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