Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Working it Out: Working Title

The Frown and Vintage Cru perform in an installation created by Eve Rakow and Justin McGee
picture by Anthea Pokroy

There must be nothing worse than being the opening speaker at an exhibition that isn't about anything. Such was the tricky position the esteemed public academic Achille Mbembe found himself in a few weeks ago at the opening of Working Title at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg.  In the absence of any obvious binding theme at this exhibition, Mbembe did what anyone in his position would do and talked about the absence of content, which was couched in a discussion about form, a theme he has been driving at the recent Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism.

Prompted by so many artists choosing to luxuriate in or re-engage with form - opposed to, say, ideas as per the conceptualist compulsion - discussions around form have become pressing. Nevertheless, the artists embracing this aesthetically-driven turn weren't on this show - it has to some degree been limited to Cape Town, which is also characterised by a frightening number of "curated" exhibitions without a solid framing concept. There's a resistance around framing the work of young artists; is no one willing to put their head on the block, has curating become confused with project management or has this fixation with form obviated the need for thematic shows altogether?

With a well-advertised after-party boasting The Brother Moves On and Mbembe employed to lend some intellectual credibility, the gallery seemed keen to make a big statement with Working Title.
Drawing attention to the lack of content that may be driving this contemporary fixation with form, Mbembe didn't quite play ball.

A number of works pointed to the condition he outlined in his distinctive academic parlance.
Most obviously was MJ Turpin's Void, a black canvas with the word spray-painted in green across it. This is perhaps an overstated rendition of what Zander Blom and Jan Henri Booyens were exploring when they first entered the scene and developed a nihilistic obsession with the supposed "end of painting" that high modernism seemed to announce, and the peculiar conditions of making art on the fringes of the West. Turpin's work is a hipster version of this; a quick, makeshift response embracing a street vernacular. In other words, the work exudes an emptiness, a vacancy that it is a product of, in itself. His other two illustrative prints, Time Machine I and II, evoke a similar vibe.

As Mbembe observed, the outmoded machines depicted in these images can only exist as forms - they are obsolete. Sprinkled with glitter they appeared like school project posters, a manifestation of a naive fixation with anachronistic objects, an expression of a desire for nostalgia itself, rather than the objects that can facilitate it.

This kind of vacuous idolatry played out in quite an intense form in the performance by The Frown in an installation by Eve Rakow and Justin McGee. An explosion of all things pink, girly and retro, this discrete installation hosted a quasi religious ritual. Clad in dressing gowns and masks, the performers worshipped the shrine at the centre; a girls dressing table adorned with pink fluffyness and images presumably of the fictitious girl who languishes in front of the mirror contemplating her image and the fantasies that take flight while enraptured by her self-obsession.

This meditation on emptiness, however, was only one aspect of this show. The most interesting angle binding much of the work was the fact that it was produced by performance artists; Johan Thom, Gerald Machona, Murray Kruger and Nelisiwe Xaba, who collaborated with Mocke J van Vuuren. There were live performances on the night by Thom and The Frown, however, Machona, Kruger and Xaba only presented object-based works designed for a conventional commercial show. This provided these artists with an opportunity to expand their practice and find ways of recontextualising their work, or thinking how they could generate an income from it.

In Uncles and Angels, which debuted at Goodman's Project Space at Arts on Main, Xaba and Van Vuuren initially developed a work, which included live footage of the performance as it was occurring, though it was subject to distortion. For this show, the footage existed independently and was given a 3D spin; was this just a superficial addition, or does it make a performance more palpable in a white cube setting?

Evincing an awareness of an audience, Machona's installation, three black suitcases containing small sculptures fashioned from decommissioned African currencies, presented an interesting interactive game for visitors, who could take the work home if they could guess the combination for the locks. It is a cheeky work engaging with money in the abstract - he reinvests the Zim dollar with value by turning it into an art object. Encased in suitcases you associate with underhanded schemes, it feels like a dirty deal.
Kruger's Tropitone pic by Anthea Pokroy

Kruger's Tropitone, an installation presenting a pair of red underpants and a towel slung over a bathroom rail, reads as the aftermath of performance. Red underpants have become a signature part of the artist's performances, a motif linked to a childhood photograph taken on a beach. The sense of nostalgia and attachment to this item of clothing, which Kruger reinvests with different meanings in different contexts, isn't arbitrary or superficially embraced.

This level of authenticity is further concretised by the fact that both the underpants and the dank green towel that hangs by it, are worn and used and relate to intimate parts of the artist's body. You wouldn't want to touch these items, in fact, you recoil from them; they are gross, make you feel uncomfortable and have no aesthetic value. On a superficial level this works at denying their viability as desirable objects for sale.
In this way, while Kruger creates a work for a commercial gallery setting, he doesn't simply offer gratuitous marketable objects, such as photographic records of a performance. He offers a piece of himself.

A sense of absence obviously lingers; the performance itself, the body that is not there, evoked via the underpants. But in a way you sense that Kruger too, experiences this absence in his performances; wearing the red underpants that recall the ones he wears as a carefree child, he keeps circling a self, an event that can never be retrieved.  It's a wonderful metaphor for an absent performance, though for Kruger it seems the performance work isn't the original, prized 'thing', but an empty copy of an experience that preceded and inspired it.

Just as the photograph of his younger self, propelled a series of performance works with the red underpants, Kruger offers viewers a snapshot of palm trees that allow us to piece together an imaged performance relating to the props left behind. Indirectly, he reveals his modus operandi, he performs as an embodied viewer of images, as a means of reinserting himself into them, rewriting them, making them real or even unreal. In this way he always positions himself as both the artist/performer and observer of art or images, who is engaged in this act of retrieval and re-performance. This installation shows him navigating this process in such a way that viewers can make the 'work' without him.

Beneath the surface of this exhibition and the seemingly misplaced fanfare attached to it, there was an interesting discourse about performance art and how its practitioners can place their work in the white cube. It is a pity that the curator, Emma Laurence didn't fully harness it, or claim it. - published in The Sunday Independent, August 11, 2013

Working Title shows at the Goodman Gallery until August 19.

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