Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bankable Art

I had forgotten that Brett Murray used to have a sense of humour. Perhaps he never lost it; maybe we did. Standing in front of Murray’s 2002 work I must Learn to speak Xhosa brings to mind his sharp brand of satire, the laughter his approach once provoked. It’s a painted metal sculpture depicting an old (white) man kneeling in front of a bed, praying. The title of the work appears in a speech bubble below.

The work marks a time when Murray was still mocking the old guard and, in the context of the Art of Banking: Celebrating through Collections, it is used to visually map the mood of the 1990s, a time when white people presumably became acutely aware of the errors of their position, or at least felt their vulnerability in the face of an about-turn in the political and social status quo. Norman Catherine’s Endangered Species, a 2001 work consisting of a wooden cabinet populated by hybrid figures and objects, such as a bottle of “stay alive pills”, is also co-opted in service of articulating this sentiment.

It’s a curious process; using works from one time frame to illustrate another period. But largely this is how this exhibition has been constructed by Barbara Freemantle of the Standard Bank Gallery. The show isn’t simply an exercise in showing off works from this institution’s substantial art collection but, in celebration of its 150th anniversary, the works have been used to gloss over the country’s history from the 1860s. Given this fairly unexciting objective, I expected a dry, if not dull exhibition. This jumbling of time frames has certainly allowed Freemantle to animate this history in a different way; the contemporary works that illustrate this  period simultaneously undermine or question some of the events that have been selected to define it. This engenders a sort of parallel story or powerful subtext.

But this modus operandi presents problems, too. For example, it allows a kind of hindsight that was not available at the time of these events. Murray and Catherine’s works were made almost a decade after the time frame that they are meant to capture, so can they really relate to prevailing sentiments in the 1990s? This kind of fast-forwarding to future conditions or mindsets makes the artworks operate as a screen that projects a more politically correct reality, though many are juxtaposed with works from the actual era they are meant to depict. Murray and Catherine’s works are shown near Penny Siopis’s  diptych  Always Something New out of Africa,  made in 1990. Contrasting with their works, the latter suggests it may have been a time when white artists identified with the political struggle. In the late 1990s, when the so-called Grey Areas debate dominated local discourse on art, Siopis was criticised for her level of identification with black subjects and/or representation thereof.