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.