Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When the Party is Over: Athi-Patra Ruga

In the wake of Madiba’s passing it is probably a good time to meditate on that paranoid right-wing myth dubbed The Night of the Long Knives. The phrase is appropriated from the name given to a deadly (did any of their initiatives not involve death?) Nazi programme, which involved murdering over 80 political opponents. It was a bloody purge, and one that some right-wing whites have long believed would occur in this country after Mandela’s death. This fear is rooted in the idea that this magnanimous man’s reconciliatory stance towards whites would be eschewed and replaced by a violent programme to kill off all powerful whites. In this myth Mandela is positioned as the glue that held South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy together. In other words, the miracle, this supposed peaceful rainbow nation will die with him.

Athi-Patra Ruga’s rendition of the Night of the Long Knives doesn’t quite involve a bloody purge. There is lots of red about, but it’s the tone of all the faux flora that colonise the image. In fact this series presents photographs featuring quite an idyllic scenario. His infamous ballooned character titled the white woman of Azania rides sidesaddle on a zebra through a tropical idyll, flanked by two characters that have been informally nicknamed the Abu-Dhabis due to the gold speckled hijab-like costume that conceals their bodies. Is this the (idyllic) world after the whites have been purged? If so perhaps their annihilation has seen the white figure take on mythic proportions, or maybe in such a scenario whiteness fittingly becomes an abstract idea rather than referring to skin colour. The white woman of Azania propped up by a decorated zebra isn’t any specific colour; she is the metaphorical rainbow nation with her multicoloured balloon outfit. In these photographs and other images at Ruga’s new solo exhibition, the White Woman of Azania Saga, her existence and the dream of the nation she perhaps embodies remains quite intact.

In Ruga’s performances she doesn’t enjoy much of a lifespan; after parading along the streets in the manner of a cavalcade of sorts he violently annihilates the façade and the socio-political ideologies it communicates – Azania, the rainbow nation dream – by bursting the balloons and streaking the streets with the coloured paint inside them. It’s a violent purge for sure, but of a fantasy rather than of people opposing some kind of twisted one.

These performances leave spectators in a precarious place; desiring the fantasy, while taking pleasure in observing it being dismantled and discovering what lies beneath it – Ruga and other performers (usually men) parade as  women. Maintaining a fantasy is about sustaining a pretence. However, as with drag, the form of pretence that Ruga enacts is one that sets out embracing artificiality.

Precariousness has been a hallmark of Ruga’s performance art practice, so, it is interesting to observe how this state can manifest or be sustained in a gallery show, where the works are not only solid permanent objects, are rendered in mediums that further articulate a sense of longevity, such as tapestry and stained glass design, but also appear to sustain the euphoric fantasy of which the balloon outfit had became a signature motif.

An attempt to reconcile his performance art with his artworks at this show, isn’t unexpected; the title connects them and the vast array of artworks (the show occupies both floors of the Whatiftheworld gallery) that expand on his performance art while feeding off it. This level of integration in Ruga’s practice is a new and rich development; there was always a disconnect in terms of subject-matter between the tapestries and his performance art.

Importantly, this show recontextualises Ruga’s performance art; the tapestries and photographs make his take on Azania tangible. Like the balloon façade, Ruga’s Azania is an artificial hyper-fantasyland; populated by zebras – apparently the main form of transport – and defined by a lush tropical vegetation – Durban on steroids – acid bright flowers, and with beautiful women adorned in leopard print coats it is an overstated African dream (read stereotype).

Monday, December 16, 2013

'Madiba art' is unfashionable

Yuill Damaso's Night Watch
Predictably, when an image of Madiba’s corpse entered the public realm it wasn’t well received. Yuill Damaso’s contentious painting, Night Watch, which showed the late former president lying inert while political leaders performed an autopsy on him, caused a furore when it went on display at the Hyde Park shopping centre in 2010. The oil painting, rendered in a realistic manner echoing the artist’s source of inspiration – the Dutch master Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp – became headline news when it attracted a searing critique from the ANC.
“It is in bad taste, disrespectful and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society,” asserted senior party spokesman Jackson Mthembu.

Damaso had not intended to cause offence.
“I wanted to show that although Mandela was a hero, he was a mortal, a man nonetheless. I pictured him with his arm cut open to show that he was made of flesh and bones. We all have the potential to be like him, but we have to do something great (to achieve his status).”
Before the controversy had died down the artwork had a buyer: AngloGold Ashanti had put in a R400 000 bid, according to the artist. Damaso’s art appeared to be worth a lot more than the commercial galleries he had approached over the years had envisioned. He put their disinterest in his work to the fact that conceptual art is more highly prized. Undoubtedly, for as Mandela is highly regarded, the local gallery circuit haven't embraced art picturing the late leader. 'Madiba art', if you could call it that seems to cater for more populist tastes. It simply isn't fashionable in art circles, perhaps because it can't function as an elitist object and the 'sacredness' attached to it limits artists from dissecting it or challenging what it might represent. This may also account for gallerists desisting from 'profiting' from it - which is seen as almost vulgar and uncouth.
Steirn's photograph of Mandela

Night Watch was desirable for two reasons; its prominence in the media and the fact that it depicted a man who had become an iconic figure, representing and embodying the ethos of the South African miracle. Almost any works picturing this great leader tend to attract high prices; last week a photograph by the Australian photographer Adrian Steirn fetched a record R2 million from a New York dealer. The anonymous buyer stated that: “I am honoured to own what has already become an iconic image of one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever known. In a single frame the photographer has captured the essence of dignity, principle, conviction and courage in this great man from whose life’s work and dedication to a greater cause we all have much to learn, and by which I am inspired daily.”
As this statement suggests, people are willing to pay any price to possess objects that evoke the qualities attached to Madiba.

Perhaps in acquiring such works there is a sense that an individual or institution is able to affirm their support of the values he espouses and represents, as well as those that they wish to attain in their own existence.
In feeding a market for Madiba products, do those who purchase objects parading his likeness perpetuate the commercialisation and exploitation of his image and perhaps, by doing so, erode the values he stands for?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When 'the (art) thing' is no longer the 'thing': Art Week Cape Town

Modern Painting by Zander Blom

I can hear Willem Boshoff aka The Big Druid snoring before I see him. He’s lying on a thin mattress on the floor of the Smac Gallery, where his installation Big Druid in his Cubicle has been installed. Consisting of vintage objects in neat compositions, the installation appears like an orderly antique shop or interior of a home, belonging to a fastidious or assiduous collector. A collection of ornate wooden walking sticks are arranged in a line, as are a group of rusted sickles, there is a pair of old scissors, and lids of cardboard boxes are filled with the disassembled parts of dolls bodies. On a shelf is a skull among toys and a vintage radio. I discover on my way out of the gallery that each composition, or objects within each arrangement, if you could call it that, boasts a title, implying they are forms of expression. A list of artworks reveals that dental mouth casts on paper are dubbed “Speechless” and a battered bag, stones and a dice are titled “School”. I return to the displays to identify the objects that are assigned meaning but give up quickly; it’s too difficult, the spaces are so cluttered with things that I am easily distracted and find the quest futile; assigning or searching for meaning in retrospect seems like such a false response.

These antique compositions are only one aspect of his work; the Big Druid also goes on walks, where he “strives to look, see and discover that which others miss or avoid”. Unfortunately, my timing is bad so I miss joining him on one of these strolls – though through the (over) abundance of urban walks in Joburg this pastime has grown cold on me. Some artists are even positioning urban strolls as art. Have I missed Boshoff’s work? Is his sleeping body, the work – I quite like the idea that the only time a gallery has no hold on an artist is when he/she is asleep? The artful composition of knick-knacks could be the art that is also not art, or the large words like “Prick” and “Fat”, spelt out with small letters or beads that look like bona fide art products – they are framed and covered in glass that are displayed in an adjoining room at Smac.

It’s disconcerting, but I’m not really interested in discovering what Boshoff is saying – ironically, these blown up words, direct attention beyond words – but rather how he is saying it; where his expression is located. Is everything an accessory to his performance as a Druid or artist (for him these two personas are connected)?
My interest, or perhaps lack thereof, is a consequence of the emphasis on materials and mediums being advanced by a few galleries participating in the second Art Week Cape Town. A week of art openings could dull the senses of the most sensitive viewer but it’s the art, or the way it has been packaged, that has delivered me at this shallow place, though I’m not convinced interest in materials/the medium is superficial.
It is probably the Stevenson Gallery that has taken the lead in this trend, if you could call it that, with an exhibition dedicated to sculpture, which automatically directs your attention to the mediums the artists have chosen and how they do or do not conform with the idea of sculpture. There are a few traditional sculptural works by Conrad Botes and Claudette Schreuders, however, the rest of the works ‘challenge’ conceptions about what sculpture is, through the artists’ chosen mediums or materials. Video works, for example, would not be deemed sculpture – sculptures have a physical presence and are generally static – yet it is the medium preferred by a group of performance artists who would ordinarily be excluded from a sculpture show. It is the process of making and unmaking sculptures that define Lerato Shadi and Kemang Wa Lehulere’s works. In Matsogo (2013), Shadi crumbles a chocolate cake in her hands, moulding it into a variety of shapes before it returns to its original state. It goes from being a desirable object to something inedible: a brown mould that looks like a ball of earth. Wa Lehulere’s A Homeless Song (Sleep is for the Gifted) features two sets of performers moving a mass of bones from one place to another. One of the performers in each duo is white and another black; lending a racial undertone to the work and it is implied they depend on each other as they uncover and pull apart and reassemble the past. A sense of futility pervades; wherever the bones (ancestors, history) are located they still exist.

Covered in body paint and make-up, a naked Steven Cohen is positioned as a “living sculpture” in the contentious work Cock/Coq, which may see him frozen to a spot in a French jail if he is found guilty of sexual indecency by authorities in that country – nudity is a given in classical sculptures but in a live body it is deemed indecent. His work relies on it being offensive; otherwise it would have had no impact and would not have been registered by the South African or French public – it was performed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Cohen might use his body (and that of others) to make statements but, in fact, notions of what are indecent are his core tools, that is the material he works with; it’s invisible, though he makes it visible through the absence of dress. The ornate, pretty, make-up – long batting lashes and butterfly like motifs –on his face, presents a delicate, feminised individual, an innocent and unthreatening being, which makes whatever aggressive responses to him seem so misplaced, though he invites this. This visage underpins the martyr-like position he embraces; he must sacrifice his dignity and safety to make the world understand its ugly contradictions. In this way, he perhaps suits the “living sculpture” phrase linked to him in the handout, though he could not be more unsuitable as a permanent public feature. If he was, his appearance would be acceptable and his work would lose its power. He can never be (fully) public or permanent.
Dineo Bopape's Same Angle, Same Lighting

Quickly, I’m drawn to the works where the sculptural element is a supporting feature to the end-product, accidental and functional sculptural objects. Such as the crude makeshift contraption that acts like a projector in Dineo Bopape’s Same Angle, Same Lighting. Amazingly, this low-tech rickety device is capable of translating an image (of flowers) onto a screen in front of it. It’s the sort of thing hipsters would covet; it looks like an outmoded pre-prototype artifact. It’s alive too; it moves back and forth, tightly holding onto the original image. In this way this device is “the material”, the thing, the location of the work and not the jumpy image on the screen. It’s a bit like becoming preoccupied with the technology inside a TV set instead of the content on it.

Zander Blom’s Modern Painting articulates the same point; instead of presenting his paintings as|sculptures, which is easy, specially those latest paintings with viscous 3D blobs, Blom presents the by-products of his painting; the soiled shoes, paint brushes and other paraphernalia in his studio that gets covered in paint. This isn’t a surprise, as anyone who has visited his studio can attest; in some ways his paint splattered interior is more interesting than what gets done in it. This is partly because Blom doesn’t clean up; so items are caked with paint and he preserves each empty tube which sits in a perfectly formed pile. Blom has a slightly pathological fetish for painting – the act of doing it and the mess it creates around him is as pleasing as the work. This is the ultimate submersion in a medium. There is something vacuous about this, but the level of immersion it demands implies anything but a superficial engagement.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Surviving Performa 13

Maria Hassabi's Premiere pic by Paula Court

The East Village isn’t a bad place to kill time. This Manhattan suburb isn’t very stimulating during the day, but at night the restaurants that line the streets are buzzing with patrons. We’re sitting in an establishment that specialises in vegan raw food, not because it’s our cuisine of choice but because of its location – across the road from the Russian and Turkish Bath House, where Rashid Johnson’s Dutchman will be performed that evening.  Johnson may well be a star of the art world but we would rather not attend his performance. We are busy talking ourselves out of doing so.
“It’s too cold and I’m not willing to get wet,” I argue. These are valid points; it is around 4ºC outside and I don’t have the prerequisite swimming costume and flip-flops outlined as the dress code for this performance in the press invitation. Why do we need a swimming cossie? Will we be swimming? The idea of appearing in a costume at a performance is making me feel like running a mile. But I don’t. I’m too curious and tend to suffer from an acute form of fomo (fear of missing out).

It’s some comfort that the handful of journalists outside the bathhouse look as apprehensive as we are. It’s a strange reversal; being an audience member is supposed to be a carefree experience – even for critics, who get to observe from a detached position. Yet this reversal shouldn’t come as a surprise; most of the performances at Performa 13, a New York-based performance art biennial, have left us feeling that performance art demands a lot from its audience – and is in fact all about reversing performance conventions. Conclusions are beginnings. Beginnings endings. The notion that a performance should or can be entertaining is annihilated too. And in most cases the “performance artist” isn’t present. In one case, Ryan McNamara’s Meme: A story ballet about the internet, he is hiding under the stage. Vishal Judgeo and his partner/co-performer spend their entire performance concealed behind a screen on the stage. It’s as if no one wants to perform.

In Premiere by Maria Hassabi there seems an obvious reluctance: the performers have their backs to us for most of the performance. Our entry into the theatre at The Kitchen in Chelsea is unconventional, too; we arrive at our seats after crossing the stage, where Hassabi and a group of performers are positioned.
Most audience members rush across this space; it’s brightly lit by stage lights attached to rigs on either side of the “stage” – a place where we don’t belong and tread gently. When the excitement of this unusual start has worn off, it becomes clear that the performers, who have their backs to us, are slowly moving to face us. This is all they will do.

Premiere is centred on prolonging what is usually a split second action when the performers confront their audience. Once you realise this is the motivation for the “action”, if you could call it that (it is defined by painfully slow gestures), you start to wish the whole thing would end.
This impatience is tied to our demand as an audience to be entertained and stimulated, rather than being trapped viewing an action you take for granted and which carries little weight – performers are usually burdened with negotiating the significance of “facing” an audience, not us. It’s an interesting reversal, which builds tension between us and them, but it can’t be sustained because it quickly becomes banal. Or, dare I say, boring? In an era of overstimulation via different online media, perhaps being boring has become provocative.

Hassabi, a New York choreographer and performer, seems intent on deconstructing and isolating each aspect of performance – at Performa 11, she presented Show, a work in which she analysed and organically established a “stage”. In this way her work could be described as metaperformance – performance art about the mechanics of performance. But then, perhaps all performance art is concerned with performance, from the theatrical to the everyday, commenting, analysing and distorting it.

Sweating it out during Rashid Johnson's Dutchman
pic by Paula Court
Performance art is parasitic in this way and perhaps is a form that can’t claim its own vocabulary – everything is derived from something else. In this context, performance art could be a field that doesn’t exist, which is what makes it so intriguing and enigmatic – but also so marginalised within the broader visual arts.
Hassabi’s work sounds better on paper. The idea driving it is more interesting than enacting it, though of course, it has no value or meaning unless it is performed because you can’t know what it might be like to prolong the action of facing an audience without doing it. But it is so tedious to sit through that by the time the performers face us, we have lost interest in this moment, which is positioned not as the beginning of a performance but the end, the grand finale.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The design mode of Moad

Interior of Moad. pic by Mary Corrigall

"Museums are where art goes to die," observes artist Christian Nerf a few days before the opening of one of his first commercial gallery shows at Art On Paper. He's reflecting on the growing irrelevance of South Africa's public art institutions, which used to provide a space for artists like himself who have worked outside of the commercial gallery circuit.

This idea appeared to be confirmed by the poor turnout at a recent opening at the Johannesburg Art Gallery for the exhibition Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art, a peripatetic show presenting works by famous artists - Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic - "to promote awareness of the root causes of violence against women". Conspicuously absent at the opening were members of the art community. Politically-correct women themed shows have never held much appeal with this crowd, however, the lack of interest seemed emblematic of a larger issue. Since the vision driving this crumbling institution has come to be dominated by a resolve to fix the edifice's structural problems - a leaking roof - over its function as a cultural institution, it has predictably lost its cachet among the city's intelligentsia.

The loss of support by the art community is a knock this cash-strapped institution can ill afford. Jag has infamously held little appeal for inner city residents. Its colonial architecture, heavily guarded entrance and strong police presence have led many to believe it is a police station, a destination you wouldn't want to visit. Artists with a keen interest in architecture, like Stephen Hobbs, believe that if the gallery's facade changed, inhabitants would have a different relationship to it.
"If an alien spaceship crashed into the side of Jag it would be a good thing; it would force a radical shift," mused Hobbs.

From this perspective, Joburg's inner city needs another museum like it needs another group of marching strikers. Yet, blocks away from Jag, there has been a flurry of activity around a dilapidated building on Commissioner Street that has now officially become the home of Moad, the Museum for African Design. It doesn't look like much of a museum or a design museum for that matter; little visible work has been done to the exterior of the building, which once served as premises for a panel beater.

You would expect a design museum to appear as a design object itself, but these kinds of formalities and traditions, along with many others that define a museum - such as insulation, light and temperature monitors, have been discarded. As anyone who roamed the building two days before the opening can attest, this "museum" has been slapped together. This is the not the culmination of a decade-long plan, such as Fiona Rankin Smith and Julia Charlton's Wits Art Museum. It's a low-cost solution to resolve Jonathan Liebmann's desire to add a cultural centre that celebrates design to his burgeoning Maboneng district.

From the very start, with the Arts on Main centre, the district has always been linked to culture and design. This is what has made it desirable and fashionable. With the aid of Daffoncio and Associates Architects, Maboneng is a product of design, boasting a distinctive industrial minimalist aesthetic that visibly maps the territory of this aggressive regeneration property development owned by Propertuity.
"To call this place a museum is a stretch," observes David Adjaye, the Tanzanian-born London based architect, in the country as a guest of Southern Guild to open Moad. Adjaye is an expert where museums are concerned; not only is this world famous architect currently tasked with building the Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington DC but he has designed spaces for exhibitions, most recently a collection of photographs by Richard Avedon at the Gagosian in New York. In the context of Moad, he views the use of the title "museum" more as a provocation than a statement of fact.
"This is a project site," he says.

In many ways Moad's appearance is an affront to architecture; it's a bare, unadorned skeleton of an industrial building that has gone untouched by the hand of designers.Structurally, its also unsound; as Adjaye points out, there are "badly performing balustrades everywhere".
Yet, Adjaye is excited by the space, its informality and its makeshift nature. "This is the most radical proposition for a design museum I have seen. It proposes an immediate use beyond gentrified loft apartments or artists' studios?"
It also presents an alternative model for cultural space in emerging cities. "You don't need $200 million to get a cultural space, you can just get on with it."

The industrial setting comes as no surprise; while the 20th century was about mass production, the late 20th century has seen an onslaught of artists and artisans taking over spaces of labour, turning these industrial sites into very twee design settings, observes Adjaye. "It's part of a weird nostalgia and the romance continues with this proposition of a museum that is not a pristine box but is part of an the abandoned factory on the urban block with nothing done to it. Whether they know it or not it is genius."
Aaron Kohn, the American director of Moad, is aware the museum is untraditional and plans on exploiting this to encourage visitors.
"We are talking about putting a museum in a place where nobody cares about museums," says Kohn. It's hard hearing this articulated by a foreigner.
Aaron Kearney's The Lost Art of Conversation

Kohn's plan at shifting this culture seems primarily to rest on establishing this museum as a place where people party - hence the cocktail bar at the entrance, a DJ station on top of the scullery and space to accommodate live music gigs. Moad is not quite a nightclub with culture thrown in; the bar is in service of informalising the space and is expected to generate income to support the cultural programme, which will be dependent on sponsorship deals or funds raised through events. Design tenants will also be added at some point, which will sit easily in this unadorned factory.

The industrial setting also gives context to some of the design pieces on its inaugural show by Southern Guild, observes Julian McGowan, one of the directors of this design broker firm that is presenting its new collection at Moad. "A lot of the work is about industry so it fits into this space. When we did a show at the Everard Read Gallery it was a little rarefied," says McGowan.

A solid black steel fireplace and table by Gregor Jenkins that forms part of this Southern Guild collection certainly belongs in this industrial setting. These items are crude and seemingly utilitarian, though they are sleek and desirable. The four pipes that form the basis of the fireplace appear part of the building. The scale of the pieces also makes sense in this capacious museum. As does a wooden chair by Cameron Platter, dubbed Juliette, which is painted and carved so as to appear like one of those ubiquitous cheap white plastic chairs that security guards sit in, or even factory workers. Michael MacGarry's Faro-RLV 3-10, a fictional futurised unmanned field artillery cannon for an imagined Nigerian army, also appears like the product of mass production, though it is a once-off art object. Creating once-off art items that resemble mass produced or everyday products that you wouldn't associate with haute-design or art are fitting for this context and cheekily challenge appearances. Other items in the collection don't fit the environment at all, like the craft items that reveal the work of the human hand, or domestic furniture items.

There seems little logic driving the selection or display of the objects; it doesn't appear as if anyone has given any thought as to the relationship between them - or how this could be exploited. There is no binding  narrative that mediates visitors experience of the diverse works. McGowan says he didn't want to adopt a theme during the commissioning phase as "that would have made it too easy for the designers".

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Separating Fact from Fiction: Art and Journalism via Hugo and Chiurai

Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013

 It was as a journalist that author Margie Orford stood over the body of a young girl who had been stabbed over 20 times that she  first understood, or at least observed, the rage that beats beneath the surface of our society. The language of journalism wasn’t up to the task of articulating what she could perceive and so she turned to fiction, though she has suggested that the form of reportage that she had been driving wasn’t such a leap away from the crime novels she came to write. Was she seeking the “novelistic truth” that Justin Cartwright, the South African-born UK-based author, identifies as the feature that the mask of fiction provides?

Sometimes the absence of answers can be satisfying. We expect artists to probe beneath the surface of our society, yet package their insights in a way that is palatable and marketable – and intriguing; we don’t want the bold facts overstated like an Ayanda Mabulu or Brett Murray portrait of President Jacob Zuma.
We don’t always want answers, when they can’t be easily supplied.  Mary Wafer’s quasi abstract mapping of the landscape where the Marikana tragedy took place in her exhibition, Mine, was such a body of work. In the absence of tangible clues to explain what had occurred,  she drew attention to our probing gaze and desire to get a handle on a truth or truths that the media supply and how we use them as a measure of “where we are at” – as if it is some fixed and knowable place that could even be visualised.

Does the language of art allow us to better grasp the unknown, in comparison to journalistic products which are designed to confront, reveal, what is (or should be) known?
At what point does the journalistic mode become insufficient and is it really that one dimensional?
Having worked for newspapers, Pieter Hugo knows the journalistic language well, you could even say he still works with it even though his photography is considered art and shows in galleries.
His latest exhibition, Kin, showing at Stevenson galleries in Joburg and Cape Town, is characterised by sharp images which imply that his subject matter has been thoroughly revealed or exposed in the documentary mode.

Every line on his subjects’ faces is rendered with such clarity and combined with the large scale of his prints, it is easy to believe we are bearing witness to reality. It also helps that he has selected subjects who bear physical marks of time or are marked by life; we see this in the veined, wrinkled hands of a man in Danville, 2013, an aged domestic worker, Meriam “Mary’ Tlali, who worked for the Hugo family, Daniel Richards, a young man who has tattooed his face, the portrait of Shaun Oliver, a man with a lined face and a burning cigarette hanging between his thin lips and Hugo’s pregnant partner, her body stretched by the child in her womb. These are subjects, therefore, who are moulded, scarred by life, the existences they lead – they know “reality”, are products of it.

The sharp lucidity with which Hugo renders them also makes them appear quite unreal, too real; we rarely observe people in this way, even in person. This imparts a hyperrealism that we tend to associate with figurative painting, such as Deborah Poynton’s highly detailed Baroque-esque brand that also zooms in on the unsightly minutiae of her (nude) subjects.

In this way the frailties and vulnerabilities of the subjects are enhanced or seemingly revealed, engendering the notion that the truth is there in front of us. It seems to be all about looking, not thinking.
The painterly analogy fits this oeuvre by Hugo, particularly the photographs that mimic the formula of the ubiquitous “still life” – like a vase containing flowers in the work Inside Hudson Kungu’s home Virginia. Or a plastic wrapped TV remote, ashtray and box of cigarettes on a table that allude to the habitual rituals for In Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Art & Politics: Joburg Art Fair Report

Is that Barend de Wet under the knitted cover? pic by Thys Dullart
An empty stand is an eyesore at an art fair – it communicates some level of dysfunctionality; organisational issues. At the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) it had to do with the politics of business and a political artwork that didn’t go down too well with the organisers, Artlogic, headed by Ross Douglas.
Three waiters stood at the entrance of the vacant stand while Douglas, his creative director Cobi Labuschagne, Liza Essers, owner of the Goodman Gallery and David Goldblatt discussed Goldblatt reinstalling his exhibition Frock and Other Pictures in the vacant stand.

Goldblatt stood firm; he wouldn’t do so until Douglas was willing to allow Ayanda Mabulu’s Yakhali’inkomo (Black Man’s Cry), featuring President Jacob Zuma crushing the head of a miner under his foot, to hang on the outer wall of Commune1’s stand.
As the featured artist of this year’s JAF and one of the most recognised artists here and abroad, Goldblatt was playing with a strong hand. Yet he was full of regret. He was dismayed that he had to force Douglas’s hand, that the self-censorship he knew from the apartheid era had raised its ugly head again and that he felt he was standing virtually alone in this act of protest. It also pained him that it recalled a similar experience.
“It was just me and Bongi Dhlomo who stood at the gates of the Goodman Gallery when the ANC supporters marched outside,” recalls Goldblatt of the day hundreds gathered in Parkwood to protest against the display of The Spear (of the nation), Brett Murray’s contentious image of Zuma.

Confirming the negative impact of The Spear debacle on the consciousness of the art world, this time censorship and bullying had been perpetrated by an insider, Douglas, who had done so out of fear that Mabulu’s unambiguous comment on the Marikana tragedy might jeopardise Artlogic’s relationship with  various government institutions – the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Gauteng Provincial Government and the City of Joburg.

To justify his decision Douglas kept reiterating that “he had to balance the interests of all the parities at the fair”, as if overlooking the rights of artists and gallerists wasn’t in contradiction with this. Nelisiwe Xaba and Mocke J Van Vuuren, the joint winners of the FNB JAF Art Award, made this point when they released a statement to the press during the debacle.

Barend de Wet was the first artist to be censored at the JAF, when he knitted in the buff at the Blank Projects stand a number of years ago. Artlogic stopped his performance. Presumably in reference to that event and his protest against what had occurred with Mabulu, the artist floated through the fair underneath a garish striped knitted blanket-cum garment – a signature of his work. No one tried to lift it to see if De Wet was in fact concealed beneath and possibly naked, yet it was quietly subversive.
Nevertheless, Goldblatt wasn’t backed by a large contingent willing to put their heads on the line, proving that the brand of self-censorship that informed Douglas’s decision about Mabulu’s work ran quite deeply; though, of course, some were silent because they feared being reproached by Douglas.
Essers, whose gallery represents Goldblatt and Murray, is therefore no stranger to dealing with a censorship battle. She was of the opinion that apathy, too, might have contributed towards the glaring absence of solidarity around The Spear debacle and the censorship of Mabulu’s artwork.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Drawing the Line: Nerf at AOP

Every Single Touch Counts

A commercial gallery show can happen to the most unlikely of artists. Christian Nerf never planned for one at Art on Paper; it simply evolved through a discussion around a collection of drawings he was "trying to flog to get back to Cape Town".
It's not as if Nerf has been completely set against a commercial show, or making money from his art per se - he usually prefers to barter - but he has operated outside of the gallery system, or any system it must be said, for so long that doing so has become part of his identity as an artist, or non-artist artist - he even eschews the title.

Anarchic artists are a dying breed; today's generation are desperate to be absorbed by the commercial gallery system. Getting signed to the Stevenson, having a sell-out show, being the centre of attraction at the annual FNB Joburg Art Fair, which opened this weekend, and showing anywhere dubbed "international" is what the best art dreams are made of. To do so requires conforming to, rather than questioning, the system that supports these aspirations. It's a bind, for sure, if the nature of your work involves exposing social contrivances. But it seems, ironically, as if conforming is the new non-conforming - as long as you do it with your tongue firmly in your cheek, though holding this pose for any length of time is impossible and eventually becomes the mainstream position anyway.

This may be why Avant Car Guard (the now defunct art collective made up of Zander Blom, Michael McGarry and Jan-Henri Booyens) quickly dispensed with their derisive commentary on the local art world - like The Invoice, a painting of a receipt they tried to sell at the Joburg Art Fair in 2009.

Nerf has played this game too; setting up a bogus Facebook identity with Douglas Gimberg, which they dubbed Gimberg Nerf, and befriending everyone in the art world until they had secured 666 friends before closing the account and running an obituary for the persona in The Star's classified section.

Yet Nerf's rebellious flair and resistance against commercial ends makes him a slightly anachronistic figure who conforms to a romantic ideal of the artist we like to cling to in the belief that there is at least one pursuit that isn't shaped, cheapened, by market forces. Is resistance futile, or even possible? It's a question worth asking as the Joburg Art Fair is about to open. Nerf's recent exhibition and subtle presence at the fair this year at Art on Paper's stand doesn't provide answers but complicates the question.

This is because things are not so straightforward. His exhibition, Itinerant Studio No33: Vestiges, at Art on Paper might be a concession towards being part of the gallery system, but it is also not quite a conventional show.

He is perhaps one of the few artists who can do a gallery show without doing one. He does this by turning part of the gallery into one of his itinerant studios, as he dubs them. They are temporary working spaces set in conventional art spaces - like the Goethe-on-Main and Room galleries - as well as completely unlikely venues for art like a Scout Hall in Parkview, to the small foldaway tray in a plane. Wherever they are located, he gets to redetermine the "space" and its expected functions. In a gallery this means he is able to exercise some control, while exorcising some of the baggage it entails for an artist.

Nerf knows how to make himself at home, quickly. Since he started his "iterant studios", he has perfected a ritual display that instantly announces his presence and evokes a studio atmosphere. A bunch of browning bananas hangs on a hook alongside equipment and other studio staples like a bag of good-quality ground coffee and an old-fashioned espresso maker.

He doesn't need to travel with coffee; next door to Art on Paper The Three Marys offers a great brew. This ritualised display might assert a studio setting, but given the latter point it has become an installation that reads as art. This art space shifts how we read things in it and perhaps that cannot be avoided or upturned at all.

Perhaps Nerf is simply going through the motions of making peace with this space, for he has also conceded with selling some framed drawings that are part of the display. Naturally, the frames aren't ordinary frames; they are bespoke wooden ones fashioned by a furniture-maker friend who has turned the works into must-have art objects. I suppose the thinking was that if you are going to create an art object for sale you should go the full hog and amplify the act so as to revel in that moment for what it is. What is that moment?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pinning down the Intangible: Bronwyn Lace

Detail of Collapse (White Passage Out)

It’s a curious phenomenon that compels dancers to explore conditions that limit the body, writers to gravitate towards articulating states that cannot be verbalised and visual artists towards capturing things that escape the eye. Perhaps this is how artists test the boundaries of their respective disciplines, but it also tends to be the reason they have chosen them as tools of expression; if you are interested in what goes unsaid it seems logical that you would pursue a career in writing.

This theory may explain why the artist Bronwyn Lace is so interested in the invisible; that which the naked eye cannot detect, and, given she is a visual artist, bringing invisible matter into view. In other words, in her pursuit of tracing the invisible, she automatically creates situations where the unseen becomes visible. In a way, the quality she is chasing is transformed through her obsession, into the very thing that interests her the least. It’s a contradiction for sure, but presumably one that holds her attention because she can never be released from it.

This may be why her latest exhibition, Resuscitate, seems partly concerned with not only shedding light on the invisible, but her idiosyncratic mode of arriving at this point – and toying with it. Underscoring Lace’s pursuit of the invisible is her vocabulary of invisibility, which includes her opaque materials; see-through perspex boards, fishing gut and light. A light fitting may be quite tangible, but light itself, particularly in relationship to the fishing gut lines that she characteristically suspends between the perspex boards, is an intangible “material”.

These materials cunningly create the illusion that her pursuit of the invisible doesn’t result in material objects, but ephemeral ones that seemingly don’t exist either. This may allow her to avoid the contradiction her obsession may entail at least superficially because, ultimately, it is the visual substance of her work. However, because the structure to hold the invisible and map it out is the only thing we can see, it becomes the object/subject of her work; in other words, the invisible/visible structure ends up |serving as a substitute for what the naked eye can’t see.

This exhibition presents installations that have been collapsed. The perspex boards are sandwiched together and the fishing gut lines that would have been tautly suspended between them are crumpled into an entangled mass that protrudes from the perspex in the works Collapse (White Passage In) and Collapse (White Passage Out). In the works Collapse (Ascension) and Collapse (Golden Tunnel), Lace enacts the reverse process by “stretching” out the construction so that the fishing gut lines are suspended between the ceiling and the floor of the double volume of the Nirox Gallery.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Connecting the lines: Mamaza

Mamaza's Cover Up pic by John Hogg
The performers are choking on the white fluffy carpet that delineates the stage. This is the price for burying their heads in its dense pile. They immerse themselves in it as they motor their bodies around it, hungry to feed on its smell or texture, until their mouths are full of it and they are forced to spit out the whispy fibres.
The carpet is ever present;  the acrid aroma of synthetic fibres pervades the theatre. It facilitates an imaginative performance space where they can exist anywhere, though at times they can’t get past its physical dimensions, characteristics.

When they are not ensnared by its alluring fluffiness, it’s as if they are revelling in middle-class suburban bliss. Clad in beige chinos, Ionnis Mandafounis, Fabrice Mazliah and May Zarhy (who are collectively known as Mamaza) glide across the fluffy white carpet in their white socks with childlike enthusiasm. You can almost imagine the plush leather lounge suite and glass table that should serve as props. Yet, in Cover Up, the carpet opens up an imaginative space beyond the everyday, allowing the performers to follow their every whim, switching between modes of performance as they stretch the boundaries of this banal, cheesy, retrogressive and affluent setting that this white surface evokes, permits.

At times they are trapped by it, such as when their heads are glued to the surface. At other times, they are upright, stiff and act out choreographed scenes with disco-inspired moves that recall those by John Travolta in the cult disco film Saturday Night Fever. Fluffy carpets are of course über Seventies, so this reference is not a surprise. Their gestures are not as loose or seductive as Travolta’s, they’re rendered stiffly, like a wallflower at a party who wants to fit in, highlighting their awkward form of mimicry.

In stark juxtaposition, they become animalistic – bleating like goats, or emitting guttural screams. Once again it’s the fluffy white carpet that brings goat pelts to mind, giving rise to the association.

Cover Up is a performance-performance in the sense that it is about contrivance and theatrics, playing with them quite self-reflexively. This makes it difficult to initially reconcile this production with Asingleline, the other work they have brought to South Africa. For starters, Asingleline doesn’t take place in a theatre and the conventions attached to a show such a setting are dispensed with; there is no starting time, or an audience per se. Perhaps it is not even a performance. In fact, it probably couldn’t even be thought of as a dance work, which is why this work wasn’t included in the Dance Umbrella. Not that the absence of actual dancing precludes a work from being incorporated into this annual dance event – Robyn Orlin, Steven Cohen and Sello Pesa have often presented works on this platform that didn’t encompass any movements considered “dancerly”.

This is probably why Asingleline is more radical than Cover Up. There are no scenes in this work – the trio, dubbed Mamaza, a European-based dance collective, exist in it as themselves, though as dancers their heightened interest in spatial politics and how to physically and psychologically negotiate them inform the piece.
Making the line outside the Turbine Hall
pic by Masimba Sasa

Zarhy seems like a retiring personality, she is concealed behind sunglasses, a hat and layers of clothing, when I meet them outside the Dance Factory, before we head to the first destination for this, their second day making Asingleline. As the title of the work suggests, it is|centred around making “a single line” through a city, connecting a cultural centre to its economic, business or transport hub. It’s a simple idea, though less easy in practice, for there are buildings in the way of this line and so the work requires entering buildings, moving over structures and furniture in order to put down the temporary red line – a strip of red masking tape that they lift up almost immediately after putting it down.

Ironically, it is not about a “line” or a permanent one, they are more interested in what is required to be able to do so; negotiating with shop owners, house dwellers, security guards, all the gatekeepers to the diverse spaces they must enter in the unknown cities where they make “lines”. Because the line is determined in advance, drawn on a map, their missions are to some degree unknown, though they use locals to help start negotiations in advance – is this a compromise?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Refined Line: Colin Richards

The true image: Veronica, 1996
I don’t write obituaries. It’s hard as a writer to make this choice, because there is always a lot of pressure from a variety of people to do so. I refuse, however, to participate in reducing someone’s life to a superficial journalistic piece relaying their accomplishments or a few anecdotes that are engineered to make me appear humorous, or clever. Whatever you write or how long the piece is, it will always be incomplete. I like to avoid ‘incompleteness’ as often as possible – it’s the worst sensation to haunt a writer, though it is an inevitable working hazard. Colin Richards understood writing. He made art about it. This is perhaps what attracted me to his work. I enjoyed talking to him too. It was a great source of pride to me that he read me frequently and at times enjoyed what I wrote - and told me so. There are many conversations left to be had with his work; here is one, a very incomplete one… 

A Fine Line is not an empty or superficial tribute to the late artist, academic and critic, Colin Richards, who unexpectedly died earlier this year. This may be because it wasn’t conceived as a commemoration of his practice; presented by the Origins Centre, it is associated with Body Knowledge: Medicine and the Humanities in Conversation, a conference hosted by WiSER. Curated by his widow, the renowned artist Penny Siopis, this exhibition traces, to use the title, a refined line from his work as a medical illustrator, to other forms of artistic illustration, to his visual translations of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, to the conceptual games he played as he pursued a fascination for the relationship between texts and images. In so doing the collection exposes (one of) the core concerns that drove his practice, and how it evolved. In other words it captures the heartbeat of his artistic spirit.

It’s easy to see how Richards fell into the illustrative mode; the precision and accuracy of his lines clearly made him an ideal candidate for rendering the interior of the human body into illustrations to accompany medical texts. A collection of some of these works are on display in a glass cabinet; they are unsigned and anonymous but bear the markers of his obsessive eye for detail – and of course, his ability to render impossibly fine lines, though he would push this talent much further when he transitioned to art making.

Another cabinet presents more narrative illustrations for books, demonstrating how Richards began to use his skills in more artistic realms before he became an active artist, where presumably accuracy was no longer necessary and interpretation or translation opened up new possibilities. Central to the exhibition is a display of notebooks and papers that present handwritten notes by Richards, where he meditates on the similarities between words and visuals, debunking the notion that these disciplines occupied antithetical positions. The “cult of immediacy” isn’t particular to the visual arts, he asserts.

“A drawn line can be vulnerable to second thoughts as much as any word or concatenation of words.”
In the same text he goes on to deny the spontaneity thought to be inherent to drawing – “drawing makes a grave of experience”. It’s an idea that resonates with writing, a discipline which similarly can only ever relay lived-reality in retrospect and perhaps through its excavation of it, digs a deeper “grave”.

These musings confirm Richards nuanced understanding of writing, an interest that extended beyond the discipline simply prompting visual expression. For he, too, had a way with words, contributing to books and art historical discourses in which he reversed his gaze, translating or engaging with images via texts. It is a pity that some of this work wasn’t on display, or acknowledged in some way on this show, as it would give a more complete picture of how thoroughly he was immersed in both writing and image production and the relationship between the two.

This fixation might have been rooted in a complex attached to illustration; the belief that it functions as a straight, dispassionate translation of texts or ideas - that it is not art. This would have been further exacerbated by the popularity of conceptualism, where ideas and texts were privileged over technical finesse, and the ability to render such “fine lines” might have been obviated. This might be why Richards argued that local conceptual-driven works evinced an interest in materiality.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Zander Blom's Non-painting Painting

It takes balls to fill an exhibition with canvases colonised by blobs of paint. We're not talking here of small dots of paint in the pointillism tradition, where they are clustered together to form coherent figurative images. Nor are we talking about the infamous Spot paintings; high precision or even drippy dots that are produced factory style by a team of artists in Damien Hirst's employ.

What Zander Blom presents in his latest solo exhibition, New Paintings, at The Stevenson are actual blobs of paint that dot beige linen canvases. They are neatly applied, though some compositions appear more random than others, but largely there does seem to be method to this blob-paint madness. In fact, the word "blob" misrepresents the controlled application of them. These dabs of paint are evenly spaced and colour coordinated. In one work, these concentrated blobs are all beige, like the canvas. In others, Blom alternates the colours, presenting yellow and white blobs. In another untitled work - none are titled - they are in primary colours, and in another the paint is white with swirls of colours running through like an intense injection of a contrasting flavour swirling through a vanilla ice cream.

The sensory, physical qualities of paint are the focus; the blobs are oozy, viscous, yet hard. The hardness seems to contradict their soft, malleable appearance; the blobs protrude like hard chewing gum teased from the surface or tufts of piped meringue standing at attention. You want to eat them, touch them, or break them. They invite a physical response. Yet, these paintings also induce disbelief. Is this what painting has come to? Has Blom or the Stevenson gallery taken this contemporary art malarkey too far?
It is likely that the common refrain about contemporary art - "anyone can do this!" - will be uttered in front of these canvases, though getting those painterly peaks and swirls so uniform and delightful and knowing where to place them isn't something anyone with a palette knife can do. But it's more than this level of technical or compositional acumen that saves the work from being utterly ridiculous; it's kind of poetic too. The absurdity of it certainly feeds into this. It takes confidence, buckets of it, to put this kind of work on display, though Blom has been heading in this uber abstract, formalist direction for a few years, since he dispensed with re-enacting key moments in art history on the ceiling of his Brixton home.

It is not just arrogance, or an extreme form of self-indulgence that is driving this work; its poetry lies in the conditions that have brought Blom to a place that he can only paint blobs. This is not an ironic statement; he dispensed with irony some time ago. "What's the point if it's just a joke?" he confided to me.
Blom's authentic investment in painting is perhaps unfashionable; most young painters these days have a tongue firmly in cheek when they have a paintbrush in hand. His attitude is refreshing, and brave. This genuine engagement with the medium compels you to discover how he arrived at this work you could dub non-painting-painting. He's like an inert dancer in a contemporary dance piece.
It's not that he is refusing action per se; there is movement in these artful daubs; the swirls and|protruding viscous peaks. Yet these marks have been arrested in the moment they have hit the canvas. Blom doesn't want to 'join the dots', so to speak. It is not about bringing about coalescence, creating recognisable forms with paint, because in doing so he would deny what paint is, can be independently of relaying a representation of another form.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Working it Out: Working Title

The Frown and Vintage Cru perform in an installation created by Eve Rakow and Justin McGee
picture by Anthea Pokroy

There must be nothing worse than being the opening speaker at an exhibition that isn't about anything. Such was the tricky position the esteemed public academic Achille Mbembe found himself in a few weeks ago at the opening of Working Title at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg.  In the absence of any obvious binding theme at this exhibition, Mbembe did what anyone in his position would do and talked about the absence of content, which was couched in a discussion about form, a theme he has been driving at the recent Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism.

Prompted by so many artists choosing to luxuriate in or re-engage with form - opposed to, say, ideas as per the conceptualist compulsion - discussions around form have become pressing. Nevertheless, the artists embracing this aesthetically-driven turn weren't on this show - it has to some degree been limited to Cape Town, which is also characterised by a frightening number of "curated" exhibitions without a solid framing concept. There's a resistance around framing the work of young artists; is no one willing to put their head on the block, has curating become confused with project management or has this fixation with form obviated the need for thematic shows altogether?

With a well-advertised after-party boasting The Brother Moves On and Mbembe employed to lend some intellectual credibility, the gallery seemed keen to make a big statement with Working Title.
Drawing attention to the lack of content that may be driving this contemporary fixation with form, Mbembe didn't quite play ball.

A number of works pointed to the condition he outlined in his distinctive academic parlance.
Most obviously was MJ Turpin's Void, a black canvas with the word spray-painted in green across it. This is perhaps an overstated rendition of what Zander Blom and Jan Henri Booyens were exploring when they first entered the scene and developed a nihilistic obsession with the supposed "end of painting" that high modernism seemed to announce, and the peculiar conditions of making art on the fringes of the West. Turpin's work is a hipster version of this; a quick, makeshift response embracing a street vernacular. In other words, the work exudes an emptiness, a vacancy that it is a product of, in itself. His other two illustrative prints, Time Machine I and II, evoke a similar vibe.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The 'Other' Art Fair: Turbine Art Fair

David Koloane peruses the Bag Factory's stand pic by Debbie Yazbek

Newtown should have always been home to an art fair. This idea isn’t just rooted in Joburgers’ insistence that their primary identity is linked to the inner city, or the now much-mooted notion that this area is a cultural precinct. But they were given to believe this would be the case when the Joburg Art Fair’s creator, Ross Douglas of Artlogic, waxed lyrical about art fostering a closer connection to the inner city at the opening of a screening of William Kentridge’s work in the city – the event that propelled Ross into the art world. Instead, when the time came, Artlogic opted to stage the Joburg Art fair in the sterile Sandton Convention Centre, located in a suburb without any link to the arts. This has contributed to the fair’s already commercial mainstream slant, though presumably this “safe” setting has worked at attracting a new audience more au fait with mall culture than contemporary art. Predictably, those in the art world haven’t relished the location; the bright lights, the associations with a “convention centre” and its proximity to the mall, somehow “cheapens” art.

Given these attitudes, the inaugural Turbine Art Fair, held last weekend in the über cool titular building in Newtown, should have been embraced with gusto by the art fraternity. The building, after all, epitomises Joburg’s emerging industrial-chic aesthetic that is mushrooming in Maboneng and Braamfontein – both locales for the artistically inclined. Yet, the usual art crowd; artists, art critics and fashionable gallerinas largely stayed away from this event.

Their ambivalence is related to the fact that the accepted reliable purveyors of contemporary art with a capital “C” – such as Goodman and Stevenson – weren’t participating in this new art fair. The majority of the galleries at the Turbine Art Fair – except for Art on Paper, Circa (part of Everard Read) and David Krut – are those rumoured to have been rejected by Artlogic as viable participants of their grand annual art bazaar. A lack of financial clout (the stands are pricey) and profile has been the barrier for some art dealers, for others their products don’t evince an understanding of what contemporary art is, or should aspire to be, despite the slipperiness of its defining characteristics.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Games Artists Play: Performance and Failure

Stern's Stutter pic by Christo Doherty

Once inside the Wits Art Museum, it’s an unexpected relief to be confronted with what appears to be large blank canvases on the gallery walls. This may have something to do with having waded through a cacophony of studenty-art at the exhibition of the work by the long-listed candidates for the Absa L’atelier Award earlier in the week.

That experience alone could test anyone’s desire to be an art critic, though ironically such “bad” (read: lame, contemporary art-by-numbers) work affirms the need for critics – someone has to outright reject it if competition adjudicators can’t be relied upon to do so.

At Meaning Motion, a joint exhibition by Tegan Bristow and Nathaniel Stern, the viewing experience seems to rest in the hands of the viewer, rather than the artist. This could be said to be the case any time you observe an artwork but in the context of this show, it’s not just how you look and interpret it that will shape your experience but how you move. You have to stand close to the screens (they appear like large canvases) to trigger the technology that facilitates the interactive work and most of the works rely on your physical gestures to determine how the images, signs, or letters, in the case of Stern’s work, are animated.
This means the work relies on your presence to exist, to have some sort of visual life. The moment you step away from the screen, the work becomes dormant.

This is an attractive idea for viewers, especially critics, because it means you can silence or end the work at will. In this way the artwork is not imposed upon you, you choose when, and for how long, you want to engage with it.

This isn’t usually an option when viewing conventional art shows or performance art. The latter relies on this; performance art doesn’t only test the endurance levels of the performer but the viewer too. Enduring something as it takes place live is vital in our understanding of an embodied experience – that is gaining knowledge through an awareness of our bodies. And this should be more than feeling the back of a chair stabbing your back.

Stern and Bristow take this element of performance art one step further by jolting viewers out of their comfortable passive positions and encouraging them to feel the experience of looking and making, thus it is a kind of embodied observation and interaction that attempts to blur the boundary between viewer and participant. In a sense you are simply watching a self-reflection that has been mediated by different computer programmes written by the artists.

Bristow's Unsaid pic by Christo Doherty
The underlying premise of this show is to generate a set of images with your body, turning you into an involuntary performance artist of sorts, though the intended meaning of the work, the outcome and structure, has been determined by Stern and Bristow. So, it’s an illusion of control that they are really offering, under the guise of free will or interactivity. This idea is particularly pertinent to Bristow’s Unsaid, which appears to be set up for a participant to express themselves: a microphone is placed in front of a screen. However, as you approach the microphone a black square pops up over your face on the screen, erasing your identity and the words “left it unsaid” appear in the box.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Real Performances: National Arts Festival

Yann Marussich in Bain Brise pic by Suzy Bernstein
It will take Yann Marussich over an hour to step out of the bath. It's the shards of glass he is buried beneath that prevent this usually swift action, turning the relaxing experience of being in a bath into a risky one. Common gestures are prolonged and, more importantly, now have consequences. Bain Brise, a performance art piece on the main programme of the National Arts Festival (NAF), presents a visually and sensually compelling scene.

The glass crackles and ripples as the Swiss performance artist adjusts his naked body beneath its weight. With only one free arm, he manages to uncover his head and torso, tossing the glass on to the floor. It shatters on impact, scattering the debris at our feet. Watching this is risky too. We step back, move to a standing position.

It is in the quiet moments when Marussich is inert and takes a break from this self-imposed struggle that are the most poignant. It is only during these intervals that we grasp the real physical weight of this performance. We are witnessing a real situation, not a contrived one - though it is set up. This creates a kind of intimacy. It is one that extends beyond observing someone naked, bathing, or the fact that we are informally gathered around him - there is no stage or seating. We share in his struggle because we are as bound, immured to it, as he is. And the line between us and him is suspended, blurred.

Unfortunately, when Marussich eventually frees himself of the glass and prepares to step out of the clawfoot bath, he reinstates the barrier separating us; glaring at us, as if questioning, rejecting, challenging our imposing, hungry gazes. It's as if the scene was of our design and not his.

In the makeshift theatres in school halls and classrooms that pop up during the NAF in Grahamstown, the barrier dividing the stage and the seats seems slightly less defined. The stages aren't elevated, they are located on floors, covered in black materials. As a result the line between the stage and the floor is typically indiscernible. Sparsely placed lights and props demarcate it as performance space. Yet the actors seem keenly aware of this invisible boundary, though they crave, seek out ways of transgressing it. The transgression occurs when their fictions appear real. It is not only for our benefit but for their own; their acumen is measured against their ability to become lost in their own fictions.

Given this drive to turn fiction into reality, perhaps it is not unexpected that the only obvious theme uniting many of theatre productions at the festival centred on the fictions imposed on people or the fictions they adopt in an effort to make sense of their world or to retreat from it. Certainly, many plays presented characters existing in isolation and the fictions they construct to feed their alienation.
In The Last Moustache Heiner Schmidt (played by Tim Plewman) is trapped in a secret bunker below one of Hitler's safehouses. This hovel serves as his dressing-room; he's an actor charged by the Nazi top brass to play Hitler, who has been killed - "confettied", he wryly observes. It is the role of a lifetime; the man he is playing is an artful performer. The quality of his performances has consequences in reality; he can sustain or end the war.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Let me Entertain you: Anthea Moys

By Murray Kruger

The merit of Anthea Moys's new body of work, Anthea Moys vs the City of Grahamstown, lies in its potential to entertain. This aspect of Moys's practice, which is often overlooked in discussions of her work (the emphasis is on her familiar vocabulary of gaming, play, participation, public space and risk), becomes the focus at this year's National Arts Festival. She doesn't do away with her inventory of interests, but rather amplifies them in a formalised display of her prowess as a show-woman. As this year's recipient of the inaugural Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art, Moys has set herself the ambitious task of attempting to capture and maintain the attention of audiences, all of whom are there to see what should be considered a benchmark project of institutionalised local performance art.

Moys acknowledges in various sources that she is interested in exploring connections between performance, play and public space. She sees activism, education, staged performances and street gaming as the tools to conduct these explorations. Her HIV/Aids: In It Together project as well as Flipside Game are two notable examples. Her work is often collaborative in nature, aiming "to foster connections between different communities and the spaces they inhabit", says the artist on her website.

An early example of this methodology can be found in 2007 when Moys involved boxers and their trainers from George Khosi's Rhema Boxing Club (Hillbrow) in her work. Titled Boxing Games, Moys spent two weeks training with them, coming to terms with the related concepts of play and violence, safety and survival through the development of games. The thematic concerns of these works supposedly "cohere around an interest in the liberating possibilities of play". Through play, she feels alternatives to the status quo can be tested and new alternatives proposed and performed. The "structure" of the everyday, our environments, are the parameters she likes to attempt to reconfigure, albeit momentarily.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Rocking Religion: Chiurai & Smith

A still from Kudzanai Chiurai's Moyo

It’s paradise for fashion bloggers; lots of young men and women in sassy street-style get-ups. Tuxedo jackets and skinnys. This is the crowd that Kudzanai Chiurai always pulls: Jozi’s hip party people. Part of the attraction behind his exhibition, 16SNLV, is the venue: a makeshift industrial space on Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown. It’s been updated, sanitised with white paint. Chiurai likes showing here rather than at the Goodman Gallery to which he is aligned.

His practice is embedded in Joburg life, so it makes sense that his exhibition openings tend to be a prelude to a party. Yet the mood is elegiac when you step into the space. It’s the music that has set this ambience. It’s something akin to what you might hear in a Methodist church during a funeral. It’s part of the video work Moyo, which is projected on a large screen. It’s a mother and child motif, recalling the Pietà by Michaelangelo. A female figure in costume is mourning the death of her (adult) progeny, lying bloodied across her lap. The work brings to mind Chiurai’s rendition of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which was part of the State of the Nation show at this venue a few years ago.

That video work was animated, too – he enjoys animating paintings, translating them into choreographed mise en scènes with costumed people.  Africanising these stock scenes is an important aspect, prompting us to question what makes them undeniably "African." The animations or gestures are so slow and subtle, you have to watch closely to see them evolve - he almost denies the medium's function.  Presumably he employs this device to sustain our attention and thwart our expectation that his images can be consumed immediately. That work was also supported by music on the opening night when Thandiswa Mazwai performed a live set in front of a screen where the work was projected.

This performance took place on the street, but the spectacle and the mobilisation of imagery and music recalled a church scene; everyone was enraptured by the gradually evolving scene. His static, conventional paintings exude the urban texture of Joburg’s layered urban palimpsest, but in his video works he relies on the symbolic realm of religious iconography.

It is in his subversion of Western religious parables from the canon of art history that he draws attention to the seemingly unnatural turn of events, that besets life (politics) in Africa and how these patterns are rooted in western culture. The tension in his work is rooted in the juxtaposition and overlap between the West and Africa. Afropessism (rooted in reality) and (European) cliches about the continent rub up against each other. One painting - untitled -  parodies the ubiquitous African safari, mocking conceptions about the continent – yet another, The English Garden, features an African holding up an Uzi. He doesn't deliver stark realities, he simply reworks existing motifs, signs. So, even though Moyo is, according to the publicity material, designed to address the phenomenon of violence in our society, it is a stylised representation, an overstated metaphor.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Making Plans: Stephen Hobbs

The Standard
 The work at Stephen Hobbs’s new show doesn’t come as a surprise. It bears all the markers of his practice, both visual and ideological, that he has been driving for some time – perhaps since the Low Voltage/High Voltage installation at the Substation at Wits in 2009, where he quite firmly established his idiosyncratic urban assemblage sculpture that is characterised by his fixation with scaffolding, which he alludes to with the use of dowel sticks. The scaffolding motif has served as a shorthand for progress and flux, articulating Hobbs’s fascination for the mechanics of Joburg’s regeneration, which he has played a role in through his work at the Trinity Session, managing public art projects.

In Be Careful in the Working Radius, the title of the show, this recognisable aesthetic, motif, remains ever present; while some prints are supported by dowel stick frames, others are prints of representations of scaffolding structures layered over each other. This creates the impression that Hobbs has, simply, distilled or reduced his aesthetic, his motifs, to suit the printmaking medium, arriving at more conventional and consumable art products for a commercial show.

Ordinarily this observation would imply that a compromise had been reached or perhaps even that Hobbs’s practice hasn’t evolved much, yet something interesting is developing through his engagement with printmaking at David Krut. This medium and process it entails seems to have cultivated a more sensitive awareness of form that has engendered a body of work that is the most aesthetically pleasing Hobbs has produced. He seems less preoccupied with making smart, conceptual statements and has allowed himself to be seduced by this medium. It has forced him to become more invested in the art object.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Politics of the Penis

Thabiso Pule and Hector Thami Manekehla perform Penis Politics

WE can't look directly at them, but we can't look away either. Thabiso Pule and Hector Thami Manekehla are metres away from the front row and are swinging their naked penises from side to side. It's the only part of their bodies on display; they're kitted out in black suits and are wearing black balaclavas, which add a threatening edge. They're like this male menace confronting, inflicting and boasting about their core masculinity, waving it in our faces, though through their exaggerated swagger of the male gait, they are similarly parodying the way men embody power.

They move sharp and tightly like action heroes, forcing their waving penises to slap across their thighs. We giggle nervously and shuffle along the floor of the small room in the Cape Town City Hall that has temporarily been taken over by the Live Art Festival.

Someone dubbed Pule and Manekehla's production Penis Politics, as a masculine rendition of the Vagina Monologues, though predictably in male fashion it doesn't include talking and sharing. This is a non-verbal performance and up for scrutiny are limp genitals. So, it isn't about celebrating masculine prowess but questioning its shaky foundations and the penis itself as the defining characteristic of male identity - or black male identity.

This isn't our first glimpse of male nudity at the Live Art Festival; a few nights earlier, we entered a makeshift theatre to find Tebogo Munyai balanced on his head wearing little other than a lit candle in his rear. It's an unforgettable scene and the liberal artsy crowd who fill the room are almost stunned into silence: his body is magnificent, ideal. We're also unaccustomed to seeing the male body on display, it appearing as a vessel. The piece is called Qina ke Qawe, and the only part of his body that is beyond our prying gaze is his penis, wrapped in white bandages. It's as if it has been injured. The effort to conceal it only serves to emphasise its presence and the politics attached to that.

Themba Mbuli's Dark Cell is a dance work revisiting the indignities the black male body was subjected to during the apartheid era; he dances in front of Ernest Cole's seminal photograph, Mine Recruitment, which shows a row of naked men lining up to be inspected. His performance ends with him in the buff. It appears as if he is trying to reclaim the naked black body from the past.

Male nudity and displays of the penis aren't confined to this event. The limp penises belonging to Ed Young's hyperreal self-portrait My Gallerist made me do it and the middle-aged white men posing in Pieter Hugo's series of unforgiving portraits for the Pirelli Special Project, were talking points at last year's Joburg Art Fair. Male nudity carries weight; it is a taboo across cultures. This is perhaps why performance artists like Steven Cohen have made their naked bodies part of their performative language - it pushes buttons.

The tone of Pule and Manekehla's piece is also confrontational and transgressive. In the wake of the Brett Murray/The Spear debacle, their work and gestures could superficially be read as a response to the president's vehement rejection of a stylised self-portrait in which his member was unveiled. The official line the government took at the time implied this action was disrespectful and (ironically) an affront to his masculine pride and dignity.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Art of Abstraction: Rhodes and Hlobo

A still from Robin Rhodes A Day in May

It’s a pleasing surprise. The so-called “eye” of Nicholas Hlobo’s winding rubber sculpture Tyaphaka greets you on the stairs before the entrance to the Stevenson’s Braamfontein gallery, creating this sense that the work cannot be contained. It’s like an amorphous beast, an alien being that keeps multiplying. You half expect to return to the area to find that this black rubber mass has encroached upon Juta Street. This work belongs on the street. It’s exterior fashioned from rubber tyres, incongruently sutured with ribbons, forms this disused blob that would blend into Joburg’s urban landscape. It appears displaced in the pristine white gallery setting, exploding in its largest room, filling the air with the aroma of rubber – a signature of Hlobo’s sculptural work.

The presentation of this rambling sculptural work in this location has lent it new readings. It debuted at the Biennale of Sydney in 2011 before featuring at the Stevenson’s Cape Town gallery in Woodstock in the group show titled Fiction as Fiction (or A Ninth Johannesburg Biennale), where I first encountered it. In that setting, it was buried inside the gallery and the “eye” was on a plinth, thus giving it significance. I was fixated with its relationship to the body; the large mass was like intestines, human entrails. In the Braamfontein setting, it seems detached from any corporeal or real object. It’s a complete abstraction, that invites all manner of metaphors to become attached to it.

Uthwalisiwe by Hlobo
Hlobo’s work probably hasn’t been connected to the body for some time; he stopped doing performance works and evoking the body through both his sculptural works and the motifs sewn on to pristine white canvases, that read like the skin what with inner cavities and external protrusions. Such works evoked the the friction between the exterior and interior – identity politics. Abstraction and formalism are the new buzz words in South African art and they seem to have relieved artists of this initial post-apartheid  preoccupation.
This has given way to a focus on production, the medium, taking it to its logical conclusion. Hlobo’s “beached whale” of a rubber sculpture is in some ways just an extreme, excessive conclusion of what he was doing when he was still interested in the cultural hybridity of the South African identity – part Xhosa, part English etc – and the relationship between tradition and contemporary notions of masculinity.

There is no narrative or political logic driving the work in this exhibition – not in any obvious way at least. This doesn’t read as a glaring absence, perhaps because the work superficially appears to extend from his identity-laden work – it’s the rubber-ribbon vocabulary that secures this idea. And in truth as his work is born from cultural and linguistic faultlines, ambiguity has always been its defining feature. Of course, now it may be lost in its own ambiguity.