Monday, November 24, 2014

The Bespectacled Spectacle

Ray-Ban Wayfarers were coveted in the ’80s. Worn by Tom Cruise in Risky Business and Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – both films that charted the shenanigans of young men who break free from parental constraints for a couple of crazy days, running a brothel from home and sinking an expensive sports car in a river – these sunglasses were the ultimate expression of coolness and rebellion.
They embodied that moment when someone is willing to contravene societal pressures, rules and responsibilities and say “fuck it, fuck everything”.

This characteristic or association appeared to remain intact as a new generation, gripped by an ’80s revival took up this symbol, adopting it as a signature item that any hipster with street cred should have in their homemade organic leather bag or hovering above a bushy beard. Those who lived through the Wayfarer’s rise in the ’80s were more than keen to sport them once again in an effort to reclaim their youth and hide those creeping crow’s feet. An English lecturer I knew used a pair of the glasses to seduce all the young men in his class. He never took them off, even at night and probably in bed too. The glasses were his source of seduction and concealed his age and the increasing cynicism which marked his gaze.

In the last couple of weeks since Michael Elion’s giant pair of Wayfarers took up position in Cape Town’s idyllic promenade in Sea Point as a public artwork dubbed Perceiving Freedom, the classic pair of sunnies have not only lost their street cred, but some of the more outspoken detractors of this contentious public artwork, such as the Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz, have called on South Africans to abandon their Ray-Bans in protest, forcing locals to weigh up their outrage against this public artwork with their vanity.
Aside from the artwork, Elion has made many mistakes, including directing misogynist barbs towards Breitz and laying a charge of incitement of violence against Breitz, Stephen Hobbs and Hermann Niebuhr. Perhaps his worst error was linking his giant glasses to Mandela and a political notion of “freedom” and rebellion within the context of South Africa’s apartheid past.

From all accounts it appears  this link was only made when the giant glasses were to be installed on the promenade. According to Farzanah Badsha, a member of the selection committee for art54 (the agency tasked with implementing temporary public art in the city), the artwork they had approved was a pair of giant sunglasses that would be installed in Camps Bay with a network of sprinklers that would create rainbows on the beach. As Badsha confesses, the change of location had real implications. She claims Elion took advantage of the change of location and the seeming ineptitude of the City’s muddled processes around the commissioning and implementation of public art and added a political layer to a work that had up until that point  been viewed by the selection committee as a “fun and popular work” that would be interactive and aimed at children.

As the new location now faced Robben Island, Elion began to embroil a narrative linked to Mandela, which was inspired by a famous photograph of Madiba posing in a pair of sunglasses and leaning on a spade. The picture was taken during a visit by journalists in 1977.
The image was not a reflection of the actual circumstances for Madiba on the Island – it was staged for the journalists. Mandela typically worked on a lime quarry and not in a garden.
Ironically, this staging would detract from Madiba’s standing as a professional and a political leader and cast him as a gardener |– a lowly status that the apartheid state designated for black people. In this way, this image and by proxy this portrait of Madiba in these sunglasses, which are apparently not Ray-Bans or Wayfarers, obfuscated not only the truth about the conditions on Robben Island, but also attempted to belittle the status of this great leader.

In this context the sunglasses could only be seen to operate as a symbol of obfuscation of the truth and a means of denying the agency of the subject in the image to assert his “truth”. Presumably, Elion was keen to link his giant sunglasses to Madiba in an effort to secure funding and sponsorship from Ray-Ban.
In the absence of a budget for public art, it seems the works that would be implemented are those that had secured funding from elsewhere. Who wouldn’t want to sponsor an artwork that pays tribute to Mandela?
The connection, which the photograph appeared to substantiate would also allow Elion to elevate this vacuous work and transform it from a work for children to something with serious political intent, something he seems ill-equipped to do. Interestingly, he kept the lenses of his giant glasses clear, so as to counter the notion of obsfucation that they engender and enhance this idea of lenses colouring perceptions.

Ray-Ban, the City of Cape Town, Art54 (who have thrown Elion under the bus) and even the Mandela Foundation itself, seem to have paid little attention to how Elion was evoking Madiba and his legacy.
Not that this is unusual; the Nelson Mandela statue in the eponymous square adjacent to Sandton City is perhaps testament to not only the abominable art that is made in Mandela’s name, but also how his legacy is exploited for commercial ends and, in this setting, has become associated with consumerism. I suppose this is what happens to the legacies of all great figures – their likeness will eventually adorn coffee mugs.
What is interesting about Elion’s artwork is the way in which a middle-class sense of freedom as the Ray-Ban Wayfarers evoke is collapsed with political freedom during a repressive era.

In those cult ’80s movies, which no doubt increased the sales of Ray-Bans substantially, the sense of freedom that is evoked is of the sort that only the privileged might enjoy – like renting out your parents double-storey home so that your friends can break their virginity with prostitutes and destroy an expensive sports car.
There is also the fact that RayBans are not cheap, hence they are the preserve of the moneyed classes. And while Mandela was undeniably middle class, this status had been completely denied to him in the image with the sunglasses and during his incarceration. In other words, it is an image where freedom has been suppressed..

Elion’s crass exploitation of history to secure sponsorship isn’t just indicative of an artist with little artistic integrity or conceptual nous but also of the attitudes in the corporate arena, where companies try to align itself with political works to leverage credibility. But this phenomenon is not limited to public art or corporate sponsorship programmes, but to our broader political landscape, where leaders exploit their struggle credentials to remain in power.

This subversion of political ideals for self-serving motives fittingly marked the final – or will it be? – act in this public art drama, the act of vandalism committed by the group dubbed the Tokolos-Stencils. They also evoke the notion of freedom on their tumblr site, implying that it guides their acts of vandalism. Though graffiti has lost its subversive character and is used by property developers to gentrify suburbs, they believe it play a significant role in fighting for social justice. On their site, they recount how one of their members spray-painted the "Remember Marikana" slogan around a shanty town near where the tragedy occurred, as if the community needed reminding, and in English - the language of the "master" they claim to be their enemy. They arrogantly or patronisingly presume that this act worked at unifying the community.  This slogan might have had more impact had they placed it outside Nathi Mthethwa's (former Minister of Safety and Security) home or Riah Phiyega’s office, or perhaps that might have disrupted they objective to challenge "white supremacy."

Just as Elion exploited Madiba's legacy, so too did Tokolos-Stencil, take advantage of the attention his contentious public artwork generated. In an interview with the ConMag they express annoyance that their seemingly "subversive" graffiti or interventions had gone unnoticed by the press. So, it appeared as if their act was designed to draw attention to themselves.

Despite the group make observations about the poor conceptual content of Elion’s work, their own, was a seemingly empty gesture too (they did not engage with the flaws of the work) which also involved riding on the coat tails of political issues in an effort to shore up the “content” of their work. - first published in The Sunday Independent, 23 November 2014. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Beyond Borders: Marcus Neustetter

Proximity I - IV

Within the last month, Marcus Neustetter has put on one solo exhibition, a joint show with Stephen Hobbs at the Rubixcube Gallery, a performance/installation at the Rocket Factory in Maboneng and launched a new set of stamps of his own design. This level of productivity isn’t unusual. There have been years when he has put out several solo exhibitions, participated in group shows, locally and internationally, and created performances, films.

Neustetter’s incredible artistic output can be ascribed to a number of idiosyncratic qualities; he is a 24/7 artist propelled by an almost childlike glee and curiosity about the world and interpreting it, his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to art-making, in which he is willing to try anything and prizes spontaneity, and art making which demands or is conceived to deal with space (physical or ideological) in the “moment”, the present.

In this way each work he makes is quickly replaced by another and art making or the art object isn’t such a loaded, weighted or agonising endeavour with long-term consequences. In other words, for Neustetter art is play. It’s a way of undercutting the traditional view of art as elitist and highly valuable.
It may have been his performance and collaboration with the Stockhausen-inspired musician Jill Richards in Antjie in Berlin (it had a run at the Market Theatre in 2012) which best embodied his approach. This live performance saw Neustetter intuitively respond to Richards’s music and Antjie Krog’s texts via abstract lines and marks, which he wasn’t completely in control of – he observed them on a screen where they were projected and enlarged, and therefore distorted.

Placing physical barriers between himself and his mark-making or image production (usually by not looking at what he is doing) is something he has employed quite a bit in his practice; it has retained the sense of spontaneity he craves, allowing for the accidental and ensured an end product that is abstract and exists to some degree as a by-product of other activities – such as looking at the subject; either tracing the stars in the sky or plotting the landscape he observes from the window in an airplane.

These optical barriers might have coincided with his fixation with observation – however, it also relieved him of the huge burden that comes from fully investing in the art product, where it is the focus and not just as a record or document of another activity. Through a turn in his practice that saw him dispense with technology such as Google tracings, photography and videography, he came to valourise unfinished, crude or seemingly insignificant, random drawings as proof of the incredible vast spaces he has attempted to map, whether in the sky or on the ground, for this allowed him to authentically articulate the manner in which the material world couldn’t be crafted into coherent, visually resolved images. His form of mapping therefore substantiated the impossibility of ordering space while paradoxically pursuing it.

His exhibition at Art On Paper, Defining Lines, marks another significant shift in his practice; for the works are not byproducts of another activity, there are no optical barriers that would place him at a remove from them and he has laboured over them – he didn’t show for a year. He is now invested in his mark, which is no longer spontaneous or accidental; the marks in this show are deliberate strokes, they are large and bold and aesthetically pleasing, though his vocabulary remains abstract. He is painting too; with ink and gauche.
This exhibition therefore presents a bold leap for Neustetter and the result is one of his strongest shows to date. Undoubtedly it is the most visually thrilling; and as its title intimates is centred on the lines that define it - the works are largely characterised by thick bold black lines, which signify those synonymous with boundaries on maps.

So, yes, once again he is concerned with map making but, this time, he distorts conventional cartography by zoning in on the invisible borders between countries. He enlarges these lines and imagines “the space” that exists inside them – this liminal space between belonging and separate, not quite on the other side of the border, but existing between borders. This ties in with his practice, which has so often been consumed by depicting this in-between space, whether it is between the sky and ground or between how something exists but cannot be seen - such as natural or scientific phenomena.

In this exhibition, he aims to make visible the invisible; the ideological baggage that sustains these invisible frontiers - they tend to only be given expression on maps.  He doesn’t expose the specific politics, nor is one aware which boundaries they are, except for a work with a very long-winded title that lists over two dozen countries that have been layered over each other to form an abstract painting where these diverse places become unified by a uniform line that runs around them.  They exist because of these lines.
Nations, countries and identities are defined by these jagged lines – they are rarely straight, implying that they are not artificially conceived. To give expression to the energy and investment in these national boundaries and the friction that often ensues in response to their perceived impenetrability, he presents works with abstract expression between these lines. It is rendered in colour and via rough short lines mirroring the visual vocabulary of cartography, a visual short-hand for a complex set of events, or conditions. They  bring to mind those he has employed in his crude drawings in the past, summoning a kind of naïve rendition of friction. These chaotic lines were intended to resemble the drawings his two-year-old daughter makes, he says.

This echoes a mode he employs to render that which cannot be represented but also his idiosyncratic way of approaching big topics through naïve forms that expresses a kind of resignation in the face of such overwhelming conditions (how do, can you deal with nationhood, identity, war as a phenomenon) but also a persistence to explore them regardless and surrender to whatever can be discovered through this process.
In works such as Abrasion, he splits these dark borderlines, revealing in the cracks, light and colour, as if exposing the unseen dynamics. This work and others such as the one with a very long-winded title (too long to list here), brings to mind the Cave openings that Neustetter was quite recently fixated on.
Explorers, historians and scientists have traditionally viewed caves as a sort of magical portal into long-buried world's but Neustetter has reversed this view by positioning the light at the opening of caves as a threshold promising discovery. In a way, this exhibition at AOP is also about reversing perspective: shifting attention to the line rather than the space it demarcates.
It is a way of arriving at a familiar place anew. The abstract language he embraces advances this, as  the pleasing visual character of the works does too: by taking these solid boundaries and aestheticising them, rendering them as abstract, he exploits them as imagined constructs and in so doing acknowledges what they are while similarly deconstructing them.

There was always a kind of poetry to Neustetter’s work but it almost always has been rooted in the ideas driving it or how he arrived at it – like tracing constellations in the sky with his gaze fixed on it and not the drawing of them. In this show, however, the end products are poetic – compositionally, aesthetically, on a sensual level. Faultlines is a good example of this; this painting is a mapping of a landscape, it’s geography via a concentration of strokes or marks.  Neustetter probably worked with a reference but now he is able to truly inhabit the imaginative space he renders because he is immersed in it rather than his subject.
In other words, his gaze has shifted to his art, it is not just functioning as the tool to discover the world, but rather is a world within itself. - first published in The Sunday Independent.