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. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nelisiwe Xaba: Dancing Across Disciplines

Nelisiwe Xaba and I are Facebook friends though we had not met before. Well, not officially. We exchanged observations outside a theatre after a performance once but we never introduced ourselves. Xaba doesn’t reveal much about herself on Facebook; her posts are usually dance related – video clips of works – and her profile picture is a photograph (of her) from the dance production Sakhozi says “non” to the Venus, where she wore a black ensemble woven from strips of tyres. It looked like a frayed basket that had been moulded to the body. In the photograph her face is made up so that it appears like a mask. The production was last staged in 2009 at the Market Theatre under the banner of The Venus.

Naturally, the title referred to the work, They look at me and that’s all that they think, which unpacked the politics surrounding the troubled life of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus”. Xaba is most famous for this dance work. Admittedly, it was extraordinary. She performed it in a large crinoline skirt, designed by Carlo Gibson from the StrangeLove fashion label. What was unusual was that the work centred on this exaggerated garment – at one point it transmogrified into a screen on which animations were projected. It is rare that a garment, the costume, is so integral to a dancer’s expression.
“It wasn’t planned that way,” admits Xaba when we meet. She is sitting in the sun on a balcony outside the Wits Theatre with Mocke J van Veuren, who is collaborating with her on Uncles and Angels, a new work which will premier during Dance Umbrella 2012.

Xaba explains that she commissioned a skirt that could simply open and close and could work as a screen. Gibson delivered what has probably become the most legendary skirt to have been introduced to the local dance world.
“He had created a monster.” Xaba laughs, but she embraced the costume: “It offered hundreds of possibilities.” Its scale presented limitations. She revels in physical restrictions – this is an intrinsic part of dance; it is an expression where spatial, bodily and social constraints intersect.
In Plasticisation, a work she performed in 2007 at Moving Africa 3 at the Barbican in London, Xaba danced her entire solo from inside a large checked plastic shopping bag, like the ones used by Zimbabweans when they travel across the border and back. The central role of dress in her work created the impression that clothing was an extension of her expression. It had always left me with a sense that through clothing she was expanding the vocabulary of contemporary dance.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sabelo Mlangeni challenges the notion that homosexuality is 'un-African'

The gender-bender activities during Pride marches used to shock the establishment. Men dressed in OTT drag outfits garnered attention and cemented this annual event’s high profile in the pages of newspapers. Now this kind of imagery has been co-opted as a stable element of our culture, and participating in these events has become a legitimised rite of passage for men and women looking to publicly declare – and claim – their sexuality.

In Black Men in Dress and Iimbali, photographer Sabelo Mlangeni does something radical with this field – shall we call it – of imagery. His subversion isn’t necessary deliberate nor does it altogether manifest in the images themselves. By shooting in black and white he does suppress the inherent “spectacle” or gaudiness associated with this brand of imagery. He has a good reason for doing so; the garish tones of the costumes that men typically wear during a Pride march accentuate the artificiality of the female mask they have appropriated. It’s a cheeky way of reminding everyone that gender is a construction, a theatrical masquerade.

Mlangeni wants to minimise this aspect because he seems interested in emphasising the authenticity of these get-ups. Certainly, the majority of the subjects he has chosen don’t wear the clichéd over-the-top ensembles that we associate with the Pride event. In fact many of the outfits the men wear appear quite conformist. A photograph entitled Stripes features a man in work wear – a striped skirt teamed with a white shirt. Themba Qume, Zondi 1 Soweto, 2011 features a man in a wrap-over knit dress. The hemline is inordinately high, but apart from that the silhouette, fabrication and styling are sophisticated and dignified. If you encountered this young man on a street you wouldn’t give him a second look.

This enduring sense of conformity is most obvious in a photograph dubbed A Lady in Black. A man is wearing a black dress and behind him to the right is a young woman in similar dress. Mlangeni highlights the performance of gender but more importantly he implies these men aren’t enacting it as a means of protest or to assert their difference. Naturally, some of his subjects are (consciously) putting on a performance. In at least two images the men push their hips out to one side to draw attention to their feminine attitude. These images suggest that  a sense of play has been retained; there is a recognition that their gender identity is open to manipulation. Nevertheless, these young men perform this act of femininity daily – it’s become unconscious.This series of images suggests a shift in gay activism and the function of the Pride march.

What is most interesting, however, about these photographs is the series they are juxtaposed with – the images dubbed Iimbali, which show young women in reed dancing ceremonies in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland. Though this is viewed as a traditional heterosexual ritual, the young women are also engaged in a rite of passage that concretises their sexual identity.