Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Absa L'Atelier: Enter!

I try to avoid being in the company of artists soon after the winner of an art award is announced. Unless they happen to be a recipient or previous recipient of an award they tend speak in expletives, break out in an angry rash or beat their chests with empty beer bottles. The female ones that is; I won't detail what their male counterparts do.  It's not just professional jealousy that drives this post-award rage or even the twisted nature of the art-game, but a kind of deep-seated desire to be acknowledged to assuage that persistent doubt that their work is irrelevant, self-indulgent.  Call it a Vincent-Van-Gogh complex if you will.

I'm acutely aware of this phenomenon, because many artists seem to believe that my work entails temporarily relieving them of this condition.  A feature story, a review, particularly a short-lived text in a newspaper, is, however, just a quick-fix, a band aid - of the sort that goes soggy in the shower.

Nothing quite announces that you have arrived in this peculiar industry more than an award, even if in a previous fit of anger you questioned its credibility. As I say, no award is more credible than the one you have just earned.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of local ones left to enter. Spier Contemporary seems to have vanished, the Brett Kebble Art award went belly up soon before that of its patron and the Sasol Wax Award has also been scrapped.

What's left? The Standard Bank Award, the MTN New Contemporaries and the Absa L'Atelier. You can't actually enter the first two; you have to wait for their esteemed judges to notice what you have been doing and you have to snag at least one international showing or residency to look bankable.

The Absa L'Atelier award, which has been running since 1986, when Penny Siopis won, is different. You don't have to wait around to be selected; you have to enter to win.  This means everyone gets a chance - hence many of the winners are complete unknowns.  Certainly, I had not heard of Elrie Joubert, last year's winner.

What is also particularly attractive about this award is that the prize is engineered to develop your talent. Among landing a cash prize the winning artist bags a chance to study at the Cité Internationale Des Arts in Paris. The merit award winners get to go on residencies at either the Ampersand Foundation in New York or at the Sylt Foundation in Germany. There is also a fourth prize, sponsored by the French Embassy and Alliance Francaise.

The competition is held annually in partnership with SANAVA (South African National Association for the Visual Arts) and the closing date for entries for this year is fast approaching: 8 March is the deadline date. So, if you're under 35 and hanker for applause, a future swimming in a sea of red dots and confirmation that your obsession is meaningful to others then you should get your entry in pronto.

To find out more about submitting works of art for the competition visit

*This blog post was sponsored by the Jupiter Drawing Room. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Enjoy the Ride: Making Way

Athi-Patra Ruga heading towards Grahamstown in Performa Obscura
When we arrive at the Drill Hall, they’re already in their fishnet stockings and costumes, bending and stretching, as if readying themselves for something more taxing than a walk in heels through the city’s streets.
They have yet to wrap a string of balloons around their upper bodies and appear relaxed and at ease as onlookers, mostly children, observe their warm-up. Athi-Patra Ruga intended the preparations for his public procession to be transparent; his Facebook invitation encouraged an audience to observe this stage.
The journey will conclude at The Standard Bank art gallery on Frederick Street as part of the Making Way: Contemporary Art from SA and China exhibition. It’s tantamount to being privy to a rehearsal before watching a play, so it feels as if we are witnessing something we shouldn’t. This pre-performance ritual draws attention to the contrived nature of the performance and changes my relationship to it.
 The balloon character that Ruga and his performers will become is now referred to as the “White Woman of Azania”. Its origin can be traced back to a nameless balloon character that Ruga initially conceived for an exhibition in The Netherlands in 2010, before showing it at X-Homes in Joburg that year.
The White Woman of Azania has grown in physical and conceptual dimensions. This Joburg performance boasts five “Azanians” and generates quite a different impact than the previous White Women of Azania installation/performance in Cape Town during Gipca’s Live Art Festival.

Like Ruga, I’ve become transfixed with this mutable character; each performance inspires new readings. It’s like chasing air in a way, which seems fitting given the costume consists of balloons. At the X-Homes performance, in a dark basement in Hillbrow, the character appeared to embody otherness. The Live Art performance/installation evoked a scene from Amsterdam’s red light district; as Ruga and Jade Paton tottered on heels in front of the window inside Ruga’s Cape Town studio. They were like guarded women whose identities had become over-determined by their contrived, temporary appearances. The performance was a drawn-out striptease that offered no pay-off: there was nothing to see behind the balloon façade when it was “popped”.

So perhaps it makes sense to start the next instalment seeing the performers unmasked, thus removing any expectation. Yet I can’t help feeling that something’s been lost; the mystery that props up the masquerade.
The multiple readings that this slippery White Woman of Azania character presents are dependent on the setting. In the context of Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China, curated by Ruth Simbao, the “journey” aspect to it is a predominant feature. The exhibition doesn’t simply present art from South Africa and China but, in an effort to create a link between the two, Simbao highlights a discourse around migration.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Black & Light: Broomberg & Chanarin

ID 5, 2013
It is unexpected and, perhaps, even disconcerting, to be confronted with a large collection of polaroids at Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s new exhibition, To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse, at the Goodman Gallery. This dated photographic product is so diminutive that you have to stand centimetres away from the images to view them. Not that this offers much satisfaction either; the images are split in two, blurred and dark, and the views of the natural vegetation that Broomberg and Chanarin have snapped are so partial that their subject matter – the Karoo landscape – is always beyond your grasp. It’s the worst kind of tease; knowing that something exists in front of you but you’re unable to access it.

This seems to fly in the face of the prevailing fashion of art photographs. They have been steadily growing in scale to conform to this idea that a photograph is more likely to be read as an art object if it large.
As the American art theorist Michael Fried has observed, this burgeoning scale has allowed the photographic image to be constructed – and read – like a painting; it’s absorptive, immersive and can accommodate details that prolong the act of looking.

Yet there is something painterly about this series; it is a visceral and abstract  act of documentation driven by capturing the sensual details of the setting; the warm light, the textures of the plants. In some instances you are fleetingly rooted in the middle of a field of flowers.

This picturesque and pleasing veneer conceals, and is motivated by, an unusual political statement; an effort to reverse, invert the use of the ID-2 Polaroid camera and vintage film from the apartheid era.
The technology of this camera and film was developed to enable black people to be photographed – early colour film was only engineered to ably capture white skin. This actuality is illustrated via a display of test images of “Shirley”, a female model deemed to possess the ideal shade of whiteness upon which to identify the perfect amount of light needed to illuminate the body/subject.