|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?