Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Animal Attraction

Alexander's Infantry with Beast

It is the all too familiar human elements present in Jane Alexander’s hybrid sculptures that unsettle viewers, rather than the animal ones. This surprising observation, which contradicts the long-held belief that it is the presence of the “animal” in the human that is the most disturbing to us, belongs to Tenley Bick, an American-based art historian.

He was referring to Alexander’s realistic rendering of the hands, feet and torsos of the disfigured casts of men in her famous Butcher Boys (1985-1986), which affirms that these subjects bear a close relationship to us. It is not just that they look real, but the scale is so lifelike too that when you share a physical space with them, they operate as a sort of mirror. For this reason he proposes that the “experience” of viewing the work is more powerful than the work itself.

For anyone who has stood in front of one of Alexander’s installations, it is likely this idea will resonate, though of course, this could be said of viewing any artwork in person. Nevertheless, whatever misgivings you may have about her work – the main one being that she has been replaying the same motifs for the past two decades or more – when you are standing alongside one of her hybrid human-animal creatures you are grounded by a pervasive sense of horror that invisibly binds you to them. Certainly, my lack of enthusiasm, or even critical distance, quickly gives way to other less tangible sensations when faced with Infantry with Beast (2008-2010), an installation at the Stevenson gallery, where two works from her retrospective survey that showed at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York are being exhibited. The installation features a grey army of naked soldiers with dog faces that are lined up on a red carpet as if at a military parade.
This sense of revulsion or unease isn’t just connected to the fact that these figures look like us; it is the inhuman behaviour they invoke that paradoxically makes them essentially human. It’s a seeming contradiction but it makes sense; what makes them more human is their very inhumanity, as Bick notes.

This sense of inhumanity is ironically articulated via the features of the sculptures that are non-human, the animal. In Butcher Boys it is the horns that protrude from the subject’s heads, their blunted noses, and in Infantry with Beast, the dog features that situates them as the titular “beasts”.
These animal characteristics have infused her idiosyncratic sculptures since 1985 and have mostly been attributed to her desire to articulate the country’s distorted social body or, more precisely, the state of inhumanity that prevailed at the hands of whites – Butcher Boy figures are undeniably white males – during apartheid’s darkest days.  

For almost 20 years she has worked with the same vocabulary. This may be why there was very little interest around her show at Stevenson. Nevertheless, across town the Nirox Project Space at Arts on Main was filling up with a diverse array of therianthropes (humans turned animal) or a reversal of this process, a form of anthropomorphism, where the animal is made human such as the fluffy toy trapped inside a glass case in Wayne Barker’s Escape, or Rosemarie Marriott’s eerie Pappa, a large doll fashioned from gembsbok pelts.
They are part of a group show curated by Ann-Marie Tully and Niel Nieuwoudt that is wryly titled Zoo. It presents a diverse collection of work that teases out many of the different, complex strands attached to our relationship to animals and how we appropriate them as symbols in cultural expression as a means of exorcising, confronting, or even suppressing the truth about humanity.  
This motif is ever-present in South African culture. It is a feature of our literature, notably the abandoned dogs waiting to be put down in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, which operates as a metaphor for the status of whites in a post-apartheid scenario, to more current works such as Lauren Beukes Zoo City, which was the inspiration for Tully and Nieuwoudt’s Zoo. Our theatre-makers favour animals too – think of the stage adaptation of The Three Little Pigs by Tara Notcutt, James Cairns and Rob van Vuuren.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to our country, but it has operated here in quite a particular way; animals are our national symbols (the first new banknotes post-1994 carried animal illustrations), which is why tourists bypass our urban reality in favour of capturing snapshots of the Big Five, and they carry baggage from our colonial past.
This latter aspect informed Ed Young’s Giraffe sculpture – a taxidermy giraffe with a long red scarf, that embodied the hunter’s trophy. It first went unnoticed at the Joburg Art Fair last year, before being relocated to Arts on Main, until it was removed – it existed at Zoo as an absent work evoked through a title inscribed on the floor. At its first location, it evoked the curio shop culture in the nearby mall, which Young exploited to comment on the culture of the art fair – the giraffe loomed as an oversized memento of a contemporary African fair.

For an older generation of artists wrestling with complicity with a corrupt political system, like Gavin Younge, who used goat vellum and cowhide in his work, Alexander and the likes of William Kentridge, whose play Ubu and the Truth Commission featured animal puppets, the animal motif has served as a means to confront our brutal history and upend colonial rhetoric by recasting the opressor/perpetrator as  “animals”. At a base level the animal represents “the other”.

This quality might account for Die Antwoord’s interest in Alexander’s work; their visual and band persona is centred on a parody of the “othering” of the white subject, which is why they were attracted to Roger Ballen’s distinctive aesthetic in his dark fictional photography that is rooted in a study of deformed impoverished Afrikaners living on the fringes and has always featured animals. The animal inferences embedded in Alexander’s vocabulary achieve a similar end, by creating this distance between the human and not-human, while evoking the historical baggage that prevents whites from really claiming the position of the “other” – one they seemingly have no legitimate claim to. Die Antwoord’s desire to reference Alexander’s seminal piece, Butcher Boys, implied that it had new relevance in the post-apartheid era. But what does it signify now?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Best of 2013

A still from Breitz's The Rehearsal from The Woods

Best solo shows: (In no particular order)

Candice Breitz: The Woods (Goodman Gallery, Joburg)
This was the most polished, and complex, solo exhibition I saw this year. The eponymous film trilogy centred on child actors and children engaged in off- and on-stage performances and interviews. The work therefore presented this strange mix between fiction, reality and preconceptions about what those might be. In The Audition and The Rehearsal, Breitz juxtaposed children acting with those acting like actors - is there a difference?
Breitz sets out to blur boundaries in these film works. Aside from the influence of popular culture on identity formation particularly in non-Western centres, Breitz seemed interested in tracing the authentic self as it slips in and out of view as the children temporarily suspend or falter in their performances as adults.
She exposes the desire to act, become other than the self, which emerges through this exhibition as something that is malleable, false and also, paradoxically, immovable.
In many ways in this exhibition she continues with her interest in identity that she pursued when she was still based in South Africa (she is settled in Berlin) in the late 1990s. Her approach is now much more sophisticated and is refracted through the universal lens of popular culture.
In other words she is looking beyond the superficial black/ white, male/female binaries, which artists here have been fixated with as the main indexes of identity.

From Ruga's The Night of Long Knives
Athi Patra Ruga: White Women of Azania Saga (Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town)

Mark Coetzee – director of The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – quite aptly described this solo exhibition as a “museum show”. No doubt not only was he referring to the scale of the artworks, photographs and tapestries, which were large enough to grace the interior of a museum and create impact, but the substance of the works.
After sashaying around South Africa and the world (Ruga performed in Venice and France in 2013) in the distinctive balloon outfit that defines the appearance of the White Woman of Azania character, it seemed fitting that this productive year would end with a large solo exhibition fleshing out the utopian Azania this ambiguous persona hails from.
It turned out to be a confluence of political and fashion ideals, giving rise to work that was whimsical, visually rich and loaded in the physical and ideological sense. Should this crazy Azanian ride on to a stage on a zebra, we will be able to fully grasp her displacement – reality is a far cry from Ruga’s rendition of Azania.

Robin Rhodes: Paries Pictus (Stevenson, Cape Town)
As the first major exhibition of Rhodes’s work in his country of origin (he lives in Berlin) in 12 years, this show was always going to attract some attention.
Importantly, for those who haven’t had much exposure to his work, or seen such a large collection of it in one place, it clearly established the nature of his distinctive performance-cum-animation vocabulary, which presents this curious disjuncture between the tools to make art and the end product.
He does this by advertising these oversized art-making tools and the neat end products that evolves through a series of zoetrope-meets-comic strip sequences. His art is like a magic trick, and like all great illusionists, he employs a level of transparency to secure our belief in the authenticity of his acts.

Best artwork/series: 

Chiurai's Iyeza
Kudzanai’s Chiurai’s trilogy of films: Iyeza (2011), Moyo (2013) and Creation (2012), which showed at Harvest of Thorns (Goodman Gallery, Joburg).
Chiurai showed these films individually at different events, but it was when they were displayed together that their significance shifted or became more prominent. Juxtaposed, Chiurai maps the cycle of violence and its inevitability. From the slow-paced struggle for power in Iyeza, to mourning and sorrow in Moyo, and the act of cleansing of the past, returning to the ideal or utopian beginning (before colonisation, before independence wrought violence and corruption) in Creation.
Through this powerful trilogy, in which he draws on Western religion and mythology and iconography to illustrate this African scenario, he demonstrates how this cycle has become socialised, accepted, but it is also part of the mythology attached to Africa.

Jared Ginsberg’s Rehearsal with Wire: Blank Projects Cape Town.
Intellectually, it is easy to justify why this artwork (and artist) deserves attention. First, it challenges being categorised: is it a sculpture, installation or a video work?
The dated TV monitor and VHS player that are tied to a ladder could all be in service of relaying the video of a wired sculpture, but these accessories relay such a distinctive characteristic – rough, anachronistic, makeshift – that they impart a tangible physical presence.
This is also amplified by the fact that, secondly, Ginsberg, actually withholds the physical aspect of the work, the supposed art object that is meant to be the focus; the wire sculpture in the video. Thirdly, because of this he sets up the expectation that the wire will become animated, which it doesn’t. It does jiggle a bit, but it is the dated equipment that probably creates this illusion that it is suspended, both physically and in time. Where does this object exist?
Ultimately, Ginsberg is completely absorbed in the most basic act of creation; forming a “line”. However, he complicates our reception of it, seeking out these low-tech ways of animating it, so that it remains not only beyond our grasp but his own too.

Nitegeka's Father and Son at Nirox
Serge Alain Nitegeka: Father and Son: commissioned work for Winter Sculpture Fair at Nirox
The distinctive aesthetic that Nitegeka has developed is striking, fashionable even with its heavy black-cargo-meets-Bauhaus vibe.
When I spotted this sculpture at the far edge of the rambling display of sculptures displayed during this inaugural fair, I was immediately attracted to it, mostly because it seemed to jar with the manicured lawns and appearance of this park. It looked like it belonged in an urban setting; like an empty warehouse or on the docks of a shipping port.
Its displacement, however, suited it too; it is a long-standing theme in this artist’s work. Nevertheless, the title and the sculpture intimate a struggle born from a deep connection.
I sort of imagined that the larger plank was the father and the smaller-sized plank sitting below it was the titular “son” and that the two were inextricably bound, could never be free of each other, as they were made of the same stuff. In this way it is a kind of monument to the paradoxical dichotomy of connection and disconnection, being separated yet being inseparable.

Best performance art: 

Nyamza's The Meal
Mamela Nyamza’s Okuya Phantsi Kwempumlo (The Meal)
It has been such a pleasure to observe how this work has developed since its debut at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2012.
In 2013, Mamela evolved the work for its showing at the Iziko Natural Museum during Infecting the City (Cape Town) and the Dance Umbrella Festival (Johannesburg).
The latter performance proved the most satisfying as Nyamza instilled more humour into the piece, taking charge of her role as mentor to the young dancer played by Kirsty Ndawo, who in response has upped her attitude and carves out a distinctive presence of her own.
As with all performance art – and contemporary South African dance – this is a meta-performance work, concerned with the desire to be the perfect performer – in this case a ballerina – and what the cultural ramifications might be in one’s failure to do so.
This work exposes not only the seeming inability to perfect the prescriptive language of ballet, but the curious way in which it reshapes the body and mind. Ultimately, in this piece, ballet emerges as a state of mind for while Nyamza and Ndawo wear garish pink tutus, there are only a few ballet sequences. Yet they perform the ultimate ballet work in the sense that they struggle with its physical and linguistic character.

Anthea Moys: Anthea Moys vs the city of Grahamstown (National Arts Festival)
This grand performance piece that consisted of multiple performances in different venues presented the climax of Moys’s practice thus far.
She took what she has always done, in other words, setting up games with people (an oversimplification for the sake of brevity) to its ultimate extreme. The result was both satisfying and flawed.
It was flawed because in taking on each team or activity (soccer, chess, ballroom dancing), presuming to battle against those who had dedicated themselves to them, it was unlikely that she would “beat” the city of Grahamstown.
Yes, of course, the performances were never about winning. It became clear that none of the hobbyists involved in these activities were interested in winning.
Rather, they participated as a way of connecting with each other and establishing a sense of self.
This rendered Moys a weird anomaly – she was participating with another agenda; she stood out as a superficial attachment to the activities and as a result turned each one into a farce.
Nevertheless, it was an ambitious and intriguing series of works that evoked an interesting discourse about the nature of failure and its relationship to performance art and the role of the performance artist.

Best photographic exhibition: Natasha Christopher: Folly (Fada Gallery, University of Johannesburg)
This show went almost unnoticed, mostly because it only showed for three days in a gallery that isn’t well patronised by those who don’t attend this institution.
It may enjoy another showing this year. It would be a great pity if it doesn’t, for this body of work is striking, though, in typical fashion, Christopher’s gaze |focuses on the banal, familiar scenes that escape notice.
In Folly, her subject is Joburg’s “architectural” vegetation – the plants and shrubs that colonise this city, adding to its façade. Much of this foliage is imported, managed and sculpted.
In this way, she exposes our desire to create a “natural” landscape that isn’t, well, natural at all but subscribes to ideal notions of the natural shaped by our colonial past.
This is one of the follies |referred to in the title; another is the belief that we can control this natural entity.
Belying these banal images is a quiet kind of violence that is menacing and disturbing, particularly because some of these scenes appear so unthreatening.

One of the seminal paintings from Wafer's exhibition Mine
Best painting exhibition: Mary Wafer’s Mine (David Krut) 
Aside from the likes of Ayanda Mabula, few painters (or artists) seem interested in addressing political or social issues through their art. Wafer uncharacteristically treads down thisfamiliar route, though she delivers us to a new place that is not didactic or overstated (like Brett Murray’s art).
In a body of work dealing with the Marikana tragedy, she doesn’t attempt to assign blame, exploit pathos or even untangle the politics of it. She coolly steps back and reduces the visual spectacle to an ambiguous vocabulary that seems part of an attempt to strip back appearances (images of the event) to get to what might lie behind it, though, in doing so, we are further distanced from it.
What is left beyond the visual spectacle?
The more we look, the more we see, but the more detached we become.
Shifting between being figurative and abstract, Wafer’s paintings allow us to decide from which position to view Marikana;  to see what is there or what is absent or to overlook it completely.

Best art festival/fair: Art Week Cape Town
With three art fairs adding to the spread of large platforms for visual artists, I felt it was time to add this category to my annual post-mortem. Nevertheless, the rambling art event I enjoyed the most in 2013 was Art Week Cape Town, an annual event that takes place in the Mother City towards the end of November as tourists and visitors start trickling into this popular holiday destination.
It is far more enjoyable hopping around the city visiting different spaces than being trapped under the bright lights of a convention centre, where art is flogged like food at a hipster market and might be subject to censorship.
With the establishment of two new art spaces – The New Church and the temporary pavilion teasing viewers with collections from the most anticipated art establishment, The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – expanding Cape Town’s burgeoning art scene, this event, in its second year, is fast becoming a must-do.
This year it ran for longer than its titular week, presenting art openings at almost every conceivable art venue for more than two weeks.
There may be a limited number of artists (largely white, too) in Cape Town whose work pops up in a variety of group shows but there was a better mix of work to view, from the ubiquitous group shows that the commercial galleries tend to favour this time of the year to some strong solo exhibitions by Sanell Aggenbach at Brundyn (which has moved into a great new space on Buitengraght) to Athi-Patra Ruga’s at Whatiftheworld.  It is a pity that the Live Art festival pioneered by Gipca didn’t take place this year, as last year it was well timed to add to Art Week Cape Town, expanding the visual world to encompass performance. - published in The Sunday Independent, January 5, 2014.