Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When 'the (art) thing' is no longer the 'thing': Art Week Cape Town

Modern Painting by Zander Blom

I can hear Willem Boshoff aka The Big Druid snoring before I see him. He’s lying on a thin mattress on the floor of the Smac Gallery, where his installation Big Druid in his Cubicle has been installed. Consisting of vintage objects in neat compositions, the installation appears like an orderly antique shop or interior of a home, belonging to a fastidious or assiduous collector. A collection of ornate wooden walking sticks are arranged in a line, as are a group of rusted sickles, there is a pair of old scissors, and lids of cardboard boxes are filled with the disassembled parts of dolls bodies. On a shelf is a skull among toys and a vintage radio. I discover on my way out of the gallery that each composition, or objects within each arrangement, if you could call it that, boasts a title, implying they are forms of expression. A list of artworks reveals that dental mouth casts on paper are dubbed “Speechless” and a battered bag, stones and a dice are titled “School”. I return to the displays to identify the objects that are assigned meaning but give up quickly; it’s too difficult, the spaces are so cluttered with things that I am easily distracted and find the quest futile; assigning or searching for meaning in retrospect seems like such a false response.

These antique compositions are only one aspect of his work; the Big Druid also goes on walks, where he “strives to look, see and discover that which others miss or avoid”. Unfortunately, my timing is bad so I miss joining him on one of these strolls – though through the (over) abundance of urban walks in Joburg this pastime has grown cold on me. Some artists are even positioning urban strolls as art. Have I missed Boshoff’s work? Is his sleeping body, the work – I quite like the idea that the only time a gallery has no hold on an artist is when he/she is asleep? The artful composition of knick-knacks could be the art that is also not art, or the large words like “Prick” and “Fat”, spelt out with small letters or beads that look like bona fide art products – they are framed and covered in glass that are displayed in an adjoining room at Smac.

It’s disconcerting, but I’m not really interested in discovering what Boshoff is saying – ironically, these blown up words, direct attention beyond words – but rather how he is saying it; where his expression is located. Is everything an accessory to his performance as a Druid or artist (for him these two personas are connected)?
My interest, or perhaps lack thereof, is a consequence of the emphasis on materials and mediums being advanced by a few galleries participating in the second Art Week Cape Town. A week of art openings could dull the senses of the most sensitive viewer but it’s the art, or the way it has been packaged, that has delivered me at this shallow place, though I’m not convinced interest in materials/the medium is superficial.
It is probably the Stevenson Gallery that has taken the lead in this trend, if you could call it that, with an exhibition dedicated to sculpture, which automatically directs your attention to the mediums the artists have chosen and how they do or do not conform with the idea of sculpture. There are a few traditional sculptural works by Conrad Botes and Claudette Schreuders, however, the rest of the works ‘challenge’ conceptions about what sculpture is, through the artists’ chosen mediums or materials. Video works, for example, would not be deemed sculpture – sculptures have a physical presence and are generally static – yet it is the medium preferred by a group of performance artists who would ordinarily be excluded from a sculpture show. It is the process of making and unmaking sculptures that define Lerato Shadi and Kemang Wa Lehulere’s works. In Matsogo (2013), Shadi crumbles a chocolate cake in her hands, moulding it into a variety of shapes before it returns to its original state. It goes from being a desirable object to something inedible: a brown mould that looks like a ball of earth. Wa Lehulere’s A Homeless Song (Sleep is for the Gifted) features two sets of performers moving a mass of bones from one place to another. One of the performers in each duo is white and another black; lending a racial undertone to the work and it is implied they depend on each other as they uncover and pull apart and reassemble the past. A sense of futility pervades; wherever the bones (ancestors, history) are located they still exist.

Covered in body paint and make-up, a naked Steven Cohen is positioned as a “living sculpture” in the contentious work Cock/Coq, which may see him frozen to a spot in a French jail if he is found guilty of sexual indecency by authorities in that country – nudity is a given in classical sculptures but in a live body it is deemed indecent. His work relies on it being offensive; otherwise it would have had no impact and would not have been registered by the South African or French public – it was performed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Cohen might use his body (and that of others) to make statements but, in fact, notions of what are indecent are his core tools, that is the material he works with; it’s invisible, though he makes it visible through the absence of dress. The ornate, pretty, make-up – long batting lashes and butterfly like motifs –on his face, presents a delicate, feminised individual, an innocent and unthreatening being, which makes whatever aggressive responses to him seem so misplaced, though he invites this. This visage underpins the martyr-like position he embraces; he must sacrifice his dignity and safety to make the world understand its ugly contradictions. In this way, he perhaps suits the “living sculpture” phrase linked to him in the handout, though he could not be more unsuitable as a permanent public feature. If he was, his appearance would be acceptable and his work would lose its power. He can never be (fully) public or permanent.
Dineo Bopape's Same Angle, Same Lighting

Quickly, I’m drawn to the works where the sculptural element is a supporting feature to the end-product, accidental and functional sculptural objects. Such as the crude makeshift contraption that acts like a projector in Dineo Bopape’s Same Angle, Same Lighting. Amazingly, this low-tech rickety device is capable of translating an image (of flowers) onto a screen in front of it. It’s the sort of thing hipsters would covet; it looks like an outmoded pre-prototype artifact. It’s alive too; it moves back and forth, tightly holding onto the original image. In this way this device is “the material”, the thing, the location of the work and not the jumpy image on the screen. It’s a bit like becoming preoccupied with the technology inside a TV set instead of the content on it.

Zander Blom’s Modern Painting articulates the same point; instead of presenting his paintings as|sculptures, which is easy, specially those latest paintings with viscous 3D blobs, Blom presents the by-products of his painting; the soiled shoes, paint brushes and other paraphernalia in his studio that gets covered in paint. This isn’t a surprise, as anyone who has visited his studio can attest; in some ways his paint splattered interior is more interesting than what gets done in it. This is partly because Blom doesn’t clean up; so items are caked with paint and he preserves each empty tube which sits in a perfectly formed pile. Blom has a slightly pathological fetish for painting – the act of doing it and the mess it creates around him is as pleasing as the work. This is the ultimate submersion in a medium. There is something vacuous about this, but the level of immersion it demands implies anything but a superficial engagement.

It can be interesting to observe a variety of artworks with the sculpture theme in mind, but there is something irritating about this bland motif; if you wanted to, you could stretch the sculpture tag to fit anything. For as much as a thing might not be a sculpture, it would indirectly reflect on precisely what criteria we associate with a sculpture. This probably is the attraction; in this way the gallery can show a mishmash of work from a variety of artists – Nandipha Mntambo, Robin Rhode, Jane Alexander, Peter Clarke – in their stable under a banner that encompasses anything and is easy to grasp. It’s summer, Cape Town will be teeming with visitors who might seek refuge from the heat in a breezy white cube.

In a few years’ time (2016) another art establishment, will be competing for their attention. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) will be like no art institution South Africa has seen before; this nine-storey non-profit endeavour, which is the product of a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and the German businessman and art patron Jochen Zeitz, with a focus on presenting contemporary art from South Africa and the continent, is certain to not only reconfigure how visitors might perceive art from this side of the world but, hopefully, instigate more interesting conversations about it that might be stimulating for locals.

With a nod to its future impact, Art Week Cape Town opened with a collection of Mntambo’s work that is part of Zeitz MOCAA’s burgeoning collection in a temporary pavilion a stone’s throw away from its permanent site – the historical Grain Silo on the other side of the docks at the V&A. Its executive director and chief curator, Mark Coetzee, has been buying up a storm; “We are buying up to 60 to 70 pieces a week. I bought almost every work from all the African stands at the Venice Biennale.”
This vast collection will not only celebrate contemporary art from the continent but will also ensure it becomes a cultural destination that will rival the Pompidou, The Tate Modern, or the Guggenheim.
Coetzee believes it is important that the curators at Zeitz MOCAA –  they have yet to be appointed but will hail from around the globe – will start to frame expression from the continent in such a way that dialogues around art will be instigated in Africa rather than elsewhere.

Given that many of Coetzee’s shopping trips have been overseas, it’s likely that all the same familiar big art stars from the continent will continue to dominate – at least in the beginning. There will always be room for small galleries, such as Blank Projects, which often showcases artists who have been overlooked by Stevenson or Goodman. It is also likely that work that is “unsellable” or unpopular with buyers can enjoy success in a museum, where commercial ends are not driving the shows.
A fixation with materials and the process of making art defines Blank Project’s This is the Thing. Following on from their last annual group show, When Form Becomes Attitude, the emphasis remains focused on the formal qualities of art.

Jared Ginsberg's Rehearsal with Wire
Echoing the makeshift aesthetic of Bopape’s work is Jared Ginsberg’s Rehearsal with Wire. This work would have fitted in perfectly with the Stevenson show across the road; it’s a wire sculpture that is relayed via a TV monitor that is embedded in a sculptural form; a VHS player that is tied to a ladder. Once again there is a sense that a device that relays the recognisable art object – here the wire configuration – looms larger, has more of a physical impact. It is such a charming and honest vehicle. The wire sculpture that hovers on the screen is beyond our grasp. It is a static and a moving line, a sculpture that has been suspended in time, somehow. Like Blom’s work, and Bopape’s, there is a sense that nostalgia for anachronistic objects has been used to articulate present-day concerns around the mediation of art, or imagery, or experiences. The focus is no longer on content because it is so fleeting and repetitive that it has become redundant or superfluous (Bopape’s flowers could not be more prosaic). This appears to have encouraged a fetish with the vessel itself that relays content. To reference the title of the show: it’s the thing that isn’t the thing that has become the thing.

Athi-Patra Ruga is a self-confessed pop-culture junkie yet he, too, channels his expression through outmoded mediums; tapestry and stained glass design in his solo exhibition, The Future White Women of Azania Saga at Whatiftheworld Gallery. This concern fits his desire to translate the rhetoric and mythology attached to the Future White Women of Azania, a character who has existed thus far as a performance, in such a way that this imagined future place appears to hail from the past. Translation might be the wrong term; Ruga isn’t simply relaying a performance into an artwork. Rather, the character at the heart of the performance is removed from the world she usually occupies – the reality where we exist as observers, and is transplanted in Azania, the place she hails from. Once Ruga gave this character a name (at first she existed as an unnamed being), he began building the mythology surrounding her, which was rooted in the various ideas linked to the notion of Azania – a utopian South Africa.
In this striking show, easily the highlight of Art Week Cape Town, there is all sorts of socio-political racial and gender subtext. Nevertheless, belying this, Ruga has become quite lost in the surfaces of the works, particularly the tapestries, which are extravagantly embellished; roses and swirls of fabrics protrude from them. These works exude a fetish for the surface, design and materiality, that recalls that which has a hold on Blom.

As with Ruga’s Azania saga, Mary Sibande’s practice has also been centred on negotiating the boundary between fantasy and reality; not only has the character Sophie, that has been central to her work, existed between these states, but as her dreams have grown more elaborate, giving birth to a new nameless purple character, photography and digital art has come to play a more important role in articulating these fantasies. They have become so elaborate that they are now exceeding reality - hence the digital renderings have become more important.  Yet, at the second iteration of her show The Purple Shall Govern at the SA National Gallery in Cape Town, the photographs are obscured by the real life purple creatures that hang around the two mannequins that take centre stage. It’s the physical encounter that viewers and artists seem to crave. The difference between seeing a photograph of The Bid Druid sleeping in his Cubicle and hearing him snore, while I tiptoe around. - first published in The Sunday Independent, December 8, 2013.

A Sculptural Premise at Stevenson Cape Town and This is the Thing at Blank Projects will show until January 11. The Zeitz MOCAA Pavilion, North Wharf, V&A Waterfront will show collections from different artists over coming months. The Future White Women of Azania Saga, showing at Whatiftheworld Gallery until February 8.

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