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. 


Jane Rosenthal said...

If you've met Jane Alexander you'll realise that "furtive" is totally inappropriate. As for an outdated notion of "artist" ... I believe there is still lots of room for people who do not wish to enter the media/cyber circus, and also wish to maintain some hold on work that cd be considered a signature image. But you are correct that half human creatures do abound in mythology etc.

Niek said...

Dear Mary, "appropriation of Roger Ballen’s “signature” "?? He DIRECTED the video, thats pretty far removed from taking someone's imagery and pretty much exactly copying it without their knowledge (not just the age-old theme, Die Antwoord's interpretation is a breathing version of the butcherboys). It would have been entirely different if they'd just asked.... of course we won't know what Alexander would have said, but you cannot draw conclusions based on the obviously very little research you've done here...

To say that Die Antwoord has any influence on "her work’s potential afterlife" is a ridiculous statement to make, I mean obviously you like Die Antwoord, but this is just sucking-up.

Mary Corrigall said...

Thanks for the comments @Jane Rosenthal; yes, I agree artists do not have to enter the media/cyber circus but there is quite a difference between discussing your work and turning yourself into a media-hungry artist. My understanding is that Alexander doesn't discuss her work openly because she prefers her audience to form their own opinions and for the work to speak for itself. I find it interesting that this kind of openness doesn't extend to repurposing her imagery.

@Niek you clearly haven't done your research; Roger Ballen only came in as a director of a music video after they had established their aesthetic/persona if I am not mistaken he has only directed the last video. As it happens I am not a huge Die Antwoord fan.

johnnankin said...

Mary you should do some more research. You are wrong about Roger Ballen's involvement with them, and you are wrong about Alexander. There is some published material reflecting her intentions, including a recent new monograph - scholarly interviews, texts she has written. She does not do newspaper or magazine or tv interviews, yes. A crime? She does not do public speaking either. But she is no recluse. She is a teacher. The statement by her lawyer -in the C. Times article - was so clear. Where is the debacle? Surely this was between Alexander and Ninja aka Jones? The rest of us are spectators. It seems that they reached agreement (did you know that they are old friends?) long before the story was published. He removed the sting (or trailer, a short advert for his album, not a music video) within two days as requested. All this info was in the original few articles in the Cape Times. I would love to understand your piece...

Siemon Allen said...

"Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it."
Lautréamont, c1870

I can't imagine an art history class in South Africa or anywhere in the world that does not make reference to Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q" — a postcard of Da Vinci's famous painting of the "Mona Lisa" with an added moustache. There are many other examples: the Situationist painter Asger Jorn, who partially painted over works of art he acquired at flea markets; Sherrie Levine, who re-photographed other photographer's works and presented the results as her own; Anton Kannemeyer, who often references Hergé's Tintin. Certainly Picasso's use of African masks in "Les Demoiselles D' Avignon" has been hotly debated... though the painting has yet to be destroyed!

"Appropriation" is by now a convention within the art institution and (using the above examples) a practice that is taught daily in the art school.

Within US copyright law, I would imagine that Die Antwoord's appropriation of Jane Alexander's "Butcher Boys" meets most if not all the requirements of the "Fair Use" doctrine.
Though I recognise that South African copyright law is not as liberal as that.

While there may be some legal merit to Alexander's claim in South African law, her action has unfortunately resulted in the censorship of another artist's work.

If anything, Die Antwoord’s quoting of Alexander’s work has rekindled the whole debate around "The Butcher Boys’" relevance within South African culture. Perhaps it has made it more relevant?

Furthermore, returning to Lautréamont’s quote above, the very fact that Die Antwoord chose to quote "The Butcher Boys" in this way is a sign of how the meaning of that work has changed and represents for better or for worse how South African the culture has changed – progress implies it!

johnnankin said...

I had no wish to hide behind my blog's "continued". A computer generated act of authorship. continued = John Nankin

Marie said...

I saw the Die Antwoord video, which featured "Ninja" as a Butcher Boy in boxer shorts. Yo-Landi, as some kind of faery, alien or mutant, extracts a bloody red heart from the Butcher's chest and starts to eat it. I don't know what the video 'means', but felt that it was riveting. I would like to see it again.

Obviously, "Ninja" is subverting the original 'meaning'Alexander's sculpture, but he also seems to be suggesting that there has been some kind of development; that time has passed.

I think Alexander is being a bit silly. She reminds me of Alba Bouwer, the Afrikaans writer, who wrote exquisite short stories on her childhood in the Free State, involving characters such as Alie (based on herself as a child), Lulu, her friend, and a Sotho woman called Ou Melitie. Reza de Wet used Alie, Lulu and Ou Melitie in her dark drama Diepe Grond, to depic a sick and incestuous society. Bouwer was upset and outraged. There was a court case, in which she insisted that the names of the characters be changed. In my opinion, she overreacted, and did not do herself a favour. Her tales of childhood remain beautiful.