Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Studio Time: Pondering "productive procrastination" with Nerf/Kentridge /Soyinka/Sellars

Christian Nerf working inside Goethe on Main
pic by: Brett Rubin

One Sunday, during the popular Arts On Main market at Maboneng, some visitors wandered into Goethe-on-Main looking for food. This wasn’t altogether surprising. With a large cardboard handwritten sign hanging at the entrance boasting the show’s title, Things are Odd, it appeared like a makeshift shop – an extension of the market. In a way, Christian Nerf was delighted that this misinterpretation occurred; he revels in rewriting the function of a gallery and blurring the boundaries between art and life.

It’s not quite an anarchic impulse, but more about transforming a space to suit his idiosyncratic needs. For Nerf galleries, rooms in suburban homes, even seats on an airplane or long-distance buses have become home to his itinerant studios. He treats these diverse settings equally, thereby undercutting the gallery’s status. They are not venues to exhibit work but to make work, a place for an artist to inhabit, rather than occupy fleetingly.

“The idea of arriving here putting some things up on the wall and walking out and leaving it was unthinkable,” he says. The gallery should be a living, breathing space, a place of action rather than (detached) meditation. This facilitates interaction, between Nerf and visitors, a rarity in the rarefied art setting. Whether this has enriched his practice is uncertain, but it has made for some unexpected exchanges with people unfamiliar with contemporary art.
A close up of one of Nerf's attempt to "draw with obstacles"
pic by Brett Rubin

For the duration of his show, Nerf spent his days in the gallery, making work, experimenting and reading – I spot a copy of Susan Sontag’s seminal On Photography on a shelf. On the occasions he worked through the night, he slept on a thin mattress in the corner of the gallery. This makeshift bed appears to be part of what could be termed an installation of sorts, though, of course, it has no meaning other than rooting the space as a living space rather than just a gallery. But because it is a gallery, a table populated by tubes of paint, brushes, and a beer bottle, everything in it is subject to the kind of scrutiny that may be undeserving given they are everyday objects. But there are other kinds of objects in the space that look as ordinary but aren’t – if you inspect them closely or become aware of their history. Like a torn vest hanging from a nail.
It’s a remnant from a phase when Nerf went out and “shot” fashion objects, not with a camera but with a weapon that would destroy the surface. There are also more recognisable art objects such as large white papers with colourful painted lines. They are not finished works, more like preparations for something, or just experiments in of themselves.



Above all, Things are Odd presents a window into the process of art making. As the title suggests, all things have the potential to be “odd”. Maybe this is the lens that artists bring to bear on “things”.
Nerf’s unconventional approach is “odd” in the sense that he has collapsed the space between the process of making work and showing work, which allows the former to become transparent.

For some time William Kentridge has been attempting to bring the activities in his studio into the public realm. Presumably this was prompted by constant queries about his working process as he become more and more famous. Ever the theatre-maker, he turned some of these public presentations into performances, most notably in the piece I am not me, The Horse is not Mine, which showed at the Market Theatre as part of the Refuse the Hour festival in 2011. In this production he “acted” himself, evoking a split self; the irrational character that responds viscerally during the art making process and the logical, analytical one that explains the work.
William Kentridge at the Baxter Theatre during the Rolex
Mentors and Protege Arts Initiative gathering

During an informal talk last weekend dubbed Getting Started at the Baxter Theatre as part of the Rolex Mentors and Protégé  Arts Initiative, Kentridge referred to another divided self that manifests in the studio; the one half is deeply immersed in the work he is making, while the other embodies the critical eye – or the role of the critic – surveying his work from a more detached position. He illustrated this duality with a short film portraying two Kentridges; one was working on a drawing of a rhinoceros while the other stood behind him observing and judging the proportions.
There can be quite a disjuncture between what the artist perceives to be a success and what a detached observer might deem interesting.
“Often the works that I think are amazing people think are complete failures, what do I know?” observes Nerf, who has made peace with displaying everything he makes. Because he has ‘folded’ the studio into the gallery, everything he does is immediately on display. Like his recent “paintings around objects”, a process by which he is prevented from painting a straight line because of a physical impediment – a chair, table placed in front of the canvas – that shifts the line.
“It’s like life, you have to work with obstacles.”
Nerf doesn’t much care how these painterly experiments turn out. “It’s what I learn in the process that matters.”
Perhaps there is more at stake for Kentridge because of his international status, or how he conceives of the value of art as being defined by its end-product, but for him arriving at the point of making the first mark (for a drawing) can be quite a drawn-out process. It is one that he termed “productive procrastination: it’s about gathering the energy before making a mark”, he explained.
For writers, procrastination might involve making a trip to a nearby bar, quipped Wole Sokinya, the Nigerian author, during the final Rolex Mentors panel, Turning the World into Material.
“You have to work with or without a spark. You can’t wait for a divine spark to begin working, though you can’t force it either. The best thing to do is to engage the brain: read,” he advised, while keeping his own struggles private.

The best starting point for artists is to think about what is missing in public and artistic domains, proposed Peter Sellars, an American theatre practitioner who, like Soyinka and Kentridge, has served as a mentor for Rolex’s Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
“So much of what we see is vastly over-represented. Anger too can be the spark. Artists should transform anger into a solution.”

Kentridge views the studio as a place of transformation. He compared the process that occurs in this space to the way the world/reality is digested through a camera; material is gathered through one lens and something different is produced from it. In this way he views art “as a membrane that sits between you and world”. In other words, art is like a filter, a veil that can enhance, exaggerate or create distance between reality. This latter function became the focus of an exchange between Kentridge, Sellars, and Sokinya, in the final panel, Turning the World into Material.

The conversation was sparked after a screening of a short, but powerful animation of an atomised body, torn apart by a violent act. It formed part of Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission, a production that dealt with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) through the lens of an Alfred Jarry play. The puppets that featured in that production allowed for a kind of separation (from the real) that enabled catharsis, while evoking “the burlesque of the grotesque” said Kentridge.
“Art provides a strategy of distancing that helps us exorcise unbearable memories,” remarked Soyinka. Following on from this idea vis-à-vis the TRC, he suggested that reconciliation is impossible without restitution,  a necessary act in “the archway of healing”. He believes that artists are ideally placed to create symbolic acts of restitution, which he distinguishes from “punishment”.
Soyinka’s suggestion that artists should be involved in creating symbolic acts of restitution resonated with Sellars, who usese theatre  to concoct rituals to come to terms with unspeakable acts. These rituals|needn’t be large gestures, particularly when audiences have become desensitised to mass spectacles, proposed Sellars, referring to a ritual performed during his adaptation of Aeschylus’s Persians, where Martinus Miroto, a Javanese dancer and specialist in spirit possession, hosted the spirits of the thousands of Iraqi soldiers who died in agony on the infamous “highway of death” at the time of the Gulf War.

Nerf doesn’t deal with trauma or violence in his work, nor does he seek anything so grand as cleansing a society of issues weighing on their conscience. He is looking to bridge the gap between reality and art rather than enhance its separation, by using it as a mode of distancing.  This is largely because Nerf doesn’t deal in trauma but in the ordinary vagaries of living and questioning how we live our lives. He does this by living an alternative life himself that is in full view in a gallery space.

By ‘folding’ the studio into the gallery, he not only blurs the line between art and life but work and life. This message echoes through most of the work in the gallery; like the large mindmap pinned to one wall where he has plotted out all the people he knew when he used to live in Joburg and how they are interconnected. It’s a sentimental act too; he often succumbs to nostalgia.

Part of the display on one wall consists of objects from his past; they are either artworks, like a video dubbed Elvis is Alive and in Joburg, a short film he made a while ago where he made Joburgers dress up as Elvis, or a small plastic bag with a styrofoam object that has been packaged and labelled “garbage” and has a bright orange price sticker on it, indicating that it sells for R30. Can art be garbage? Is art garbage? There are almost always moments when you look at Nerf’s “art” and wonder whether it’s all bullshit. These moments are pleasantly surprising, allowing the objects in the show to just be “things” rather than “art things” - his work almost always undermines what art should be; can a life well-lived be art?

Certainly, there seems little point in really focusing on individual objects, but rather the overall impression his installation generates. Because Nerf doesn’t dwell at the level that Kentridge, Soyinka and Sellars do, it’s easier to have doubts about what he does. If Nerf suddenly found world fame, his work would lose its uneasy status.  In some ways it seems unlikely that this would occur, for the simple fact that he doesn’t appear to be driving towards creating resolved finished products.
“Everything is mid-flight,” he says with a grin. He’s maybe permanently caught in the phase that Kentridge so fondly calls “productive procrastination”. Through his short films and performances of his process, Kentridge is indirectly making art from this stage of procrastination – it’s a rich seam, where he admits that moments of failure become the seeds of success. During an informal exchange, Sellars confesses that his best works are those that have denied coherency.
“When something fails to come together, the work is about that failure. That is the most interesting work there is, though critics hate it.” - published in The Sunday Independent, April 14, 2012


  • Corrigall attended the Rolex Mentors and Protégé Arts Initiative at The Baxter Theatre in Cape Town as a guest of Rolex. Nerf will do a “working with obstacles” drawing in situ on Tuesday at 6pm at Housewarming, Atlantic House, Cape Town. It’s viewable by appointment until May 4; e-mail: atlantichuis@gmail.com


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