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.  

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Monumental Experiences: Kukama at NAF

I’M NOT going to forget this scene. It’s raining and Donna Kukama is on the ground digging a hole with a pair of scissors. The hole or quasi-grave will be the final resting place for a vial of Kukama’s blood that I have titled Escape – it’s a personal monument of sorts that represents a landmark journey I made to London in 2011 and the outcome of Kukama’s work The Museum of Non-Permanence, which she debuted at this year’s National Arts Festival as part of her Standard Bank Young Artist Award.
For egotistical and artistic reasons I like the fact that her “big moment” on this annual arts platform will forever be tied to this invisible monument to my own history. This audience-centred work of hers is in such stark contrast to the majority of work at the festival, which seems to entail sitting in the dark and appreciating the artistic personas who step into the light, so to speak. But there is still the expectation for her to “perform” her role, I discover.

I have chosen for my mini-monument to be placed under a tree near the entrance to Settlers Monument, a monument to colonial and apartheid eras and now to severe ’70s architecture and the locus for cultural expression, given its centrality to this festival.

In response to a town populated by monuments Kukama set out to establish invisible ones that escape notice, she explains to me, while her efforts at digging seem to have not got anywhere. A spade would have helped. She isn’t quite prepared in more ways than one. In her handbag she has all the paraphernalia for this burial – there is an array of fabrics and candles from which I can choose, which suggests she has thought through these rituals. Yet she appears unprepared for the psychic weight it might have for her participants. Like a funeral director, this personalised service of hers feels strangely impersonal.

I am her first appointment for the day, yet she seems to be going through the motions. As a result I don’t believe that she believes in what she is doing, that is beyond its function as an appropriate performance artwork. Can she?
If it is to have some kind of “significance” as an “artwork” and experience, doesn’t there have to be some authenticity to this process? At what point does memorialising become too contrived to be real?

Authenticity is a slippery and perhaps unachievable element that haunts performance art. It is something Kukama attempts at every turn to establish, as if to shore-up her motives and perhaps even convince herself that what she is doing has “real” significance. Whatever that might mean in an art or life context, the two become blurred in this work.