Monday, January 28, 2013

Framing the City: Rodan Kane Hart, Faith 47 & Dala and understanding urbanity

Rodan Kane Hart's Exploded Kaleidescope

Urbanisation typically “denotes a thickening of fields”, writes Abdumaliq Simone, a London-based sociologist, referring to this layered mishmash of diverse elements, the complex groups of bodies, landscapes, objects and technologies, that define cities. It’s such a convoluted reality that individuals and institutions are unable to form a sustained interaction with elements, or actors in the city, or such has been the prevailing thinking, says Simone. The more “thick” a field is, he proposes, the more definitions and classifications it attracts, causing the city to “turn into an object like a language”.

It’s all about creating legible representations of space. Viewing them as purely functional, serving the needs of particular identities, lifestyles and properties has been one approach to grasping these thick social fields.
Yet, Simone proposes engaging with the city outside of these languages, definitions and approaches; it’s in the gaps between elements. In particular, he is interested in how people determine and change the nature of the spaces, constantly improvising in order to survive. This is the approach he embraces when he tries to come to terms with the underlying patterns of Joburg’s inner-city.

“Coming to terms” with Joburg’s inner-city has become somewhat of a fetish activity. Sociologists, architects, photographers, writers and artists are fixated with untangling some of the threads that define the thickening social fields of downtown Joburg. It is the very “thickness” itself that seems to prove the attraction.

Peculiarly enough, the gallery setting has become one of the main places where these (visual) explorations of South Africa’s urban life are being displayed. These spaces are almost antithetical to this concern: they appear like non-spaces. With their white walls and clinical interiors, they exist outside of the urban framework, are detached from its dynamics.
“The history of gallery spaces is completely suppressed,” observes Rodan Kane Hart, when I visit him at the Nirox gallery at Arts on Main before he is due to open Structures, his first solo exhibition. Hart isn’t referring to Nirox but galleries in general.

A set of double doors opening out onto the street roots this gallery in the urban landscape, though there is a clear separation between this pristine, vacant space and the seemingly chaotic, cluttered world outside.
Ideally, and perhaps eventually, Hart’s bold black steel sculptures will be displayed in public
spaces. Conceptually, this is his end-goal, though the allure of commercial success might shift the young twenty-something artist on another course.

His sculptures are largely simplistic forms; black painted steel rods configured into squares, triangles and more complex structures such as Exploded Kaleidoscope, an enlarged yet truncated section of a kaleidoscope on wheels. They are conceived as frames through which to view the city, though their design is derived from architectural motifs Hart identified, through photographs, drawings and observations of both Joburg – where he grew up – and Cape Town, where he now resides. They are mostly – except for Exploded Kaleidoscope – reduced forms that wouldn’t conceivably interfere too much with an urban vista, though in making space a visible unit open to distortion they might conceivably draw the viewer’s attention to the dynamics of space – the “thickness” of relations attached to it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2012 in Review

At the end of the year I am inevitably asked to list the art highlights. Anyone who has shared a bottle of wine with me will know I am not averse to reminiscing, but I am uneasy with making pronouncements, though this is what I do for a profession. So, for the SA Art Times I sidestepped this activity altogether, preferring to look at the "lowest common denominators" - the works, events, art world players that had mass appeal, were supposed to have mass appeal or didn't measure up to preconceived notions. For the Daily Maverick I submitted this list and below is my latest review of 2012 in The Sunday Independent, which reflects some of my more idiosyncratic interests.  Sometimes, works hold some appeal for the simple fact that they coincide with what I am researching or where my head is at, at the time. Sometimes the work just turns something on in my head.

Installation shot of Wa Lehulere's works at Fiction as Fiction
Best Group/Curated Shows 2012: 

Trade Routes Project: Stevenson Galleries, Cape Town and Joburg.
This series of exhibitions reflected on the last Johannesburg biennale, held in 1997. The first, Trade Routes Over Time, presented works from some of the artists that participated in the biennale. The second, If a Tree… curated by Clare Butcher, contained a few remarkable works – James Beckett’s Berea in Soap and Kemang Wa Lehulere’s 30 Minutes of Amnesia – and expressed this dislocation between time and place. Finally in Fiction as Fiction (or, A ninth Johannesburg Biennale) Joost Bosland meditated on the mechanics of imagining that arises from the desire to reclaim the past and speculate on a future the event may have enjoyed.

A Fragile Archive by Nontobeko Ntombela: Johannesburg Art Gallery
Yes, the (historical) archive, investigating it and allowing its gaps and flaws to be made visible, is terribly fashionable, and maybe Ntombela took an easy route by not making any definitive pronouncements about the work of Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu and her first exhibition. However, it was an interesting premise, this attempt to restage a moment in art history. Ultimately, Ntombela revealed the contradictions and mechanics of white patronage during the apartheid era.
An Installation view of Trinity Session's retrospective at Moad

On Air Review: Trinity Session Retrospective at Moad, Joburg.
This new Maboneng venue suited this collective’s preoccupation with the liminal period of transition between entropy and gentrification,  but  it is the way in which Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter have turned the documentation of their psychogeographic-architectural performance films into independent products that evinced such a fascinating dialogue around the relationship between film, performance, entropy and architecture.

Best Solo Exhibitions 2012:
Wim Botha's A Thousand Things

Wim Botha’s A Thousand Things: Stevenson Joburg
This was one of the most outstanding solo shows of the year. It mostly consisted of sculptures, but it was an experiential show; an installation of sculptures that fixed you in an indefinable temporal state. The work was about art, history, politics, iconography and how they intersect, but what was remarkable was what was omitted; the architectural and formal qualities that were suggested but were not fully present.

Mikhael Subotzky’s Retinal Shift: Settler’s Monument, Grahamstown (the display at the Iziko Gallery was not as successful or meaningful – this is a site-specific show in some ways)  This exhibition came as a surprise. I had not been a fan of his work; his execution and subject-matter always seemed so predictable. It is significant that his most interesting, or should we say, conceptually sophisticated exhibition was for a non-commercial project. He turned the lens on himself, embracing a form of self-reflexivity that propelled a realisation that manipulating existing imagery can be more interesting than generating them. In the film work, Moses and Griffiths, not only does he move into a new medium of image production but assumes to play with the documentary form.

Deborah Poynton’s Land of the Cockaigne: Stevenson Johannesburg.
Poynbton's Land of the Cockaigne 2

When I reviewed this show it formed part of a short dialogue around this new formalism I have been observing, particularly in painting, though Blank Project’s recent Form with Attitude clearly shows it is evolving in other mediums too.
Superficially, Poynton’s work appears to sit outside this trend, but the sense of “emptiness” that belies her highly detailed neo-baroque style brings to mind the level of vacuity that other painters – Georgina Gratrix, Carla Busutill, and Jan Henri Booyens – aspire to, except she conceals it beneath the veneer of realism. This is what makes her work so interesting. It doesn’t overstate its emptiness, or rather, ironically, it is expressed via abundance. In other words you don’t have to reduce forms to revel in their physical values.

Best Performance Art Works 2012:

Jay Pather’s Qaphela Caesar!: Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Dance Umbrella. 
This wasn’t a critics’ favourite, with many finding it too dense, too long. However, these are the very characteristics I enjoyed in this abstraction of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It is the density and excess of Pather’s work that ensures its ephemerality and his desire to hold/relay the weight of reality. However, it was the installation work in the vacated offices of the former JSE before the spectacle that left a lasting impression. A dancer sitting paralysed in a vacant office filled to the brim with shredded paper, succinctly captured the erased, absent history that haunts this building, and country.

Boyzie Cekwana
Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Gabriel Canda’s Inkomati (Dis)cord: Dance Factory, Danse L’Afrique Danse.
This is an old work that explored the traduced accord between South Africa and Mozambique during the apartheid era and the inability of these two young producers to access history. It remains remarkable for the fact that Cekwana and Canda created a truly interdisciplinary work that operates at the intersection between performance art, dance and theatre.

Murray Kruger’s Business Day Part 2: Joburg Art Fair. 
Murray Kruger posing as a businessman-cum office employee

Kruger is one of the most principled and brightest performance artists, which in some ways has proved something of a burden; he can talk his way out of a work, quicker than he can into one. In this 4-day performance Kruger came to terms with and articulated what it is to perform and not to perform as he moved from posing as a businessman (the anti- or non-artist) to immersing in an intimate and personal “performance” of a different kind.

Ruga's  Future White Women of Azania
Athi-Patra Ruga’s The Future White Women of Azania: Live Art Festival Cape Town.
Ruga finally has named his “balloon” character, after bringing it to life during the X-homes project in Hillbrow. The performance of this character in the shop window of his Cape Town studio saw it evolve into a being that embodies the function of clothing. It certainly builds on what Ruga has done before and hints at what is to come. - published in The Sunday Independent, January 13, 2013. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Art of Storytelling: Fiction as Fiction

There is every reason not to watch Yto Barrada’s filmic work Hand-me-Downs. It’s on a small screen, you have to put on headphones and it is exhibited in the same room as two of the most powerful works on show at Fiction as Fiction (or, A Ninth Johannesburg Biennale), an intriguing installation by Ângela Ferreira that brings Jimmy Hendrix and one of the infamous Cullinans of the mining dynasty together and a ginormous black rubber sculpture by Nicholas Hlobo.

Film artworks are hard to consume in galleries. There are too many distractions – and they demand your time, attention and commitment in ways that other art doesn’t. Yet once I start watching Barrada’s film, I can’t pull myself away. It’s the cyclical narrative structure that has made a prisoner of me.

The work consists of a number of short stories, if you will, that mostly conclude with a nasty twist, sometimes a violent action that  deflates the droll domestic tale. Because the stories are narrated by the same monotonous female voice, we assume they detail the events of one individual’s life, though they shift between times, places and perhaps even subjects.

Barrada won’t allow you to join the dots and build a linear narrative. These stories are loose fragments, and like a damaged or incomplete memorial sculpture that only offers a very partial view of history, what remains has been subject to embellishment – it makes sense to build on what’s left instead of trying to retrieve what has been lost. These fragments are thus built into anecdotes, and are the “hand-me-downs” in question.
They are presented as, may even be, real-life experiences that have been fictionalised through the act of narration via a number of narrators over time. This is not all these fragments have in common; they express a bleak existence where a kind of unnatural reversal has occurred.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Land Issues: Transition

Can artists or photographers make work about the land without depicting it? This is the question I was interested in pursuing when I arrived at the Bus Factory in Joburg to view the Transition exhibition. It is the culmination of a project that saw six South African photographers teamed with six of their French contemporaries, as part of the French/SA Seasons 2012/2013, falling under the banner of the broader Social Landscape Project, which also included a display of snapshots by the public that were similarly centred on representations of "the land", probably one of the most loaded topics.

It's a kind of no-brainer theme but, because of this, it is tricky to say something new, to navigate it somewhere unexpected. Not that inventiveness or edginess is a hallmark of the French/SA Seasons projects; this cultural accord has more to do with exchange; in this context perhaps a visual conversation between local and French photographers, who appear to have been paired off, or chose to work independently, and were dispatched to different parts of the country that the curators, John Fleetwood, head of the Market Photo Workshop, and Francois Hébel, director of Les Rencontres d'Arles, had identified as sites linked to fraught historical legacies.

The title Transition attaches a caveat to these essays, alluding to the fact that these places are caught up in change or have been the catalyst for transformations of some kind. In this way the rural places or small towns, which are privileged in these works, are not static, or irrelevant in terms of illuminating larger national issues.