Monday, January 30, 2012

Diane Victor does death - and life - so well

When Diane Victor first started making smoke drawings, it was to direct attention to victims of violent crime. The medium was ideal for this purpose; the transparent brown residue the smoke imprinted on the paper articulated the spectral presence of the disembodied heads of deceased victims. The burning candles which she used to scorch the paper’s surface evoked rituals to remember the dead.

More pragmatic concerns may have also informed her use of this unconventional medium. In 2006 she was a finalist for the now-defunct Sasol Wax Art Awards, which demanded that artists use wax in creating art for the competition exhibition. Working with wax may have been a crippling limitation for most of the artists, but it seems to have set Victor’s aesthetic on a new path.

It is easy to see why someone so concerned with mark-making was attracted to using smoke; it leaves such a compelling mark, or stain – “stain” best describes the kind of imprint this ephemeral tool creates. Stains also summon the residue left by something that is no longer present, which articulates the loss and traceability of human life. The “stains” that the smoke creates, particularly in the hands of Victor, also capture the three-dimensionality, not only of a physical being, but the various states of minds and conditions that make the human subject so mercurial.

Because definitive marks or lines are impossible with smoke, there is a subtlety to them that is very compelling. It’s as if they have arrived on the page independently of the hand of the artist – that the artist has simply guided an invisible organic presence like someone guiding a séance. That burning candles are part of that ritual probably contributes to this notion.

But what is most remarkable about this medium is the way it captures the multiplicity of the live subject, which, inherently, denies a single, definitive view. This challenge has always concerned artists. Victor may have stumbled on a solution with smoke drawing. Because the flame is in constant motion the marks are bubbled, appear to glide and overlap in ways that deny any kind of static representation of a subject. So ironically, while the medium once ably expressed the absence/presence of the deceased, it also, in the hands of Victor, ably evokes the living or at least this quality of aliveness.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

My top ten cultural highlights of 2011

1. New Adventures by Jacques Coetzer (Goethe Institut in Joburg) Coetzer might have proved that goats do not make ideal audience members for a guitar solo, and amused viewers with images of himself dressed up as Elvis while strumming a guitar on a beach in Zanzibar, but this flippant and self-deprecating exhibition parodying the status of the artist (and art) was extraordinary for the fact that it made the act of art-making transparent.
It was not the process of making a material object or documentation of a performance that he presented but rather, via a narrative which plotted the mental associations he explored as he clicked links on web pages, he revealed how the internet has impacted on creative thought patterns, leading to absurd results. Because his filmed performances were amusing diversions, he redirected attention to the formation of ideas, though he showed that the realisation of them lacked any monumentality. In this way the exhibition was both entertaining and provocative.

2. More, More, More Future choreographed by Faustin Linyekula (Dance Factory. Part of New Dance 2011 and über(W)unden: Art in Troubled Times)
Watching this work was like slipping into the back of a nightclub in downtown Kinshasa and viewing the revellers who seek an escape in these darkened and debauched havens only to discover that in these sorts of liminal spaces they are confronted with the true weight of their existence.
Each frenzied movement of their dancing read as an attempt to shake off the burdens of reality, but gradually and quite seamlessly their gestures evolved into a contemporary dance vocabulary that mined the fundamentals of identity rather than just functioning as an expression of identity – as is the case with conventional dancing in a nightclub. Famous guitarist Flamme Kapaya’s performance, the rocker-cum-seventies-glam outfits, the bond between the musicians and the dancers, the reference to Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, and the sense that the audience and the players were locked into a never-ending performance, made this production a multilayered, multimedia orgy of sound, philosophy and movement.

3. Palace of Bones, written and directed by Claire Angelique (premiered National Arts Festival)
This daring filmmaker turns the culture of self-documentation on itself in this unique feature film which plots a documenter’s attempt to discover the truth about a young woman she has filmed who was alleged to have killed a number of people.
In essence, the film is a retrospective view of footage re-edited by its creator, an amateur who hides behind the lens of a camera. She is an invisible witness who despite her scrutinising gaze was unable to really come to grips with the action she captured, the truth. In this way the apparatus she was using to see was the impediment to seeing. Palace of Bones is a sophisticated and layered indie whodunit that probes a debased and immoral society, where drug dealers marvel at the corruptible nature of the police. A remarkable film.

4. State of the Nation by Kudzanai Chiurai (a warehouse in Newtown and Goodman Gallery Projects at Arts on Main)
This  Zimbabwean artist took Joburg by storm with an impressive solo exhibition that spanned two galleries, included a substantial body of painting, photography, a few film works and two performances.
The opening was a social event, but under the bright lights of an empty gallery the work had substance. Most memorable was his Revelations series, a collection of staged photographs that mirrored scenes from the western art canon to images of Chinese Communist posters transplanted in a generic and contrived African setting. Chiurai therefore reconstructed an idealised past through an African lens. He presented a comical and subversive rereading not only of Western and Eastern visual and ideological rhetoric but of pivotal moments in African history. This collection is conceptually strong and intriguing, and matched by its visual impact. In certain respects this exhibition builds on the work of Michael MacGarry and the staged photography that local artists have been embracing from Tracey Rose to Mary Sibande. It’s always thrilling to observe a shift in an established discourse.