Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Capitalising on the City: Infecting the City

It is a warm summer’s evening and it couldn’t be an easier start. I’m lying flat on the grass in the Company’s Garden watching clouds floating across the sky. Metres away are Saxit, a foursome channeling contemporary South African jazz compositions through saxophones. The crowd languishing in this park parallel to Government Avenue in the centre of Cape Town grows as a slow trickle of newcomers joins the picturesque scene as the sun sets.  We’re comfortable, relaxed.

The music, the performance,  has temporarily grounded us to this space, binding an inhomogeneous group transfixed by this abstract language. There is nothing to understand, decode. One can just be. Perhaps this idyllic state shouldn’t be underestimated in a country where “public space” is so politically loaded and is constantly being renegotiated. Or maybe we are just languishing in a superficial condition, rooted in forgetfulness, though one of the tracks is about Nelson Mandela.

There are many mellifluous moments in this year’s Infecting the City (ITC) programme. Is this a positive reflection on this public arts festival that spans six days? “Infecting” seems to insinuate a more subversive interaction with the city, not simply an uncontested aggregation with the diverse spaces that define it. Perhaps the “infecting” appellation has become a misnomer since its inception six years ago.  On its website the festival is described as an event “conceived to deliver provocative and novel site-specific performance art”.
Marcus Neustetter’s Erosion directly invokes the “infected” title. Clad in protective suits and eye gear, Neustetter and a team of helpers appear to be dealing with toxic material as they spill thousands of glow sticks on to the steps in front of the Iziko National Art Gallery. These garish artificial entities depend on the absence of light to be seen and consequently operate as some intangible parasite, infecting the space around us. It’s as if Neustetter and his team have managed to harness this invisible entity. En masse these glowing sticks make for a spectacular sight; he exploits our desire to grasp the intangible.

There are a few site-specific works, but largely the city functions as a backdrop to work rather than the element that is activating it. We walk from space to space around the inner city, mostly around the Company’s Garden and Church Square. It’s all familiar territory. Cape Town’s a well-adjusted city, or appears to be; we do not enter any no-go zones, we are never challenged, questions are never turned on us, as if we are an invisible entity. These short jaunts, strolls, are led by the curator Jay Pather. He introduces each work via a loudspeaker and regurgitates the bumpf in the programme before each performance. He’s quite embedded in the festival, becomes a feature of it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pros and Cons of NAF appointment as curators of Venice Biennale

South Africa will be participating in the Venice Biennale this year. In pursuit of a balanced analysis of the National Arts Festival’s organisers’ appointment as the curators of the 55th La Biennale di Venezia, I’ve decided to draw up a list of pros and cons to assess how beneficial this decision will be for the visual arts community;


  1.  The organisers behind the NAF have a proven track record in terms of managing finances and implementing large events
  2.  Pather has proven to be visionary and a strong curator. Initiating new events - the Live Art Festival  among driving a host of progressive and interesting colloquiums at Gipca - curating that event and Infecting the City in Cape Town.
  3. With Pather on the team we can be certain that performance artists will be included
  4. None of the team, nor the curators are affiliated to any commercial gallery, so no commercial agenda is likely to be served
  5. As far as we can gather, their appointment followed from an ethical and fair procedure


  1.  One of the defining aspects of the National Arts Festival has been the marginalisation of the visual arts coupled with an inability to curate the main or fringe programmes attached to that festival
  2.  As the judges of the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards the organisers have consistently played it safe. In other words their decisions thus far hasn’t shown them to be ‘plugged in’ to the contemporary art scene – they tend to acknowledge those who have already made a name for themselves
  3. In their capacity as judges for the Standard Bank Young Artist for the visual arts they tend to select artists galleries are promoting, so they do indirectly advance commercial interests
  4. Securing this appointment further cements the NAF team as gatekeepers to the arts; they decide which artists show at the annual event in Grahamstown, they decide who the next Standard Bank Young Artist should be, and now, have the power to determine how SA contemporary art is represented at Venice. It is never good for one group of individuals to wield this amount of authority
  5. Aside from Pather none of the members of this team have a strong record curating visual arts exhibitions in this country or abroad

Monday, March 4, 2013

Identity Politics: Breitz, Kurgan, Gratrix & Pokroy

The Interview, Breitz (2012)

A black cloth hangs over the entrance to the Goodman Gallery, subtly announcing that Candice Breitz’s new exhibition will entail an immersive filmic experience. The blacked-out-white-cube engenders a different kind of detachment; of the type that occurs in cinemas where you temporarily forget where you are and who you are.  What transpires on the screen, or screens in this case, overwrites the present, suspending you in a state of limbo, between the real and unreal, being there, and not being there.

Breitz’s filmic trilogy The Woods, the centrepiece of this show, explores this territory, though the Berlin-based South African artist is interested in how it manifests from the perspective of the actor. It’s not the actor’s on-stage performance she is concerned with, as she has done before, but his/her off-stage performances – contexts where they present their “real” selves to the camera, such as at an audition, press junket or interview. Further complicating this project Breitz doesn’t observe actual instances where these conversations might occur, but reconstructs them with child actors and two adult actors who have been typecast as child actors.

Before she became an internationally recognised artist, locally she gained notoriety for making work dealing with issues of race, gender and identity. In her controversial 1996 Rainbow series she spliced pornographic images of white women with ethnographic images of black women in traditional garb.
The series caused a stir. She was criticised for conflating or equating white female identity with that of black. It was a new democracy and Breitz was one of many artists questioning, imploding and challenging racial barriers inculcated via apartheid ideology - work dubbed as identity-themed art.

This exhibition very subtly links up with her old, supposedly politically-incorrect work. In The Woods film trilogy she appears still to be coming to grips with identity, how it’s constructed and influenced, and she also evinces an interest in the conditions in which two separate identities are able to flow into one another. In a way she is still splicing identities together. She is simply more sophisticated at doing it. Her subjects are no longer contrived, hybrid beings as her porno-traditional women were - they are real people.