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.

5. State of Violence, written and directed by Khalo Matabane.
The title of this film and Chuirai’s exhibition both refer to a desire to analyse and probe the “state of things”, suggesting that cultural producers are engaged in assessing the current predicaments facing our country (and Africa – from Chuirai’s point of view).
In this highly-emotive film, Matabane attempts to tackle one of the most disturbing and prominent features of contemporary life in this country: violence. The “cycle of violence” is a ubiquitous phrase, but in the context of the film it is given further meaning as Matabane demonstrates the conditions that perpetuate the cycle. His tale pivots on a wealthy mining magnate who used his struggle credentials to secure an affluent lifestyle. Following the murder of his wife he becomes bent on revenge, though her murder was also an act of revenge for an unspeakable act of violence that he had committed during the struggle years. In this way a murder leads to another, to another. Matabane suggests that this chain can only be broken when a perpetrator admits wrongdoing and seeks absolution, even if any act he has committed was done in the name of freedom. To this end, Matabane shows how the culture of violence in this country isn’t simply a symptom of a history of conflict but a pervasive sense of denial that has permeated the consciousness of the new black elite.

6. As Terras do Fim do Mundo by Jo Ractliffe (Stevenson Gallery, Joburg) How do you confront a violent history when physical evidence of it no longer exists? This is the question that Ractliffe presents in a nuanced photographic study of the routes of the border war fought by SA in Angola during the 1970s and 1980s.   Her attempt to photograph this politically-loaded site in the present is futile: there is nothing left to see. Hence she maps the edges, the boundaries where the visible is passing into invisibility. Like a gravestone that is gradually being concealed by overgrowth. In this rural setting, it is nature that is overwriting and concealing history. Though Ractliffe attempts to suppress the inherent natural beauty of these bucolic settings by shooting in black and white, the simple splendour of the location  functions as a powerful foil for the twisted narratives and memories that haunt a society that has chosen to bury the past.

7. Somewhere on the Border, written by Anthony Akerman, directed by André Odendaal (premier National Arts Festival)
Akerman’s play may be dated – it was written in the eighties – but the restaging of it proved to be one of the hits of the 2011 National Arts Festival.
Importantly, it filled in the silences and gaps that have come to define a burgeoning new discourse on the Border War that has been evolving in the visual arts, through exhibitions like Ractliffe’s, Christo Doherty’s exhibition Bos, David Brits’s Victor, Victor and through a new literary canon, which includes Clive Holt’s At Thy Call We Did Not Falter (2005), Tim Ramsden’s Border-Line Insanity: A national serviceman’s story (2009) and James Clelland’s recent Deeper than Colour.
This gripping play demonstrates that while whites were beneficiaries of apartheid, they, too, were victims of this oppressive political system. Above and beyond the political, social and gender commentary that Somewhere on the Border supplies, it is a well-written layered and nuanced text, which serves as a grim reminder of a standard of play-writing that is a rarity today – often attributed to the lack of funding for artistic programmes by the government.

8. Refuse the Hour (a festival centred on William Kentridge’s work at the Market Theatre)
Anything that Kentridge turns his hand to is almost always declared a success. This is partly due to his international stature. For this reason, within certain art circles, it has almost become unfashionable to be impressed by his work. Despite this, few could stay away from this diverse festival which showcased the breadth of his work and the interdisciplinary nature of it – its connection to film, music, literature and, of course, given the setting, bringing into focus his historical relationship with theatre. This was particularly obvious in I am not Me the Horse is Not Mine, a performance-art-cum-theatrical-one-hander, in which Kentridge attempted to play himself, the artist, while exploring his split identity as both creator and subject. For much of his early career, Kentridge’s creative identity appeared to be split between art and theatre, and while his art has often referenced the theatre, it was during this festival that his art was rooted in theatre. In some instances, such as in Dancing with Dada, another highlight of the festival, which was the result of collaboration with dancer Dada Masilo, some of the characteristic motifs from his animations such as the mournful cortege were translated on to the stage, bringing to life his signature aesthetic while reflexively engaging with the notion of the live performance.

9. Inhabitant (choreographed by Sello Pesa at Goethe-on-Main. Part of Dance Umbrella 2011)
It is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to forget watching Pesa rolling across the tarmac on a busy artery outside the Arts on Main building. Viewers winced as this performer/choreographer’s body dodged taxis and cars hurtling down this downtown Joburg city street. It wasn’t simply Pesa’s commitment to performing this death-defying act that impressed, but the statement that this work made that secured its value.
By setting his performance on the pavements and the centre of an urban street, Pesa cleverly directed attention away from the Arts on Main building (where the performance was supposed to have been held) and towards contested, though overlooked, sorts of non-spaces in the city. It is on the roads that ownership of space, a staple theme in political rhetoric, is best articulated, for it is in these contexts that it is most transitory and is in the process of constant renegotiation.

10. Representation by Simon Gush (Stevenson Gallery, Joburg)
Artists in SA are only beginning to really exploit the characteristics of film. For years they have used it as a medium to create video artworks, but few have manipulated the qualities specific to it.
Paul Emmanuel’s celebrated Transitions and Michael MacGarry’s Will of Power are recent examples of artworks in which this has been done. Simon Gush thoughtfully appropriated narrative filmmaking in this exhibition, which consisted of three interrelated short films probing shifts in faith – or in the third film, faithlessness.
The works were centred on protagonists whose faith was challenged and/or reinforced. Faith in a political ideology, not a religious one, was under focus here, though Gush suggested that the two were not too dissimilar. In fact this is the ideological basis of this extraordinary exhibition, which isn't just testament to a constructive use of film but an understated and philosophical engagement with the mechanics that have, and continue, to define our political terrain. - published in The Sunday Independent newspaper, January 8, 2012.

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