Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cape Town Art Week: Group Mentality

On the floor are stacked layers of tiles and bones, next to a porcelain dog that looks like it is guarding the installation. It’s one of many Kemang Wa Lehuleres that fill the first room of the Stevenson gallery. It’s like a neat cross-section of a disaster site - a clinical excavation.  The title, I can’t laugh any more, when I can’t laugh I can’t… (2012) speaks of this incongruent mix of trauma and kitsch, this oscillation between digging into a past horror, while acknowledging the act of digging is clichéd.

The gallery is surprisingly empty, given it’s the opening night, but then there are four other openings or events in the Woodstock area – so the art-going-loving-buying-crowd is spread thinly between Blank, the new experimental space dubbed “Evil Son”, the Goodman and Whatiftheworld.

My companion, Malibongwe Tyilo, aka Skattie, the infamous fashion blogger of Skattie What are You Wearing, has slim pickings; fashionable or stylish gallerinas are his niche market and there are only a few old ladies knocking about the gallery. He snaps one of them, wearing a pair of silver trainers, and me in one of my statement necklaces. It’s one of five that I have brought to Cape Town as part of my Art Week Cape Town survival kit, which also includes a box of Panados (to counter headaches brought on by cheap wine at openings), the handy Artweek map, and a smartphone for tweeting and photographing so I can keep track of the work I like.

There is a lot to see and process, with two or three openings a night over the space of a week. While the Joburg art scene has wound down by mid-November – there is not an opening until next year – it’s high art season in Cape Town. December and January are the most lucrative months for galleries, what with the city brimming with affluent tourists and visitors.

Few are, however, risking it with a solo show; except for the Goodman, which was due to open with a new William Kentridge exhibition wryly titled No, it is. But then it’s Kentridge, one of the most bankable local artists. Largely, it’s only public institutions that are showing solo exhibitions; the AVA is showing La Sape, a collection of painted portraits by Zambian artist Zemba Luzamba and, at the Iziko SA National Art Gallery, Mikhael Subotzky’s Retinal Shift and Jared Thorne’s exhibition, Black Folk, are being exhibited.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Something with a Pulse: Live Art Fest

‘Is he just going to stand there all night?” asks the little girl standing on a wooden bench in front of Athi-Patra Ruga’s Hope Street studio windows. A large crowd gathered in front of the building before the blinds were raised, revealing not one, but two performers. Which one was Ruga?

 Ruga and Jade Paton’s upper bodies are hidden behind a plethora of balloons holding luminous liquid. Legs concealed in fishnet stockings and ending in pairs of matching red satin high-heels support these bulbous entities, which don’t look too dissimilar from a bunch of grapes. A neon light at the base of the window brings all the neon shades in their costumes, and in the images pinned to the walls in the room, into sharp relief.

It is like a scene from Amsterdam’s red light district, but for the fact that not a single inch of their bodies is on display and they are not stereotypical female personas, but The Future White Women of Azania – an unknown population still in the making. They appear like mannequins, too, though they totter from side to side, like inebriated whores, struggling to remain inert as their heels slide on the neon liquid released from the balloons as they pop.It is a gradual “striptease”, each burst balloon promising to bring us closer to the identities concealed behind the wall of bright plastic.

“This is boring,” declares the opinionated little girl. The balloons aren’t popping fast enough to hold her fickle attention. We’ve learnt to be patient. Performance art isn’t only a test of physical endurance for the performers but for the audience too. We expect to be bored at times. We need to feel trapped in the present in order to grasp its presentness, the weight of it. After all, some define performance art as “life itself, it doesn’t represent or portray”, or so reads a blurb touted by the organisers of the inaugural Venice International Performance Art Week that takes place in December.
Performance art is also finding new platforms in South Africa – mostly due to the efforts of one individual, Jay Pather, who has used his clout to help establish a division for this discipline at the National Arts Festival, a Standard Bank Award for a young artist achieving in this area – Anthea Moys was its inaugural recipient – and is responsible for initiating the Live Art festival in Cape Town.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Treasure Hunting: Photography and Mines

Neville Petersen expects a song and dance when he arrives at a mine shaft. East Rand Proprietary Mines South East Vertical (SEV) shaft in Boksburg has been closed since 2005, but there are a few guards stationed at the entrance who aren’t keen to let us in. It’s not the buried wealth underground that needs protecting, or even the dilapidated structures above ground, it is simply a knee-jerk reaction; this compulsion to conceal its business from the prying eyes of strangers. After 15 minutes of patient negotiations, Petersen returns to the car and parks it under a large tree overhanging the driveway. We must wait for a more senior security manager to allow us entry into the mine’s premises. A group of men are tending to the manicured gardens leading up to the entrance.

There seems little reason now to maintain appearances; the only visitors are unwanted. They are mostly scavengers that enter under the dark cloak of night to steal cables. And then, there is Petersen, a former photojournalist who has made a habit of roaming around these abandoned institutions with a camera attached to his eye. This is his third or fourth visit to SEV, but he sees new things here all the time; because the imposing shaft building and all the dilapidated machinery and empty buildings are caught in an aggressive state of entropy, their exteriors are constantly changing. Nothing remains stagnant, not even a decommisioned mine.

There are all sorts of logical explanations for Petersen’s fixation with these edifices – it is the buildings, the discarded machinery that capture his interest. It might have something to do with growing up on the East Rand, Springs, in-between two mines. The imposing architecture of the shafthead frame is imprinted on his consciousness as in much the same way as the blue of a highveld sky. So, perhaps it was always written in the stars that he would one day want to survey the activities connected to this enduring motif, untangling the mystery that they weaved into his childhood dreams.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rebel without a Cause: Christian Nerf

When you send Christian Nerf an e-mail these days you get an immediate response, informing you that he is “itinerant”. In other words; don’t expect a speedy response. Nerf makes a good nomad. To all intents and purposes he has been living “off the grid”, as the expression goes, for some time. That catchphrase is often used to describe militant eco-conscious folk who refuse to buy into any established systems they perceive as damaging, to live independently off conventional systems, but it seems appropriate for Nerf’s lifestyle and approach. Periodically, he is content to live without a home. Doesn’t sell his time to anyone. Well, almost – his cigarette addiction might be one of the few reasons he exchanges money. And he is a reluctant artist.
“I am pleased there is a category called art that allows for people like me to exist and function,” he observes coolly.

His “off the grid” – or could it be “between grids”? – approach makes him a bit of an anarchist and, also, ironically, an artist: the good ones are always fighting against the narrow confines of what the label designates. Almost in honour of this contradiction, he is wearing an apron covered in paint when I find him inside Room, a slip of a gallery at 70 Juta in Braamfontein run by Maria Fidel Regueros.

The apron isn’t his. I gather he hasn’t painted in some time. When he dropped out of Wits Technikon art school in the late Eighties – surely the beginning of his “off the grid” stance – to pursue painting, it took him two months to discover that, despite his proficiency, he had nothing to paint.
“I needed life experience.”

A career in advertising taught him about the life he didn’t want to lead. Art school taught him that what he deemed art might not be what everyone else did. This realisation might have initially turned him away from art, propelling him into the world of advertising, but it has similarly brought him back into the fold – he likes to rub up against expectations.

The paint-splattered artist’s apron is part of a scheme to appear as a conventional artist in the makeshift studio he has established inside Room. The gallery has become the studio, collapsing process and product and avoiding this sense he has that art is “emasculated” when it moves from the studio to the gallery. In a way his Room installation, called Et Al, Et Cetera, is also a performance piece, a bit of theatre, reality theatre.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Invisible Entities

It was only going to be a matter of time before Stephen Hobbs would build another model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. The tower was conceived around 1919 by the Russian artist and architect, and it is easy to see why Hobbs is fixated with its design. It was a grand scheme in every way; not only did Tatlin set out to create a building that would rival the Eiffel Tower, but it was conceived as an information and propaganda hub for the communist state – it was architecture about and in the service of an ideology. Tatlin had even planned for a projector to be located in its upper reaches so that messages could be cast on passing clouds.

The scheme itself turned out to be pie in the sky. Small models of the building were completed, but it was never built. Interestingly, it is this fact that titillates Hobbs, beyond its symbolism as a utopian project for social change. It feeds his fascination for architecture that has never been realised – can never be realised. It’s an unusual preoccupation, if not one that seems in contradiction with the objective of this discipline. There is a kind of poeticism to unrealised potential that has captured his interest, one no doubt fuelled by his own unrealised imaginings, or the limits of reality, particularly for an artist interested in urban space.
Tatlin’s unrealised building has become as iconic, certainly in artistic and architectural circles, as the Eiffel, to which it bears a strange resemblance; it’s like a twisted, contorted version of it. Many have argued that Anish Kapoor’s Orbit sculpture for the Olympic Park in London bears some resemblance to Tatlin’s tower.
Over the years Hobbs has been replicating this constructivist design in models and paintings – as in The End of Cities, shown at the Blank Gallery in 2009 – but his latest rendition of Tatlin’s model, now on show at an exhibition dubbed Dazzle Plans, presents another step in his long-standing relationship with this famously unconceived building.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bankable Art

I had forgotten that Brett Murray used to have a sense of humour. Perhaps he never lost it; maybe we did. Standing in front of Murray’s 2002 work I must Learn to speak Xhosa brings to mind his sharp brand of satire, the laughter his approach once provoked. It’s a painted metal sculpture depicting an old (white) man kneeling in front of a bed, praying. The title of the work appears in a speech bubble below.

The work marks a time when Murray was still mocking the old guard and, in the context of the Art of Banking: Celebrating through Collections, it is used to visually map the mood of the 1990s, a time when white people presumably became acutely aware of the errors of their position, or at least felt their vulnerability in the face of an about-turn in the political and social status quo. Norman Catherine’s Endangered Species, a 2001 work consisting of a wooden cabinet populated by hybrid figures and objects, such as a bottle of “stay alive pills”, is also co-opted in service of articulating this sentiment.

It’s a curious process; using works from one time frame to illustrate another period. But largely this is how this exhibition has been constructed by Barbara Freemantle of the Standard Bank Gallery. The show isn’t simply an exercise in showing off works from this institution’s substantial art collection but, in celebration of its 150th anniversary, the works have been used to gloss over the country’s history from the 1860s. Given this fairly unexciting objective, I expected a dry, if not dull exhibition. This jumbling of time frames has certainly allowed Freemantle to animate this history in a different way; the contemporary works that illustrate this  period simultaneously undermine or question some of the events that have been selected to define it. This engenders a sort of parallel story or powerful subtext.

But this modus operandi presents problems, too. For example, it allows a kind of hindsight that was not available at the time of these events. Murray and Catherine’s works were made almost a decade after the time frame that they are meant to capture, so can they really relate to prevailing sentiments in the 1990s? This kind of fast-forwarding to future conditions or mindsets makes the artworks operate as a screen that projects a more politically correct reality, though many are juxtaposed with works from the actual era they are meant to depict. Murray and Catherine’s works are shown near Penny Siopis’s  diptych  Always Something New out of Africa,  made in 1990. Contrasting with their works, the latter suggests it may have been a time when white artists identified with the political struggle. In the late 1990s, when the so-called Grey Areas debate dominated local discourse on art, Siopis was criticised for her level of identification with black subjects and/or representation thereof.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Extraordinary Things: Wim Botha @Stevenson

A Thousand Things is the kind of work you step into. This isn’t an ordinary installation; it’s highly immersive. It is contained within the large room at the back of the Stevenson gallery but it is the black skirting, supported by a raw pine structure framing the installation, that signals you have crossed over a boundary and into a different territory.

The boundary appears familiar, as do the objects that are placed within this room-within-a-room, but it’s an ambiguous space, colonised by signs that hint at a variety of  real and abstract settings. The black skirting appears like a picture frame, engendering the notion that you have entered a painting. There are other signature elements associated with painting – the wooden easel stands that prop up most of the sculptures, the drips of white paint on them and, of course, the historical motifs of Baroque painting; a tortured human frame splayed open, a skull and the disembodied wings of an angel.

The sculptures are all unfinished; the treated pine they are made of is exposed, with only a few dabs of white paint hinting at the first layer of priming that might take place.This creates the impression that you are roaming through a studio of a prolific artist who darts between works, unable to complete anything. In this way the installation and the studio become a fused entity. The line dividing process and end-product has collapsed, but so too has the one between the art and the gallery.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Undoing the Business of Art: Joburg Art Fair

It is not often that going unnoticed by your audience is a sign that the performance is a success. But such is the case for the initial phase of Murray Kruger's Business Day Part 2, which appropriately begins in the swish Wanted/Businessday lounge at the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) at the Sandton Convention Centre. In a pair of black trousers, smart black shoes and a white shirt, Kruger quietly inserts himself into the hustle and bustle of the art fair, immersing himself in a newspaper. He is posing, or should one say, becoming, a businessman, though one could argue that this attire mirrors William Kentridge's characteristic uniform.

His transformation had begun weeks earlier with a succession of haircuts. Finally, this generic businessman, office worker, coalesced during a shoot for Wanted magazine, where he had been selected as one of the supposed Young African Artists (YAA) - an invented appellation that recalls the Young British Artist (YBA) title that became synonymous with a certain kind of work in Britain in the '90s. In the context of a feature to promote his status, this scheme to pose as someone other than himself is almost self-defeating - being recognisable furthers your success. Certainly, a number of young artists at the art fair were grumbling that they had not been deemed a "YAA".

However, for Kruger, his business, his art, is rooted in playing someone other than himself, so retreating behind a facade is meant to work in his favour. "I don't want people to know me," he observed. Of course, the more known he becomes, the more difficult it will be to camouflage himself, to go unnoticed. For now, the 24-year-old performance artist is a relatively unknown quantity and his marketability in an art fair setting is negligible - performance art can't be traded here, unless it is packaged into a definable object.

The Joburg Art Fair, now into its fifth year, has become a space for artists to attract notice, particularly in the absence of a bullish market for contemporary art at auction. Marketability can be tested here. The artists that gallerists choose to show at the fair and what prominence they give them is already an indication of this, though some selected showstopper pieces are used as a way of drawing attention to their stands. In this way some of the art on display isn't sellable, though it is for sale. Such as Angus Taylor's Die Omdop Van Doosekerheid, a large square of rammed earth on a wooden frame, on display at the front of the Everard Read stand. Other galleries, like the Rooke, showed a collection of 1975 Pipeline Gun surfboards decorated by a variety of artists - feathered surfboard anyone? The market for novelty surfboards is probably more substantial than one for a giant cement mixer given an African fetish twist with nuts and bolts by Michael MacGarry. Future Proof takes up a small stand and, at R300 000, is not something just anyone would pick up on a whim, yet David Brodie, one of the directors at the Stevenson gallery, isn't bothered if it doesn't sell during the fair, as he is sure it will eventually find a buyer. He doesn't view the fair as a space to aggressively sell art.
"Most of our clients don't come to the fair to buy from us, we are already interacting with them so we see the fair as a place to challenge viewers, so less of our focus is on objects and projects instead.
"But I do think you will get more bang for your buck with this baby," he observes, banging on the side of MacGarry's sci-fi sculpture as if it is a washing machine with all the bells and whistles.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Brett Murray breaks his silence with "silence"

No matter how heated the debate became during The Spear debacle earlier this year, Cape Town-based artist Brett Murray chose not to enter the fray. Murray resisted mounting pressure to come forward and explain the motivations behind his contentious portrait of President Jacob Zuma, which exposed the leader's genitals. Even when Zuma took the case to court, to appeal for the artwork to be removed from the Goodman Gallery, various individuals suggested Murray's work was racist in intent, and when his life was threatened, Murray maintained his silence.

There were those in the art community who believed that if he had spoken publicly about the work and explained his intentions, the conflict which the artwork provoked may have been avoided.

On Thursday evening, at the opening of the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) at the Sandton Convention Centre, Murray broke his silence in quite a literal manner with a large scripto-visual artwork presenting the word "silence".

This new artwork, titled Dissent, was discreetly displayed inside the Goodman Gallery's stand. However, it proved to be one of the most talked-about works at this annual event. Once again Murray has chosen not to speak about the work, so viewers at the fair were left to make up their minds about what it might signify. Coming so soon after The Spear debacle, the work does suggest that the pressure the ANC placed on the Goodman Gallery and the artist to withdraw The Spear from public display was tantamount to censorship.

Virtually Real

There is a lot of foot traffic as we make our way up Marshall Street towards Malvern. We are blocks away from hipsters' paradise, or Maboneng as it is dubbed, but have entered another country, where people buy second-hand threads out of necessity and tailors work with their sewing machines on the pavement. As audience members of Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie's peripatetic Between, we are observers of the street life, though at times passers-by glare at us as if we are the subjects of the work. The performers are hard to detect, they are sometimes part of our group or emerge from the throng. It's a guessing game: who and what is for real, and who is on show?

This performance for the Drama for Life festival wasn't anything new. Taking to Joburg's inner city streets as part of a cultural adventure, a way of mapping, and challenging invisible boundaries, and coming to grips with "the other" has quite peculiarly become a (predominantly white) middle-class pursuit. For those who live or pass through the inner city this is everyday life. Underpinning this drive for the middle classes to steep themselves in inner city life is the compulsion to confront "the real Joburg" - that is, the inner city that was abandoned (by white people) from the late 1980s and fell into a state of entropy. Of course, no part of Joburg is more real than another.

The Goethe Institut's New Imaginaries initiative is feeding off this trend, expanding its cultural scope. Its recent Shoe Shop project, which was the first installation, may have centred on migration and movement, exploiting the metaphor attached to urban strolls, but it was significant that one of the key events was a street parade from Braamfontein to the Drill Hall in the inner city that further ritualised this desire to penetrate, confront and reconcile with the "real" Joburg.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Documenta 13: Between Things and Places

Kassel isn't like Kassel outside of Documenta, jokes Jasper Kettner as we briskly stride alongside him down the main thoroughfare that cuts through this German hamlet. It's the height of summer and the pavements are colonised by tables. People are sitting in front of cold beers in long glasses. It is hard to tell who are locals and who are on an art pilgrimage.

No one (read: art world aficionados) knows what Kassel is like when this gargantuan art show isn't on, because there is no reason to visit the town other than the Ikea store, is Kettner's riposte when I make further enquiries about Kassel. As one of the assistant curators working under Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director, Kettner has spent quite a lot of time in Kassel before Documenta13 started in early July.

Kassel isn't simply an arbitrary receptacle for Documenta, which takes place every five years. Documenta's history is intimately tied to this "banal" German town. Curiously, everyone seems to be at pains to point out the town's banality. "This is an average, boring German street," observed Ariane Pauls when we stepped out of the hotel.

She is a Berlin-based artist who has been enlisted by the Goethe Institut to serve as our guide. It's the utilitarian postwar-architecture and the uniform shop-fronts flanking the street that has prompted her comment. To a first-time visitor, these facades hold a certain charm.

They locate Kassel in a time and place. These edifices are reminders of a history that has been erased. Little of the original Kassel remained after it was destroyed during World War II. As the locus of weapon manufacturing at that time, Kassel was an obvious target.

Documenta was part of a cultural scheme after the war, though it began life as a modest adjunct to a flower show. Back then it was a distraction from a perverse reality and was presumably engineered to reinstall a sense of ordinariness to a town rebuilding itself from the inside out. Christov-Bakargiev has taken an interest in this history. It links up with her fascination for what she terms "the ghostly other". By this she means the presence of an absent condition, reality or location. The "ghostly other" belying the everyday appearance of present-day Kassel is the events that preceded its destruction, the city which no longer exists.

For Christov-Bakargiev this spectral form of Kassel is contained in a 12th century Benedictine monastery in Breitenau, located near the town. The building encapsulates a cross-section of German history and its culture of "repression and correction", she asserts. During the Nazi era, it served as a re-education camp before becoming a concentration camp. After the war it housed a girl's reformatory. Today, it ironically functions as a WWII memorial site and a psychiatric hospital.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mastering the female body

Like the heavy curlicue gold frame surrounding Renoir's Jeune Fille au Ruban Bleu (Young Girl with Blue Ribbon) (1888), the thick white line painted on the floor in front of the painting reminds you that the work is precious. An alarm will go off if your toe inches over the boundary and a nearby guard will appear. There aren't usually security guards in the exhibition areas of the Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg, but then it's not every week that works by Renoir, Manet, Degas or Braque go up. 
These are the supposed "masters" referred to in the title: 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure.
"Master" has become somewhat of a redundant term in art theory, now that the authorship of art has been challenged and the values cementing status have become so slippery. So, it's somewhat of a relief to discover that Sylvie Ramond, the curator, who serves as the chief curator and director of the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon, did not come up with the wording of the title. It was the SA contingent at the gallery that imposed the "Masters" in the title, Ramond explained when we chatted.

This is a curious discovery, particularly because the word "master" is likely to annoy Afrocentric art afficionados here who have grown tired of Western artists being placed at the centre of art narratives, as the term implies. This exhibition isn't really for art specialists - though you may find them quietly revelling in a Frederic Leger or a Francis Bacon - it is for ordinary people who turned out in droves for the Picasso and Africa exhibit that showed at the gallery in 2006. Hailed as the most well-attended art exhibit in the country, it proved that European "masters" have pulling power that far supersedes local or African work. Hence the gallery's preference for this outmoded term. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Award Nomination

Coincidentally, the week after I decided to post my feature "The Silent War" (published in The Sunday Independent on August 28, 2010) on this blog to coincide with the Michaelis exhibition, it was nominated for a Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Award (previously known as The Mondi Award) for feature writing. There is no connection; it is unlikely the judges of this award perused Incorrigible Corrigall before making their final selection.

Obviously, it is always good news to be nominated for an award but what makes this nomination so significant is that usually only hard news stories are acknowledged by this awarding body and in this category. Like most journalism awards in this country there is no category for arts writing. For this reason art reviews or reviewers are rarely acknowledged.  Of course, with this feature I used arts products as a point of entry into a wider discussion centered on social and political issues. The award ceremony takes place in Joburg on August 28. Fingers crossed.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Silent War

An exhibition called Not my War, curated by David Brits, is currently showing at the Michaelis Gallery.     Last year I wrote quite an extensive feature on the topic. It was prompted by the emerging canon of literature connected to the war and the artworks and visual records that were being exhibited. It felt as if this period of our history was finally coming into view, but as I quickly discovered the information was limited, distorted and mythologised via what Liebenberg termed "war porn." The compulsion to suppress this history persists. 

It is likely that 1978 and 1979 were the worst years of Christo Doherty's life. After he left school they were the years he was immured to the SA Defence Force (SADF). He admits he wasn't a reluctant conscript; like most boys who had grown up playing with toy guns, he had fantasised about combat.
He was also too young to have formed any political stance. Not that that would have mattered: the army was full of principled young men who closed their eyes, kept their heads down and prayed for time to pass. Army life was unpleasant and dehumanising but for those like Doherty who went to the Angolan border to fight an apparent communist threat in opposition to the apartheid state, white society - or so the government then sold it - proved a deeply scarring experience. Little is known of the atrocities that occurred on the border but there is a tacit recognition that those who fought that silent war were never the same again.

Unspeakable sights from those skirmishes linger somewhere in Doherty's memory but he evades articulating or recounting them. Before he has even settled in the chair facing me he is quick to alert me that he "does not want to be foregrounding my personal experience" in the war. His reluctance is no surprise. His exhibition Bos, Afrikaans for "bush", also suggesting bossies (madness) - features a collection of glossy photographs of stylised representations of images reconstructed with miniatures. 
They offer depersonalised narratives that do not speak directly about Doherty's experiences. They are simply reenactments of photographs. Belying the facade of child's play, some of the scenarios are gruesome. In one image, Mass Grave 1, two soldiers offload bodies into a deep pit full of naked cadavers. The image evokes memories from his time on the border, he says but he doesn't elaborate. He appears ill at ease. It's as if something is crawling under his skin. He keeps adjusting his woollen hat and stirring his cappuccino.

I try to take him back to 1978, a year Doherty would later realise was a turning point in the war.
"The South Africans nearly lost. It was the beginning of cross-border onslaughts. When you are in it, no one explains to you what is going on. It is only in retrospect that you get to piece it all together."
In the name of national security, a blanket of silence surrounded SADF activities on the Angolan border. Conscripts had to sign documents guaranteeing their silence. Journalists and photographers saw what the SADF wanted them to see during press junkets where they were taken to unknown locations and treated to military parades.
"They all have this in common. They were like other South Africans, they did not know anything. It was something that happened "up North", he says, reverting to a collective pronoun. It is a way of creating distance between himself and the border war but is also  evidence of Doherty's academic research - he is writing a doctoral thesis on the topic. I suspect it is not just an intellectual exercise for the fifty-something artist and academic. Though he claims his exhibition wasn't designed to bring about catharsis, his focus on border literature and memoirs suggests he is still reconciling with the past. Despite this he remains tightlipped about his experiences. He admits he had a traumatic time - "I think everyone who experiences combat finds it traumatic unless they are absolute psychopaths" - but will not divulge details. 
This silence pervades his art too and while it seemed as if the stylised vocabulary he employed thwarts viewers' understanding of that period and creates distance  from the violent atrocities they document, it seemed possible that this glossy packaging was also for Doherty's benefit. He had reconstructed his own history in such a way that not only created distance from his trauma but made it easier for him to grasp. The miniatures allow viewers to slowly consume or study the horror rather than viewing it in a flash - "I wanted to present scenes that were childish, inappropriate and compelling," he says.
Though he had claimed that as a student of JM Coetzee at UCT in the early Eighties he had learned "never to spell things out", that it made for more interesting art, perhaps he had grown into the habit of suppressing the war memories. He had taught himself to be silent because there was no alternative.
When he left the army he "didn't want to talk about it - I wanted to put it behind me and move on with my life. I blocked it out. It didn't bear thinking about".
"You wanted to move on." 

Even if Doherty had chosen to share his experiences, he doubts he would have been believed.
Many white South Africans didn't want to know the truth, proposes Gary Baines, co-editor of Beyond the Border War: New perspectives on Southern Africa's late-Cold War conflicts and associate professor of history at Rhodes University.
"Acquaintances, family members and those people they came into contact with also felt that this was something that should not be broached around the supper table.
"When these issues were broached in response to questions like: 'What did you do in the war and what was the border like?' and people started to open up, then a lot of their listeners didn't want to know too much. There is a sense that the white public was complicit in this silence."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Beyond the Past: National Arts Festival

A horizontal line drawn across Lindiwe Matshikiza’s naked back extends beyond her body on to a wall she is pressed up against. She won’t stand still, however, so the line doesn’t remain straight. Every time she shifts her shoulders, the line curls and jerks. She is denying the line’s horizontality; she is uncomfortable it ibeing written on her body, though this is what gives her leverage, allowing her to manipulate it. It’s the final scene in Ster City, a filmed insert announcing the end of this absurd drama, which has seen her and Nicholas Welch attempt to act out, describe, the history of SA in the space of an hour. This is the “line” that they have been charting; our history stretching back to the displacement of the Khoisan before the colonials arrived.
This impulse to (re)present SA history is a defining feature at this year’s National Arts Festival. Matshikiza and Welch attempt a linear retelling, but the tale seems jumbled. Mostly, this is because their dialogue moves between French, English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana, sometimes coalescing, breaking down into an indecipherable syncretic language, a constantly shifting Fanagalo. At times Welch’s dialogue degenerates into an angry rap, his body jolts as he stutters and spits the words out.
Matshikiza and Welch, who play themselves, are also obviously products of the hybrid society they chart, but want to blur the lines between the separate strands of our past, which are so clearly delineated, ethnically and racially. In other words, they want to overturn the history they are burdened by. Through the fusion of diverse languages they can reknit it. Retelling offers this kind of flexibility, though there are limits, too, because you can’t change what has happened.
This over-layering of historical narratives, embracing the multitude of perspectives that impedes fashioning history into a single line underpins Mikhael Subotzky’s Moses and Griffiths, a filmic work, which showed in the Gallery in the Round. He makes this point by presenting four screens showing footage of interviews with two of Grahamstown’s custodians of history – tour guides. The sound bounces from one screen to another, making it impossible to follow each of the men’s stories of the town that are punctuated with personal anecdotes. It’s not that the truth is unstable: it just doesn’t belong to one voice.
Subotzky wasn’t the only artist interested in probing the psycho-geography of this Eastern Cape hamlet that plays host to this annual festival. Polis, an interdisciplinary series of presentations by Athina Vahla, Ford Evanson, Mark Wilby and Anton Kruger, also attempted to map this territory. Echoes of Grahamstown’s vexed colonial past framed the displays at the Provost, a historical building that once functioned as a jail, where part of Ruth Simbao’s Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa & China was on show.

But why talk about history at all? Why not chart an imagined future, or the present? In the case of Ster City, an experimental production originating from France – it is part of the travelling Carnets Sud/Nord festival – perhaps they felt obliged to explain who they are to that audience. But they don’t tell the ‘whole’ story: the apartheid era is conspicuous by its absence, though they draw attention to their omission. There is a sense that they cannot enter this territory. Is it too heavy, too overdone or too close?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Organised Chaos: Subotzky's Retinal Eye

There is such an overabundance of art forms and works at the National Arts Festival that the adjective “excess” comes to mind. It's a polyphonic explosion: multiple voices, images, gestures and dialogues seem to coalesce into a chaotic continuum as the days progress. This is what makes this annual arts explosion in Grahamstown such an invigorating and stimulating experience. However, for an arts critic/commentator tasked with making sense of the festival, it is tricky attempting to fashion a clean narrative. 

Mikhael Subotzky’s exhibition Retinal Shift, which showed at the Monument Gallery and Gallery in the Round, serves as a useful model to read the festival for it is, through this progressive show, that he meditates on excess, the excess that reality, the South African experience, presents. How, as a photographer, do you make decisions about what images to isolate from such an endless stream of experiences that all beg to be captured before they disappear with time? 

Historically, Subotzky has isolated and zoned in on particular subjects, the Ponte, the Pollsmoor prison population. In this exhibition, however, he embraces a self-reflexive stance, analysing, sorting through his archive (and others), which leads him to probe the mechanics of photography – or the process of documentation. This inward gaze is best expressed in Self Portrait; an image of the retina of his eyes taken by an optometrist. Winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award seems to have compelled this young artist to survey his photographic “eye”. I suppose the idea is that every photograph he takes ultimately reflects more closely on him than his subjects. With this in mind, he becomes undiscerning about what “class” of photography his images belong to. 

In I was Looking Back (2012), he presents photographs from his professional work and those charting his personal life: photographs of friends, himself. So it is that images from Pollsmoor Prison are juxtaposed with ordinary family photos, a girl leaning on a gate in a rural setting. This diverse collection covers a wall. It’s an excessive display, presenting a cacophony of imagery that appears chaotic, haphazard even, though there are discreet narratives that thread through, loosely uniting some photographs.A visual mirroring occurs between a picture of a man lying on a bed in a prison and a woman lying on her stomach getting a skin treatment. There are no captions, no contexts to these images; they are free-floating, allowing for multiple kinds of narratives to be assembled or disassembled. It’s up to you. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why the National Arts Festival isn't about art

The National Arts Festival is one of the most significant events for arts critics and commenters because it offers us a condensed view of our cultural landscape. Well, aspects of it. Fact is no one comes to the festival to come to grips with contemporary art for the simple reason that there are only a few shows that map this territory.  This year Ruth Simbao’s gargantuan Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China has been a welcome addition, and hints at a brand of exhibition that should be commonplace at the festival, though the themes underpinning it are tired. The new Performance Art programme has seemingly also opened up opportunities for visual artists to enter the festival fray, though of course, it conforms to the privileging of live performance and has been created to accommodate works at the festival that straddle dance, theatre and performance art. Can, should, visual arts and performance art be separated out? That half of this year’s line-up is attached to Simbao’s exhibition suggests the separation can't be cleanly done. 

Usually, it is the exhibition produced by the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist award that must fly the flag for contemporary art. Fortunately, this year, Mikhael Subotzky has delivered with aplomb; Retinal Shift, is undoubtedly his strongest exhibition. It is not a rehash of work he has done before – often the case with this exhibition - though he does dip into his own archive. 

Because the Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition has become the touchstone for contemporary art at the festival it has become one of the most hotly debated awards. There are some in the art fraternity who believe it is easy to predict who will be the next recipient. If the award goes to an artist from the Goodman Gallery stable one year then it is likely that an artist from the Stevenson Gallery will be sure to garner it the following year. The Goodman and Stevenson galleries are the dominant players in the local art market, so it makes sense that artists bent on success in local and overseas spheres need to be signed up to one of them.  It is easy, therefore, when looking to identify a young artist on the up-and-up to select a winner aligned to one of them. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Character Forming: Athi-Patra Ruga

The last time I had encountered Athi-Patra Ruga he was seated in front of a television set in a makeshift living space in a dark basement in a disused building in Hillbrow. It was hard to read his expression as his entire upper body was obscured by party balloons. For all intents and purposes Ruga was absent. He might revel in performance, but his all-encompassing costumes, which usually obscure his facial features, negate his presence, his identity. In this instance, he appeared like a stylised cartoon character, a kind of hybrid object/ subject being, which is not unexpected given that he relishes recycling popular culture in his work –  “I like inhaling it and hurling it.”

Later he danced inside a circle of candles before drawing us into an awkward striptease act. The performance was part of the Hillbrow leg of the X-Homes project in 2010 that was engineered to mediate and explore the baggage tied to this no-go suburb of Joburg’s inner city. The act of observing “others” in these settings; the kind of touristic form of voyeurism that such explorations into these suburbs tend to generate dominated.  An encounter with Ruga’s faceless character in the bowels of this neighbourhood fed quite neatly into this theme; as an anonymous, seemingly dehumanised but curiously seductive being he presented us with the apotheosis of otherness.

Seated behind a desk meditatively working on one of his so-called Irma Stern tapestries – he has been translating her paintings into needlepoint artworks – in his new studio in Cape Town’s city centre, is the other Ruga I met last month. Dressed in a Trenery cardigan and a pair of fashionable shorts, this Ruga appears quite conventional. But he’s still performing. In-between, or perhaps to counter, some of his more serious observations about his practice and his vexed personal history that he talks around, he makes jokes and laughs. Undoubtedly, while he may only have an audience of one – me – he is performing. Interviews are a performance but, as any of his friends on Facebook will attest, his drive to entertain is one that he sustains even when the record button isn’t on. The laborious labour that needlework requires pulls him into a different place and headspace.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mimicking the Master: Hail to the Thief Reviewed

Brett Murray could not have planned it better himself. In front of the artwork dubbed Manifesto, a scripto-visual work presenting the phrase “Promises, Promises, Promises”, Liza Essers, the owner of the Goodman and Jackson Mthembu, ANC spokesman, were seated as they announced a settlement to the media, in which the ANC agreed to withdraw its case against the gallery and City Press, if the gallery agreed not to display Murray’s contentious The Spear .

The notorious artwork might have given the impression that Murray’s Hail to the Thief II exhibition was concerned with the president’s member but, in fact, he is more concerned with words, or on a broader level propaganda, political rhetoric. In such a context, words become objects; like the enlarged gold gilded letters of the word “Promises”, which creates the illusion of meaning and importance, though the word doesn’t offer us any idea what this “promise” might be. The substance of the “promise” is clearly irrelevant, bringing to mind the adage “empty promises”. This artwork epitomises the once-fashionable “one-liner” tradition of art-making that critic and theorist Julian Stallabrass dubbed “high-art lite”, referring to a brand of art that aspires to superficiality, to lightness – it was very popular in Britain in the late Nineties.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Power Play: Nandipha Mntambo

In Michiel Heyns’s Invisible Furies he introduces a Pablo Picasso painting, Figures At The Seaside, as a touchstone for the complex dynamic between lovers. The modernist work shows atomised body parts splayed and entangled as the two identities become intermingled. Observing the artwork, a character in Heyns’s novel proposes it expresses the submission of the female, a desire for defeat, and the male compulsion to conquer.

In Nandipha Mntambo’s videowork Paso Doble we are presented with a similar motif, though in this case the male and female characters, denoted via their dress, are locked in this fiery Spanish dance. The camera is mostly trained on their lower bodies as they whip around each other as she resists being tamed by the male character, whose movements seem more certain, less lively. Is she the victim, is he the conqueror and is the dance just a game where the outcome has already been determined?

It is in the context of the paso doble or any classic male-female duet that the dynamic between the genders seems set. The woman is the beautiful, eye-catching object that flits around the stage, while the male figure is a sombre presence who gives a guiding hand to her flights of fancy, her pretence at escape. In this way gender dynamics are embedded in dance, ingrained in the movements of the body in such a way that to be male or female is written into each muscle.

Mntambo tries to unwrite these rules in Paso Doble by conflating the roles. She does this in two ways; the shadows of the two characters which occupy the foreground appear to be fused, forming this peculiar hybrid creature that is constantly changing its appearance as the dancers move across the floor together. Because they are always joined, their limbs become indistinguishable in the shadow. In this way this dark doppelganger becomes the underlying and inescapable truth that they cannot outrun.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Pulling things apart: Jan-Henri Booyens

In the course of a critic’s working life there are always those artworks or exhibitions that you can’t shake off. Your mind keeps wandering back to the work, as if possessed. Sometimes its an unanswered question that propels the fixation. Other times it’s an inexplicable emotional pull. Jan Henri Booyen’s Matt Sparkle, which showed at the now-defunct Premises Gallery in Joburg in 2008, has been one such exhibition. The paintings were bleak and bold, presenting dark and brooding landscapes rendered in a stylised quasi-abstract mode that articulated a kind of future-lessness that was haunting – and seductive.

Over time I realised, however, that my desire to keep returning to his work wasn’t simply because I had fallen under its visual spell but because I done a disservice to the work in my review of it and that it was a forerunner of a new kind of formalism in local art. The main reason for my misreading was because I had encountered Zander Blom’s (solo) work before Booyens’s. I had assumed that as the two artists had been collaborators in the Avant Car Guard collective, their work sprung from the same well. As such, I had read Booyens work through a filter shaped by Blom’s then nihilistic obsession with high modernism and the abstract expressionist vocabulary and in particular, how this movement announced the “end” of painting.
I assumed that Booyens was also preoccupied with painting’s demise. It was only when I perused Blom’s solo exhibition, New Paintings, at Stevenson Joburg late last year that the penny dropped. I finally twigged that Booyens was at a more advanced stage in his practice than Blom, who was now only starting to experiment with form while dispensing with a conceptualist impulse, where the work’s value would no longer  rest  with the ideas underpinning it. Make no mistake, the ideas Blom used to frame the photographs of his early  paintings on the ceiling of his home was ingenious. But as he recently admitted, the ideas and presenting photographs rather than paintings was a way of lessening the risk.
“You can’t hide mistakes in a painting,” he observed.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

New Kid on the Block: Wits Art Museum

A group of men are struggling to get ‘‘god’s hand’’ in place. It’s a week before the opening of the new Wits Art Museum (WAM) and men balanced on scaffolding surrounding Jackson Hlungwani’s Hand of God are trying to lower the oversized wooden limb on to a bespoke base. Julia Charlton, the gallery’s senior curator, has to run upstairs to her office to consult a photograph to check the correct positioning of the sculpture before it’s set in place.

A year ago Charlton wouldn’t have been able to acquire a work |of this dimension; the Wits Art Gallery was a small basement room hidden below Senate House. In |this context, “gallery” was a bit of a misnomer, given its carpeted floors and limited dimensions. Signboards posted around the university’s environs might have advertised that a gallery existed there, but in truth it was an undersized storeroom; exhibitions could barely be staged there.
Charlton can’t wait to show me a 5m-long Dogon mask that is hanging against a wall at the back entrance of the gallery.
“No one has ever seen it before, because we simply couldn’t show it,” she marvels.
The inaugural exhibition, Seeing Stars, is simply an ode to the space. Works from the collection are chosen and hung to show off each room, the space, which is why you will find photographs by David Goldblatt located near portraits by Gerard Sekoto. Whatever dialogue occurs between the works will be incidental. “We picked artworks that suited each space,” confesses Charlton with a grin.

It’s a peculiar reversal; conventionally gallery interiors serve as a background for art. Charlton’s response is shaped by years of working in a dysfunctional space that simply couldn’t serve the collection or those interested in it. The new gallery has given her wings, room to breathe. But she hasn’t had time to think. When I ask her what effect the gallery |will have on the art world, the response is self-deprecating.
“Oh, I don’t know if we will do anything big like that.”

Newness has a distinct smell. It’s the wooden bases wrapped in plastic that have filled the air with this intangible aroma. The glass display cases that they will support are stacked against a wall in the main vaulted gallery. The walls are still a crisp white and the concrete and stone floors have yet to be scuffed or aged by the wear and tear that foot traffic will bring.

It’s hard not to be seduced by the gallery’s newness, to be present at its birth into Joburg’s burgeoning cultural scene. With the cash-strapped City of Joburg unable to maintain existing public art institutions, never mind initiate new repositories for cultural exchange, this isn’t an everyday occurrence. And it isn’t likely to become one any time soon.

Commercial galleries open (and close) with some frequency and while they are received with great interest – and perhaps scepticism – by the arts community at large, public/non-commerical institutions carry more importance. They generally have more permanence, but most importantly, in a context where the local art scene is dominated by commercial art entities, they present new territory for curators to make important statements about culture, the state of the nation or engage in art-related navel-gazing, unfettered by a commercial agenda. Artists, who haven’t found favour in commercial environments, also benefit greatly, as do the public, who are more likely to learn about art in an environment, particularly one attached to a university, geared towards education.

The novelty of the new gallery hasn’t quite worn off for Charlton, whose excitement has remained at a high pitch each time I come to view the gallery’s development. She evinces an almost childlike glee when she walks through the gallery. A sense of disbelief informs her awe, too.
Less than a decade ago she showed me the architectural plans in the former Wits Art Gallery. Raising R46.5 million to see it achieved seemed like an insurmountable task.

The time it took to raise the funds and get their plan off the ground was considerable. After a while the notion of this grand museum had somewhat turned into an urban legend, though it had begun to feed a dream to establish Braamfontein as the new locus of Joburg’s cultural life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What happens when Graffiti becomes art

Lazoo, Mak1one, Rasty and Curio are gathered at a wall at the bottom end of Kruger Street in Jeppestown on the eastern-side of Joburg’s inner city. The pavement is littered with spray cans and Mak1one looks like he is wearing a Jackson Pollack canvas. Rasty is balanced on scaffolding and spraying a robot motif. His dreadlocks are twisted around his head, so they don’t get in the way of his work. Curio is leaning on a car across the road.
The wall is only a few blocks away from Maboneng or “Hipsterville” as Rasty dubs it, but it is like another country. The street is lined with panel beaters and establishments selling second-hand car parts. Their services are advertised on modest hand-painted signs. The area is dotted with dilapidated and vacant buildings so it’s the kind of territory that would have graffiti artists reaching for cans of spray-paint. An engineering firm has, however, agreed to let the group loose on the exterior wall of their property, so they won’t have to “bomb” it.

“Bombing” is a term used to describe illegal graffiti work that is usually done under the cloak of night, away from prying eyes, witnesses. Speed is essential to bombing. You have to work fast and without much light. It is only when the sun comes up that the artwork is revealed – and then sometimes reviled. Historically, graffiti has been viewed as an incursion, a violation of the urban landscape and public space. To some degree, the graffiti community has accepted and even perpetuated this view of their activities – “bombing” implies a violent and destructive act.
Usually the perpetrator of a bombing would be unknown – at least to the greater public. However, within the once tight and secretive world of urban artists, their identity would be as plain as day. Their work wouldn’t only bear their street moniker, or tag, but each artist has their own signature style.
For 16 years, Curio has been spraying his nom de plume around Joburg. Since he started doing it in parking lots outside nightclubs, the rendering of the letters has become more elaborate, stylised and artistic.
“Sometimes I add another letter, sometimes I jumble the letters. I just keep playing with my name. I am just addicted to bold letters on a wall,” the thirtysomething reluctantly explains. “It means nothing,” he assures, yet this repetitive primal act seems so unlikely from someone like Curio. He parades a “Gangsta” street-look – one of the legs of his trousers is pushed up over his knee to reveal a naked leg – but he is a retiring personality.

I gather that Curio, Rasty and the other artists haven’t “bombed” in awhile. Though their exchanges are peppered with this street term, all are professional graffiti or street artists who make a living from doing commissioned work in their home towns and cities around the world. The advent of the internet has substantially contributed towards its commercialisation. Their work can be seen by anyone now, allowing artists to become minor celebrities who move from town to town, leaving temporary imprints. The work on the wall in Jeppestown will form part of the display for the City of Gold, Urban Arts Festival that Rasty initiated last year. Sponsors, like the Goethe Institut, have supported the event by flying in German street artists Case, Tasso and Atom.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On the surface: Busuttil & Poynton

Carla Busuttil’s paintings don’t conform to this new aesthetic that is privileging form over substance, which seems to be gaining traction in local art circles. For starters, her work is not abstract; it’s semi-figurative. Nevertheless she, too, is playing with form, embracing a kind of naïve style of painting that has a (purposively) childlike quality. There is a kind of vibrancy, confidence, and daring to the style of painting at her exhibition, Exit Mode. You can see that her body is driving each brush stroke. Her cheeky art is as much a gestural retort as it is a visual one. It’s as if she has stormed the citadel of Western art and is pushing her way through the pretence and the preciousness associated with painting. The mood is rebellious and extremely playful, though the subject-matter is dark. Very dark.

Busuttil aspires to this anti-conceptualist movement; she doesn’t want to make art that is driven by ideas. “Content is secondary,” asserts the artist in her statement. But there is logic, a theme even, that guides the unnerving group of portraits she presents. The work is united by a common source: photographs depicting images of trauma, war and conflict. She works with them intuitively, producing deformed, lopsided faces with blurred, smudged and indistinct features. Her subjects look battered and bruised; as if a tanker has driven over them and squished their insides. This description suits the childlike crudeness of her rendering; her work is almost cartoonish in this sense. It’s the invisible mark of trauma that she wishes to extract as she pushes her brush across the canvas, bringing to life the dysfunctional, damaged psyches that belie the faces in the photographs she collects.

Just as she observes that she can consume images of violence with ease, so too is her translation of them uncomplicated, rudimentary. Her paintings are not quite fast-food for the eye; there is a lingering terror, horror, in them that denies pleasure, though the macabre sense of humour that laces them provokes a smile. A work entitled Ooooo, reads like a parody of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). A mouth sits agape in the middle of a blue blob in the vague shape of a human head. In her attempt to capture the unseen nature of violence, she seems to have arrived at the conclusion that it is beyond her skills; the end result can only be a mockery, a sham. She is unwilling to “honour” the source of her work, preferring to deride the stock of photography that is meant to document conflict. She acknowledges that photography is limited too and photographers’ drive to expose violence, ironically, smoothes the path to our acceptance of it.

Even though she presents work that appears superficial, one-dimensional, it never quite lives up to the level of vacuity to which she aspires. The form of her work is driven by the content. Nevertheless, her paintings can be consumed quickly. There are no details, no truths that slowly unfurl in the mind as you view them. There is no need to linger in front of them, which is why she offers so many for us to see. As we move quickly from canvas to canvas, amused and entertained rather than repulsed she makes us complicit in this obsessive and twisted fascination for violence.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Second Time Around: David Southwood's Milnerton Market

Second-hand objects enjoy a currency in Cape Town that is unrivalled elsewhere in this country. Kitsch items from bygone eras adorn interiors of trendy shops and eateries in that conurbation. Second-hand clothing is coveted and forms a substantial part of any Capetonian hipster’s attire. The trend is part of a wider postmodern movement involving recycling the past in the recognition that invention is no longer possible or relevant. It also intersects with the rise of “bad taste” as a prized aesthetic.

David Southwood’s Milnerton Market, a photographic essay compiled by the photographer over a decade, which is now in book form (published by Fourthwall Books) –  initially it was exhibited at the AVA gallery – offers insight into the trade of second-hand items; the point at which they are exchanged and before they are reabsorbed into another social milieu driven by different values. Such as in Karen Dudley’s Woodstock restaurant, The Kitchen. A Week in The Kitchen, a cookbook by Dudley which has been reprinted by Jacana, is full of photographs documenting the quirky décor of this eatery. The walls and shelves are colonised by a cornucopia of second-hand knickknacks.

The photographs in Dudley’s book map the (after) life of objects that could be derived from the Milnerton market. Certainly, this overlooked body of photography provides another perspective on Southwood’s study of the market, contextualising his seemingly obsessive interest in this desultory realm of informal trading within a wider drive to valorise, prize the disused over the “new”.

Essays in Southwood’s book by Ivan Vladislavic and Ivor Powell offer insight into the psychological and social dynamics that feed the desire for disused goods.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Balancing Act: Between Art & Fashion

When I find Clive Rundle in his Doornfontein workroom he is poring over a book on Steven Cohen, the France-based South African performance artist famed for wearing chandeliers and teetering half-naked on impossible stilettos in incongruent settings. Willing to take garments and accessories beyond their function, Cohen is the extreme fashion horse. Maybe an ideal one for some of Rundle's creations. The affinity between the two artists is real: Cohen has travelled the world with Rundle garments packed in his suitcase.

The image that Rundle is transfixed by is a close-up of Cohen from his Golgotha performance. Cohen's face is covered in make-up and moth and butterfly wings are fanned around it. He looks like an exotic creature from the domain of fantasy. I assume Rundle will be taking inspiration from the make-up for his upcoming SA Fashion Week (SAFW) collection but he later reveals that it is an area absent of adornment that holds his attention: the centre of Cohen's forehead covered in white paint - "it's as if part of his face, his skin has been erased", marvels the fifty-something fashion designer, studying the image through his oversized glasses. This act of erasure links up with the theme for his SAFW show: fragility. Or "Fr-agility" as he sometimes refers to it, placing emphasis on "agility."

Rundle had already settled on the theme a month earlier when I made my first visit to his studio. A number of adjectives and nouns - such as "fault lines" - alluding to the state of fragility were listed on a piece of paper stuck to a mood-board in the making. Rundle hasn't ever constructed one of these. He hasn't needed to keep track of the mood of his show with fabric swatches and an array of images summoning a particular theme. Until now he has held ideas in his head before delicately transferring them into the real world. "Sometimes a mood can be supplied in hindsight," he says.

Putting up a mood board is one of the many new processes the designer is embracing since Anne Chapelle, the Belgian fashion patron who steered Ann Demeulemeester towards financial success, spent a few weeks with him last year. She was here to share her fashion business-savvy with a view to guiding Rundle's business into a new era, which could see him exporting off-the-peg collections to Europe. Rundle is not exactly known for off-the-peg clothing in his native city of Joburg, though at the height of his retail, success - in the late eighties, early nineties - he did a booming trade from his Rosebank shop. His clothing, then, wasn't exactly off-the-peg stuff. With its white walls the shop was like an art gallery, the clothing, the art.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lifecycle of an art collective: A decade of the Trinity Session

The building at 281 Commissioner Street is not in a state of utter dilapidation. Nor has it quite been absorbed into Maboneng, the name Jonathan Liebmann, the property developer,  has given his aggressive gentrification scheme on the east side of Joburg’s inner city. Water drips from the ceilings and there are holes in the floor. The aroma of car oil discreetly lingers inside but it is the signage – “Park Here” – and the raised ridges on the bare concrete floor that evoke its previous incarnation as a car workshop. Weeks before the opening of the 10-year retrospective of the Trinity Session, an art collective-cum-art management company, the floors, walls and windows had been caked in grime. Hard labour was required to extract the layer of decay.

The building was once emblematic of Joburg’s cycle of decline. Housing this exhibition marks the beginning of its regeneration and appropriation as a cultural art institution – it will be called the Museum of African Design, Moad for short – providing yet another playground for the city’s arts community and followers, who have been encouraged by the likes of Liebmann to reclaim pockets of the city.

It makes perfect sense that the Trinity Session’s exhibition, On Air Review, be held in a building on the cusp of a cycle of renewal; its work over the last six years has been focused on driving, managing and implementing public art in the inner city as part of scheme to regenerate it. The most recent contemporary art initiatives by the duo that make up this collective now, Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter, deal with this liminal period of transition when a building or place exists between two points of its evolution and how this impacts on identity.

Entracte (2010) was part of a project in Dakar, Senegal, that centred on a dilapidated building earmarked for demolition because it was deemed unfit (by Western standards) for habitation, according to a prescriptive set of rules. The artists were struck by the irony that the inhabitants were maintaining a construction that was slowly disintegrating and would be demolished. In response to the unseen future and past of the edifice, the duo laser-projected images evoking these states onto its exterior. Filmed footage of this “performance” is projected onto a screen hanging in the cavernous interior of Moad, among other screens showing these ephemeral works.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In defence of Painting

It’s called A Case for Painting (2011) and features a young woman about to pry open a case that presumably contains tubes of paint. Colour has yet to be unleashed, so the canvas is black with a few white brushstrokes alluding to it being an unfinished work, a hesitant gesture even. The title of Claire Gavronsky’s irreverent painting is a play on words that evokes the historical baggage that accompanies painting but also the question that every artist is forced to ask before they pick up a paint brush: do I need to say this with paint?

With such an array of mediums and forms now viewed as legitimate conduits for expression, it seems artists cannot simply acquiesce to an intuitive desire to work with this medium without being able to justify it conceptually.

In Immaterial Matters, all the painted works make wry reference to the history of Western art, which immediately substantiates the artists' use of paint.   Rosenclaire – an artistic duo made up of Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky –  are females so using this medium has gendered significance too: it was once the preserve of men.

L’avanguardia non si arrende mai (the avante garde never gives up) contains the figure of a young girl in period dress which suggests she hails from an historical work. A faint dark line over her upper lip, suggesting a moustache, recalls Salvador  Dali’s signature feature. Once again the canvas is black, disconnecting the subject from its historical context. It appears like a blackboard, and with white writing it implies the work is part of a “lesson”. This type of painting is thus instructive about the past, a dialogue, a response. Because of this its existence does not require “a defence.”

The title of their exhibition, Immaterial Matters, is another irreverent double play on words, which implies that the materials of a work shouldn’t carry such significance, historical or ideological, but  it also advances the idea that that which is seen and is tangible is less significant than what is unspoken, invisible. In this way they point to the process that occurs when the viewer looks at an art work and interprets meaning.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The mythologising of Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu

Articles have recently appeared in the press hailing Thandi Sibisi as the first black female gallerist. This following the opening of her new gallery in Melrose Arch.  Media people are eager to declare (or regurgitate) “firsts”; it obviously has a newsy ring but it gives them this sense that they are not only witnesses to history but integral in cementing it. These historical landmarks shift the course of history; erasing everything that came before and colouring all that follows.

In other words it has ramifications for how history is written and read. Proclaiming that an individual is “the first” to attain something in a field, particularly when their race or gender underpins that achievement, emphasises this aspect of their profile, though ironically their accomplishment is supposed to be evidence that they have overcome the limits associated with their identity. In this way their achievements are always attached to their profile rather than the merit of their contribution.

In 1961 Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu was proclaimed to be the first African woman to have exhibited her art. She earned this appellation after showing a collection of artworks in the board room belonging to Contact, a liberal political magazine based in Cape Town. This ensured that this exhibition became a landmark in the mythologising of this artist, though it was later proved that, in fact, Mgudlandlu wasn’t the first – Valerie Desmore should have taken that honour. So why was Mgudlandlu hailed as a pioneer and not Desmore?

This is one of many questions that Nontobeko Ntombela, the curator of A Fragile Archive, raises. A recorded interview with Randolph Vigne, a member of the breakaway liberal party called the National Committee for Liberation (NCL), later known as the African Resistance Movement (Arm) and the man thought to have “discovered” Mgudlandlu, which forms part of the display, offers much insight into her fame and position in history.

Vigne confesses he wasn’t an expert on art – this may account for his lack of awareness not only of Desmore but perhaps a tradition of female black artists which stretches back in time. When Vigne first saw Mgudlandlu’s art he understood it in relationship to the “Grandma Moses” phenomenon – this refers to a self-taught artist whose naïve works went from being displayed in a pharmacy to the Museum of Modern Art in New York under the rubric of “contemporary painting”. Vigne also mentions that “primitive” art was popular at the time, though he now confesses that that term may have been inappropriate.

A small collection of Desmore’s art shows her to be a versatile artist; her work ranges from the figurative to an expressive style. To be frank, she appears to be a more sophisticated and technically astute artist than Mgudlandlu. In other words, her work didn’t evoke that “primitive” style. So it seems that Vigne and the coterie of Mgudlandlu’s supporters had preconceived ideas about the kind of art black artists should be producing.

Adding to this thinking must have been Vigne’s own political agenda; proclaiming the brilliance of a black artist must have served his desire to assert his liberal outlook well. In an attempt to tease out the nexus of socio-political drivers underpinning this exhibition, Ntombela recreates this legendary show. Not all the works from that exhibition are available for display but these absences are part of the exhibition, allowing the curator to make her research process transparent.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fred Page: The ultimate "edgeman"

The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner proposed that artists are, by nature, “edgemen” or, from a less gender-biased point of view: “threshold people”, which he defines as those persons that “elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space”. Artists need to be outsiders because it is this threshold status that enables them to make art, he advances. Undoubtedly, the artist as an outsider has become an integral part of that identity but one is never sure whether artists simply chose that position because it has become ingrained or whether their activities naturally propel them to the edges. The lone-artist toiling on the fringes of society looms large as a romantic figure in biographies and monographs; it contributes to this notion of them as tortured beings.

Fred Page appears to be the ultimate “edgeman”; not only is he said to be a social recluse but he seems to sit on the periphery of the society that should have claimed him: the South African art world. Jeanne Wright, the co-author of Fred Page: Ringmaster of the Imagination, advances a number of reasons for this. After coming to art late in life – he began his studies in his late thirties – he never pursued academic studies in this field. Instead he attended the Port Elizabeth school of Arts and Crafts, which offered technical training. The authors make frequent reference to his non-intellectual approach, which they suggest in parts limited his work both visually and conceptually. This inadequacy might account for the quasi surrealistic mode he adopted which they assert was quite out of sync with the kind of art being made in South Africa (and abroad) during the ’50s to late ’70s.

Based on the breadth of images in this substantial monograph it is clear that after Page had settled into his almost monochromatic stylised surrealist aesthetic, his work didn’t develop or evolve much, either thematically or visually. The authors don’t raise this point – they choose to dwell on his status as a “non-intellectual” artist, referring to the fact that he concentrated on the formal arrangements  of his art rather than its theoretical underpinnings. They also intimate that Page’s process was intuitive; that it wasn’t ordered to express any preconceived ideas. In this way it is implied that his art making was informed by a kind of naivety.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Candice Breitz: I think I remade the Ghost Series

‘Our guests don’t watch SABC1,” said the hotel receptionist when Candice Breitz phoned to enquire why she couldn’t find the channel on the television set in her room. Breitz wanted to watch Generations, one of the country’s most watched soaps. She had become hooked on the series since returning to South Africa to create a new "South African" work based on the soapie and to prepare for the first major exhibition of her work since she left her country of birth in 1994 for the US, and later, Germany, where she is settled.

The hotel staffer sent to Breitz’s room to locate the terrestrial channel giggled when Breitz confessed to her fixation for Generations. Their laughter disguised their uneasiness or disbelief that a white person would be interested in watching a series centred on black people, or so Breitz presumed. She might not admit it but part|of her attraction to Generations is because of this presumption; this racialised view of who consumes certain kinds of popular culture. She doesn’t just want to challenge prescriptive ideas about white people – she wants to be able to identify with black people.

The last works she made that dealt with South African issues, the Ghost series (1994-1996) and Rainbow series (1996) caused a bit of a ruckus because she was perceived to have over-identified with black women – this was particularly the case with the latter where pornographic imagery of white women were spliced with ethnographic images of black women in traditional outfits. Her detractors suggested this form of identification “conveniently” allowed Breitz  - and white women - to negate complicity with the apartheid system.

“I think I ended up remaking the Ghost series,” she admits though in Extra! she has chosen to enact her statement in a space designed to project an empowered existence – Generations is all about expressing black middle class lifestyles. In this way she does not present her subjects at the “liminal point of defeat”, which the ethnographic images of women in traditional gear in the Ghost series insinuated - as one of her critics claimed.

But she has a point; similar strategies are at work in Extra!. Once again the image of a white woman – Breitz in this instance – is inserted into an environment associated with black people – Generations. This was achieved by doing double takes during the filming of some episodes. A scene would be filmed twice – the first time as per the script, and in the second take the actors would run through their normal lines but this time Breitz would be present, positioned in the middle or the sidelines of the action. The footage of the latter was edited into a video artwork. Her presence in it, depending on the kind of visibility she assumes, has varied impacts.

In one scene where Breitz is lying on a table surrounded by the soapie’s characters, she begs for attention and it seems impossible that she could be ignored. Yet the characters continue as if she is not there - it is as if she is invisible. In another scene, she is part of the background setting, embodying the role of the titular Extra!. Breitz wears a meditative stare that evokes the mood of the character in another scene, engendering the notion that they are in sync with each other. However, the fact that Breitz’s presence remains constant and without acknowledgment by the characters implies that she is omnipotent – an overseer, the silent orchestrator of events. The different physical placements evoke the vicissitudes of whiteness.
“The classic position that whiteness has taken is to claim invisibility; when you speak about race you talk about blackness and not the constructedness of whiteness,” she observes.

Breitz is sitting in a small room adjacent to the Standard Bank Gallery where the exhibition is being staged. She is taking a break from overlooking the installation of her works. Breitz, a celebrated international artist, is articulate, accustomed to speaking about her work. She is excited about Extra!. Every time I try to steer the conversation towards her practice, she steers the conversation back to Extra! Her yellow-nail-varnished fingers constantly dart around in the air as she speaks. Her South African accent is hard to trace among the German and American inflections.
“Whatever I do here has to be built in to it a careful acknowledgment of my externality and distance. On one hand I feel very South African – I never felt I became German. On the other hand I have been away for a significant amount of time.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My take on the Jane Alexander/Die Antwoord debacle

This public battle between Jane Alexander and Die Antwoord over the use of a Butcher Boy-like figure that appears in a teaser video for the release of the band’s new album Ten$ion came as a surprise to most people in the local art world.  I too was taken aback. Firstly, in this copy-and-paste age of appropriation and pastiche, asserting originality or ownership over cultural property has to some degree become a futile, if not unnecessary activity, though cases of ownership are constantly being tested in courts all the time. It is not just artists or musicians who regurgitate and recycle material; almost everyone who spends anytime on the internet has repurposed imagery.

Does this mean that artists should have no right to assert ownership? No it doesn’t. Or it shouldn’t, but in doing so they do enter into murky territory, which brings me to my second point: Alexander is not the first artist to have envisioned a hybrid human-animal being with horns. Not only is Greek mythology littered with such creatures but a canon of fantasy literature and imagery is devoted to this imagined beast. Given this actuality, Alexander’s work is indebted to this kind of imagery, not just in a visual sense but an ideological one too: it draws its very power from our familiarity and association with such imagery, though it obviously invokes very localised iconography too – like the animal horns colonialists would hang on their walls as trophies. So, yes, she has “made it her own” and placed and exploited the motif within another context but I would argue that Die Antwoord have presumed to do the same.   

A much more important issue underpins this battle – and one which I don’t think has been raised.  As an astute artist Alexander is no doubt fully aware of all the points I have outlined above; what is driving her claim is the fact that her artistic “signature” might be eroded by the repeated circulation and appropriation of the “Butcher Boy” motif. It has to be acknowledged that her signature has considerable monetary value at art auctions; aside from Marlene Dumas and William Kentridge she is one of the only other contemporary South African artists whose work fetches considerable sums.  She clearly believes that if this signature of hers was more widely circulated, it would dilute or erode its fiscal value and therefore her status.

Alexander has chosen to remain out of the public eye; she apparently doesn’t give interviews, nor does she talk about her work – while at one time (I am thinking now of a series of articles on her in Art SA awhile back) this might have suggested a retiring, furtive personality, this fact has supported her enigmatic identity and now, in the context of this debacle, leads you to wonder whether this “distance” was part of an effort to prop up a very dated notion of the mythical artist – genius working in isolation, blah, blah, blah. This may not be true at all, but her resistance towards having her imagery enter mainstream culture, suggests a desire to retain the boundaries between high and low art – to ensure that “the distance” between her and the public remains intact.

In my opinion, I think she may be limiting her work’s potential afterlife, shall we call it. Die Antwoord’s appropriation of Roger Ballen’s “signature” has reinvigorated his work in some ways and extended its life beyond the boundaries of a gallery and in its recontextualisation has offered new readings of it. In other words “the source” has been enriched by the myriad of derivatives emanating from it. And I think that this has always been the case with art; all imitations of Andy Warhol’s portraits haven’t detracted from the value of his “originals” – that they have become ubiquitous has further elevated his status as an artist and the value of his work at auction.

It is somehow ironic that while you have an artist like Candice Breitz trying to insinuate herself into popular culture – her work Extra! at The Standard Bank gallery sees her appearing in Generations – Alexander is resisting the pull. As Breitz observed the other week: “most people don’t’ see art as culture. Culture happens on TV or on computer screens.” Of course, it is preferable that an artist gets to determine the terms in which they present their work in the mainstream but the way in which it “naturally” enters into this stream would obviate the sometimes contrived nature of these “high art/low art” projects, shall we call them.