Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Separating Fact from Fiction: Art and Journalism via Hugo and Chiurai

Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013

 It was as a journalist that author Margie Orford stood over the body of a young girl who had been stabbed over 20 times that she  first understood, or at least observed, the rage that beats beneath the surface of our society. The language of journalism wasn’t up to the task of articulating what she could perceive and so she turned to fiction, though she has suggested that the form of reportage that she had been driving wasn’t such a leap away from the crime novels she came to write. Was she seeking the “novelistic truth” that Justin Cartwright, the South African-born UK-based author, identifies as the feature that the mask of fiction provides?

Sometimes the absence of answers can be satisfying. We expect artists to probe beneath the surface of our society, yet package their insights in a way that is palatable and marketable – and intriguing; we don’t want the bold facts overstated like an Ayanda Mabulu or Brett Murray portrait of President Jacob Zuma.
We don’t always want answers, when they can’t be easily supplied.  Mary Wafer’s quasi abstract mapping of the landscape where the Marikana tragedy took place in her exhibition, Mine, was such a body of work. In the absence of tangible clues to explain what had occurred,  she drew attention to our probing gaze and desire to get a handle on a truth or truths that the media supply and how we use them as a measure of “where we are at” – as if it is some fixed and knowable place that could even be visualised.

Does the language of art allow us to better grasp the unknown, in comparison to journalistic products which are designed to confront, reveal, what is (or should be) known?
At what point does the journalistic mode become insufficient and is it really that one dimensional?
Having worked for newspapers, Pieter Hugo knows the journalistic language well, you could even say he still works with it even though his photography is considered art and shows in galleries.
His latest exhibition, Kin, showing at Stevenson galleries in Joburg and Cape Town, is characterised by sharp images which imply that his subject matter has been thoroughly revealed or exposed in the documentary mode.

Every line on his subjects’ faces is rendered with such clarity and combined with the large scale of his prints, it is easy to believe we are bearing witness to reality. It also helps that he has selected subjects who bear physical marks of time or are marked by life; we see this in the veined, wrinkled hands of a man in Danville, 2013, an aged domestic worker, Meriam “Mary’ Tlali, who worked for the Hugo family, Daniel Richards, a young man who has tattooed his face, the portrait of Shaun Oliver, a man with a lined face and a burning cigarette hanging between his thin lips and Hugo’s pregnant partner, her body stretched by the child in her womb. These are subjects, therefore, who are moulded, scarred by life, the existences they lead – they know “reality”, are products of it.

The sharp lucidity with which Hugo renders them also makes them appear quite unreal, too real; we rarely observe people in this way, even in person. This imparts a hyperrealism that we tend to associate with figurative painting, such as Deborah Poynton’s highly detailed Baroque-esque brand that also zooms in on the unsightly minutiae of her (nude) subjects.

In this way the frailties and vulnerabilities of the subjects are enhanced or seemingly revealed, engendering the notion that the truth is there in front of us. It seems to be all about looking, not thinking.
The painterly analogy fits this oeuvre by Hugo, particularly the photographs that mimic the formula of the ubiquitous “still life” – like a vase containing flowers in the work Inside Hudson Kungu’s home Virginia. Or a plastic wrapped TV remote, ashtray and box of cigarettes on a table that allude to the habitual rituals for In Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Art & Politics: Joburg Art Fair Report

Is that Barend de Wet under the knitted cover? pic by Thys Dullart
An empty stand is an eyesore at an art fair – it communicates some level of dysfunctionality; organisational issues. At the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) it had to do with the politics of business and a political artwork that didn’t go down too well with the organisers, Artlogic, headed by Ross Douglas.
Three waiters stood at the entrance of the vacant stand while Douglas, his creative director Cobi Labuschagne, Liza Essers, owner of the Goodman Gallery and David Goldblatt discussed Goldblatt reinstalling his exhibition Frock and Other Pictures in the vacant stand.

Goldblatt stood firm; he wouldn’t do so until Douglas was willing to allow Ayanda Mabulu’s Yakhali’inkomo (Black Man’s Cry), featuring President Jacob Zuma crushing the head of a miner under his foot, to hang on the outer wall of Commune1’s stand.
As the featured artist of this year’s JAF and one of the most recognised artists here and abroad, Goldblatt was playing with a strong hand. Yet he was full of regret. He was dismayed that he had to force Douglas’s hand, that the self-censorship he knew from the apartheid era had raised its ugly head again and that he felt he was standing virtually alone in this act of protest. It also pained him that it recalled a similar experience.
“It was just me and Bongi Dhlomo who stood at the gates of the Goodman Gallery when the ANC supporters marched outside,” recalls Goldblatt of the day hundreds gathered in Parkwood to protest against the display of The Spear (of the nation), Brett Murray’s contentious image of Zuma.

Confirming the negative impact of The Spear debacle on the consciousness of the art world, this time censorship and bullying had been perpetrated by an insider, Douglas, who had done so out of fear that Mabulu’s unambiguous comment on the Marikana tragedy might jeopardise Artlogic’s relationship with  various government institutions – the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Gauteng Provincial Government and the City of Joburg.

To justify his decision Douglas kept reiterating that “he had to balance the interests of all the parities at the fair”, as if overlooking the rights of artists and gallerists wasn’t in contradiction with this. Nelisiwe Xaba and Mocke J Van Vuuren, the joint winners of the FNB JAF Art Award, made this point when they released a statement to the press during the debacle.

Barend de Wet was the first artist to be censored at the JAF, when he knitted in the buff at the Blank Projects stand a number of years ago. Artlogic stopped his performance. Presumably in reference to that event and his protest against what had occurred with Mabulu, the artist floated through the fair underneath a garish striped knitted blanket-cum garment – a signature of his work. No one tried to lift it to see if De Wet was in fact concealed beneath and possibly naked, yet it was quietly subversive.
Nevertheless, Goldblatt wasn’t backed by a large contingent willing to put their heads on the line, proving that the brand of self-censorship that informed Douglas’s decision about Mabulu’s work ran quite deeply; though, of course, some were silent because they feared being reproached by Douglas.
Essers, whose gallery represents Goldblatt and Murray, is therefore no stranger to dealing with a censorship battle. She was of the opinion that apathy, too, might have contributed towards the glaring absence of solidarity around The Spear debacle and the censorship of Mabulu’s artwork.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Drawing the Line: Nerf at AOP

Every Single Touch Counts

A commercial gallery show can happen to the most unlikely of artists. Christian Nerf never planned for one at Art on Paper; it simply evolved through a discussion around a collection of drawings he was "trying to flog to get back to Cape Town".
It's not as if Nerf has been completely set against a commercial show, or making money from his art per se - he usually prefers to barter - but he has operated outside of the gallery system, or any system it must be said, for so long that doing so has become part of his identity as an artist, or non-artist artist - he even eschews the title.

Anarchic artists are a dying breed; today's generation are desperate to be absorbed by the commercial gallery system. Getting signed to the Stevenson, having a sell-out show, being the centre of attraction at the annual FNB Joburg Art Fair, which opened this weekend, and showing anywhere dubbed "international" is what the best art dreams are made of. To do so requires conforming to, rather than questioning, the system that supports these aspirations. It's a bind, for sure, if the nature of your work involves exposing social contrivances. But it seems, ironically, as if conforming is the new non-conforming - as long as you do it with your tongue firmly in your cheek, though holding this pose for any length of time is impossible and eventually becomes the mainstream position anyway.

This may be why Avant Car Guard (the now defunct art collective made up of Zander Blom, Michael McGarry and Jan-Henri Booyens) quickly dispensed with their derisive commentary on the local art world - like The Invoice, a painting of a receipt they tried to sell at the Joburg Art Fair in 2009.

Nerf has played this game too; setting up a bogus Facebook identity with Douglas Gimberg, which they dubbed Gimberg Nerf, and befriending everyone in the art world until they had secured 666 friends before closing the account and running an obituary for the persona in The Star's classified section.

Yet Nerf's rebellious flair and resistance against commercial ends makes him a slightly anachronistic figure who conforms to a romantic ideal of the artist we like to cling to in the belief that there is at least one pursuit that isn't shaped, cheapened, by market forces. Is resistance futile, or even possible? It's a question worth asking as the Joburg Art Fair is about to open. Nerf's recent exhibition and subtle presence at the fair this year at Art on Paper's stand doesn't provide answers but complicates the question.

This is because things are not so straightforward. His exhibition, Itinerant Studio No33: Vestiges, at Art on Paper might be a concession towards being part of the gallery system, but it is also not quite a conventional show.

He is perhaps one of the few artists who can do a gallery show without doing one. He does this by turning part of the gallery into one of his itinerant studios, as he dubs them. They are temporary working spaces set in conventional art spaces - like the Goethe-on-Main and Room galleries - as well as completely unlikely venues for art like a Scout Hall in Parkview, to the small foldaway tray in a plane. Wherever they are located, he gets to redetermine the "space" and its expected functions. In a gallery this means he is able to exercise some control, while exorcising some of the baggage it entails for an artist.

Nerf knows how to make himself at home, quickly. Since he started his "iterant studios", he has perfected a ritual display that instantly announces his presence and evokes a studio atmosphere. A bunch of browning bananas hangs on a hook alongside equipment and other studio staples like a bag of good-quality ground coffee and an old-fashioned espresso maker.

He doesn't need to travel with coffee; next door to Art on Paper The Three Marys offers a great brew. This ritualised display might assert a studio setting, but given the latter point it has become an installation that reads as art. This art space shifts how we read things in it and perhaps that cannot be avoided or upturned at all.

Perhaps Nerf is simply going through the motions of making peace with this space, for he has also conceded with selling some framed drawings that are part of the display. Naturally, the frames aren't ordinary frames; they are bespoke wooden ones fashioned by a furniture-maker friend who has turned the works into must-have art objects. I suppose the thinking was that if you are going to create an art object for sale you should go the full hog and amplify the act so as to revel in that moment for what it is. What is that moment?