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