Monday, January 26, 2015

Best of 2014

AS ALWAYS the artworks that grabbed the headlines in 2014 were those that were "rejected" or opposed by a segment of society. Brett Bailey's Exhibit B, which showed at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival as part of the SA-UK Seasons, a cultural accord between the two countries, caused controversy and was prevented from being staged in London at the Barbican due to protests from people that deemed it "racist" and "offensive". Interestingly, when it was staged in South Africa during the 2012 National Arts Festival, it barely raised an eyebrow.  No one in the arts sector was silent, however, when Michael Elion's Perception was installed along the promenade in Sea Point in Cape Town. This strip has been home to some of the worst public art and, even though empty public art statements are more the norm than the exception, Elion had crossed a line - it also didn't help that he insulted his detractors and then played the victim of a paranoid conspiracy.
Unfortunately, the artworks, installations and performances that were interesting and presented quieter leaps for artists or the arts scene didn't generate much attention. Hopefully, this "best of 2014" will remedy this and prove that work worth celebrating often goes under the radar if it isn't deemed offensive or is badly conceived.

Best Artwork/Series: 

Kay Hassan: My Father's Music Room (Where do I end and you begin? City Art Centre, Edinburgh). I first saw this installation at the Joburg Art Gallery in 2008.
Its iteration in this group exhibition, however, had a stronger impact on me. This may have been because it has grown exponentially, or the space where it was installed.
Nevertheless, when I stepped into it, I felt as if I had entered into another world - rather than passing through or observing an installation. The sheer volume of old record covers that fill the shelves of this fictional "room" is quite overwhelming as is the intimate and collective histories it evokes.
Music is the one mode that truly allows us to step back in time and erases boundaries between the present and the past, but here in this installation the objects, the records (now anachronistic objects), the covers, make clear that while the past haunts us, it is gone. Nostalgia, loss, sadness and even joy and wonder marked my experience of this unpretentious but rich installation.

Athi Patra Ruga: Approved Model of the New Azania (Uncertain Terms - Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town). All eyes have been on Ruga since he won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art and this sculpture which extends his practice and his renderings of his Azanian fantasy  show he will rise to the occasion next year in Grahamstown. He could easily have won this award in the visual arts category given more recently his tapestries and sculptures have dominated his artistic output.
Sculpture is actually a new area for the artist, it was at his solo exhibition at Whatiftheworld at the end of 2013 that the first flowered figure appeared. What is significant about the sculpture is the way in which it advances his efforts to make Azania and its fluid citizens 'real' and hypervisualised, despite them appearing completely OTT, adorned in faux flowers, which render them the ultimate subject/objects.

Brother Moves On live performance with Willis's filmic installation.
Pic by Anthea Pokroy

Hank Willis Thomas: Righteous Space (Goodman Gallery, Joburg) The African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas debuted the work in South Africa at a Brothers Move On concert at the Alexander Theatre, but it was at the exhibition, with the accompaniment of music (Makeba) and political speeches that it was at its most interesting. This interactive filmic work presents loaded symbols embodying state-sanctioned racism, such as the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) insignia, the Nazi-like swastika, which evolve into geometric patterns based on the voice patterns. In this way Thomas attempted to deconstruct the symbols, deplete them of meaning, while songs - the voice - would reactivate the symbols. So clever. He showed how efforts to counter loaded political symbols works at reinforcing their meaning but also disturbs it.

Dan Halter: Plenty Sits Still Hunger is a Wanderer (Whatiftheworld, Joburg Art Fair). There is something thoroughly pleasing about Halter's woven web pages, empty web pages, that is, that summon displacement graphically. This works on every level - the weaving mode somehow captures pixellation accurately as well as evoking the way digitial tools and the language they facilitate can render displacement in ways never possible before.
Nandipha Mntambo

Best solo exhibitions: 

Nandipha Mntambo: Transcience (Stevenson, Joburg). It has been exciting to watch the abstraction turn evolve in South African art, and more particularly among artists such as Nandipha whose work centred on identity, gender politics.  This exhibition presented a transition, though it also showed how this artist has to some degree always been working with abstraction and exploiting it to communicate the sense of ambiguity that has always been a characteristic of her work. The "hairy" oil paintings, with animal hair sewn into the canvas, resulted in macabre objects that were "alive and dead".

Marcus Neustetter: Defining Lines (Art on Paper, Joburg).
Neustetter's work has often displayed an abstract veneer, but in this show he was able to arrive at an abstract language without the usual optical barriers he has employed in the past (such as not allowing himself to see what he is doing). I suppose that rather strange process allowed him to arrive at the point he is now: a bolder place where he is able to confront and consider his mark. The result was a show with large-scale works that were aesthetically pleasing yet still continued his fixation with maps and probing the liminal - this time the ambiguity of borders between countries and how they are conceived visually.

Best Group Exhibitions:

Uncertain Terms - Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town. Without a doubt this was the one group show that made me slightly giddy with excitement and scribbling in my black Moleskin. The main reason is that this show unwittingly (the gallery/curator seemed not to put their finger on the magic of this show) exposed the pop-ish turn in SA Art that is particular to Cape Town based artists. Or perhaps it is best described as Pop-ish abstraction. The work on this exhibition, by a host of young (and I would say hot) artists from Daniella Mooney to Nico Krijino to Moffat Takadiwaand Chloe Hugo-Hamman are all coming from the same place, well at least superficially or visually. This is a stream or strain veering off from the abstraction that has been on display at Stevenson and Blank Projects, as largely these artists are all cannabilising popular culture whether self-consciously or not. I will be writing more on this show shortly, so if you are confused, wait... all will be revealed.

Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Museum Africa) - curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester. There may well have been some behind-the-scenes politics in the curating of this show, but that did little to detract from its importance. There was some resentment that it took a Nigerian curator to "write" our photographic history of apartheid but perhaps the scale of such an endeavour could not be fully taken on by a local one, who might be too close to the material.  The breadth of this show was astounding and, aside from all the known images, it was interesting to peruse those in juxtaposition with lesser known ones. It also |drove home the fact that the struggle to dismantle apartheid was one centred on aesthetics and visual gestures of solidarity. "Apartheid was camera-ready," observed Enwezor.

Where do I end and you begin? (City Art Centre, Edinburgh) - Thembinkosi Goniwe in collaboration with Richard Hylton, Aaron Kreisler, Kathleen Ritter and Viya Shivadas. Putting five curators in a room with the hope of putting up a cohesive group show sounds like an impossibility, but this initiative that debuted at the Edinburgh Art Festival proved the contrary. It makes sense for an international exhibition encompassing work from different countries (in this case from the Commonwealth) to be directed by curators intimately familiar with the expression in their respective countries. Goniwe may have selected his favourite local artists - Mary Sibande and Kay Hassan - but their works were standouts and fitted in with the rich conversation between all the other diverse works on the exhibition, which probed the identity politics of the "common wealth" . There was a lot of good work on this show. Spent hours at the venue. It is such a pity it went unnoticed, while Brett Bailey stole the limelight with his Exhibit B.

Best filmic works:

Yinka Shonibare Addio del Passato (So Closes my Sad Story) (Looking Back, Zeitz Mocca, Cape Town, curated by Mark Coetzee).
This filmic work, which first showed in the context of an exhibition of series of photographs dubbed The Fake Death Pictures, is linked to theatricalised representations of death, which are said to be metaphors for the collapse of imperialism, colonialism and more recently the economic woes that have gripped the West.
The film shows the character Frances Nisbet, Lord Nelson's estranged wife, singing the eponymous aria from the last act of Verdi's opera, where she mourns the loss of the relationship. There is no conclusion to the film, she remains locked in this state, where mourning becomes a way of being rather than a response to an event. She is trapped in victimhood, or the show of it.

Dada Masilo in Kentridge's Refusal of Time

William Kentridge: Refusal of Time (Joburg Art Gallery). I first saw this work at Documenta13 in Kassel, Germany but only came to appreciate it in Joburg, where there were no other distractions and it could hold my entire attention for a morning. It is as much a sensory experience as it is an intellectual one. With the "breathing machine" installed in the gallery, seemingly keeping time going or drawing our attention to its fragility, you find yourself completely absorbed by the action that takes place on five screens, where it is repeated, evolves from one screen to the next, or shows different time zones. The films are like animated clocks. It's a pity it is installed at the back entrance of the gallery, where workers and visitors plod through.Sigh.

Aryan Kaganof: Night is Coming: Threnody for victims of Marikana. Characteristically, Kaganof reworks documentary material into a full-length filmic artwork that delves into representations of Marikana and then, more broadly, into the landscape and how this theme remains important to the country's growing disenfranchised. He boldly implies that visuals cannot sufficiently engage with this topic, echoing Enwezor's observation that aestheticisation or representation obfuscates the truth. Ultimately, he appeals to music and sound as a vehicle to evoke the massacre at Marikana.

Best Painting exhibitions: 

Sam Nhlengethwa: Final Tributes (Goodman Gallery).
Like Kaganof, Nhlengethwa makes art about art. In this instance he presents a series of paintings of the final destinations for artworks - the domestic settings, where in isolation of other artworks and out-of-the-gallery context they are both ordinary and overlooked perhaps and extraordinary. His interest appears to be in exposing art's "low life" existence in domesticity and how works activate space and evoke worlds, existences beyond the space.
Tom Cullberg

Tom Cullberg: Tower (Brundyn +, Cape Town). I'm probably biased when it comes to the work for this show as I spent a fair amount of time studying it in Cullberg's studio in preparation for a catalogue essay and I never got to see it installed in the gallery, which may have shifted my reading of it.  It takes balls to fill canvas after canvas with lines and that is probably what attracts me to his abstract works; not just the boldness but the ambiguity. This work makes me curious: I want to know how he arrives at that aesthetic and how each journey to that point starts out differently. His work is like candy for a writer such as myself as it presents a puzzle that can never be unlocked because it is wired to be unopened or is perpetually open.

Michael Taylor: I Was Born Yesterday (Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town). This show made me smile.
With its fashion illustrative qualities, camp humour - boys in sailor suits - and amusing titles and scenes capturing people on what appears to me to be a dress-up booze cruise (in fact he is depicting seafaring races), the paintings parade as light and fun. However, for me they also exemplify a blinkered Cape Town naivety. Disaster is imminent for these happy party people. In one painting they wear life jackets, and his mode of rendering lends an air of instability and uncertainty.

Best Performance Art:

Donna Kukama: Museum of Non-Permanence (Monument, National Arts Festival, Grahamstown) Performance art is very thin on the ground and the fact that the highlight each year seems to be a work that debuts at this festival as part of the Standard Bank Young Artist platform implies it is only when artists are given free rein and financial support that they can truly "perform". Kukama's work was quirky, intimate and clever. She only saw a handful of audiences-cum-participants, who queued for hours outside her booth. Once inside she quizzed you about your life, issued certificates, took your hair, nails and gave something of herself - in my instance a vial of blood, which we buried as a monument.

Happy Dhlame: Land of Milk and Honey (Joburg). Wearing a balaclava and suit, Dhlame dragged one of those large bags full of recycled objects around Joburg between different voting stations on election day. He attached signboards to the bundle which echoed the colours of the ANC and boasted the phrase: "Land of milk and honey." It was a brave work that was oddly overlooked by IEC delegates.

Artists I will be watching in 2015: Daniella Mooney, Igshaan Adams, Bogosi Sekhukuni, Chad Roussow

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Weighing up the Costs

Kentridge always figures himself in his art; confronting the way
he can be held "accountable"

Art can be quantified, Professor Johannes Fedderke says during a talk at the Strauss & Co offices in Joburg. After studying, documenting and analysing the results of art auctions since 2009, Fedderke, director of Economic Research South Africa, is able more or less to predict what will sell at auction and even what price it might fetch. Well, more or less, there is no accounting for those split seconds when a collector loses her or his head.

For an art critic it is disturbing (it renders your preoccupation obsolete) and intriguing to observe the graphs on which Fedderke has plotted who the top-selling artists are at auction (based on the number of works sold in this period) and who fetches the highest prices - Irma Stern predictably leads the pack.
Other than sales records there are characteristics that affect an artwork's marketability, such as size - large works are less popular (its hard for avid collectors to find the wall space) - and the degree to which they have been legitimised by literature (what a relief, there is a role for critics).

Screens brimming with mathematical equations that look like they could explain the universe demonstrate how Fedderke has arrived at a method of calculating worth, imply that art is a numbers game and, like any commodity, can be weighed and measured numerically.
Fedderke's lecture echoes in my mind as I stroll around William Kentridge's exhibition Drawings: East Rand Proprietary Mines Cash Book at the Goodman Gallery.

Naturally, Kentridge's name appeared on Fedderke's list of top-selling artists at auction. This is unusual because being dead is the best thing you can do to push up the price of your work, says Fedderke.
Kentridge has fortunately found international success in his lifetime. He is one of a small group of international artists whose work regularly appears in the top museums, galleries and biennales around the world. Buying a Kentridge is a no-brainer. An art fair in South Africa isn't an art fair without a host of small Kentridge prints for sale. Everyone wants a piece of him. He is the most well known contemporary artist in this country.
The last month has presented a feast; two other Kentridge shows opened in Joburg: Tapestries at the Wits Art Museum and the filmic installation The Refusal of Time at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Kentridge's international fame and his popularity at auction and with locals - he may be the only contemporary artist some South Africans are familiar with - puts his work above approach in a way.
As a result his work isn't "weighed" in the same manner as most other artists. It also helps that he keeps producing interesting and compelling work, expanding his repertoire so to speak - as with the large tapestries at Wam - exploring new collaborations, as with The Refusal of Time, which is a highly ambitious and impressive installation (there are six screens and action moves across them, or is sometimes confined to them, as Kentridge segments and joins "time-frames"). Exactly how collaborative these “collaborations” are is debatable; Dada Masilo’s distinctive vocabularly is glaringly obscured in the Refusal of Time.

Dada Masilo in A Refusal of Time

Due to his ubiquitousness, the art intelligentsia here  take Kentridge's work for granted. It is rarely dissected in academic circles or is a topic of conversation informally, although his discourse on white privilege, which is hugely fashionable, is probably unparalleled on our art scene. He has persistently weighed our history and the violence that white privilege stemming from the colonial era - and how he has been a beneficiary of it - he has always figured himself in his work.

Accountability is a tricky business. It can be reduced to numbers. This comes to the fore in Kentridge's drawings at the Goodman Gallery. The theme of "weighing and measuring" quite obviously haunts this collection, executed on old ledger pages from the East Rand Propriety Mines Cash book and Refusal of Time at Jag.

I'm a little frustrated that the drawings obscure the information on the ledger pages - which date back to the early 1900s - because I'm curious about a mine's running costs in those early days. These are historical documents and Kentridge is (partially) concealing this history with his characteristic charcoal landscape drawings and then redating them as he transforms them into documents of another kind - adding substantial value to them in doing so.

There are some works where the drawings don't completely obscure the information on the pages and you can read the list of costs. And, if you are really curious about that era, Rosalind C Morris expounds on the details in Accounts and Drawings from Underground, a publication linked to the exhibition.
There is a distinction between European and Native workers, which reveals how time and humanity were quantified. Kentridge has always been fixated with time and disturbing its chronological order - this is what attracted him to film in the first place and to working with musicians and composers like Phillip Miller and dancer and choreographer Masilo in The Refusal of Time. These two artists work in fields that pivot on timing.

At the centre of the installation is a large moving sculpture that looks like a steam punk creation. It is dubbed the "breathing machine" or "elephant" and resembles an invention used in Paris in the late 1800s to keep clocks ticking. It looks like a large set of lungs or a contraption to aid mass production, serving as a reminder of how industrialisation involved commodifing time - reducing it to a measurable entity that had intrinsic fiscal value and which defined the individual's status within the "machine" - the system - as was (and is) the case with mine labour.
A landscape drawing on an old ledger page. 

Kentridge's drawings at the Goodman are centred on quantifying a number of things real and abstract, such as the land itself - these are landscape drawings, after all. Land has value and physical properties that can be quantified, yet there are also elements that can't be measured: the psychic and political costs tied to its ownership and, more important, the tragic events that take place on it.

A mine dump is featured in one drawing and shaftheads in some of the others, but largely the landscapes look undisturbed by miners, colonial settlers or Africans. As a result the ledgers not only are the only visible evidence of what was taking place at a subterranean level, but map the early beginnings of an industry that has come to be a symbol of white supremacy and the exploitation of people and the land. As such the ledgers contain information that the land cannot.

As the drawings cover the ledger pages, it's as if the lines, calculations and figures operate as the framework on which the land is suspended, articulating the invisible system imposed on it and the inter-connectedness of the past and the present. They are inseparable.
In one drawing, Kentridge has scrawled the name "Marikana" (presumably referring to the setting), directing our attention to ways in which the present echoes the past and how these seemingly benign landscapes are connected to dark realities.

As with his early filmic works, red lines appear on the drawings indicating errors, a disturbance, and at times these red lines are linked to specific items in the ledger, forcing a relationship between them.
"In history, mistakes may be acknowledged, but not eliminated. Every attempt at erasure leaves its mark," observes Morris. As a result the ledger has unwittingly come to catalogue evidence for these "errors"; presenting costs that aren't listed and which can't be ‘counted’.

That the information in the ledger pages is partially obscured hints at an effort to erase the past and replace it with something more pleasing, such as the landscape genre of painting or drawing that was particularly popular with colonials and which remains a politically loaded motif in South Africa's art history, from Pierneef to Goldblatt. Kentridge problematises this art motif (which Fedderke isolates as a popular one at auctions) and ensures that overwriting the past remains a transparent process.

Kentridge doesn't begin with a clean "slate" so to speak. He has to negotiate the history denoted by the pages that are the backdrop for his drawings. This isn't something new in his practice and it implies that South African artists cannot purely embark on an imaginative journey, given that their starting point is never neutral, never fresh or new. They have to work with what came before.

Kentridge embraces this on every level; apart from the archaic filmic mode he adopted in his animations, his entire aesthetic is made to appear dated; old pages from books of all kinds, ancient maps. In Refusal of Time, he employs the silent-movie mode so it looks like the film(s) is from a bygone era. There is a sense that he is not only caught but trapped - not only by history but by the absence of a language to deal with it.
At a very basic level, based on all his exhibitions on show in Joburg, Kentridge is fixated with the burden of history. As with the ledger pages and his animations and the maps of cities in Europe that form the backdrop for most of the tapestries, Kentridge makes work "with history" - he is constantly engaged in that most fashionable of pursuits dubbed "confronting the archive" or perhaps measuring it.

From the beginning he has been preoccupied with a different form of checks and balances; that is, weighing how he has profited from the culture of exploitation that underpins South Africa's skewed colonial and apartheid history. In other words, confronting the "guilt" of the past and searching for ways of being "accountable". This is why he is a recurring character in his work - his pursuit is personal. In one of his untitled drawings, Kentridge, recognisable by his "uniform" - a white shirt and black trousers - is pictured walking, with his head down, as if in contemplation, as he crosses the page of a ledger.

He has placed himself in this terrain and is trying to reconcile with his position in it. It's as if he yearns to be "accountable" but doesn't know how. Given that his work has become so valuable and that he is a financial success must complicate this; cashing in on white guilt is perversely profitable. Privilege can't be shirked. Even if Kentridge renounced all his money, withdrew from the world and lived on the street he would be tethered to a legacy of privilege.

The ledger pages create the illusion that the damage of the past can be calculated, but it can't. Kentridge has been dealing with this incalculable "debt" throughout his career. This motif was driven home in his films - often denoted by rising water levels that evoke the acid mine water in Joburg, a consequence of mining, the residue of exploitation haunting the present, but also a kind of natural abundance that swallows up the usually white male subject - for example the fictional Soho Eckstein, a wealthy white businessman.
In this way Kentridge's art centres on confronting white privilege and the inability ever to transcend it. He remains tethered to his European roots and the baggage this entails.

He, and we, are like members of this elegiac procession silhouetted against the backdrop of historical maps in his large mohair tapestries. These flat, black silhouette figures are faceless because they represent us all. The victims, the oppressors. They loom as these universal effigies that could be from any time or place; they could be African refugees, they could be Jews, anyone and everyone - not only is the world's history defined by mobility, but it is one where migration brings about conflict. We are all haunted by history.
Immigrants hold on tight to their origins to shore up their identity in a new land, so, while there is this sense that European, colonial roots are a blight on the South African identity, there is also a compulsion to hold on to it tightly. Kentridge does so through the visual vocabulary he adopts. In this way his language of communication can only turn in on itself.

Kentridge's small sculptures in the Goodman exhibition evoke fragmented subjects. He adopts a modernist language that brings Picasso and Gris to mind; the multifaceted profile meets the collage. Collage has been a useful vehicle for Kentridge to articulate the sense of conflict that haunts his subjects - perhaps himself - who have yet to figure out a way to make peace with all the parts of themselves.
In the Refusal of Time, Kentridge appears to have found a way to navigate around this dilemma by altering time itself, so that one is never certain what is the past, present or future. It's a space where accountability can be truly achieved; by going backwards in slow motion and gradually undoing each action. The only problem is the result: erasing the (erroneous) act in question. Every effort to be accountable is eventually reduced to a denial.

Refusal of Time is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until February 1.