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?

Fashioning the Rainbow Dream

Mary Sibande's A Terrible Beauty is Born (2013)
The one enduring motif that emerged from the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (International Surrealist exhibition) at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris was the female mannequin. This landmark exhibition was like a veritable shop window colonised by mannequins except for their bizarre getups. Some had large amorphous balls of cottonwool attached to their heads (head in the clouds?), others were covered in fishing nets and accessorised with magnets.  Surrealism was, after all, concerned with "exploring the borderline between the inner and the outer world, a borderline that is physically and psychologically entirely real ('surreal')", as Max Ernst, one of the central proponents of the movement, explained.

The mannequin, it seemed, operated as the ideal conduit to articulate or make real the unreal, the surreal, being the invisible world of the mind, the psyche and its longings, which seek affirmation in the real world.
Fashion retailers have exploited this condition; filling shop windows with ideal human supplicants that project or make real the fantasised imaginings of observers, encouraging them to believe that they could enter this world if they purchased the outfits and accessories that adorn these lifeless beings.

As we all know, this illusion can be sustained long after you have taken these new purchases out of the bag; for the dream scenario remains locked in the mind, shaping what the eye cannot see.
But it does take some effort on the part of the wearer to maintain the fantasy and eventually there does come a day when they can no longer do so, compelling them to jettison the garment or wear it with less sense of pride or energy.

The word "dream" has dominated discussions around South Africa's 20 years of democracy and our concept of the post-apartheid landscape. This dream has been so powerful it has worked as the lens through which we have viewed our past, present and future. Reflecting on how South Africans "manufactured" Mandela, he observed: "I am the product of the South African intelligentsia of every colour, who have laboured to give our society knowledge of itself and to fashion our people's aspirations into a reasonable dream."
What is this dream that haunts our national consciousness and which has come to function as a yardstick to measure how far we have come?  Or, to conceive of it in another way; is the dream any different to a shop-window display peopled by mannequins and props working towards situating this fantasy as real, achievable? This analogy can perhaps be deepened or made more convincing by the fact that largely in discourses delineating the nature of the dream or its failure to be realised, commentators tend to list the material or quantifiable properties along which we can measure the reality against the dream.

Figures and statistics are often used in such a pursuit and it is not to say that we shouldn't map transformation in terms of wealth or land distribution, unemployment levels or by the quality of our public education and health institutions. These very real realities need to be constantly addressed and assessed.
However, in terms of measuring a "dream", they perhaps only offer us insight into the physical dimensions of how it might manifest but not the power of the fantasy itself. Just as studying the dimensions of an Armani jacket cannot help us fully grasp the psychic pay-off that the wearer hopes it might fulfil.
The kind of dreaming that clothing or seductive presentations elicit is not rooted in possessing the garments per se but the sense of pleasure-seeking image that they might deliver.
This is one of the reasons that the patterns of the consumption of fashion remains so insatiable; the clothing ultimately can never deliver on the dream, forcing individuals to keep on accumulating garments as a means of chasing or turning the pleasurable dramas in the shop window into reality.
Ruga's White Woman of Azania in Grahamstown (2012)

Coincidentally, the new imagined post-apartheid identity was first made real through clothing and an identity-driven art photography culture that focused on "dressing up" and trying out new identities.
The focus on the body as the site on which to project transformation wasn't unexpected: the country's oppressive racial past centred on hard categories based on physical appearance.
A new crop of designer labels who found prominence on the ramps of SA Fashion Week, such as Amanda Laird Cherry, Nkhensani (Manganyi) Nkosi of the Stoned Cherrie label, Craig Native and Jacques van der Watt of the Black Coffee label, all started working at forging a new vocabulary that was recognisably different from before, though also familiar enough for wearers to understand what it communicated.

As this Afrocentric turn in fashion took hold, eventually populating store windows with mannequins adorned in A-line Skirts with Xhosa trims, any manner of garment in Seshweshwe prints, and Seventies style T-shirts bearing Steve Biko's likeness, the dream of the new democratic country seemed possible. Nothing articulates transformation faster than a change of dress. As a multiracial melting-pot and hot-bed of creativity, Sophiatown at its height in the 40s and 50s became the guiding light for the Stoned Cherrie aesthetic or the road map to the new imagined identity. The blueprint for who we wanted to be was hidden in the past.
But fashions come and go, and by the mid-Noughties, this vocabulary had grown tired, and seemed flawed and superficial; the African references were vague, designers used them without knowing their historical significance and, more importantly, the Afrochic vibe as it was called, started to become so rigid that it sought to fix identity in ways that seemed reminiscent of the past. Besides, the euphoria of the early years of democracy was starting to wane.
"We have a more sober approach to the country's politics; we are nervous. We are questioning the government. The crime phenomenon and constant electricity blackouts have changed the mood," observed Laird Cherry, reflecting on the shift in her design vocabulary.