the term curator implies they are consciously trying to redetermine the role of the curator. But it might take more than another term to undercut the burgeoning attitude that curators are the new artists. Certainly their approaches enhance their role as architects of artistic expression. Interestingly, both Lewinsky and Burnett imply that their approach has engendered greater artistic freedom for artists.

For Burnett, negotiating with artists presented an opportunity for him to become reacquainted with the South African art scene after a seven-year hiatus in the US, where he says he had little success.  Upon returning he struggled to come to grips with the contemporary art scene here, which he says is dominated by identity-based art. It’s an observation that suggests he has quite an oversimplified view of contemporary practice in the country. Given this one can appreciate how the horse theme, suggested by Mark Read, one of the owners of the Everard and Circa galleries, appealed to Burnett.

With this seemingly non-politicised theme, he could sidestep any current discourses and provide a veritable tabula rasa on which artists could project their ideas via their idiosyncratic visual signatures. And in this respect he succeeded to a certain degree; each artist responded in their characteristic approaches. Walter Oltmann produced an intricate wire sculpture of a horse with protruding spikes. Bronwyn Lace suspended the bones of a horse with fish-gut before manipulating them into different configurations, which shifted the anatomy of the animal, evoking other creatures, both mythical and imagined.  And Noria Mabasa presented a series of small sculptures in which the horses’ dimensions were compacted in a way that underplayed their physical prowess.

With this exhibition Burnett didn’t want to rewrite history as he had done before – he wanted to avoid it altogether. This time he opted for creating a grand visual spectacle that was also a commercial venture – Everard Read’s clients apparently favour depictions of horses.  Who could resist an exhibition by 60 local artists centred on a single visual motif? The huge turn-out on the opening night suggested few could. The only problem was this singular visual motif that was imprinted on everyone’s art. There was no escaping the figure of the horse, except in a few cases such as Stephen Hobbs’s contribution, which involved small-scale models of horse jumps and a large-scale scaffolding construction, evoking an oversized one. Despite its vast dimensions and location, between the galleries, it blended in with the environment by appearing like a tentative construction for a bridge.

Overly simplistic themes centred on particular subject-matter rather than an idea tend to pave the way for quite whimsical art. Beyond the thrill of observing how each artist represents it, there is very little else to enjoy. Such exhibitions are hugely appealing to the public: this is contemporary art that they can immediately “access”. This is important for Burnett; he confesses to an abhorrence for art theorising and catalogues, which he says he barely understands. He hankers for a somewhat romanticised notion of art as that which “speaks to the heart and soul”.

His playful show – centred on animal that no longer has social relevance, except to an affluent minority – opened in the same week as the Goethe-Institut’s über(W)unden – Art in Troubled Times conference, where artists such as Zanele Muholi spoke of human rights abuses and injustices in the country. “We can’t pretend as if we don’t see (it),” she urged. While panellists discussed whether they revictimised audiences by exposing them to representations of violence, in the neighbouring suburb Burnett was putting finishing touches to his Horse exhibition as haystacks were being placed on the pavement to set the scene.  Perhaps this kind of rural fantasy is another response to trauma or just pure whimsy. Either way there seems to be space for both in our cultural landscape.- published in The Sunday Independent, September 18, 2011.

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