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.

In Vacancy, two men are seen arriving at a building where they both apply for a job. Though we never know what kind of job it is, it appears to be a low-level job involving driving a truck. For this reason, the interview process involves two parts; a discussion and then a driving test in a yard outside.

One man merrily goes through the motions of both while the other, who seems to observe the details of the setting much closer, noticing a battered door handle and a dented pillow on a sofa, pauses in the stairwell before taking the driving test. He quietly exits. It’s a subtle rejection of an ambiguous set of circumstances.

Based on a variety of physical and non-verbal clues, the man comes to believe the job is not for him. His rejection is therefore based on instinct, so perhaps his moment of suspension is really the moment in which he embraces another belief about what work should entail. This decision or insight occurs in a split second, creating this sense that it is a temporary state. Perhaps he arrives home and regrets walking out.

These films look at shifting beliefs around work and, given that the current work ethic and the sense that our identity and self-importance is tied to work are derived from Christian teachings and others, it lends credibility to the link between faith and work.

It is not only religious fanatics or card-carrying political party members whose world view is shaped by belief systems but every individual’s outlook is influenced by a type of paradigm. Even being a non-believer is to believe in something. The man’s decision to skip out on the interview maps the moment when one set of ideas is replaced by another. The switch is activated by empirical information but also something quite intangible, mystical even, articulated in the haunting notes of the music, because isn’t faith about transcending the physical realm?

Gush roots us in the environments and spatial dynamics of each setting via close-ups. In this way he presents a textural and sensory encounter for viewers that establishes the seductive pull of reality and how it thwarts, challenges transcendence, though it also creates the conditions that inspire it.

When a young woman, who we presume has been the victim of sexual harassment or some other distasteful event in the workplace, gazes out of a window of a conference centre after a Cosatu meeting, she is transported outside that context and sees her predicament from an external perspective.

It is in this moment we surmise that she realises that she can no longer be a supporter of Cosatu, who she works for. But this may only be a temporary pause; she will have to work hard to restablish her faith in the organisation, a skill her superior has perfected.

It is interesting that Distance, which is set in a bland hotel setting, is meant to articulate an absence of belief, according to the press release. That the characters are all white also speaks volumes and implies that their inability to embrace populist beliefs situates them in some kind of liminal territory – an in-between, transient space.

Above the beds in the hotel suite is one of those mass-produced artworks depicting what could be a wagon, evoking the laager and mining motifs – though, of course, its stylisation speaks of the commodification and disintegration of binding belief systems. The wheel with its multiple spokes also evokes the Cosatu logo, which Gush reworks and deconstructs through a series of drawings and murals outside the gallery.

In the murals Gush reimagines the Cosatu logo by infusing it with religious slogans and motifs, thereby conflating two worldviews. As artists know only too well, it is in the representation – to use the title of the exhibition – of religious and political symbols that belief is|concretised for, as the films establish, it is through visual, non-verbal signs that faith can be altered. - published in The Sunday Independent, October 16, 2011.

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