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.