Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Resistance is Futile

Urban Art inside the Joburg Art Gallery

I MET the graffiti or urban artist (as they like to be called these days) Curio a few blocks down from the Maboneng precinct and he wasn’t that keen to chat to me. Having remained anonymous for so long he was uncomfortable talking about his graffiti, mostly tags of his pseudonym that had become more and more embellished with time. I was struck by his desire for invisibility and the curious way in which he claimed and sought out visibility through his tags. The same contradiction underlies the Tokolos Stencil Collective, the anonymous group of supposed “activists” who recently gained prominence when they defaced Michael Elion’s controversial Madiba-inspired work on the Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town. They, too, conceal their identities, yet make bold stabs at drawing attention to themselves.

Graffiti was institutionalised by the time I encountered Curio. It was during the 2012 Urban Arts Festival and Lazoo, Mak1one and Rasty were working with him on a large work dubbed Mr Vandal, a large man-made graffiti superhero commissioned by the festival and supported by the surrounding businesses at its location.
Like a lot of the work that these artists were spraying all over Joburg’s inner city, it was a wry reference to the way in which graffiti had not only become a mainstream preoccupation (as with superheroes), but to the role it played in gentrification, paving the way for the middle classes and suburbanites to reclaim parts of the city that had fallen into the hands of the destitute.

That the boundaries of Maboneng, or “hipsterville” as Rasty dubbed it, are marked by large graffiti works is proof of the way it has been co-opted by the middle classes and how this medium’s once-subversive thrust has been neutralised.
This fact appeared to be a source of pride because it meant that graffiti no longer had negative connotations. Through its legitimisation, those engaged in it could be elevated to “artists”, show their works in galleries and make a living through public and commercial commissions.
At the same time legitimation seemed to undermine the medium and its characteristics. It was meant to be done under the cloak of anonymity, late at night – not endorsed by any authority.
For this reason, the community of artists who came together for this festival celebrated the medium’s evolution and how this profited the craft, allowing for more creativity, greater exposure and the gaining of celebrity status on social media.
There was an awareness that it had lost its subversive edge.
For those like Curio who were uneasy with this, the only way of clawing back its anarchic vibe was to reject the “artist” label.
“My work means nothing,” he reiterated in an effort to close down our conversation and prevent me from treating it like art.
Interestingly, the Tokolos Stencil Collective have also been forthright in interviews about the fact that they are “not artists”.

This is in line with their desire to cling to the dated values or characteristics of graffiti, which marks their modus operandi – their work is done under the cloak of anonymity and without approval on public sites that carry the status of South Africa’s white colonial history –  such as statues around Cape Town.
In this way, while they claim not to be artists, they have been in conversation with art – this was most obvious during the Elion “intervention”, as they dubbed it.
Some of their other work, which they view as activism, has involved spraying the “Remember Marikana” stencil and motif around the city of Cape Town and shanty towns near Marikana.
“The ones that feel it are the ones that know it (isn’t it?) and they don’t need to be told anything,” suggested Khwezi Gule, Soweto Museums curator, in a Q&A feature on Aryan Kaganof’s blog about the role art could play in relation to Marikana.
In the same feature, Andile Mngxitama, the Economic Freedom Fighters MP and political commentator, was even more disparaging about the forms of visual activism, shall we call them, that have sprung up around Marikana. Not only did he suggest that artists would exploit the tragedy for gain and attention, but he said: “For art to be authentically resistance art, it has to be able to point an accusing finger at those who murdered for profits. Here the halo of power must be stripped naked and the ANC must appear as what it is – a brutal force of neo-colonialism.”
In contradiction with this view, the Tokolos Stencil’s Marikana motif represents one of the famous victims, Mgcineni Noki, the Man in the Green Blanket, and as such does not “strip the power” of the (multitude of) perpetrators responsible for the tragedy.
Justin Davy, one of the young curators at the Brundyn+ Gallery, had noticed the stencils around Cape Town, and when he put together an exhibition centred on capturing the “dissent in the city” by activists and showing these collectives alongside artists who had appropriated the graffiti aesthetic, the Tokolos Stencil Collective was invited to participate.
Urban Art at the Joburg Art Gallery as part of the Two by Two
exhibition Wish you were here

This wasn’t an unsual or radical idea. Not only has the Urban Arts Festival seen graffiti artists show their work in galleries, but in response to this phenomenon, Juliet White opened a gallery called Two by Two in Newtown that was dedicated to this kind of work. The gallery’s closing exhibition was even hosted at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, proving that the “street” had well and truly been institutionalised and legitimised.
Largely, from the images on Brundyn+’s website, it seems the imagery evoked in the Plakkers group show summoned the urban landscape – Chad Rossouw even installed a concrete wall evoking boundaries – rather than dealing with (the erosion of) the role of graffiti as a form of resistance. Rossouw’s concrete wall could not sufficiently prevent the recontextualisation of the urban expression.

Mngxitama and Gule would probably argue that resistance isn’t only futile within a gallery context, but is immediately nullified by the world of (white) privilege that supports it. In this way it is endorsed by the authority it may seek to undermine.  The Tokolos Stencil Collective was only too aware of this – hence the rather crude and vacuous free-form “Bourgeois Gallery” phrase they spray-painted outside the gallery’s entrance. Unfortunately, it was impossible for them to try to compensate for their complicity. Ironically, Davy was delighted by their response (he might even have expected it) and would have allowed it to remain on the exterior of the building. It was the building’s management who removed it.
Perhaps Mngxitama and Gule are right. Resistance has little meaning in the gallery context, not simply because it is talking to the wrong audience but because it is a setting where it is encouraged, embraced and commodified.  In this context acts of protest or resistance are simply absorbed into the ever expanding vocabularly of contemporary art.
This is probably why Steven Cohen’s most celebrated works tend to be those that take place outside galleries and theatres. In public settings where nudity would be censored, Cohen has been able to perform his rather twisted mode of persecution.

His rejection would be a given in these settings. Just as the Tokolos Stencil Collective could also guarantee that if they placed faeces in the Brundyn+ Gallery, as they did on the opening night of the show, they could rely on its being removed almost immediately – although they had agreed to participate in an art event, they had countered their complicity by ensuring one of their statements would be rejected by the gallery.
Davy removed the faeces not because he rejected the substance of their statement, but because of the “the smell” and the health risk. The collective’s statement wasn’t rejected because it evoked “the poor” – who, they have suggested, are excluded from galleries – but because it smelt bad and threatened the integrity of Tom Cullberg’s solo exhibition, which opened on the same evening.

Of course, by using faeces as a symbol of the exploited underclasses, the Tokolos Stencil Collective unwittingly implied that this was how they were defined or identified – by an appalling and unpalatable smell. For the collective, the removal of their installation (they claim not to make art) achieved a predictable outcome that the graffiti could not. However, if it is the “art” factor that limits their gestures of resistance and protest, one has to wonder what vocabulary they could adopt and where it should be located and targeted: at the public, the government, or the white supremacists they have marked out as their enemy No 1. - first published in The Sunday Independent, December 7, 2014. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


It could be a Roman banquet. Huge rounds of exotic cheeses are arranged on wooden boards among breads of different shapes and sizes, grapes, patés, olives, macarons and strawberries. Among the spread are shiny disco balls, and flower arrangements spring from the top of elongated vases.
A discreet rope surrounds this epicurean fantasy. A sign hangs near a gap indicating that this is only accessible to Sanlam's VIP guests, some of whom are seated at small tables dotted along the almost invisible perimeter as if they are ensconced in some exclusive eatery in Paris. In fact they are sitting in a parking lot at the rooftop of the Hyde Park shopping mall in Joburg.

Of course, it doesn't look anything like a parking lot - that would interfere with the experience of the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, which is a few steps above a pedestrian rooftop market.
This is a deluxe, designer one, which is elevated by the temporary setting - a gargantuan tent with makeshift floors, walls, lights - and the provenance and style of the merchandise that is on offer.
There are no cheap Chinese imports, bargain sunglasses, designer knock-offs, wooden African curio items or second-hand books. As the slightly (new) pretentious title of this annual event implies the goods for sale are "contemporary and handmade", or at least aspire to be.

Contemporary is a term that it is bandied about far too generously in the art world, and by Art Logic, the organisers, who incidentally also run the Joburg Art Fair, believing that this term has cultural currency.
In the context of this fair and probably the art one too, it's a euphemism for fashionable.
The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair is hipster heaven; it is brimming with leather bags and cases that would look fabulous tied to the back of a bicycle - preferred hipster transport - and there is a frightening abundance of triangle motifs that come in the form of jewellery, prints for throws, blankets and pillows and there is even a coffee table at a furniture stand with triangle cut-outs.
Never before has the triangle enjoyed so much attention.
An outsider, unaccustomed to hipster culture or the design world's vacuous aggregation of high modernist abstraction into its vocabulary, might take this obsession with this symbol to be the not-so-secret emblem of some new cult.
In some regards that is precisely what it is, given that an abundance of triangle motifs tend to predominate in contexts where this whole handmade, artisanal "local is better" malarkey flourishes, such as in urban hipster hangouts in these pop-up markets in Braamfontein, and Maboneng, or in newly gentrified hipster pockets which are growing tentacles not only in the inner city but in the suburbs too, usually near coffee shops where you sit at communal wooden tables.
This is a culture that is more or less a counterculture, one in response to the soullessness, exploitation and banality of mass production and large chains. A cultural manifestation of post-industrialisation that presents consumers with the option to engage in "ethical consumption" and thus challenge the status quo that we are seemingly locked into.
The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary might boast the symbols and products that we associate with this movement but it doesn't squarely conform to it. For starters its location jars. You have to walk through a mall to get to it.

And although the temporary architecture, which is clean, pleasing and designery - lots of wood panels and fashionable fonts everywhere - immediately announcing you have entered another world, it remains tethered to the mall. Ultimately, and ironically, this draws attention to the major flaw in hipster/artisanal/green culture itself, which not only remains and relies on consumerism to announce itself, but in so doing perpetuates a culture where identity and status are largely defined by what you buy or where you shop.
"Ethical shopping" is the new elitism, which sort of undercuts its moralistic thrust. The affluent Hyde Park corner setting drives this home as do the pricey goods.
Even browsing at this fair comes with a price tag - you have to pay an entrance fee unless you are a VIP or have a media pass. Then within the fair itself different levels of status are secured via these VIP areas where waiters with small trays weave among the guests.
In this way Art Logic isn't only setting up new contexts to sell commodities, but is selling a unique shopping experience.

Joburgers are hungry for this commodity because it is an intangible one, the city is replete with malls with identical shops and shopping here isn't a necessity but rather a pastime.
The new hipster markets in Braamfontein and Maboneng have provided an alternative, and in this fair Art Logic offers a more affluent or sophisticated version, with furniture, crockery, leather goods as well as the food and wine complement. It is like a fancy neighbourhood goods market for an older population group.
All of these realities make the fair sound like an abominable self-consciously middle-class pursuit riddled with ethical dilemmas, which it is.

But somehow this doesn't interfere with one's enjoyment of it. It is hard to resist a frisson of delight as you move through the stands, marvelling at all the fantastic homemade South African products. That South Africans can be inventive is a novelty that has not quite worn off yet.
South African designers are making all kinds of brilliant desirable things from plates, linen, face-creams, silk scarves with prints created by artists, to tables, and lamps, shoes, hats and necklaces. This fair titillates anyone interested in décor, fashion or food.
I left with a Pichiluk necklace, a triangle of French goat's cheese (from France - so much for the carbon footprint) from Fromage de France, and an expensive room spray by Malee, a company that has crafted three unique African scents. Your consumption of products at this fair tends to be guided by how much wine you consume.

Almost everyone I know complained how they spent a fortune at the last one because they were tipsy.
There were fewer wine stands this year compared with previous ones, presumably this intended to shift the focus from it being a wine and food event and rather a design-oriented one. They were also probably tired of having to herd the last drunk stragglers at the end of each evening.
The cuisine element remains a feature. Mostly stands run by restaurants and caterers offer sophisticated street food that is a little posher than you would expect to get at a suburban good's fair. We tucked into wild boar tortillas from Coobs and the most magnificent black squid ink paella by Tutto Food Co.
Interestingly, about every stand I visited promoted their online facilities. So perhaps this kind of market is a platform for the virtual shopping world to temporarily make itself "real".

The increase in online shopping has ironically contributed to the excitement and interest in a fair like this? it presents a kind of hyper-consumerist encounter with its temporariness heightening the urgency to shop, although you know where to go and buy the goods online or at other shops.
There is also the social aspect. Art Logic has cunningly turned the opening nights of its events into social ones, ensuring that people patronise them so as to be part of the scene.
In this way you are not only able to pursue quasi-ethical shopping, which will contribute toward job creation in the country, but can also share the experience with friends and acquaintances with similar values. This is incredible, given it all transpires in an empty-parking lot. Like the travelling circuses of yesteryear, part of the attraction of the fair is that it is fleeting and offers a glimpse into a world that doesn't quite exist. In this case it is not one where women and men perform physical feats but where everything is "contemporary". - first published in The Sunday Independent, November 16, 2014. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Bespectacled Spectacle

Ray-Ban Wayfarers were coveted in the ’80s. Worn by Tom Cruise in Risky Business and Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – both films that charted the shenanigans of young men who break free from parental constraints for a couple of crazy days, running a brothel from home and sinking an expensive sports car in a river – these sunglasses were the ultimate expression of coolness and rebellion.
They embodied that moment when someone is willing to contravene societal pressures, rules and responsibilities and say “fuck it, fuck everything”.

This characteristic or association appeared to remain intact as a new generation, gripped by an ’80s revival took up this symbol, adopting it as a signature item that any hipster with street cred should have in their homemade organic leather bag or hovering above a bushy beard. Those who lived through the Wayfarer’s rise in the ’80s were more than keen to sport them once again in an effort to reclaim their youth and hide those creeping crow’s feet. An English lecturer I knew used a pair of the glasses to seduce all the young men in his class. He never took them off, even at night and probably in bed too. The glasses were his source of seduction and concealed his age and the increasing cynicism which marked his gaze.

In the last couple of weeks since Michael Elion’s giant pair of Wayfarers took up position in Cape Town’s idyllic promenade in Sea Point as a public artwork dubbed Perceiving Freedom, the classic pair of sunnies have not only lost their street cred, but some of the more outspoken detractors of this contentious public artwork, such as the Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz, have called on South Africans to abandon their Ray-Bans in protest, forcing locals to weigh up their outrage against this public artwork with their vanity.
Aside from the artwork, Elion has made many mistakes, including directing misogynist barbs towards Breitz and laying a charge of incitement of violence against Breitz, Stephen Hobbs and Hermann Niebuhr. Perhaps his worst error was linking his giant glasses to Mandela and a political notion of “freedom” and rebellion within the context of South Africa’s apartheid past.

From all accounts it appears  this link was only made when the giant glasses were to be installed on the promenade. According to Farzanah Badsha, a member of the selection committee for art54 (the agency tasked with implementing temporary public art in the city), the artwork they had approved was a pair of giant sunglasses that would be installed in Camps Bay with a network of sprinklers that would create rainbows on the beach. As Badsha confesses, the change of location had real implications. She claims Elion took advantage of the change of location and the seeming ineptitude of the City’s muddled processes around the commissioning and implementation of public art and added a political layer to a work that had up until that point  been viewed by the selection committee as a “fun and popular work” that would be interactive and aimed at children.

As the new location now faced Robben Island, Elion began to embroil a narrative linked to Mandela, which was inspired by a famous photograph of Madiba posing in a pair of sunglasses and leaning on a spade. The picture was taken during a visit by journalists in 1977.
The image was not a reflection of the actual circumstances for Madiba on the Island – it was staged for the journalists. Mandela typically worked on a lime quarry and not in a garden.
Ironically, this staging would detract from Madiba’s standing as a professional and a political leader and cast him as a gardener |– a lowly status that the apartheid state designated for black people. In this way, this image and by proxy this portrait of Madiba in these sunglasses, which are apparently not Ray-Bans or Wayfarers, obfuscated not only the truth about the conditions on Robben Island, but also attempted to belittle the status of this great leader.

In this context the sunglasses could only be seen to operate as a symbol of obfuscation of the truth and a means of denying the agency of the subject in the image to assert his “truth”. Presumably, Elion was keen to link his giant sunglasses to Madiba in an effort to secure funding and sponsorship from Ray-Ban.
In the absence of a budget for public art, it seems the works that would be implemented are those that had secured funding from elsewhere. Who wouldn’t want to sponsor an artwork that pays tribute to Mandela?
The connection, which the photograph appeared to substantiate would also allow Elion to elevate this vacuous work and transform it from a work for children to something with serious political intent, something he seems ill-equipped to do. Interestingly, he kept the lenses of his giant glasses clear, so as to counter the notion of obsfucation that they engender and enhance this idea of lenses colouring perceptions.

Ray-Ban, the City of Cape Town, Art54 (who have thrown Elion under the bus) and even the Mandela Foundation itself, seem to have paid little attention to how Elion was evoking Madiba and his legacy.
Not that this is unusual; the Nelson Mandela statue in the eponymous square adjacent to Sandton City is perhaps testament to not only the abominable art that is made in Mandela’s name, but also how his legacy is exploited for commercial ends and, in this setting, has become associated with consumerism. I suppose this is what happens to the legacies of all great figures – their likeness will eventually adorn coffee mugs.
What is interesting about Elion’s artwork is the way in which a middle-class sense of freedom as the Ray-Ban Wayfarers evoke is collapsed with political freedom during a repressive era.

In those cult ’80s movies, which no doubt increased the sales of Ray-Bans substantially, the sense of freedom that is evoked is of the sort that only the privileged might enjoy – like renting out your parents double-storey home so that your friends can break their virginity with prostitutes and destroy an expensive sports car.
There is also the fact that RayBans are not cheap, hence they are the preserve of the moneyed classes. And while Mandela was undeniably middle class, this status had been completely denied to him in the image with the sunglasses and during his incarceration. In other words, it is an image where freedom has been suppressed..

Elion’s crass exploitation of history to secure sponsorship isn’t just indicative of an artist with little artistic integrity or conceptual nous but also of the attitudes in the corporate arena, where companies try to align itself with political works to leverage credibility. But this phenomenon is not limited to public art or corporate sponsorship programmes, but to our broader political landscape, where leaders exploit their struggle credentials to remain in power.

This subversion of political ideals for self-serving motives fittingly marked the final – or will it be? – act in this public art drama, the act of vandalism committed by the group dubbed the Tokolos-Stencils. They also evoke the notion of freedom on their tumblr site, implying that it guides their acts of vandalism. Though graffiti has lost its subversive character and is used by property developers to gentrify suburbs, they believe it play a significant role in fighting for social justice. On their site, they recount how one of their members spray-painted the "Remember Marikana" slogan around a shanty town near where the tragedy occurred, as if the community needed reminding, and in English - the language of the "master" they claim to be their enemy. They arrogantly or patronisingly presume that this act worked at unifying the community.  This slogan might have had more impact had they placed it outside Nathi Mthethwa's (former Minister of Safety and Security) home or Riah Phiyega’s office, or perhaps that might have disrupted they objective to challenge "white supremacy."

Just as Elion exploited Madiba's legacy, so too did Tokolos-Stencil, take advantage of the attention his contentious public artwork generated. In an interview with the ConMag they express annoyance that their seemingly "subversive" graffiti or interventions had gone unnoticed by the press. So, it appeared as if their act was designed to draw attention to themselves.

Despite the group make observations about the poor conceptual content of Elion’s work, their own, was a seemingly empty gesture too (they did not engage with the flaws of the work) which also involved riding on the coat tails of political issues in an effort to shore up the “content” of their work. - first published in The Sunday Independent, 23 November 2014. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Beyond Borders: Marcus Neustetter

Proximity I - IV

Within the last month, Marcus Neustetter has put on one solo exhibition, a joint show with Stephen Hobbs at the Rubixcube Gallery, a performance/installation at the Rocket Factory in Maboneng and launched a new set of stamps of his own design. This level of productivity isn’t unusual. There have been years when he has put out several solo exhibitions, participated in group shows, locally and internationally, and created performances, films.

Neustetter’s incredible artistic output can be ascribed to a number of idiosyncratic qualities; he is a 24/7 artist propelled by an almost childlike glee and curiosity about the world and interpreting it, his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to art-making, in which he is willing to try anything and prizes spontaneity, and art making which demands or is conceived to deal with space (physical or ideological) in the “moment”, the present.

In this way each work he makes is quickly replaced by another and art making or the art object isn’t such a loaded, weighted or agonising endeavour with long-term consequences. In other words, for Neustetter art is play. It’s a way of undercutting the traditional view of art as elitist and highly valuable.
It may have been his performance and collaboration with the Stockhausen-inspired musician Jill Richards in Antjie in Berlin (it had a run at the Market Theatre in 2012) which best embodied his approach. This live performance saw Neustetter intuitively respond to Richards’s music and Antjie Krog’s texts via abstract lines and marks, which he wasn’t completely in control of – he observed them on a screen where they were projected and enlarged, and therefore distorted.

Placing physical barriers between himself and his mark-making or image production (usually by not looking at what he is doing) is something he has employed quite a bit in his practice; it has retained the sense of spontaneity he craves, allowing for the accidental and ensured an end product that is abstract and exists to some degree as a by-product of other activities – such as looking at the subject; either tracing the stars in the sky or plotting the landscape he observes from the window in an airplane.

These optical barriers might have coincided with his fixation with observation – however, it also relieved him of the huge burden that comes from fully investing in the art product, where it is the focus and not just as a record or document of another activity. Through a turn in his practice that saw him dispense with technology such as Google tracings, photography and videography, he came to valourise unfinished, crude or seemingly insignificant, random drawings as proof of the incredible vast spaces he has attempted to map, whether in the sky or on the ground, for this allowed him to authentically articulate the manner in which the material world couldn’t be crafted into coherent, visually resolved images. His form of mapping therefore substantiated the impossibility of ordering space while paradoxically pursuing it.

His exhibition at Art On Paper, Defining Lines, marks another significant shift in his practice; for the works are not byproducts of another activity, there are no optical barriers that would place him at a remove from them and he has laboured over them – he didn’t show for a year. He is now invested in his mark, which is no longer spontaneous or accidental; the marks in this show are deliberate strokes, they are large and bold and aesthetically pleasing, though his vocabulary remains abstract. He is painting too; with ink and gauche.
This exhibition therefore presents a bold leap for Neustetter and the result is one of his strongest shows to date. Undoubtedly it is the most visually thrilling; and as its title intimates is centred on the lines that define it - the works are largely characterised by thick bold black lines, which signify those synonymous with boundaries on maps.

So, yes, once again he is concerned with map making but, this time, he distorts conventional cartography by zoning in on the invisible borders between countries. He enlarges these lines and imagines “the space” that exists inside them – this liminal space between belonging and separate, not quite on the other side of the border, but existing between borders. This ties in with his practice, which has so often been consumed by depicting this in-between space, whether it is between the sky and ground or between how something exists but cannot be seen - such as natural or scientific phenomena.

In this exhibition, he aims to make visible the invisible; the ideological baggage that sustains these invisible frontiers - they tend to only be given expression on maps.  He doesn’t expose the specific politics, nor is one aware which boundaries they are, except for a work with a very long-winded title that lists over two dozen countries that have been layered over each other to form an abstract painting where these diverse places become unified by a uniform line that runs around them.  They exist because of these lines.
Nations, countries and identities are defined by these jagged lines – they are rarely straight, implying that they are not artificially conceived. To give expression to the energy and investment in these national boundaries and the friction that often ensues in response to their perceived impenetrability, he presents works with abstract expression between these lines. It is rendered in colour and via rough short lines mirroring the visual vocabulary of cartography, a visual short-hand for a complex set of events, or conditions. They  bring to mind those he has employed in his crude drawings in the past, summoning a kind of naïve rendition of friction. These chaotic lines were intended to resemble the drawings his two-year-old daughter makes, he says.

This echoes a mode he employs to render that which cannot be represented but also his idiosyncratic way of approaching big topics through naïve forms that expresses a kind of resignation in the face of such overwhelming conditions (how do, can you deal with nationhood, identity, war as a phenomenon) but also a persistence to explore them regardless and surrender to whatever can be discovered through this process.
In works such as Abrasion, he splits these dark borderlines, revealing in the cracks, light and colour, as if exposing the unseen dynamics. This work and others such as the one with a very long-winded title (too long to list here), brings to mind the Cave openings that Neustetter was quite recently fixated on.
Explorers, historians and scientists have traditionally viewed caves as a sort of magical portal into long-buried world's but Neustetter has reversed this view by positioning the light at the opening of caves as a threshold promising discovery. In a way, this exhibition at AOP is also about reversing perspective: shifting attention to the line rather than the space it demarcates.
It is a way of arriving at a familiar place anew. The abstract language he embraces advances this, as  the pleasing visual character of the works does too: by taking these solid boundaries and aestheticising them, rendering them as abstract, he exploits them as imagined constructs and in so doing acknowledges what they are while similarly deconstructing them.

There was always a kind of poetry to Neustetter’s work but it almost always has been rooted in the ideas driving it or how he arrived at it – like tracing constellations in the sky with his gaze fixed on it and not the drawing of them. In this show, however, the end products are poetic – compositionally, aesthetically, on a sensual level. Faultlines is a good example of this; this painting is a mapping of a landscape, it’s geography via a concentration of strokes or marks.  Neustetter probably worked with a reference but now he is able to truly inhabit the imaginative space he renders because he is immersed in it rather than his subject.
In other words, his gaze has shifted to his art, it is not just functioning as the tool to discover the world, but rather is a world within itself. - first published in The Sunday Independent.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Virtual Exhibit

My Facebook newsfeed is still aflutter with commentary about Exhibit B. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the profile of most of my “Friends” (I haven’t met half of them in the real world), who are mostly cultural producers or commentators such as myself. One of whom is Brett Bailey, the creator of this contentious production that catalogues, via chilling tableaux vivants, some of the most shocking crimes visited upon black Africans during the colonial era and up until the present day. This has afforded me a bird’s eye view into his responses to the protest against the work, and the subsequent cancellation of its run at the Barbican Centre, which has now, via statement from a group of theatre/festival directors, been considered tantamount to censorship.

Bailey’s reactions in this public realm have been interesting and telling (and I will come to those later), as have those by others in the multiracial virtual arts community to which I belong.
Perhaps this virtual world in which I check into daily (wish it wasn’t so) is not a microcosm of our society from which I can authentically arrive at conclusions about our society, but what it has allowed me to conclude with certainty is that it is in these virtual spaces  the meaning of an artworkis negotiated and tested, allowing a form of crude art criticism to flourish. There is no single person advancing one or two (I often have contradicting responses) arguments regarding an artwork, and opinions aren’t always substantiated – they are often rehashed versions of more formal responses, or clumsy knee-jerk reactions that have not been thought through and are shaped by an awareness that ultimately the content will reflect more on the public persona of the “author” than on the artwork itself.

All of these conditions, plus the fact that the majority of people that have been passing comment on Exhibit B – which is a slightly reworked version of Exhibit A, which showed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2012 – haven’t seen the work, possibly should invalidate their position as pseudo critics. At best perhaps they should be described as dressing-gown critics – they don’t have to leave their bedrooms to be part of a dialogue about what takes place outside of it.
Bailey is fully cognisant of this fact and largely has exploited it by maintaining that the social, moral and artistic value of Exhibit B lies in its experiential impact.

Unlike Brett Murray’s The Spear, which similarly caused protest and led to the subsequent “censorship” of the work (in the real world and then the virtual), Bailey’s work could only be truly appreciated in person. I would argue that this is the case for any artwork, including paintings, for it is not only “live”work that is centred on the act of transformation but all art. Even some of the most blunt, scripto-visual art such as Ed Young’s Don’t be a Dick at the Joburg Art Fair this year, was best appreciated in person, taking into consideration the context of a hyper commercialised art extravaganza that plays out in a convention centre, and knowledge of the works he had made for the fair in previous years.

Virtual social media vehicles have loosened criticism from its journalistic roots, unburdening it of truth and ethics. However, perhaps the main consequence isn’t for criticism or journalism but art, which is now consumed by proxy – that is, via the internet and others. In this way the digital, virtual age hasn’t only given rise to the dressing-gown critic but the dressing-gown viewer.

There can come a point when the dressing-gown critic can become so enraged that they are prompted to rip off their sleepwear and charge out their bedrooms. Bailey’s Exhibit B was closed down by interventions that occurred in the real world – protesters made it impossible for the actors or audiences to enter the theatre.
However, this real world outcome only occurred because of the work’s virtual consumption, which largely seemed to rest on one image that has subsequently been linked to most articles reporting on the protest and the closure of the production. The image is, of course, the one pictured here too; a tableau vivant of a half-naked black woman chained to a bed. In this way Bailey’s Exhibit B has been distilled via the web and media to this single image – making it the veritable final product.

If Bailey had been able to anticipate this when he first conceived the work, would Exhibit B have been a different product tailored for the society that we have become rather than theatre-going one of yesteryear? I would like to think it would have been. For perhaps his greatest error in conceiving of this restaging of a 19th century human exhibition was in placing it on an outdated stage.
YouTube has become the modern-day circus, where people not only perform great (and ordinary acts) but where “otherness” is|displayed, absorbed into the mainstream and celebrated. If the work had first been launched on YouTube it is likely that black South Africans might have protested against the work in the beginning and not belatedly, for mostonly rejected it when the campaign to stop it appeared on the internet/Facebook. Its actual live staging would have been something consumed with the virtual one in mind – like attending a Die Antwoord concert after watching their YouTube performances.
Bailey might not have entertained this route because the moment of transformation that Exhibit B is supposed to elicit occurs by occupying the intimate space with a performer parading as a victim of an atrocity. However, the notion of what is live in the digital age has shifted considerably – as has the idea of art as transformative. The responses, both real and virtual, to Exhibit B imply that the process has been reversed: art is transformed by viewers.

Facebook is also a “stage”, which allows artists to more actively participate in the reception of their work (or to defend it), something which traditional media and criticism was unable to really accommodate other than on a letters page, which doesn’t allow for interaction, arguments and counter-arguments.
It is also a platform where the artist’s public persona comes to shape our perception of his or her work. In other words, a traditional critic’s research now extends beyond simply standing in front of a work, but in measuring and balancing the virtual responses to it, which shape its meaning and the artist’s statements in these realms. Bailey’s responses to the public outcry and protest around his work on Facebook shifted my reading of Exhibit B, which I was fortunate to have experienced in Edinburgh, where it was staged in a university library – a setting that added other layers of meaning to the work.

I had always been bothered by the way in which he perpetuated the stereotype of black Africans as victims, but enjoyed the irony inherent in what I perceived to be a tacit acknowledgement that the work confronted white viewers with their pleasure and revulsion of this stereotype, and that the sense of “shame” it induced was reliant on this contradictory interplay. In this way the work’s strength was to “sell” shame, which paradoxically delivered some kind of pleasure due to the release it might offer, though in the context of this work it was rooted in such a morally corrupt language that viewers couldn’t find a release. There is no release.

Unfortunately, in Bailey’s responses on Facebook and via other more traditional media platforms (the press statement that was published in various newspapers including The Sunday Independent), he never conceded that the work was purposefully offensive and done with the express idea of confronting viewers not only with crimes from the past, but a modern-day preoccupation with a release of shame and how corrupt a path to that end might be.

He never conceded either that his identity as a white South African added another level of irony to this twisted work, as it would always be linked to his own desire to be free of shame, which could only be reenacted via this corrupted visual rhetoric. He never conceded that he had willingly walked into a cul de sac of history’s making and that, in so doing, he might have believed it would liberate him from history. Nor did he admit that the protests and closure of the show had ironically allowed him to achieve this by claiming the position of a victim, who had been censored. The protesters had ironically given him this status on a silver platter. Maybe none of this has occurred to him or he has been unwilling to share it on Facebook, that weird stage where theatre and masquerade has found new meaning. - first published in The Sunday Independent, October 05, 2014. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Abstract Idea

World News by Tom Cullberg
If you didn’t know any better you might think that Tom Cullberg and I are locked in a staring competition. Neither of us has spoken for awhile, as we stand facing each other in his Woodstock studio in Cape Town. It’s not that we have run out of things to say; it’s the converse – we have said all that we can, What we would like to say hovers on the periphery and, as we grasp for it, it escapes, like a slippery fish.
We are locked in this state because of a series of his new paintings, due to show at the Brundyn Gallery in November, hanging on the wall adjacent to us. In fact, it is one particular painting, World News (2014), that has generated this very pregnant pause.

It is a frustrating and satisfying situation – it would be kind of awful (disappointing for Cullberg) if we could actually pinpoint exactly the conditions it evokes. World News is an abstract work characterised by a series of strong horizontal lines that are broken up by a few faint, drippy vertical ones. The lines are wavy, uneven and in places smudged, coalesce into each other and fade as if worn by time, the elements. I don’t know the title (it comes later via e-mail) and in some ways it is not significant.

Abstract art is decidedly the mode de jour. Woodstock is brimming with it; Zander Blom has filled the Stevenson Gallery with his next lot of painterly experiments in primary colours and Kerry Chaloner’s got some equally chunky paintings on show at her exhibition Black dog White Bread at Blank Projects, a gallery that has provided a pivotal platform for experiments in form from a string of artists – Kyle Morland, Jared Ginsberg, Jan Henri Booyens, Nico Krijno, Rodan Kane Hart and Turia Magadlela (who works with prison sheets).
Zander Blom's formal experiments
Joburg galleries have also been doing a roaring trade in abstraction, formalism; Serge Alain Nitegeka doesn’t work with paint but his recent Into the BLACK exhibition at the Stevenson in Joburg is rooted in a painterly preoccupation with the colour black inspired by “Malevich’s ‘generative’ black and Rothko’s ‘pulsating’ black, to Reinhardt’s ‘degrees’ of Black.” Marcus Neustetter’s tentative pencil drawings, rendering a mapping of space (and time) have blossomed into his strongest solo exhibition to date, Defining Lines at the Art on Paper gallery. Uncharacteristically, this new show is defined by huge scale works in ink and gauche that are compositionally pleasing – his focus has always been on process not form or the end product per se.
A recent trip to London confirmed that this abstraction craze isn’t confined to South Africa; almost every commercial gallery in Mayfair was flogging abstract work, the Saatchi Gallery had an exhibit titled Abstract America Today, and the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich is the subject of an exhibition at the Tate Modern. The work at the centre of that retrospective is his famous abstract work Black Square, which he made in 1913.

It seems flippant to suggest that abstraction is back in fashion or that black is the new black, but art isn’t impervious to trends. And as with any trend or revival or appropriation of an art movement it is bound to cultivate naysayers – it’s been seen before and thus lacks the kind of integrity that marked the movement the first time around.

That the term “formalist zombies”, coined by American critic and figurative painter (so he is not biased!) Walter Robinson, has found some traction among the art intelligentsia confirms the level of weariness that has grown around this popular abstraction turn in contemporary art. Robinson’s distaste for a kind of vacuous abstraction (hence the word zombie) he observes in the US art market has to do with its link to art flipping – like house flipping but with art that accrues value quickly and is shaped in response to the market. It also has to do with a faux sense of originality – people painting with novel implements or mediums as a way of simulating inventiveness.

A few of the works at Abstract America Today at the Saatchi bear this trend out; Trudi Benson, for example, attempts to replicate the “fill” function that MS Paint produces. Chaloner makes stabs at inventiveness by stretching a piece of chamois leather over a frame and through her use of detergents and other cleaning chemicals mixed in with the paint she uses, creating this kind of pastel haze.
Chaloner's Black Dog
It is easy to marvel at this kind of newness in the painting realm; postmodern theory lulled us into disbelieving that anything new is possible. So even small flashes of it excite, though a videowork featuring Chaloner in a protective suit rolling around in the dirt while reciting the rhetoric attached to domestic cleaning products implies that her adoption of this novel medium isn’t superficially conceived.  The titles of some of her works, Nowhere and Now Somewhere hint at a floundering journey to arrive somewhere meaningful or to compensate for this by embracing being “lost” in this veritable wilderness of painting – or the art world where the “new” remains prized despite the fact that the theory disproves this as a possibility.

As a mid-career artist, Cullberg is more self-assured and hasn’t just jumped on this abstract art bandwagon now; he has been leaning towards abstraction since the noughties, embracing it fully in a solo exhibition in 2010, Peripheries. This confidence is evident in his new abstract works; the surfaces are not overworked. In Yellow Clouds, the lines are barely there, alluding to this pervasive ambiguity. In contrast Chaloner and Blom are fixated with impasto, piling the paint on to such an extent that their paintings are almost 3D objects. Their paintings demand attention, though in some, such as in Nowhere, Chaloner holds back, allows the painting to be visually unresolved, attempts to be released from the limits of composition which hold Blom ransom, though an aesthetic remains in play.

Abstraction isn’t just the preserve of the twenty-or thirty-something artists – Cullberg is among a handful of mid-career artists such as Neustetter, Stephen Hobbs, and Christian Nerf who have all turned to this high-modernist language, though for different reasons. For Hobbs and Nerf, who have with varying degrees identified with conceptualism, abstraction has been the end result of a preoccupation with materiality. This is probably why the “zombie” sobriquet appears so fitting for abstraction as it superficially appears to be anti-conceptualism. Hobbs didn’t set out to reject conceptualism, he came to it via printmaking – having to actually make objects that could be sold. The hyper fetishisation of art objects that art fairs has cultivated is undoubtedly one of the drivers. The overworked surfaces that define so many abstract works advance this idea in quite a straightforward way, announcing them as things that are just things.
For Neustetter abstraction was  the end result of activities that were process or experientially driven – the line, the mark, was only there to facilitate him being fully present in the moment. Now he is invested in the mark – it is the starting point, he has zoned in on “the line” investigating the space inside it, which has come to operate as a metaphor for imagined borders.

Cullberg is on a different journey to the others. He is now preoccupied with trying to find a way to reconcile his figurative works with abstraction by embedding figurative motifs in striped landscapes and creating relationships between the works. It is not so much that he wants to have his cake and eat it; he just enjoys the juxtaposition and the way one work, or motif can activate the other, providing an anchor or setting the symbol free.

I find abstraction appealing because I struggle to place it; just as painters, artists are forever chasing a visual expression that evokes something non-visual writers quite enjoy, capturing those conditions that escape words. It is kind of boring to look at a work that announces everything about itself in a single glance. This may be why abstraction has found such traction here, beyond it providing a sort of universal syntax that can seemingly catapult a local artist into the international sphere with ease. It has ultimately provided a tool that more succinctly summons ambiguity than any of those games with visual markers of identity that our artists have been playing with since the mid-’90s in an effort to transcend and challenge racial and gender stereotyping.

As Nandipha Mntambo and Nicholas Hlobo’s more recent exhibitions have shown; the body and embodiment can still be evoked through abstraction – using hair as a medium and evoking the amorphous innards. Abstraction also navigates our visual culture away from dry documentary photography, which seems to have reached a solipsistic cul de sac with photographers now turning the lens on themselves – Pieter Hugo and Mikhael Subotzky come to mind. Of course, there is now a place for formalist photography – French-Ivorian-Senegalese photographer Mame-Diarra Niang’s photographic show that opened last week at the Stevenson is nodding in this direction with images where she mobilises motifs in the urban landscape and architecture as forms rather than loaded symbols.
This may present a retreat from the political; the politics of the land, the self, architecture. However, abstraction opens up the space in which to acknowledge that these politics cannot be sufficiently|described via a visual medium. The world is too complex and in South Africa the right for an artist to attempt to claim “a cause” is so weighted – think of Brett Murray – as it is for a viewer too.

This may be why Cullberg has gravitated towards abstraction; this Swedish born painter would struggle to enter into these discources without his identity coming into play. There are nods to it in his figurative works – a house that recalls one he remembers visiting as a child in Sweden. These motifs are decontexualised, however, summoning nostalgia and loss without giving into sentiment and allowing the viewer to freely identify with it. Or perhaps abstraction provides a satisfying counter to the visual bombardment that social media and the internet has inflicted on us: it causes us to pause (and think or not think) because we can’t consume it instantaneously or at all.

World News leaves me in an awkward place because I can’t put my finger on it and to my relief, nor can Cullberg. It is not that he doesn’t know what he is doing. However, with his abstract (and to some degree his figurative) works he sets out to arrive at the self-same place we are circling in our conversation – that ambiguous space that presents enough visual stimulus to sustain your gaze and subsequent thoughts but never delivers on specifics. As David Goldblatt once told me: “photography is about specifics”. Abstraction delivers us from them without fully denying them.

To complicate things, World News is not necessarily an independent work; the smaller figurative and abstract works with figurative motifs embedded in them that are placed around it, are tangentially connected to it, or could be, just as easily as they could not. It sounds confusing because it is and isn’t; the smaller works are sometimes preparations for the abstract ones, they get him into the psychic zone leading to something less concrete. This process is supposed to play out again in front of the viewer, who is encouraged to create links between the figurative works – of a house, knife, watch, a couple on a motorcycle – eventually arriving at the abstract work where they can play with these motifs and weave their own narrative web within the lines, between the lines. Or not.  The abstract works consequently announce a form of transcendence, release even, but also ensnare you because you can’t command control over them.
Cullberg’s process begins with images he finds in popular culture. He is never sure why he selects them; he follows his intuition. Like the drip effect in the abstract works, he likes to choose moments where he surrenders control – it is the only way he can authentically arrive at a truly abstract place that is withheld from him too – this is vital.

Reflecting on his writing process during a recent conversation with the German author Felicitas Hoppe at the Goethe-Institut in Joburg, Ivan Vladislavic observed he didn’t want “to be entirely in charge of the process. It is the only way I can arrive at a strange place”.
Inevitably, however, authors and painters are compelled at some point, if they are doing something right, to offer some kind of explanation about these seemingly foreign realms that we call artistic expression – if only an obscure artist statement. And in fact the more abstract the work, the more attention people pay to these texts and the more questions these works will provoke. It is a paradoxical bind. And one that has been quite self-consciously expressed in the artist statements for Blom and Chaloner’s shows.
“Fuck off with your ‘context’ and your tired art jargon. Leave me alone,” writes Blom in response to pressure to explain his art, when there are seemingly none, or at least it appears to be compositionally and intuitively driven. He needs to be free of ideas to be free.

Chaloner also delivers a hyper self-conscious non-conceptualist statement; where her art making appears to be shaped by her fluctuating moods and responses to the environment and arbitrary and banal choices that, upon reflection, seem self-indulgent and slightly pathetic – admitting awkwardness has become fashionable.
“I try not to buckle under the weight of Abstract Painting, here, in 2014. I try not to buckle under Surface and Depth and Concepts and Relevance.”
It is not just the artists who are coming to terms with articulating abstraction or choosing to not articulate it, but critics and writers, who will have to reconfigure how they talk to and about abstraction. As it is so subjectively driven and so tied up with an artist’s whims and intuition, it demands even closer engagement with their process and their non-thoughts, plunging into that silence that exists between you, them and the painting.

Cullberg’s solo opens at Brundyn + in November. Neustetter's exhibition is on at Art On Paper

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

It's A-Live thing!

Raphael Christian Etongo's Quartier Sud at the Live Art Fest
pic by Ashley Walters

I’VE BEEN disparaging about Marina Abramovic for years but can’t resist a face-to-face encounter with the Serbian performance artist. I stand in a queue outside the Serpentine gallery in London’s quasi-bucolic Hyde Park for the same reason that days previously I was in a line to peruse a Henri Matisse exhibition, The Cut-outs, at the Tate Modern. All art needs to be seen first-hand, even if in advance you have decided against liking it. That’s the thing about art that continues to give it currency despite our increasing immersion in the virtual worlds; the live, the experiential has more value, if only as content for Instagrams and Facebook updates. This may be why performance art is enjoying a bit of a revival. In South Africa it is only coming into existence as a field of its own with Gipca’s second Live Art festival having recently taken place in Cape Town and Performance Art as a new category at our National Arts Festival.

To be fair, if there is one compulsion that keeps me hanging around in the slow-moving queue outside the Serpentine it is to Instagram something of my encounter with Abramovic. I am queueing to see Abramovic so that I can, with some authority, reject what she does. She has become too famous, too pretentious – and vacuous. Her persona has overwritten her work, as is the case in these sorts of situations.
It brings to mind the video work I saw recently at the Johannesburg Art Gallery of a restaging of Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece; it is a different work now because (among other things like her age) of Ono’s status – she isn’t just a woman having her clothes cut off her, she is a celebrity.

My persistence in seeing Abramovic (I have to return a second time to get into the gallery) is proof of this – I want to see her more than I want to see what the work, dubbed 512 Hours, entails – fortunately, or unfortunately, South African performance artists, except perhaps for Steven Cohen, aren’t well-known enough to have to deal with this limit.

Conversely, has the anonymity of these local artists compelled this culture within South African performance where the performer has to look or act outrageously (like Cohen) in order to be acknowledged, overstate their presence for their work to seem important? In many ways it seems as if the significance vis-à-vis performance art in our country is too superficially accrued and relies far too much on antics and playing dress-up than the dynamics of performance itself.

A good example of this at the Live Art Festival would be Raphael Christian Etongo’s Quartier Sud, where he eats a fish’s eye, covers his body in flour and rolls around on the floor. So much of this kind of performance is a result of an overlap between ritualistic practice and art. However, it sometimes feels like a mode casually conceived to enact performance rather than grapple with it, and it is always about the artist’s immersion and not the spectators – it’s as if we are just there to substantiate a performance.

Typically, the experience of Abramovic’s work begins in the queue and prior to actually entering the parts of the gallery where “it”  takes place. On a board outside is a list of do’s and don’ts. You can’t take any bags in with you, or even a coat. Phones and watches are also not allowed. You are allowed to stay as long as you like but once you leave, your re-entry cannot be guaranteed. The anticipation about what I have signed up for, consequently builds.

Not that I am your ordinary visitor. I’m not afraid of crossing the line between observer/participant. In fact, I relish the opportunity to jettison my writer/observer position and have a devilish streak, which compels me to be an unruly spectator. During a recent performance I attended at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour set up a situation in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit in which he was insinuating someone in the audience should act. Anticipating that he aimed to burden us with the guilt of failing to do so, knowing that most people in the audience would be too shy to rise to the occasion, I stood up and demanded that they stop the performance. Not surprisingly they didn’t pay heed to my outburst but I was satisfied I called their bluff.
The only proof that I attended Abramovic's 512 Hours

There was no chance of breaking any of the rules, or should we say, terms of engagement that Abramovic had set; once inside the gallery I was ushered into a locker room manned by guards ensuring that all belongings were locked away and that I clamp a set of black headphones on my head. They are more like earmuffs; blocking out sound, so that we can zone out. 512 Hours is centred on a paradoxical state of zoning out to zone in. People sit on the floor of an empty gallery staring aimlessly ahead. Others are standing on a slightly elevated stage in the middle as if they are channelling some kind of spiritual encounter. Will this happen to me; would I allow it to?

It is easy to locate Abramovic; like bees to honey, spectators gravitate towards the room where she is situated. She is in an all black outfit and seated in a chair in front of a window. Her eyes are firmly shut. Surrounding her are people in varying states of zoned-outness; some are lying under blankets on stretchers, others are sitting in chairs facing walls. There is nothing to look at, except other people attempting to zone out. It is like a waiting room inside a psychiatric hospital.

At first it seems absurd that Abramovic’s new work entails, well, nothing. However, this quickly becomes incredibly appealing, particularly after a week spent in Edinburgh at the festivals and days of museum and gallery hopping in London. The idea of entering a gallery to not look at anything is somewhat of a relief. It’s as if I have been unburdened and released from an activity that is not only object-centred but dominates our daily lives and the visual culture that our technologically tuned lives demand. However, I don’t need Abramovic to lead me to this place; I rely on weekly yoga classes to get into this state with the added benefit of working off a few calories. But, in the context of a gallery, this state upturns the patterns visitors are bound to – and artists.

Interestingly, in disrupting this pattern, Abramovic replaces it with another one, which she sets by example, exposing how malleable we are in this space. In each room visitors follow each other and act according to the behaviour of the group. This willingness is bound to the space and the desire to “experience” the work, though such a thing is clearly absent. In other words, spectators will cling on to anything they are offered, no matter how nominal. People queue to wear blindfolds and walk in a room blindfolded. Why?

This context cleverly redirects our attention away from Abramovic; she may be performing in the sense that she appears to have reached the apotheosis of this zoned-out space, but as she does nothing and visitors are encouraged or choose to follow suit, our interest is shifted towards introspection and confronting not only our expectations but how we operate in the world. The gallery is perhaps a microcosm; all spaces are governed by patterns that we buy into and are lost without. This form of heightened introspection also works at erasing her presence from the “work”. This is in contrast to her most famous work, The Artist is Present, another duration work (736 hours), which saw her stare at spectators one at a time. This one seems to be engineered to erase her presence, though she is obviously locked in a state of heightened presence – or so one presumes would be the case after days of sitting in a room with your eyes shut. This work becomes about you, the spectator and your free will. You have the choice to determine what kind of experience you want; you can stay all day and try to get into a deep zoned-out state, or if you have a pressing gallery hopping schedule you can opt to leave once you have “figured out” what it is about. I leave feeling refreshed; it is novel to attend a performance work that is about me. I decide when it begins, if it begins (I’m not sure it ever started) and when I want to end it.

At the second iteration of the Gipca Live Art festival, which I attend in Cape Town weeks later, the programme is set to conform to the conventions of theatre; we are herded like sheep to each work; works have clear starting and ending times and other theatrical conventions are in place. The line between the audience and the performers is palatable even when there are no chairs for us to sit in – such as in Eyes Closed with Piñata by Thalia Laric & Steven van Wyk, where we are free to roam around blindfolded performers on platforms who eventually come to life and destroy the Piñatas dangling in front of them – a predictable outcome.

Apple Girl by Jill Joubert is pure theatre, offering a play within a play with a mythological tale enacted via puppets as a corollary to a narrative about the puppeteer. The costumes, objects and the creepy ambience make it feel like a product from another era, like something you would encounter in a
small town that has been untouched by the world.

It is not as if the conventions of theatre shouldn’t pervade the Live Art Festival, but there should be some reinvention of them, or self-reflexive use of them – in Maria Hassabi’s Premiere at Performa 13 she prolongs the moment when the performers will face the audience on stage.

I’m only able to attend two programmes at the Live Art Festival, however, I sit  through more than six hours of mediocre theatre and dance. It brings the Dance Umbrella’s Stepping Stones programme to mind – a platform where anyone can get on stage and perform and you see one work after the next. It is demanding on audiences. Works such as Category Syndrome by Richard September and even Doors of Gold by Tebogo Munyai feel like they belong at Dance Umbrella, though the former would probably not be accepted on that annual platform that took place at the same time as the Live Art festival. Munyai has an exquisite body and his piece was emotive, but it relies on theatrical tricks; we are seduced into liking it.
As the title of Pather’s Live Art festival implies, it is about presenting live work rather than products that we might label as performance art. However, in that case why not present the best products from all of these disciplines, as few of the participants appear to be working at the intersections?
Sello Pesa in Limelight of Rights at the Live Art Fest
pic by Ashley Walters

Sello Pesa may be part of a small handful of artists doing so, his Limelight of Rights is a slippery product that begins with him and Humphrey Maleka dancing around a coffin at what appears to be a funeral. Members of the audience eventually join in this macabre party, which gradually evolves into what seems to be a sales drive for funeral policies.

We are never sure what context we are in, and this drives our interest and curiosity, but they struggle to maintain it because the work is far too much like a performance; we are waiting for the next thing to happen. The venue, the conventions of this festival, all contribute towards this expectation.

Donna Kukama’s Museum of Non Permanence was expected to disrupt this because while she does rely on some theatrical conventions - a set and lighting - it is to artificially authenticate an experience; audience members enter an office one by one, reveal some of their memories, which are then memorialised through the exchange of bodily things – blood, nails, hair. Each work is only completed when she meets with each participant at a place of their choosing and the memorial is buried. However, Kukama’s work is cancelled at the last minute.

There may well have been other artists that participated at the Live Art Festival who disrupted boundaries and dealt with the dynamics of performance rather than simply creating issue-based work in the manner of theatre and dance, which pivoted on them rather than the line between us and them. Pather struggled to fill the festival programme last year, so it was cancelled. It is easy to see why this was the case, but does it need to be so large? Staging a festival of this nature may be premature, or will it eventually galvanise more interesting work that truly digs into “the live”?

This festival prompts other questions too; such as why South African performers are holding on to theatrical conventions so tightly and such a cliched notion of performance itself. Are our artists still so hung up on their identities and clichéd role in society that they have been unable to look beyond themselves? And importantly, why aren’t our performance artists dealing with performance – it’s like painters never painting about painting?

Like a wild night at a club all I have left to substantiate my experience of Abramovic’s 512 Hours is a stamp on my wrist bearing the date, which I promptly Instagram and Facebook. I want to hold on to something of it, particularly because she offered nothing. However, there are times when a whole lot of nothing can be more rewarding that than a whole lot of something that you have seen before. - published in The Sunday Independent, September 21, 2014. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Déjà vu: FNB Joburg Art Fair

Ed Young's scripto-visual work
picture by Mary Corrigall
‘WHERE’S the art?” exclaims Simon Njami, throwing his arms into the air. For some observers this remark would seem strange, given the France-based critic, curator and writer is sitting on a bench inside the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF). The venue at the Sandton Convention Centre is heaving with art works; though it is hard to say how many, suffice to say every major gallery in the country has a stand and there are galleries representing African artists from different parts of the world and the continent. Art is therefore not in short supply here, so what is this “art” factor that Njami is struggling to locate?
“I like art to deal with something that would not be linked to money, art of experimentation and art of the studio; I would like to see art where there has been some experimentation,” says Njami.

This was something he attempted at the first JAF in 2008 when he presented a stand boasting video art works that he curated, which were not available for sale. They occupied the centre stage of that fair. This time he is in the country and at the fair to present the outcome of a photography workshop with young photographers – South Africans Thabiso Sekgala and Musa N Nxumalo, and Kenyan Mimi Cherono Ng’ok – which is presented in a booth, launch a book linked to that Goethe-Institut-funded project and perhaps also to view the stand boasting the work of Portia Zvavahera, a young Zimbabwean whom Njami along with Gabi Ngcobo selected as the featured artist.

Given the strong ties Njami has to this fair, his disappointment with it is surprising, though perhaps curators and critics are rarely turned on by these commercial art extravaganzas where art’s commercial value is overstated. Yet as we talk further he puts his finger on the element that perhaps many art world insiders found absent at the fair this year: the element of surprise.

There was little that was unexpected… most artists delivered the work we expected they would. Adding to this sense of deja vu was art on display from previous local art fairs, such as the work from the Artist Proof Studio, which had been shown at the Turbine Art Fair. The Goodman Gallery showed a work by Gerhard Marx that looked like one of the works they had shown at the Cape Town Art Fair earlier this year.

There were no new showstopper installations or sculptures. The Mary Sibande one, Cry Havoc, at the Momo stand had been seen recently at the Standard Bank Gallery. The Stevenson gallery stand was small (apparently it does not make financial sense for them to have a big stand) and presented some Wim Botha busts, which should have been presented in an installation as has been the case with his two recent solos with the gallery and at the show at the National Arts Festival. It was a missed opportunity; an art fair stand could have provided a great framework for his ambiguous architectonic mode that references display of objects and how buildings frame them.

Gerald Machona Untitled (Six Faces)
William Kentridge was everywhere, as always, though this year a relatively recent filmic work, Second Hand Reading (2013), was on display at the Goodman Gallery booth and the puppets from some of his dated plays formed part of the retrospective of the Hand Spring Puppet Company. This latter display had also been seen before, at the National Arts Festival, and the famous eponymous “War Horse” puppet by this same company that trotted down the aisles on the opening night also wasn’t anything novel; it made an appearance at the BASA Awards two years ago and more recently at the Guild International Design Fair held in Cape Town.

Where were grand artistic statements – something subversive even? In a tongue-in-cheek reference to Marina Abramovich’s the Artist is Present, Anthea Moys set up a stand labelled as “The Artist is Wrestling”, which set up a much more vigorous engagement with spectators-cum-participants (whom she wrestled) that linked up with her fixation with success and failure. Another special project that provided the room for “art” outside of the commercial zone to flourish was a booth dedicated to a project titled Working Title: Create, Curate, Collect: A Portrait in Three Parts that was curated by Ngcobo.

Much effort had been made to reflexively meditate on the nature of exchange, the fetishisation of objects within a fair or gallery space, but it came across like a student project. Perhaps this is what comes from an obligatory ‘anti-fair’ stand commissioned by the organisers.

As with Moys’s performance, their efforts were contained physically within a booth, and fitted in neatly with the spatial and ideological context of the art fair. The onus is not on the organisers to disturb this, but the artists and curators, who seem paralysed by the context.

“Tame” was the word that most insiders used to describe this fair. Some thought it might have had something to do with the ruckus caused last year when the controversial portrait of Zuma crushing the head of a miner by Ayanda Mabulu was censored by the organisers, before they were persuaded by David Goldblatt to rescind that position. There were no overtly political works at the fair this time, nor indeed did Mabulu show any paintings at Commune.1’s stand. This was not due to any fear of censorship; Mabulu has simply been preoccupied with a residency, according to Greg Dale and Leigh-Anne Niehaus, the gallerists.

Fortunately Ed Young could be relied upon to inject some manner of spice into the fair. In reference to the last two art works that he has shown at the Smac gallery stand, where lifelike renditions of his penis have proved to be popular with visitors, Young presented a bold scripto-visual work that read: “Don’t be a Dick”. Of all the local artists, he seems to best understand what kind of work works at an art fair and has exploited this further by carving out a wry conversation with his own products for the fair. Is this the art factor that is missing? Or does “quiet” art that doesn’t scream for attention retain its integrity in this context?

To the organiser’s credit the stands were less packed with art and there was more room to take time to observe it. The Goodman Gallery had a nice mix of work – Hank Willis Thomas’s reproduction of a car door from a dated photograph was juxtaposed well with Gerald Machona’s Rubik’s cube with foreign currency printed on it.

The organisers do seem to have been putting in a lot of effort to bump up the event’s pan-African character; there were stands from Lagos, Reunion and Mozambique, which gave local art lovers something new and slightly unexpected to see. A hit in this area was a stand dedicated to presenting Cristina de Middel’s Afronaut series – a factual/fictional suite of photographs and documents regarding Zambia’s mission to put African astronauts in space. The artist has Belgian/Spanish ancestry so she is not African, but perhaps in its drive to make this art fair more “African”, Art Logic could explore what African art is: Is it by Africans, or about Africa? Or is this too much to expect from an art fair?
“We can’t keep telling the stories we know,” observes Njami.- published in The Sunday Independent, August 31, 2014

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Road show of colonial horrors shocks at Edinburgh Festival

A scene from Bailey's Exhibit B

It takes a lot to shock the worldly art lovers that congregate in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the annual arts festivals that take place here.  There are plays without actors, without scripts, and sometimes without an audience (usually not intentional).  There are men playing women, women playing men and a melding of the two genders in artworks by performance artists Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge where they have undergone surgical procedures to become more alike each other (one of the performers is a man). Gender, race, sex and politics, are all fodder for artistic expression and boundaries drawn between what is deemed decent and indecent are vigorously disregarded by artists. Nevertheless there is a sense that everything has already been done. It takes a lot to get noticed here; where a multitude of parallel festivals (of art, literature, the fringe, music) offer entertainment and intellectual stimulation in every single shape and form.

 Of all the South African works showing at this festival as a result of the SA-UK Seasons, a cultural accord engineered to foster closer relations between the countries, that expected to create controversy it was the bare breasted maidens in the Zulu troupe that were part of the Military Tattoo.  In anticipation of an outcry, the organisers prepared a press statement after checking that each of the "maidens" were comfortable with nudity. 

Nevertheless, it was the SA artistic company with the tongue-in-cheek name Third World Bunfight, that was hailed by the local press as presenting the most controversial work. Created by its artistic director, Brett Bailey, Exhibit B, which has been installed in a university library, is a macabre production that catalogues some of the worst crimes committed by the west upon Africans from colonial times up until the present day.

Each atrocity is presented like a museum display, with signs detailing when and where each took place. At the centre of each tableau is a live, yet inert performer, playing the victim. The power of these installations are their penetrative stares, which force the viewer to avert their gaze, confront their shame, which is rooted in their desire to study them despite their sense of revulsion. This production overtly echoes and plays off the live-human exhibitions in the 1900s when Africans, such as Saartjie Baartman (who is represented here too) were viewed as curiosities for the pleasure of the European gaze. Those “exhibitions” were pure theatre too, amplifying the otherness or supposed savagery of the subjects.

Bailey has upturned this tradition by presenting Europeans with their own “otherness” – their historical capability for extreme violence and acts of gross human abuses. You could argue their bodies remain the canvas on which this is enacted, which has its problems but it is a bind; how do you confront people with past horrors without the horror, the body, the victim?  The acts presented in this chilling travelling show of horrors include a semi-naked slave chained to a bed, a woman we are told has been cleaning out the skulls of her fellow Africans so that they can be shipped to Europe, a man who has been silenced by a metal contraption that fits over his mouth, and decapitated heads that sing an elegiac song that echoes throughout this cavernous room. All of the incidents are historically accurate, but it is not the cold hard facts that disturb, but the reenactment with live models playing the victims that gives it the edge. Some spectators have left the show in tears. In expectation of this Bailey has set up a room where spectators can write about their impressions, emotions and peruse those of the performers, some of whom are locals. Their relationship to the performance is varied; some see it as activism, a way of drawing attention to racism, others connecting with their heritage or transcending it. That Bailey has created this space, suggests that something further needed to be enacted outside of his exhibition in order for it to be 'completed' - and in terms of understanding the position of the performers, creating a space for them to separate themselves from their role as victims. Does this point to an inherent weakness? Why work so hard at convincing us of their status as victims only to undo this at the end and undercut the power of the theatrical display?  

Bailey may be working with historical facts about gross human violations that have never been aired nor been formally accounted for, which this show directs our attention, however, in a country such as the UK, which prides itself in its political correctness while admonishing those that do not appear to live up to its moral code, he ultimately is presenting a space for visitors to exorcise shame and to reaffirm their separation from the bigoted attitudes of the past, though the show includes incidents in the present where African immigrants have died while being repatriated to their countries of origin.

Different iterations of this production have played in South Africa, notably at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2012, where it raised questions about presenting Africans as victims and was met with less surprise than it has here. Aware that productions can only really be sustained in the long run with European tours Bailey undoubtedly tailor-made the show for those audiences -  it has toured in France.

On this occasion it is part of the SA-UK Seasons, which has seen a number of other South African artists present their work at Edinburgh this year. William Kentridge’s Ubu and Truth Commission, and a new  collaborative dance musical called Inala that features the Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Royal Ballet company is also on the International programme. The work of Mary Sibande and Kay Hassan are part of a large art exhibition called Where do I End and You Begin. Race and Silent Voice, local productions which star some of our best thespians (such as Presley Chweneyagae) are showing on the Fringe. Yet it is Exhbit B that has been the talk of the town, proving that theatre is best appreciated when it holds up a mirror to a society or pushes the boundaries of decency. – an edited version of this article was first published in The Weekend Argus, The Sunday Independent, August 17, 2014. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Debunking that old myth that art is more "accessible" at art fairs

ARE ART fairs worth writing about? It's a nagging thought that, for some reason, I can't shake as I stroll through the aisles of the Turbine Art Fair (TAF) on its preview evening. I have a glass of decent red wine in my hand, am surrounded by familiar faces - gallery owners, other critics, artists, buyers - and every stand I pass has lots of works dotted on the makeshift walls. I see a few works I wouldn't mind snapping up: a Mary Wafer and a Stephen Hobbs at the David Krut stand and an offbeat photograph by Michael Cheesman, a young graduate, that is on display at the Assemblage stand. There are some Cape Town stands - the Lovell Gallery, Worldart and the Kalk Bay Modern, which offer a view into that scene. There is live jazz playing in the background and, as always, it is pleasing to be inside this gentrified Newtown building, particularly its basement, where its historical and industrial roots are exposed. This all makes the TAF a chilled, quintessentially Joburg affair and a great alternative to the Joburg Art Fair. Yet, I feel uninspired.

This may have something to do with the event I attended the previous evening, the Absa L'Atelier award ceremony, which similarly offered up a smorgasboard of art to peruse. These two events both appear to cater for young artists or the "undiscovered" (read, those who have yet to be signed up to any of the major galleries) and offer relatively cheap work to buy, though I would argue that some of the work at Absa L'Atelier is overpriced. Both platforms therefore appear to offer a space for those excluded from the exclusive art world - the Absa L'Atelier award is based on merit (so they say, though I would argue it depends on what the judges perceive as merit) and showing work at TAF is within the grasp of any gallery and young artist. The basement level encompasses stands for university art departments and it is where most of Assemblage's (a young artist collective) Fresh Produce exhibition was located.

Aside from the fact that this fair (and the others) have a natural bias towards conventional artworks that can be hung - opposed to videoworks, sculptures, installations or performance art - this is a good development and very necessary, particularly given that the two major galleries, The Goodman and Stevenson, have come to determine who is "in or out". Given that both of these galleries and other notable trend-setting spaces such as Brundyn +, Whatiftheworld, and Blank Projects did not participate in TAF, this fair gives us a purview of our art terrain without their contribution. And it is, unfortunately, not such a pretty sight though this might have nothing to do with their absence.

Even the work of proven artists is a little average at this fair (and others) - the Kentridges at the Art Vault stand are inconsequential unless you just want to own a Kentridge, and there are a few Sam Nhlengethwa drawings at the Bag Factory stand I wish I had never seen. Is it due to the affordability factor at TAF, where most works are under the R20 000 mark? For this to be possible the scale of many of the works at the fair is limited. It is hard to appreciate a Diane Victor work that is not even 20cm in length.

Nathanial Stern, the featured artist at TAF, scaled down the dimensions of his Rippling Images series in an effort to make them more attractive to buyers. This may have come at the cost of the integrity of the work itself. His decompression impressionism, which involves scanning, directly digitizing a live experience, is not as successfully realised in this new series in comparison with his previous application of this process in works such as the Giverny of the Midwest triptych, where the sheer scale of work allowed viewers to vicariously study the details of his underwater adventures and find themselves immersed in this performative work.
Despite the poetry and romance of his technodriven quasi impressionistic mode, his large scale works struggled to find buyers in a gallery setting, according to Stern. It might be likely that he would have chosen to scale down the dimensions of his work regardless of this fair, but this hyper-commercialised setting certainly enhances artists' awareness of the marketability of their products. This can be a good thing.
Gaining notoriety or fetching a high price for an artwork seems, based on previous fairs, not to have anything to do with the scale of an artwork but rather its content, or an overstated aesthetic or physical presence that cannot be ignored.

Art has to scream loudly in a setting where there is so much of it. Two artists at the Res Gallery stand offer the ideal ogle-factor. Benjamin Skinner's naughty nurse series, which riffs on burlesque-cum-pinup culture via a sort of Giegeresque aesthetic, proves a drawcard - some of the images are also large enough to hold your gaze, though naked nurses dissecting each other might also be the attraction.

Andrew Robertson, who has previously specialised in political satire, offers his take on Goya's The Shootings of May Third 1808, which is adapted to comment on the Marikana massacre. A clear likeness to Nathi Mthethwa, the former minister of Safety and Security, appears in another reproduction. This kind of obtuse political commentary translated via a classical historical figurative or painterly lens proved to be a winning formula for Ayanda Mabulu at last year's JAF, though its initial censorship by the organisers may have fuelled interest in it. However, this kind of mode causes knee jerk reactions, as has been the case with Yuill Damaso's reworking of Rembrandt's Night Watch, and even to some extent Brett Murray's controversial The Spear work.

At art fairs it is, ironically, difficult to assess the value of the art. Individuality and nuance is muted in contexts where art is paraded en masse. There is no room for the idiosyncratic narratives, either around process or ideas, to really be heard or to even seem relevant, unless you are already aware of them.
In this way this fair and the others tend not to be spaces to look at art, or write about it, but to buy art. This is what fairs set out to do, though the organisers most often couch the commodification of art in rhetoric centred on the "accessibility" of art, claiming that if you throw wine, good food and a pleasing setting into the equation, art becomes "easier" to access.

However, what I am increasingly finding is that while these lifestyle elements do make for a pleasing day or evening out, they also hinder "access" to the art, because the element that makes art, somehow becomes so secondary, or only a certain type of loud statement becomes relevant or noticeable in these contexts.
Fair organisers, particularly those at the JAF, are trying to pursue a more hybridised model, offering special projects or featured artist stands, and performance art pieces that challenge these object-centred extravaganzas, which are successful in varying degrees at countering this visual assault.
At TAF, a sound installation by Jenna Burchell called Homing offers to aurally transport visitors to different cities, and works at providing some relief. But it is a temporary reprieve because it is so one-dimensional. The only work that makes sense is a scripto-visual print that presents the phrase: Is Geld sexier as Seks? - is money sexier than sex?  - published in The Sunday Independent, July 27, 2014.