Monday, May 19, 2014

The In Crowd

Marcus Neustetter's Cave Installation 1 pic by Mike Turner 

Just beyond a makeshift parking lot filled with luxury vehicles are an architectural rendition of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell and a mock refugee camp. It seems fitting that these works, which refer to exclusion and seclusion in spatial and ideological terms, are located at the entrance to the Nirox Winter Sculpture Fair.
This rambling private property in the Cradle of Humankind is made accessible to the public via this event – access costs R100. Jeremy Rose’s rendition of Mandela’s cell could be mistaken for an abandoned building and I initially take Michele Mathison’s refugee camp for a place where revellers can go and collapse and sleep off their wine consumption. It is unnerving to be confronted with works with this political content at a lifestyle event; however, maybe this is precisely the setting where the middle classes should be considering realities beyond their comfortable existence, though the journey to this setting automatically forces you through a shanty town.

When you step into the park you enter a pleasing bucolic bubble. It is a slick and sophisticated food and wine fair. The upmarket grub is designer: gourmet boerie rolls and risotto with poached chicken.
You sit at wooden tables and drink bubbly out of glass flutes while taking in the pretty setting.
People wear large sunhats and lie on the grass. It is like the public space that Joburgers feel their city most often denies them. It is probably a little bit sad that Joburgers are mainlining Europe through all the Franschhoek estabilishments that have been transplanted here, but they live in a city that boasts faux Italian architecture and manmade dams.

There is art here too. Mostly sculptures that are quite obviously sculptures opposed to the architectonic works at the entrance. This is only the second iteration of this annual event and the definition of sculpture has yet to be contested in any meaningful way.
If you wanted to test the limits of sculpture the fair would not be the ideal setting, though it is a platform for this medium. This art event does not quite live up to its title. Those who buy sculptures apparently do so at the buyers’ preview a week in advance, so this event is a kind of after-party for the not-so-rich-and-important who want to view art in a less pressured setting.

Navigating the art proves slightly difficult; the map produced by the organisers to help visitors identify the art works is inaccurate – numbers don’t correlate with the numbers situated near the works, and some works don’t feature on the map at all. This makes for some amusing situations.
Two women imbibing wine next to Marcus Neustetter’s work Cave Installation 1 spend hours trying to figure out why it is titled Rise, which is another work featuring bird motifs.
They had assumed that the fault was with them and their lack of imagination and so they drank more wine in the hope its meaning would become clear.

Viewing art in conventional settings is alienating, or so we are told by Artlogic, the organisers of this event and the Joburg Art Fair, and the directors of the other two art fairs, the Cape Town Art Fair and Turbine Art Fair. Everyone seems to claim that theirs is more “accessible” to the public, as if these events have been solely designed to break down the barrier between art and a public that are seemingly terrified of stepping into a white cube.

Perhaps it is not the settings that create a supposed barrier; maybe it’s the art or artists themselves, who like to think of themselves as outsiders, though they are forever expressing interest in bridging “the gap” through their work. The barrier, if it does indeed exist lends their work purpose.
Events such as this where art functions as a convenient accessory to add status and another commercial component, relegates art to a lifestyle product like any other. Confirming this is the fact that the website for the event does not mention who the artists participating are or anything about them or their works – yet you can find out who all the stallholders will be.

Perhaps then this fair unwittingly (the organisers and curator Mary-Jane Darroll appear to maintain that art is part of an elevated class of objects) realises the final collapse of this boundary between high/low art and design/art. Given that so many of these works read in this space as purely decorative, such as Rodan Kane Hart’s mega work Structural Palimpsest, affirms this. This display of art consists of a collection of objects that evince no obvious relationship to each other, some even to the setting or site.

This display doesn’t make any statements about sculpture or art, except for where it is placed within these new schemes to supposedly cultivate an art-viewing culture in South Africa. This is both limiting and freeing for artists, though they might not like to think of their art as unimportant or like any ordinary object.
Where does this leave artists? Or put in another way: what happens to their position and their work if it is absorbed into a lifestyle event, even if it is one that pretends to be about art. A commission is rarely, if ever, turned down. Artists may well like to think of themselves as “outsiders” and perhaps because of this conceit thrive on acceptance and acknowledgement – at any cost at times. Are there costs?

Niall Bingham in Homage to WG Grace

Niall Bingham’s autobiographic film, titled I am Niall Bingham, which premiered last week at the Bioscope to tie in which an exhibition of his work at Moad (Museum of Art and Design) is centred on this thirtysomething hipster artist’s angst regarding his status in relationship to society and the art world.
The film is part of an attempt to demystify the artist, to show Bingham to be an “ordinary” person who suffers from the same anxieties that all young people experience about whether they are successful, relevant, popular, etc. Bingham is not only keen to get a foot in the door, but is apparently (artistically) paralysed by the fact the art world does not want him – being signed to a gallery of repute is what he is after. Yet one has the impression that Bingham unwittingly derives some masochistic pleasure from his outsider status – why make a film about it?

One scene documents the rejection of a nude self-portrait the Wits Art Museum. In other words some form of resistance towards what he does is an indirect form of acknowledgement or recognition.
He likes being the kid peering through the window of a candy store; the videowork The Politics of Repetition sees him wandering around Brett Murray’s controversial exhibition at the Goodman Gallery. Murray is an interesting figure for Bingham to observe; he is a respected member of the art world, but his controversial work at the Hail to the Thief II show created a monumental clash with certain population groups.
Rejection and failure are grist for the artist’s mill. Steven Cohen’s work has no value if it is not shunned. This is how he directs attention to art and presumably demonstrates where the veritable line in the sand, in terms of society’s morality or immorality, has been drawn.
A still from Cohen's Coq/Cock
His most recent “rejection” was fairly brutal: French police arrested him during Coq/Cock, a naked performance in which he tied a live chicken to his penis before strutting about in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Last week the South African, now Lille-based, artist was found guilty of sexual exhibitionism by a French court. The verdict overtly communicated the authority’s view that Cohen’s performance was “not art”. This should have pleased Cohen. Instead, he was disappointed he had not been properly “punished… it’s like saying we are right but we are not going to do anything to you, which for me is a double injustice”.
The arrest and the court case provided much international media mileage and over platforms such as Facebook the opportunity for Cohen to revel in his “persecution”, drawing support from the art community, and allowing him to restore or reaffirm his position as an artist, which for him can only be realised through his status as an “outsider”. Of course this is only a temporary identity expressed through costume and performance, that is quite separate from Cohen and one that he chooses, as much as he chooses the form of rejection he will be subjected to. He designs how and when his artist persona is “persecuted”.
From this point of view these grand art-cum-lifestyle events such as the Nirox Winter Sculpture Fair, which are intended to collapse all boundaries, may seem antithetical to art or at least perhaps erode its power to transform the viewer.

Cohen believes the route to understanding art is through agitating its recipients, not lulling them into a sense of security.
“Shocking is the first level to break through to understanding what is underneath the appearance of things,” he observed in an interview posted on Huffington Post’s website after his court case.
Of course, you do wonder whether there is anything “underneath” to be discovered; his performance at the Eiffel Tower may have been cut short, but his “message” was blunt. It was also, ironically, short-circuited by his approach. One can presume the performance was centred on the recent cultural accord between France and South Africa, which climaxed in the SA-French Seasons that was indeed led by the “coq” – the French, who were unwittingly given carte-blanche to define South Africa’s image in their country.
This unfortunately was never the talking point about Cohen’s performance. Art was indeed the victim of Cohen’s performance as he claimed, but not because he was arrested or charged but because of the way he seems to “use” art to play out his pathological desire to affirm his outsider status and maintain the boundary between himself and society/the public.

His use of his naked body in his work lulls us into believing that Cohen is stripping himself bare, making himself vulnerable before his audience, revealing ‘himself’ , though being naked is part of his artist façade.
Bingham does much the same thing in his film; he not only strips naked and poses as David – the famous sculpture by Michaelangelo – but also confesses to all his foibles; that he is lazy sometimes, too hungover to work at other times, goes out to get drunk and laid and that he is plagued by self-doubt.

Bingham creates this image of himself as the average guy that anyone can relate to and empathise with in such a way that the barrier between him the artist and society should be eroded. Thing is exposing “the self” physically or metaphorically does not automatically translate into honesty or vulnerability – someone ought to tell Jodi Bieber (she has made a habit out of photographing semi-nude subjects thinking she is revealing something about them). It is telling that when Cohen “dresses up” for a performance he “dresses down”.
Nudity pushes buttons, while appearing to be uncontrived – it’s a bare body free of all the visual signs and baggage that comes with clothing.  Yet the person who strips naked in a room is probably the person with the most power, because they determine the mood, the response. They reverse power relations without actually revealing anything of themselves.

This is what occurs in Bingham’s film; we see him at home, in the studio, riding through the park while narrating his thoughts and ideas, but it is all quite pedestrian. It’s the behind-the-scenes view without the “scene” being established yet – though you could argue the exhibition across the road might offer this. The reverse occurs, specially if you see the film first. The art on the exhibition seems peripheral – the ephemera supporting the filmic self-portrait and his status as an artist who must make work to realistically warrant this label. Bingham’s film may be a product of the voyeuristic and confessional nature of self-representation on social media, but it might also be a consequence of this shift in the overt commercialisation of art and its status as a lifestyle accoutrement.

This makes being an artist more attractive than making art. It is not about what you do in the space, but that you command a space. And indeed Bingham’s conflict is with being an artist and not wrestling with what his art achieves or articulates.
He doesn’t want to be an outsider; in his mind being one is a hindrance to making art, which is increasingly seen as only being possible if you are backed by a gallery or featured in events like the Nirox Sculpture Fair, which is supported by Benji Liebmann, an art patron who creates opportunities for artists.
Being an artist in this context means being part of the system - a larger context governed by a small group of individuals with power, who set its dynamics.

This system might only be a relatively new phenomenon in South Africa, where a bona fide commercial art scene is only now really taking shape. Certainly for older artists like Cohen it is at odds with being an artist. In an interview he states that he has worked to stay “out of the system rather than breaking into it (and taking it over)”.

In reality Cohen is part of the art world system; he is signed to a gallery - his Coq/Cock showed at the Stevenson Gallery last year - and he frequently shows in theatres. Maybe this is why he has to make bold strides every so often to assert his independence. Cohen’s shock-and-awe tactic seems a little outdated – being normal, ‘accepted’ is the new hardcore, as the normcore fashion trend implies, though a refined understanding of the “norm” eludes most, ensuring that it remains an elitist position.

How would embracing this translate into our peculiar South African art world? Would it mean participating in something like the Nirox Winter Sculpture Fair but with a full understanding  that you are simply providing décor for an upmarket food and wine fair and, tailoring your art to meet this brief?
Or should the artist no longer expend any energy on the conceit of the “outsider” position, which may be contrived and unproductive? Increasingly, it seems that the solution might be to not do art at all; which coincidentally so many artists are sort of unwittingly doing anyway.

Social art practices that do not require the exchange of objects might be the only route out of this quagmire, but these kinds of socially engaged practices where the artist is completely “embedded” in society have their problems and politics too.Perhaps it is not surprising then that Bingham is more concerned about his position in relation to the art world and society rather than what he should be making.
Does he understand what the space is that he is fighting for and would he know what to do with it? - first published in The Sunday Independent, May 18, 2014

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