Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cape Town Art Week: Group Mentality

On the floor are stacked layers of tiles and bones, next to a porcelain dog that looks like it is guarding the installation. It’s one of many Kemang Wa Lehuleres that fill the first room of the Stevenson gallery. It’s like a neat cross-section of a disaster site - a clinical excavation.  The title, I can’t laugh any more, when I can’t laugh I can’t… (2012) speaks of this incongruent mix of trauma and kitsch, this oscillation between digging into a past horror, while acknowledging the act of digging is clichéd.

The gallery is surprisingly empty, given it’s the opening night, but then there are four other openings or events in the Woodstock area – so the art-going-loving-buying-crowd is spread thinly between Blank, the new experimental space dubbed “Evil Son”, the Goodman and Whatiftheworld.

My companion, Malibongwe Tyilo, aka Skattie, the infamous fashion blogger of Skattie What are You Wearing, has slim pickings; fashionable or stylish gallerinas are his niche market and there are only a few old ladies knocking about the gallery. He snaps one of them, wearing a pair of silver trainers, and me in one of my statement necklaces. It’s one of five that I have brought to Cape Town as part of my Art Week Cape Town survival kit, which also includes a box of Panados (to counter headaches brought on by cheap wine at openings), the handy Artweek map, and a smartphone for tweeting and photographing so I can keep track of the work I like.

There is a lot to see and process, with two or three openings a night over the space of a week. While the Joburg art scene has wound down by mid-November – there is not an opening until next year – it’s high art season in Cape Town. December and January are the most lucrative months for galleries, what with the city brimming with affluent tourists and visitors.

Few are, however, risking it with a solo show; except for the Goodman, which was due to open with a new William Kentridge exhibition wryly titled No, it is. But then it’s Kentridge, one of the most bankable local artists. Largely, it’s only public institutions that are showing solo exhibitions; the AVA is showing La Sape, a collection of painted portraits by Zambian artist Zemba Luzamba and, at the Iziko SA National Art Gallery, Mikhael Subotzky’s Retinal Shift and Jared Thorne’s exhibition, Black Folk, are being exhibited.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Something with a Pulse: Live Art Fest

‘Is he just going to stand there all night?” asks the little girl standing on a wooden bench in front of Athi-Patra Ruga’s Hope Street studio windows. A large crowd gathered in front of the building before the blinds were raised, revealing not one, but two performers. Which one was Ruga?

 Ruga and Jade Paton’s upper bodies are hidden behind a plethora of balloons holding luminous liquid. Legs concealed in fishnet stockings and ending in pairs of matching red satin high-heels support these bulbous entities, which don’t look too dissimilar from a bunch of grapes. A neon light at the base of the window brings all the neon shades in their costumes, and in the images pinned to the walls in the room, into sharp relief.

It is like a scene from Amsterdam’s red light district, but for the fact that not a single inch of their bodies is on display and they are not stereotypical female personas, but The Future White Women of Azania – an unknown population still in the making. They appear like mannequins, too, though they totter from side to side, like inebriated whores, struggling to remain inert as their heels slide on the neon liquid released from the balloons as they pop.It is a gradual “striptease”, each burst balloon promising to bring us closer to the identities concealed behind the wall of bright plastic.

“This is boring,” declares the opinionated little girl. The balloons aren’t popping fast enough to hold her fickle attention. We’ve learnt to be patient. Performance art isn’t only a test of physical endurance for the performers but for the audience too. We expect to be bored at times. We need to feel trapped in the present in order to grasp its presentness, the weight of it. After all, some define performance art as “life itself, it doesn’t represent or portray”, or so reads a blurb touted by the organisers of the inaugural Venice International Performance Art Week that takes place in December.
Performance art is also finding new platforms in South Africa – mostly due to the efforts of one individual, Jay Pather, who has used his clout to help establish a division for this discipline at the National Arts Festival, a Standard Bank Award for a young artist achieving in this area – Anthea Moys was its inaugural recipient – and is responsible for initiating the Live Art festival in Cape Town.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Treasure Hunting: Photography and Mines

Neville Petersen expects a song and dance when he arrives at a mine shaft. East Rand Proprietary Mines South East Vertical (SEV) shaft in Boksburg has been closed since 2005, but there are a few guards stationed at the entrance who aren’t keen to let us in. It’s not the buried wealth underground that needs protecting, or even the dilapidated structures above ground, it is simply a knee-jerk reaction; this compulsion to conceal its business from the prying eyes of strangers. After 15 minutes of patient negotiations, Petersen returns to the car and parks it under a large tree overhanging the driveway. We must wait for a more senior security manager to allow us entry into the mine’s premises. A group of men are tending to the manicured gardens leading up to the entrance.

There seems little reason now to maintain appearances; the only visitors are unwanted. They are mostly scavengers that enter under the dark cloak of night to steal cables. And then, there is Petersen, a former photojournalist who has made a habit of roaming around these abandoned institutions with a camera attached to his eye. This is his third or fourth visit to SEV, but he sees new things here all the time; because the imposing shaft building and all the dilapidated machinery and empty buildings are caught in an aggressive state of entropy, their exteriors are constantly changing. Nothing remains stagnant, not even a decommisioned mine.

There are all sorts of logical explanations for Petersen’s fixation with these edifices – it is the buildings, the discarded machinery that capture his interest. It might have something to do with growing up on the East Rand, Springs, in-between two mines. The imposing architecture of the shafthead frame is imprinted on his consciousness as in much the same way as the blue of a highveld sky. So, perhaps it was always written in the stars that he would one day want to survey the activities connected to this enduring motif, untangling the mystery that they weaved into his childhood dreams.