Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why the National Arts Festival isn't about art

The National Arts Festival is one of the most significant events for arts critics and commenters because it offers us a condensed view of our cultural landscape. Well, aspects of it. Fact is no one comes to the festival to come to grips with contemporary art for the simple reason that there are only a few shows that map this territory.  This year Ruth Simbao’s gargantuan Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China has been a welcome addition, and hints at a brand of exhibition that should be commonplace at the festival, though the themes underpinning it are tired. The new Performance Art programme has seemingly also opened up opportunities for visual artists to enter the festival fray, though of course, it conforms to the privileging of live performance and has been created to accommodate works at the festival that straddle dance, theatre and performance art. Can, should, visual arts and performance art be separated out? That half of this year’s line-up is attached to Simbao’s exhibition suggests the separation can't be cleanly done. 

Usually, it is the exhibition produced by the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist award that must fly the flag for contemporary art. Fortunately, this year, Mikhael Subotzky has delivered with aplomb; Retinal Shift, is undoubtedly his strongest exhibition. It is not a rehash of work he has done before – often the case with this exhibition - though he does dip into his own archive. 

Because the Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition has become the touchstone for contemporary art at the festival it has become one of the most hotly debated awards. There are some in the art fraternity who believe it is easy to predict who will be the next recipient. If the award goes to an artist from the Goodman Gallery stable one year then it is likely that an artist from the Stevenson Gallery will be sure to garner it the following year. The Goodman and Stevenson galleries are the dominant players in the local art market, so it makes sense that artists bent on success in local and overseas spheres need to be signed up to one of them.  It is easy, therefore, when looking to identify a young artist on the up-and-up to select a winner aligned to one of them.