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.