|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.