Monday, May 27, 2013

Rural Art Party: Winter Sculpture Fair

Serge Nitgeka's  Father and Son
pic by Mary Corrigall

It's a luxury car pile-up. Something you might expect in a private school parking lot - not in the idyllic country setting of the Cradle of Humankind. Designer 4x4s built for city living line Kromdraai Road leading to Nirox Foundation and its sculpture park. It's optimistic to think that Joburg's well-heeled are flocking to see art in this rambling rural park, in particular a contemporary sculpture exhibition dubbed After the Rainbow that is part of the inaugural Winter Sculpture Fair.

It's more likely the promise of a day out with top nosh and wine from Franschhoek has caused this absurd rural traffic jam. Joburgers might covet T-shirts boasting their city's skyline but they jump at a chance to see it in their rear-view mirror. Especially if the outing entails a consumerist twist. With flags and signs bearing the MasterCard logo dotted everywhere, the Winter Sculpture Fair's corporate ties are boldly stated. This is not a makeshift rural market fair, not by any stretch. There are no old tannies peddling home-made jam. Nor is there an array of sentimental oil landscapes leaning against trees. Nor is this some sort of DIY hipster organic food market. As you enter the park, you find yourself in a sophisticated stand resplendent with all the creature comforts. There are long elegant suites to lounge on. You can pick up a cappuccino or sample or buy whisky. This isn't roughing it in the countryside.

The manicured lawns of Nirox Park allow Joburgers to be in the bush without actually being in the bush. It's a lush green oasis and the dark brown thorny vegetation that defines the area is kept at a safe distance. The temporary architecture for the fair is uberstylish without being garish. We quaff wine from glasses. There isn't a plastic plate or cup in sight. And the portable loos are hidden from view until you need them.

Good taste might be a negotiable or shifting quality in Joburg, but Artlogic, the organisers, seem to have their handle on what it might constitute and have established themselves as its arbiters. Alternative shopping experiences with a high-art edge seem to be their bag. Headed by Ross Douglas and Cobi Labuschagne, they started with the Joburg Art Fair at the Sandton Convention Centre, added the Food Wine Design experience on the roof of Hyde Park shopping centre, and now are clearly setting out to branch beyond the mall space - they are also looking into a rural cycling lifestyle event.

At lunchtime, long queues protrude from tents. There doesn't seem to be enough posh nosh to go around - on the Saturday there was none left by 2pm and most of the offerings on blackboard menus have been rubbed out. The cuisine and wine hails from Franschhoek - where else? The uber foodie haven Le Quartier Francaise have a stand, but it's hidden behind a hungry crowd. It's a long enough wait for food anywhere and the portions are small and overpriced. This is a bit of a hallmark of Artlogic events; style comes with a price-tag.

As with the Food Wine Design fair, the wine is more accessible, more available than the food. It's a good strategy; people are less discerning about what they buy and how much they spend with a few good glasses under their belt. They probably have a better time, too. Most of the wares - the sculptures - start at R50 000, so they aren't exactly the kind of products you would snap up on a whim, though some of them could only be whimsical wine-fuelled purchases. Like Barend de Wet's Red Rooster and Mellow Yellow, two blob-like structures that seem to incongruously translate daubs of colour into uncompromising steel designs. There are other designer wares for sale; a bit of pottery, some design/art books. Everything is desirable, designer.

Richard Forbes Vortex I is a hit with kids
Dotted around the undulating park are the sculptures, but it takes time to get to them and around them.
Nirox Park might be the ideal location for an outdoor sculpture show, but it's a good picnicking spot, too. And the event presents the middle-class desire for "a good family day out". Some of the children mistake sculptures for elaborate jungle gyms. Richard Forbes's Vortex I, a large red construction of lines configured around a hole, is a huge hit with the kids. There is little parents can do to pry them away from it - they want to enter the "vortex". It's disturbing and amusing that some of the works are seen as playthings, but this is what happens to art when you detach it from the gallery setting; it becomes something else. Certainly, the supposed sacredness attached to it is partly eroded. This has positive and negative spin-offs. It's good children are interacting with art, but it's not so good if they don't know it is art.

Largely, it is easy to distinguish between what is and isn't art in the park, though someone apparently mistook a tub of ice left by barmen as an installation and someone else thought a work by Marcus Neustetter, Sketches for Structures of Observation, was an outdoor toilet. The mix-up wasn't too surprising; it did appear like a wooden hut. In actuality, the structure is one of many quasi-towers to facilitate what he terms "the vertical gaze" - intense observation of the heavens and the ground below. It's something he has taken to doing in rural settings and at Nirox during a residency last year. With a closed top and no openings, this structure is presumably created to entice viewers to spy its interior through the gaps of the wooden slats. But it is hard to convince passers-by of the value of doing so when they are not even sure if it is a sculpture.

None of the sculptures are labelled, listing the title of the work or the artists' names, as would be the convention in a gallery or art in a public space. Maps with this information were available, but they ran out quickly, according to the organisers. This lack of information may not have been anticipated, but it does undermine the benefit of a lifestyle event bringing the public into contact with the world of art, something Artlogic seem committed to doing. Fact is, South Africans need extra inducement to view art. These lifestyle-centred events may be the only way of introducing some locals to contemporary art, but if these gestures aren't supported by information they have no educational value and the art reads as a peripheral attraction, a sort of superficial "design" or aesthetic element, where its link to affluence and privilege is exploited above any of the functions the artists intended.

Art's link to wealth obviously fitted in perfectly with MasterCard, the corporate sponsors. Not only are they obviously looking to align themselves with symbols of affluence but seem to be on the lookout for creating alternative and exclusive events for their clients and to market their brand. Instead of couching brand identities in artificial scenerios as would be the case in a conventional advert, it makes sense to embed logos in the real world, where the aspirational lifestyle is being lived, though in this context it is perhaps equally contrived.

The Nirox setting helps complete the picture; its an oasis of privilege. The disjuncture between this site and the nearby squatter settlement prompted Brett Murray, during a residency here in 2009, to make a cheeky scripto-visual work on an awning. It boasted the phrase: "Pass me the cucumber sandwiches darling? we are having a revolution".
"Like these white voyeurs with binoculars looking at what is happening out there. It was engaging the oddness of being removed from what is actually happening, and your existence within it as someone of privilege," observed Murray in an interview about the work. This kind of self-consciousness about the site isn't evidenced in much of the art in this sculptural display. It's the site's heritage as the "cradle of humankind" that echoes through a number of works such as Marco Cianfanelli's From the Cradle to the Grave, a large steel cut-out of a human frame that contains multiple human frames of varying sizes that mark the evolution of human life. This work has been on display in the park for over five years.

Guy du Toit rather unimaginatively engages with the theme by stacking 34 skulls on top of each other in the middle of a small lake. In Fractal I, Angus Taylor adopts a similar motif by presenting a series of heads in decreasing size that brings to mind Russian nesting dolls. It's all very predictable.

The works shown here aren't all site specific. Nor need they be; this could be limiting. A number of works on this show were never intended for this setting; they were part of The Rainbow Nation, an exhibition of South African sculptures held in The Hague last year. New works, by Bronwyn Lace, Neustetter, Gordon Froud, Kim Liebermann, Beth Armstrong and Rodan Kane Hart, were added to the mix and it was given the title After the Rainbow Nation, which curator Mary-Jane Darroll suggested wasn't intended to intimate any political comment.

The title isn't meant to serve any end other than to articulate that it comes after the Dutch show, which was curated by the Dutch and facilitated by Benji Liebmann, the visionary art philanthropist who established the Nirox Foundation. Darroll didn't want the new works to be read under a specific thematic banner.
"I didn't want to create a group show with some highfalutin ideas when the work and the artists are so diverse. I think it makes sense for the works to do what they are already doing."

This approach does allow the works to be read independently of each other which is supported by the physical distance between them. However, few make strong statements. Except for Serge Nitgeka's striking Father and Son, a black stand presenting two chunks of wood that have been ripped apart. Beth Armstrong's Surface Weight evokes an organic masse and holds appeal too.

Some works look tacky; like sets for a TV show or inexpensive imitation furniture from Mr Price. The silver spray paint on Forbes's Vortex II undermines its visual impact; it looks like a faux flower floating on the surface of a lake. Perhaps it is the natural setting that also enhances the artificiality of the structures.
Froud's gaudy Cone Virus, made from oversized road cones, would suit an urban setting. Coat hanger works of a bakkie and a rhino by Froud look like oversized tourist curio fare, as does Mawande Ka Zenzile's Marlow's Ship, a crude sculpture of a boat with a head with a colonial hat. This work is meant to evoke the river journeys from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The title of Zenzile's at least summons a Euro-Africa dialogue; but could it be a more predictable and straightforward evocation?

Rodan Kane Hart's Emerging Illusionistic Bend
picture by Mary Corrigall
Hart's sculptures seem to have struck a chord with the interior design community, after showing at his first solo at the Nirox Projects at Arts on Main earlier this year. Here they are dwarfed by the monumentality of the landscape. The artist claims his reduced black steel forms that rely on optical games reference the underlying structures of urban environments, but they seem more at home in this bucolic setting. From afar the simple beauty of the Emerging Illusionistic Bend complements the natural landscape, mirroring the proportions, repetition and sense of harmony that one associates with it. But some of his other works, such as Untitled Nirox Pavilion have been prematurely put on display.

The poor execution of many of the works suggests local artists are grappling with making outdoor sculptures - this isn't a popular niche, it's very expensive to make and there isn't a huge market for it. Until Liebmann established the Nirox Foundation, there hasn't been a platform dedicated to showing outdoor sculpture. Mostly such works are for the public domain and have been shaped by the dynamics attached to it. Nirox isn't exactly public space; it's reserved for a particular kind of public. But it has in its short life-span attracted and shown some outstanding works, such as Walter Oltmann's Suit (2008/2009) and Kagiso Pat Mautloa's Work and Rest (2008).
The country boasts many great sculptors - Jane Alexander, Wim Botha, Mary Sibande and Nicholas Hlobo - but largely they create work for indoor galleries. Future Winter Sculpture Fairs will see Artlogic commission new sculptures, so this area of the visual arts will develop over time, particularly now that there is an event that should generate a public dialogue about the art, even if its link to affluence is part of selling it to the champagne classes.  - published in The Sunday Independent, May 5, 2013. 

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