Monday, June 30, 2014

Alien Landing: Performance & Machona

Uri Afronaut (2012)

Art and performance are apparently locked into an abusive relationship. Or so observed Malik Gaines: "art stays for the sex, the good times, the feeling of being alive- but it won't let it stay over and doesn't believe what performance does is valuable". Feeding this twisted dynamic, he proposes that "performance" revels in its marginalised position and the freedom it affords.  In this way performance artists seemingly appear to choose when and on what terms they become part of the art world, which means the gallery/art fair system, while claiming they have no agency with in it. And as with all abusive relationships, performers rely on art institutions, particularly those that do not accommodate it, for constant validation.

In South Africa performance art is undoubtedly the art world's "bitch". There is no dedicated platform; unless you count the Live Art Festival, which has only taken place once. The one at the National Arts Festival is too insignificant in size - and scope - and  the "performance art" label at a festival of live performances renders it as somewhat of a superfluous appendage at this event.

Our public institutions can't even deliver for the art world itself, so they are excluded. The much-awaited Zeitz Mocaa, which will open in Cape Town in a few years' time, will include galleries dedicated to showcasing live performance, but for now performance artists can only really conduct a practice in the public realm, where they are locked into very tired discourses around post-apartheid urbanity or make small incursions into local galleries or at art fairs, where they undoubtedly are relied upon to impart an "aliveness" that counters the dry commercial ambiance. In other words, their role is in supporting something else and compensation for what art at fairs is - and isn't (ephemeral).

At the Cape Town Art Fair in February, Gerald Machona was tasked with breathing some air into the event via a live performance. Ironically, in so doing, he ran short of oxygen, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Trapped inside an old-fashioned astronaut's suit fashioned from a print of decommissioned Zimbabwean and other African currencies, he had to get through his work fast before he ran out of air and collapsed. This resulted in a slightly frenzied performance that appeared to be linked to his frustration with the audience's inability to understand him, though he communicated to them with post-its that he attached to different objects at the fair.

The sense of urgency under which he worked lent the performance its momentum, purpose even. Metaphorically, his performance was stifled by the fact that it took place at the fair in the first place, motivating a fairly straight-forward work about exchange and art values - and alienation - though in popular culture the astronaut isn't a figure immediately thought of as an alien (more of that later).
These themes are a good fit for Machona as a Zimbabwean based in South Africa and a performance artist or maybe artist, making objects for galleries. The latter products are quite self-consciously centred on notions of value vis-a-vis art which neatly ties up with the devalued Zimbabwean currency.
People from faraway places

Machona's work is "neat" in that it all makes sense, though you can't help feeling that to truly undermine circuits of monetary exchange, he wouldn't be showing in a gallery in the first place. Perhaps this is connected to a kind of weird arrogance attached to performance art; with the artists believing they can have their cake and eat it - making a show of rebellion while playing the art game.

Much of the performance work at art fairs exposes its crass commercialism or link to business - I am thinking here of Trade Re-routed (2011) performed by Anthea Moys and Donna Kukama and Murray Kruger's Business Day Part 2 (2012). As performance artists are wont to do, they respond to the context rather than imposing work on it, and because they trade in the immediate, they may be the only players at these events to do so critically. The gallery setting, like the fair prompts a set of predictable responses, though the space appears like a blank canvas. This limit can either be the fuel for work or present a conundrum for performance artists; how do you make work for a gallery without eroding the value of your work? What is your 'work' in a gallery?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Mind Control: Roger Ballen


Roger Ballen has an office. Of course, this makes practical sense; as an internationally recognised artist with museum and commercial shows running concurrently throughout the world, he requires assistants and administrative staff who would need to work from somewhere.
Yet the idea of an artist, and one like Ballen whose work is defined by haunted dark spaces, working out of an office in a plush corporate building in Parktown, Joburg, jars with expectations.
We should be meeting inside a crumbling, dirty building or perhaps in a tranquil garden surrounding a mental institution - the outskirts of a place that deals with the "shadows of the mind" as |he dubs the main drive of his photography.

It is not an ordinary office - shelves in a waiting area are lined with the macabre ephemera I recognise from some of his photographs; disused toys, animal |skins, cages.
It could be the prop room for a horror movie, except for the plush furniture and industrious assistants who frequently check a large printing device that is churning out Ballen's black and white prints.
His macabre photography is big business. Maybe it does belong in an office park after all.
The scale of his photographs has grown, too, as have all photographers' work here. Photography has fast become an immersive medium, a condition which is undercut by photography books, which deny this and limit the impact of images.

Yet it was via his books, in particular Platteland (1994), a photographic essay documenting impoverished white people living on the fringes, that Ballen cemented his career. His seemingly negative portrayal of this population - some subjects are the products of inbreeding - may also have contributed to the interest the book generated.

Nevertheless, the book format has allowed him to more clearly set up relationships between images, and in past years, to reconsider his oeuvre. His new book, Asylum of the Birds (Thames & Hudson) includes photographs dating from as far back as 2005, tracing the trajectory of the bird motif.
It is hard to overlook this theme, not only in the book, which features image upon image in which a bird (mostly white) is present, but in his office, where birds are cooing in the background. The live props are kept in a storeroom with other creatures.

When the lanky American artist emerges from his office and I remark on the birds and his attachment to animals in his work, he brings out a cage to show me some baby rats. They are cute and it is kind of surprising to see Ballen revel in this. He could easily be a member of the Adams family or described as the High Priest of Darkness, a title borne out not only by a fixation with macabre subject matter but his serious, brooding demeanour.

Over the years, I'm not sure I have seen him smile or laugh, although his work has always been laced with a kind of absurdism that appeals to those with a dark sense of humour. Some of the images in Asylum of the Birds would warrant the ubiquitous LOL (laugh out loud) label.
It is via the juxtaposition of the titles (he says he dreams them up after taking the images) with the photographs that the humour is evoked. Such as Unwind (2013), which depicts a man lying on a bed with film tape wrapped around his body.

Like the subject in Caged (2011) whose head is trapped inside a bird cage, perhaps Ballen lives inside his head more than outside it. The birds confined to the upper reaches of the cage, and those present in all his images, suggest that while his mind (his work) might offer him the chance to fly, to imagine, such flights of fancy are also a bitter reminder that there is no escape from the mind.
It's a condition we all live with, but perhaps for Ballen it is more painful given he is so sharply aware of it.
"I have had this existential drive all my life," he confesses when we face each other in leather sofas adjacent to his desk.
Asylum of the Birds best illustrates this paradoxical human condition of the mind as a place of refuge that offers the chance to re-imagine, recraft reality (as Ballen does in his photography) yet through the repetition of symbols of horror - the headless or toothless men, animal skulls and naive doodles that appear to be left by the inhabitants of this house of horrors - it appears as if there is no escape from this dark and grainy world where the child self controls the adult one.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Architectural Ambitions: Hobbs & Jag

Hobbs's leaky roof in the Meyer Pienaar extension of JAG

A leaking roof is not interesting. That is unless it is located in a place where leaks are unexpected, like the interior of a public art museum that is geared towards the preservation of cultural products, which should include the dated building itself. It is also interesting when the leaking roof in question, located in the Meyer/Pienaar extension of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Jag), has been facilitated by an artist, who counts this as a key moment in his quasi mid-career survey exhibition.

As the title of Stephen Hobbs's exhibition, Jag Snag: End of Exhibition implies, this is a non-exhibition of sorts; though there are framed images to view, such as architectural drawings pertaining to the gallery's past and projected future, pictures of the staff and other articles, the artistic gestures are in fact things that can't be framed, unless you consider the scaffolding surrounding the damaged ceiling a framing device.
Hobbs hasn't created work here so much as dabbled with the internal structure of this gallery as a means of commenting on its legacy, the politics attached to this museum which are inseparable from its structure, and perhaps the status of museums in a post-apartheid, post-postmodern era. It has produced a society which no longer requires an institution such as this to revel in, elevate or assign iconic status to its cultural gestures.
As such there are no endearing visual spectacles here to see, except perhaps if you count the projection up against a large screen of footage of the gallery when it was flooded as arresting. It should be. That exposing a decaying, damaged museum might not be a spectacle is part of this exhibition's irony, though this is undercut by the fact that the faults with the building aren't confined to this gallery. The chipped paint on its exterior, the broken pathway leading to the entrance facing Joubert Park, the weeds that grow between the bricks in the parking lot and the rubbish that has been left in an external alcove all attest to the neglect of this institution and its bleak future. This situation is so entrenched that it is no longer a headline story. A front-page story cannot save this building and a sense of resignation has set in.
A degraded model of Jag, which Hobbs has appropriated for
an installation 

It wasn't difficult for Hobbs to create his leaky ceiling, which appears to be supported by scaffolding. The damaged ceiling was a natural result of what would have occurred without any maintenance. Hobbs was able to cultivate it because he knew exactly how the building would 'respond' without maintenance as he has spent the last three years closely observing the building and documenting all its design faults - the titular "snags". The faulty roof in the Meyer-Pienaar extention is the main weak point. Built in the mid-1980s, it has plagued a string of past directors, and its present one, Antoinette Murdoch, would welcome a permanent solution, if support from the City of Joburg and the necessary political will existed. Others hold Murdoch responsible for Jag's demise, pointing out that she has had the same funds at her disposal as the previous director, Clive Kellner.