Hentie van der Merwe
When the Vita swung by a week after the chaos that was the opening of Urban Futures, I was exhausted but prepared. Despite being a contributor to the catalogue, I had little idea what to expect and really wanted to keep it that way. There's no use spoiling the surprise when so few still exist these days. So call me cynical.
Admittedly, I had certain mild reservations about this year's proceedings that mostly had to do with the judging panel still being exclusively Gauteng-based, despite being an all-new committee, comprising Julia Charlton, Clive van den Berg, David Koloane, Kagiso Pat Mautloa and Willem Boshoff. And the choice of artists seemed to reflect this new group's outlook - there was no enfant terrible factor to get anyone's hackles up, which is not entirely a bad thing. The truth be told, this year's show is one of the finest-looking to date.
You could put this down to there being four artists instead of six, which effectively increases their production budgets and allows them to maximise the potential of what is a notoriously difficult space. And the production budgets provided are enabling, although I would argue not enough for a competition that possesses the most clout and kudos in the country.
The main gallery space is entirely devoted to the work of winner Terry Kurgan and Claudette Schreuders. Hentie van der Merwe's photographic installation of a 'rewritten archive' of landscape, memory and desire (that requires one to negotiate the pitch-black space with a torch) and Berni Searle's three-screen video projection are in the two back spaces that have become synonymous with 'video work at the Vita'.
Kurgan's installation of large-scale, digital prints on silk organza, called Lost and Found, unequivocally steals the show. Even if the content of the work feels slippery, its aesthetic clout is at once overwhelmingly bold and quietly sublime. Although one can walk up the side bay of the gallery to the back spaces, you feel compelled to insert yourself between the cinematic, diaphanous layers of silk, and stare up at oversized people that loom like ghosts from a recent past. These are not detached, Victorian era photographs in black and white or sepia, but colour images from the 50's and 60's of formal and informal family interaction.
The technique references video projection, but the seductive melding of high and low tech gives this work its power that is simultaneously intimate and alienating. The further away you stand, the more 'solid' the figures appear to be. Move closer, and their presence wafts just beyond your grasp.
Like their faded and bleached source images, these prints are at the mercy of the changing light in the gallery throughout the day. Hung beneath skylights, the light deconstructs and re-forms the images between morning and afternoon. Interrelationships are achieved through the translucent layering, mapping memory in a way that I immediately identified with experientially - you can't isolate any one image to engage with it exclusively, except those perhaps right in the front or back. And the work also asks you to construct narrative in a completely non-linear way with no real direction towards 'truth'. Kurgan speaks about the generational images that spawned the Family Affairs show (for which she was nominated), as "so many veils". She has given form to these veils in an installation that is possibly her strongest work to date.
Hentie van der Merwe's work And Our Fathers That Begat Us delves into archives of a different sort, trying to insert himself and his sexual identity into a writing of history that has, for the most part, ignored it. There's an implicit catharsis involved in his process, but unfortunately, it doesn't succeed as an installation. The tried and tested intellectual concerns, imaged through arid Namibian and other landscapes, homoerotic shots of naked and semi-naked men in these landscapes and personal images can't offer us anything new in the work's current form, and the torches left me dissatisfied - like I was on a treasure hunt where the prize was not what was promised. It's a pity, because it's an area that has by no means been exhausted, but its treatment is simplistic and immediately revealing of the conceptual and intellectual concerns underpinning the work.
The juxtaposition of landscape and body finds a correlation in Berni Searle's video piece Red Pool, Blue Mark, Black Stain, from the 'Discoloured' series. The left screen depicts a quarry on Robben Island, in which an anonymous package wrapped in cloth floats across eerily still, red water. The center screen images disembodied, macroscopic close-ups of henna-stained hands, the black-purple whorls and wrinkles of fingertips and palms forming a wrought landscape of their own. Although a projection, the sound of a slide projector clicking over has been recorded, which aggressively cuts through the silence of the space. And on the right, a pair of hands records the process by which they became stained, working the henna powder into a paste in a bowl. I'm not sure whether this piece is as powerful as some of her earlier work, but the introduction of new vistas where the body is still so present, this time in its absence, is an interesting shift.
Walking back through Kurgan's veils, two exquisitely rendered pieces, Graveposts by Claudette Schreuders, demand attention. Based on an old family photograph, which Schreuders hung between the two works, she has taken the tradition of African grave posts and carved and painted a pair for dead, European relatives. If only all our cemeteries could attain this level of dignity without all the schmaltz.
The work is part of an installation called Belonging. Schreuders has always maintained that her work, while able to stand alone as individual pieces, should be read as a narrative. Placed in a strong triangular arrangement, Belonging is made up of four other sculptures: Melancholy is a male figure pointing at his navel, next to which is painted an African phrase; Sunstroke depicts a male figure lying prone on a blue-flowered bed, an angry, nail-encrusted dog growling menacingly at his feet; and Lost Girl is a Mami Wata/Eve figure, with a snake coiled around her mermaid-like waist. A small Christ-Like figure with a leopard-skin around his waist peers down on the group from the wall. There is a pervading sense of discomfort and awkwardness about their arrangement and interaction. Read alongside Graveposts, they become quite sinister. But her quest for a sense of identity and belonging that is not borrowed or enforced forms a strong complementary to Kurgan's piece and forms a powerful energy in the space.
July 18 - September 2
Sandton Civic Gallery, corner Rivonia Road and West Street, JHB
Truck outside Mortuary - Kathryn Smith turns a truck into a mobile photo gallery.
Monday July 15 saw the opening of Urban Futures 2000 at MuseuMAfricA, a major international conference and cultural programme, the latter of which rivalled a small biennale in terms of scope and scale. Opening simultaneously across Johannesburg were some 30-odd exhibitions, the most impressive of which are 'Bone and Bytes: Healing and Revealing' (MuseuMAfricA), 'blank_Architecture, apartheid and after' (MuseuMAfricA), 'Tour Guides of the Inner City' (Market Theatre Galleries public realm and WWW), 'downTOWN: MTN/Urban Futures Video Focus' (JHB Civic Gallery) and 'MTN Electronic/Digital Art' (Gertrude Posel Gallery, Wits).
While those involved in the cultural programme were led to believe that it formed an integral and necessary aspect to the conference, what transpired at the opening was nothing short of ridiculous. An impressive but busy line-up promised performances by Dinkies Sithole, Phillip Miller, the Performing Rites Company, Phillipe Monvallier and Abafana Bakwa Zulu amongst others, all of which were subsumed into a heaving mass of conference delegates, guests and members of the public clamouring to get at mile-long tables laden with lavishly-catered food.
The Mayor, not heeding his cue, began his speech early and failed to mention the conference and exhibition sponsors. Dave Beasley, chairman of the MTN Art Institute, didn't even get a chance to address the crowds. No indication of where exhibitions were housed in the voluminous interior of the museum confused those trying to distinguish between permanent displays and specifically-curated shows. And no announcement was made that many of the performances and site-specific installations, which included screenings of William Kentridge's The Procession, were taking place in the car park of the Market Theatre just across the street. The attraction to free food and drink proved too overwhelming for people to notice, so much so that the opening of the piece de resistance, 'blank_Architecture, apartheid and after', was postponed until the following day.
Needless to say, it was probably the largest audience MuseuMAfricA has yet experienced. And in the calm following the storm, the general consensus is that the exhibition programme is probably the most relevant and interesting cultural adventure to hit Johannesburg, and perhaps even South Africa, for a long time. So give yourself time to absorb it all - it will probably demand several visits to get to all the venues, but at least MuseuMAfricA is open on Sundays for bored flaneurs.
Consult the Urban Futures programme or individual venues for closing dates of specific exhibitions.
William Kentridge video playing at the TopStar Drive Inn, as part of 'Tour Guides of the Inner City'
Organisers Stephen Hobbs and Jose Ferreira on an Inner City Tour.
About two years ago, artist and Market Theatre Galleries curator Stephen Hobbs asked me to take part in an exhibition called 'Tour Guides of the Inner City', a show which, as its name suggests, seeks to expose the myriad of contradictions and fervent energy that characterizes urban experience, specifically that of Jo'burg.
The show itself has experienced as many obstacles and hi-jackings as any resident of Johannesburg could recount, albeit of a less bodily-violent sort. The announcement of the Urban Futures 2000 conference presented itself as the ideal opportunity to realise the project in its entirety, combining aspects and ideas that had been played out on a smaller scale at various times since the project's inception.
Some twenty-nine artists, including Wayne Barker, William Kentridge, Titus Matiyane, Lucas Matome, Rodney Place, Jo Ractliffe, Robin Rhode, Joachim Schonfeldt, Marlaine Tosoni and Clive van den Berg, were selected in terms of their unique relationships with certain aspects of the inner city of Johannesburg - work that deals with the problematics and pleasures of a radical urban scene.
The focus is on activation - of viewers, the public and the cityscape alike. The show is not a close focus on Jozi's seedy and violent underbelly, but rather seeks to present the urban landscape as one exploding with energy and contradiction. In the seductive cocktail of dangerous pleasures that the city offers up, the possibilities for artistic intervention are endless.
An 'information exhibition' in the Market Theatre Galleries provides a multi-sensory mapping of the city that viewers can use to locate themselves, both physically and mentally. Lucas Matome has constructed a 'mini-town' version of the inner city of Johannesburg out of painted and collaged cardboard boxes. Painted streets allow one to walk about the buildings feeling rather like Godzilla, but it's a brilliant way to familiarise yourself with the city - while the execution is crude, the perception of detail and character is compelling. Maps, artist's statements, biographies, video and assorted ephemera from the exhibition's participants present a smorgasbord of creative endeavour dedicated to a city that most citizens from its northern suburbs would like to see razed to the ground.
In addition to the two main arenas for the show, namely the public realm and the world wide web, Urban Futures promised a new audience: international visitors with equal measures of crime-provoked anxieties, and desires to have an 'authentic' Johannesburg/South African/African experience. Given this, and the more pressing need to create truly interactive and seriously-considered site-specific works that the public of Johannesburg could encounter as ruptures to their routines, some of us went mobile.
Wayne Barker has set up a digital photography studio in a cramped caravan, complete with I-MAC, lights and 'Jo'burg take away' boxes available to purchase. They contain objects and detritus typical to the streets of the city all preciously packaged and cleverly labelled in tiny plastic bags and sealed in the lunchbox with an empty shotgun case shoved through the lid. In the photo studio, willing participants get photographed and then superimposed on a background or landscape of their choice that they would never normally find themselves in. Thumbs up to Barker, who'll be taking his mobile studio around the city for the duration of the show.
Last Tuesday, Marlaine Tosoni dropped, or rather attempted to drop, some 2000 postcards from her 'Alien' and 'Native' series out of a low-flying aeroplane onto the heads of conference delegates as they were emerging from the Electric Workshop for tea. The postcards fell, but didn't hit the mark. Poetic justice won the day when inner city street kids rushed to see what was falling from the sky, gathered them up and proceeded to try and sell them back to us.
My own practice has been focused on ideas around bodies, non-spaces, presence and absence for some time now, and has involved working at the government medico-legal mortuary in Joubert Street, Hillbrow, for the last three years or so. In trying to negotiate transient space and time, and the necessarily mutable identities that go with uncertainty and contradiction, I produced a series of photographs by projecting images of these traumatic bodies onto my own body and rephotographing the composite image. They were installed in a three-ton, steel-bodied truck that appeared unannounced at various locations from the Magistrate's Court, Smal Street Mall, Wits University and the luxurious Hyde Park Corner shopping mecca. While the work was unquestionably aggressive, it was received with genuine interest, engagement and a huge amount of curiosity.
But the highlight of the week was a bus tour by Alastair Mclachlan, complete with conductor's hat and vintage pink bus. The bus projects short films and artists videos from its roof onto the sides of buildings around the inner city, driving from site to site, stopping to co-opt electricity from a nearby building, and running the next film. Shivering in Jo'burg's freezing winter night, but energized by the idea of simply doing something so outrageous, was an immensely empowering feeling, especially when for the finale, we were driven up to the Top Star drive-in to watch William Kentridge's Felix In Exile on the gargantuan screen, set against Jozi's night cityscape. Breathtaking.
While not all the artists are mobile in this way, site-specific and time-bound works await visitors in unexpected places. For a rough itinerary, call the Market Theatre Galleries. Johannesburg has never seemed more spectacular, beautiful and uncomfortable - and rife with possibilities.
The exhibition runs until July 31.
Mo Diener and Sergeui Nikokcheve
FUR (Tracy Gander, Arnold Erasmus, Elena Barbisio)
A film producer friend of mine quite frequently expresses the view that artists should stop making videos and leave this medium to those who have been professionally trained in the necessary skills. An immersion into the video offerings currently on at the AVA on 'Channel too', curated by Robert Weinek for Public Eye, leaves one recalling this view, and considering these pieces as a whole against the kind of fare one might be offered in a festival of contemporary short films. Both rely on a projected moving image of course, coupled with a sound track, but the kind of structure and production values one looks for in film are often of little concern to the video artist.
Although visiting French artist Valery Grancher's Matrix and Nowhere Ever take one through a series of shots of cities one recognises every now and then as San Francisco, Cape Town, or Bangkok, interspersed with views of bits of aeroplane, Grancher is not trying to shoot a travelogue or make any kind of coherent record of his voyaging. Each of the often gorgeous fragments seemingly randomly cut together exists to be enjoyed as it goes by, without trying to connect it with what went before or wondering what might follow. Ambient image making. The journey is the destination. The structure that there is has more to do with good dj-ing than film editing - the slow, dreamlike pace of the cutting speeds up at one point to a series of rapid cuts over a soundtrack of hard driving rhythms - Warwick Sony selected the music in a live performance on opening night. Becoming known through his website, Grancher has now taken his video work to 35 different countries.
With something of a thematic link, but with a much more strongly directed structure, Horizon from Fur (Tracy Gander, Arnold Erasmus and Elena Barbisio) is a consideration of the South African landscape. Working from stills which are then digitally enhanced and manipulated to slips and slide across the screen, Fur takes us on a journey in which marching electrical pylons mutate and are given as much attention as the stark beauty of the semi desert areas of the Karoo.
A favourite on the show is proving to be visiting Swiss artist Mo Diener's piece, Light Steps. Diener dresses herself in the traditional clothing of a Xhosa woman, and walks regally through the railway station and streets of Cape Town. Filmed in extreme slow motion, it often appears as if Diener is walking towards us while everyone else is walking backwards. The sound track is an accompaniment by Sergeui Nikokcheve on a jews harp - an inspired choice. It sounds almost as if it might be a traditional Xhosa instrument - and yet - the same sense of dreamlike dislocation provoked by Diener's appearance prevails.
Evelyne Koeppel, like Grancher, visiting from France by courtesy of the French Institute, presents a simple but concentrated image of a hand dropping drops of unknown liquid on to the surface of water in Masse Critique, a process which creates a series of varying interactions. Malcolm Payne is interestingly obscure in The Eleventh Canon of Stupidity - Racism, a handsome piece which combines old movie footage of a ventriloquist who slaps his dummy in an altercation, with an image in negative of an opening and closing mouth emitting a stretched and sibilant sound. Gregg Smith presents Lovephones, an innocuous tale of a Cape Town woman in which the sound track must be listened to on a phone which is part of the installation, there are four short pieces from Edward Young, and Vuyisa Nyamende has his studently way with footage taped from recent television fare.
The show can visited via the web at www.channeltoo.co.za, and until the closing date, there will be live video streamed between 3 and 6 p.m. Gregg Smith's piece can be accessed on 083 910 1235.
Ends July 22.
Click through to view
Uwe Pfaff wears his influences on his sleeve. Unfortunately, for a large part, the shirt is not too well made. Described as a 'Cape Town artist and underground graffiti fiend', Pfaff comes across a little tamer than that. His works aren't that bad, they just aren't all that good. In some parts though, the show reveals that he is really better than this body of work shows.
We are invited, on our trip into the third millennium, to meet his dreams, fantasies and the creatures of his day and night. The work, I feel, does not really reveal the rocky or ecstatic landscape of the psyche, more the urbane fantasies of a greeting card reality. The body of work is visually consistent to the point of unnecessary repetition. Most of the works comprise a series of black grounds out of which a coloured panoply of creatures and objects emerge in negative silhouette. The shapes and lines he uses are consistently easy, even lazy, seldom with any kind of edge or true descriptive qualities. Visitors, aliens, angels, animated black holes and sunglasses abound. The images seem like Norman Catherine derivatives, like early Margaret Vorsters perhaps, realised in a Keith Haring paint effect. The figures are rendered in autumnal, rainbow-like colours, filled with blurred glyph-like designs.
The four silkscreens reveal a greater ability with colour and tone. The large Knee Deep, showing a bent knee filled with glyphs and animated by a small eye, is by far the most convincing and succesful work. The shapes, crisp outlines and clear, near-obsessive glyphs are quite exquisite. The tones of the figure and ground cause each other to vibrate. The three enamel paintings, especially Ahead in Clouds, show more integrity and skill than the rest of the work and it is these rare exceptions to the rule which go some way to redeeming the show.
It seems harsh to condemn an exhibition which has such a consistency about it, but perhaps it is necessary to do this in order to draw attention to the exceptions which are its strengths. The subject matter is unconvincing to me and its easy rendering goes no way to challenge my disbelief. Pfaff had some pretty hip music going all the time, but just as this music tended towards the flaky to my ear, so too did the art works dip fairly low between highlights.
Closes August 4.
3i Gallery, 95 Upper Waterkant St, Cape Town
Rumour has it that the show got its name not only from the "emerging" artists it showcases, but also from the speed at which it was put together. Fortunately the exhibition retains no evidence of this. It is a tight, well-structured and visually coherent collection of work by diverse artists. Conceptually and visually there is a clean and clear passage all the way through. Most of the artists are young, and their freshness sits right on the surface largely unhampered by their previous lack of exposure and experience. One could be forgiven for thinking that both the curators (Julia Clark, Doreen Southwood and John Murray who also exhibit) and the artists were considerably more experienced than they really are.
One is confronted, on entering the gallery, by works which allude to illness and healing. Lynne Lomofsky's large, grainy black and white pics of her receiving chemotherapy hang opposite Svea Josephy's Family Secrets. These works represent the darker side of this theme, subsequently lightened by Karen Cronje's untitled paper cutouts. Three identical images, which allude to a heart or capillary systems, hang in a row. A viewer is also reminded of a tree, its metaphor of networks and the interdependency of branches and roots, but more interestingly one ponders the process by which this work came about. Was each painstakingly and separately cut out by hand, were they all cut simultaneously by machine? Or, are these pieces the result of some chance eroding process and if so, how is it that they all appear identical?
Thematically the show continues and begins to get a little wackier with Doreen Southwood's Freedom, Hope and Strength - three badge-shaped works made of frames and glass containing carefully arranged patterns of flu-tablets and painkillers. The drugs are diluted and melancholy in colour and the futility of their promises is rendered quite pathetic but still amusing. Tracy Payne's Hydrangeasare at once beautiful and soppy. The heart-rending emotion and delicacy they evoke drips off just like the thin oil paint used in their depiction.
Things take a further turn for the odd with Heath Nash's contribution, which is also very firmly rooted in everyday reality. Using die-cut pieces of card he has constructed a large semi-rigid geometrical structure which hangs from the ceiling, neatly dealing with a difficult corner of the gallery. It is presented in photographs as well which show it in various states of folding, compression and stretching. The work is entitled '90% Chance of Rain', perhaps alluding to its mathematical origins and cloud-like appearance, and hovers enticingly between pure whimsy and total mindfuck. Next to this work John Murray's Oh my God is as much Robert Longo as Tommy Motswai. Three monochromatic drawings of almost comicbook-like women in states of extreme agitation are rendered in exquisite, inflated 3D.
The show is, I think, at its weakest following on from here when it collapses into works which have a bit too much "cleverer-than-thou" attitude and cartoon convenience evident in works like Rikus Ferreira's untitled work and the contrived video by Edward Young, Dan Halter and Cameron Platter. Around the corner the pace picks up again with fairly violent photographic images by Thobile Nompunga and Thembinkosi Goniwe. Julia Clark's Cold Comfort presents us with a photographic image of Clifton and Camps Bay beaches dotted with people and backed up against the comfortably populated hillsides. She has constructed a lightbox behind this and repeatedly pierced the image, apparently atop lamp-posts and in the windows of buildings. The work invites a viewer to decipher the pattern behind these piercings, to deconstruct the rationale behind their placement. Clark seems to muse on all the uniformly sized individual spots of warmth and light in a community which often barely knows its next door neighbour. A neat juxtaposition to this is Liza Grobler's Winter. Grobler has knitted a close fitting wool cover for a rather forlorn branching tree stump. The cover provides protection for this pathetic, stunted object but at the same time isolates it from contact with the exterior on which it would naturally thrive.
The exhibition comes full circle here, returning to the idea with which it begins. While the young artists here seem to have left behind the familiar socio-political subject matter of much contemporary South African art, they don't forsake the grand themes of art through the ages. Instead they approach studies of mortality, memory and mutability from a personal, sometimes oblique angle. The curators seem to have successfully chosen works which remain rooted in social reality, personal experience and everyday reality without excluding the potential of humour, quirkiness and emotion.
Closes July 29
Detail from the new show 'Untitled'
Detail from the new show 'Untitled'
Detail from the new show 'Untitled'
Inescapably, Alan Alborough is a bit of a bastard. His show - untitled, of course: why give the poor viewer even a smidgeon of help - is opaque and inscrutable, and forces you to torture your brain for references, for emotional clues, for half-remembered insights - anything to help you understand the work and the feelings it arouses in you. The artist has given nothing away. If you want to understand this work, you're going to have to really, really apply your mind and soul.
Does this sound nasty? It's not. It's a labour that the show compels you to undertake, because the work is not just difficult: it is also beautiful, astoundingly beautiful. It's so beautiful, so arresting, that people were sitting for ages on the floor, mesmerised by the hard clarity of the plastics, lights and surfaces that make up the structure of the pieces.
It's difficult to provide a description of the work, and this review will lean heavily on the visuals that accompany it. Picture seven large ovoidal structures of light and plastic, squatting like alien eggs on the floor. They are bracketed by two pairs of squat, square structures, on which a slow motion drama of decay is being played out. The materials used are all part of the common lexicon of plastic objects that inhabit our lives. White clothes pegs, transparent syringes, cable ties, plastic matting - all constructed, all possessed of an industrial beauty.
The four square constructions have vinyl-like white surfaces on which sit coils of wound material with nails imbedded in them. Alborough has poured salt water on these coils, and run a battery-generated charge through them. This causes corrosion, a rusty effluence that bleeds onto the white surface over the fortnight that the show runs. When the show is over, these coils are transferred to one of the ovoid structures, and new ones take their place for the next show. The coils sit on cotton reel spools that are placed on the plastic ribs that make up the ovoid shape. The show is going to seven cities, so each ovoid will receive the byproduct of one city's process of decay.
I almost didn't provide this description, because it's the kind of information that one tends to grab onto so as to have some sort of framework for thinking about the work. You almost feel that the artist has provided this information out of the kindness of his heart, to provide an escape hatch from the remorseless demands of his art.
Even if this is true, Alborough is still a bit of a bastard. Poor Andrew Verster, who conducted the walkabout that I attended, suffered miserably trying to explain the show. He desperately tried to humanise the art, telling the viewers that they needed to imagine the pieces as a room full of strangers with whom they had to strike up a conversation. He gave them tips about interview techniques, suggesting that they don't ask leading questions of the art, but rather let it do the talking. It was a brave attempt to give instant gratification to the crowd, and he was even reduced to an apology, jokingly offering money back to those who still didn't understand what the show was about.
But the truth is, Alborough's work is not about instant gratification, except in the sense that your heart surges with pleasure when you first walk into the space. It's about the materials used, and about the rupture in time that the show marks. This rupture is the divide between the old languages of art (realism, conceptual, performance, all those words), and the new language that has come into being with the advent of the 'net and cyberspace - the language of interdimensionality. This is not to suggest that this rupture in time is linear, or that the one language supersedes the other. Of course you can establish antecedents for Alborough's work in abstract art and surrealism, and there are even intergeneric references. His rigid adherence to an apparently pointless structure is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's use of repetition, and has the same effect of creating a white noise of informational overload in the viewer's brain.
Still, Alborough has crafted a new language, in the sense that the plastic objects he uses owe nothing to the more malleable materials of other art forms. They are the stuff that make up the symbolic matrix of the cybernetic generation, a generation that doesn't even necessarily know what cybernetics is. Even the word "symbolic" is out of place here: Alborough's work doesn't rely on any narrative element, and it certainly doesn't have meaning in the classic sense.
This insistence on new materials even extends to the exhibition's catalogue, which only exists on the 'net at www.alanalborough.co.za. A zooty blue iMac sits on a table, and visitors are invited to surf through the site, which provides a history of Alborough's work, and space for comments to be added. This is not just a cute device, but an integral part of experiencing the show. The hypertextual leaps demanded of the surfer are akin to the process of understanding the works.
There are a million other ways to explain this work, and the power of Alan Alborough's creations is such that they infect you with a burning desire to reach all those explanations. Some people, like Andrew Verster, try and humanise them. Others, like the man who asked Verster whether it wasn't all just a con, react with suspicion. Me, I choose to think of Alborough, albeit affectionately, as a bastard who forces the viewer to do the work of the artist. This isn't about decoding, it's about creating. Therein lies the genius of his work: it is so inescapably of its time, that the viewer is irresistibly embroiled in the act of creation, and thereby marked forever with the power of Alborough's gorgeous creations.
- Chris Roper is editor- in-chief of www.worldonline.co.za
June 30 to August 8.
At the entrance to the gallery, a security guard uses a torch to guide one through the shrouded doorway. The eyes take several seconds to adjust to the light, or rather, to the lack of it. Situated in the round beneath the stage of the Monument Theatre, this space is windowless and very dark, especially if the artist has chosen to make it so and Penny Siopis definitely has. There's a stark contrast with the bustle and bright winter sunshine one has just left behind.
"Spooky," says a fellow visitor, and I agree. As the eyes adjust, one is confronted by a dark room, highlighted at its edges with soft pools of light. Moving round the circular space to the left, there is a group of objects including army berets, sew-on insignia, a water bottle, a horseshoe, followed by a space representing a child's room. Then an unlit section consists of a wooden long-legged stool, some old boots, a short ladder, and an ancient, falling-apart stuffed baboon. Next, an adult bedroom, festooned with vintage female clothing and accessories. Above the bed is an ultra-slow motion projection of a short loop of film showing "tribal" dancers.
By this time, with a glance across to the other dimly lit areas of the gallery, it is clear that the lit spaces represent the rooms of a house. Or rather, a home, with the profusion of found objects which typically constitute the major part of Siopis' installation projects interacting to create a sense of lived, family space, a space packed with collections of objects which contain and reflect their owners' identities.
Except that the space is also haunted, uncanny. This is partly because of the thick woollen mesh which part obscures, part reveals the "rooms" of the house. The mesh is like fish net, like crochet, like flea-market dream catchers, like a veil which both conceals and hints at revelation. One almost expects it to feel sticky, as spider web does, but reaching out to gingerly touch it, I discover that it is warm and woolly.
The mesh is difficult to see through clearly, although duos of "peepholes" tempt one to do just that, and look through to get a clear view of what lies beyond it. The mesh emphasises the difficulty of ever fully accessing memory, and prevents the viewer from feeling that the nostalgia hinted at by the installation is - or can ever be - an easy or simple thing. Rather, Siopis here suggests that even the most intimate memories can be profoundly disturbing rather than simply comforting.
Memory is never a refuge for Siopis; it is always a treasure-trove of possibilities which may or may not be pleasant. The objects which hang in a thick curtain behind the mesh in the child's room are so many and so varied - dolls, toys, stuffed teddy bears and other creatures, a doll's house, even a set of stencils of "old" South African maps - that looking at their reflected images in the large mirror hung beyond the child's bed makes one's vision blur slightly. The effect generated, with seeing objects, mesh, and mirror-images simultaneously, is that of the disconcerting psychic invasion usually described as deja vu. One has to consciously refocus on the present, filled with the awareness that fantasised, unconscious memory has, for a moment, taken possession of one's consciousness.
Another viewer in the space with me suddenly exclaimed, "I had stencils like that!" But Siopis' objects, collected from the detritus of lives (or parts of lives) long over, can never enable the viewer to access the memories attached to them. Rather, the artist suggests, memory is referential; it bounces off objects via their connotations, or their uncanny similarity to objects one once owned oneself. The similarity remains uncanny because the "match" of object and feeling is not (and can never be) complete. This profusion of objects strips them of their commonly reputed ability to comfort, to "contain" and thus support memory.
Another aspect of the work is its linking of the unconscious, memory and dream, and here the key elements are the projected moving images in the main bedroom and study or sitting room. Both films are old and blurry, probably consisting of sections of the found Super 8 "home movies" whose cases litter a table. Over the double bed, the ultra-slow, very blurry short loop of the "tribal" dancers hints at the unconscious fears and longings of the bed's hypothetical occupants. The second loop shows a young boy in the sea, bending to scoop something up from out of the waves in which he stands. This is cut into a shot of one white woman and a group of four black women, carefully holding themselves apart from one another, walking along the edge of a dirt road. The white woman's clothing suggests that we are in the 1930s or 40s. The images come across as lost and rootless, unable to convey coherent meanings. They offer an intimate look at people who are captured familiarly, yet can never be known. These images are "zombies": dead; yet undead, still "known" and thus alive to the viewer, but ultimately opaque.
Siopis' installation rooms are never comfortable places to be, and the space of "Zombie" is no exception. The exhibition title's suggestion that objects are "the living dead", that they contain lives and yet are not alive, is disturbingly and powerfully carried through in its meticulous arrangement of things. "Zombie" teems with objects; the very air seems thick with them. Whilst in the exhibition space itself, one longs to have finished looking at the work, to have moved out into the more comfortable space-time of processing the material, rather than actually experiencing it. This is of course not to suggest that the work is "ugly". It isn't, but it is also not "beautiful", in that this kind of display of objects breaks up the viewer's (nostalgic) desire to have or be the object seen, so that desire is experienced as such at the same moment as it is felt.
- Robyn Alexander is a freelance cultural journalist.
June 30 - July 8, 2000
Gallery in the Round, Monument,
Rina Bannerjee is one of the
international artists on 'Bodies of Resistance' at the NSA.
Round-up of the HIV/AIDS shows
The intense focus on HIV/AIDS this last week in Durban impacted forcefully on the visual arts scene. The Durban City Hall was the most prominent indication of this - wrapped in an HIV/AIDS ribbon that the organisers (DAG) believe is one of the largest of its kind - 500 metres long, weighing in at over 700kg and involving over 100 different organisations and the efforts of over 1000 artists - it is somewhat variable in quality, but does get the message across.
Of the top shows 'Bodies of Resistance', at the NSA (see review) provides a sometimes oblique yet intellectually cogent and diverse understanding of the issues at hand. 'Artworks for Aids' curated by Marilyn Martin of the South African National Gallery, provided a national perspective. Lamentably visible only to the conference delegates, this was an exhibition packed with artists of stature. The exhibition provoked controversy when Karel Nel's Circulatory Field II comprising a huge heart of over R7000 worth of copper coins (which will be donated to an AIDS organisation by the exhibitions sponsors; pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb) was attacked by AIDS activists. Nel conceived the work as a metaphor of both currency and blood circulation, but the activists read this work as insultingly small change. This exhibition will later travel to Brussels and two venues (Boston and Washington D.C.) in the US to be auctioned to raise funds for HIV/AIDS research, but one must surely query why the American audiences get more opportunities to see this show than the country that produced it - suspicions of a somewhat dubious marketing campaign seem to have dictated a decision that denies local audiences.
At the BAT Centre Mary-Ann Njabulo, Orr creates a show which has generated alot of media coverage, but whilst the drawings are competent, the human interest story outweighs any visual innovation. Clearly a good cause does not necessarily create good art but there was still much on view to engage the mind, eye and heart. Of the photographic shows that abound �Positive Lives� at the DAG is probably the singularly most powerful statement of human suffering that �Amasiko� presented. Sponsored by the Terence Higgins Trust since 1993 it documents the effects of the pandemic across the world. Gideon Mendel's contribution was particularly affecting - if this work cannot bring the message home then nothing can.
Local initiatives have also been remarkably successful; the Rural Women's Craft Development Project, seen at DAG, which utilised local crafts to spread the AIDS message have turned traditional crafts to contemporary ends and reinvigorated more than the aesthetics of their products. Handicapped children from Ningizimu Special School, under the guidance of Robin Operman, are fast gaining a reputation for exciting and innovative work and the young black artists at the African Art Centre and the Alliance Francaise contribute a local response much needed. If anything this week provided a pivot for the community to pull together - much of the work mentioned was available as part of Red Eye's programme and proved a slightly more sobering start to a Friday night than usual.
Aziz and Cucher
Visual AIDS, in collaboration with Real Art Ways, an organisation pledged to keep AIDS in the public eye, presents 'Bodies of Resistance' at the NSA. Covering the issue(s) of HIV/AIDS on a global level, curator Barbara Hunt has brought a tightly curated group of internationally-known artists from five different continents to Durban to coincide with the AIDS 2000 conference. With approximately 24-million people in Sub Saharan Africa living with HIV/AIDS and one AIDS death every ten minutes 'Bodies of Resistance' could not come at a more appropriate time. Unlike the US, where the public profile of AIDS is dropping, in Africa the magnitude of the problem is only just beginning to be understood.
Generally HIV/AIDS is represented in rather crude binary terms; health/illness, life/death, normality/deviance. This show, however, presents a greatly varied view of a highly complex subject. Resisting stereotypes - there are very few pictures of ailing bodies or hospital beds - the show, like its title, is layered with multiple perspectives. Weaving its way from daily medical routine to mythic aspects of the disease, it meshes the political and the personal.
Dominating the gallery is Kendell Geers' T.W. (Virus), a six-foot, chevron-wrapped, cube warning of an unknown danger whilst its optical friction contaminates and infects the space around it. The directness of this strategy is offset by other works with more oblique approaches; Chuck Nanney, HIV+ like many of the artists on the show, creates colourful pushpin and plastic toy constructions which belie the seriousness of his concerns: the further spawning of the still unknown bio-molecular aspects of AIDS.
Also re-imagining the border between biology and technology, Aziz and Cucher's Chimera is one of the most powerful series on the show. Three large, digitally-manipulated, photographic images of organic forms covered in skin and hair, so tactile they seem terrifyingly possible, become genetic manipulations gone mad. Medical technology both promises and appals.
Moving to the more personal, Sunil Gupta's series From Here to Eternity pairs images of gay clubs shut down in the 80s and private spaces where vulnerability, nostagia and personal fortitude are expressed. Third world and feminist perspectives are present in Skowmon Hastanan's witty, but disturbing, Red Fever. Conflating the diagrammatic plans of slave ships with contemporary passenger jets, Hastanan highlights the spread of the virus through the tourist sex trade whilst Rina Banerjee speaks of the colonisation of the female body by more than disease when she mixes drawings of Indian goddesses with Columbia Hospital floor plans.
Evocative and thought provoking, often humorous yet filled with pathos, this exhibition both questions and raises debate around our understanding of HIV/AIDS. At the same time it is a moving tribute to those living with the disease. Well laid out and with helpful wall text, the exhibition provides insight into an arena of human experience that is surprisingly regenerative.
The full colour catalogue with its detailed and informative text is a bonus though it is a pity that priced at R150.00, it is beyond the means of much of the local market.
Closing July 20, 2000.
N S A Galleries, 166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood, Durban, South Africa, 4001
Black Man & Masculinity Series (Man & Fence)1999
The art market in New York is moving. Where you might ask? To the west side, Chelsea to be more precise. High ticket retail operations are moving into SoHo (Prada, Coach, and others) and escalating rents seem to be driving art galleries out in a mass migration. The sprawl of the Chelsea art scene leaves one to navigate amongst huge industrial high-rises in search of punctuated sites of aesthetic enjoyment. However, the new spaces in Chelsea seem larger and brighter, allowing for a more effective presentation of the artworks.
The Jack Shainman Gallery, founded in 1984, has been in Chelsea for three years. The Gallery represents artists such as Shimon Attie, Prudencio Irazabal, Kerry James Marshall, Ross Rudel, and Jonathan Seliger, to name a few. Claudette Schreuders is scheduled to have a solo show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in March 2001. Located on West 20th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, the space and presentation of art by the Jack Shainman Gallery are well worth the subway transfers, cab ride, or extended walk.
Zwelethu Mthethwa had nine works on view in this solo show. Presented along a wall that brings the visitor into the main gallery space were five black and white photographs from Zwelethu's Black Man & Masculinity Series (1999). According to Zwelethu, this series confronts critical issues such as the shifting roles and identities of black men in a capitalist driven society. Ranging from interiors with men sharing a partial embrace to men kissing outdoors, Zwelethu's images offer a number of revisions and variations on traditionally conceived notions of masculinity.
Man and Fence , the last image in this series, presents the image of a man standing outdoors next to a group of temporary houses. The man is slightly cropped out on the right side of the image leaving room to explore the socio-economically devastated view and to ask "How does this man fit into all of this?"
Leaving this series and entering the main square space of the gallery, were a series of oversized color photographs of women in personal spaces. One image in particular, Untitled (2000) presents a woman seated on her bed with a red carpet that extends out into the viewer's space. Standing there, gazing into her space, I felt an overwhelming sense that I was standing in her room, effectively sharing her space. The image is beautiful. Rich, saturated colors decorate her room and the walls are covered with fashion images taken from magazines and advertisements. Indeed, Zwelethu has recorded a deeply evocative and personal image.
All four color photographs were taken in the temporary homes of the Langalabuya settlement in Paarl, near Cape Town. Mthethwa has suggested that these photographs will be included in a prospective publication of photographic material, interviews with the subjects of his photographs, and commissioned essays. Though Mthethwa has been increasingly recognized for these color portraits it will be interesting to see how his diverse background and artistic training will shape his visual vocabulary.
Zwelethu's work will also be included in Jack Shainman's forthcoming exhibition of contemporary paintings, photographs, and sculptures scheduled to be on view from July 5, 2000 - July 28, 2000. Two of his works can also be seen in Africa by Africans: A Photographic Essay at the Museum for African Art, New York through August 27, 2000.
Jack Shainman Gallery
Reviewed by Julia Clark
On first appearance, this recently published tome seems much like other stock 7cm thick General History of Art Volumes that one is used to finding in reference sections of libraries everywhere. This type of book is standard fare for students and scholars rushing to finish assignments or studying for exams. The layman might invest in such a book in his or her younger years and end up dipping into it every so often to brush up on art general knowledge. Every now and then such a reader might go on a touristic visual journey through passed centuries of cultural production by flipping through the book from cover to cover but seldom engaging with the text. We've all done it. Often these volumes are used way beyond their shelf life, having been left behind by contemporary theory and practice, or by better quality, more up-to-date printing methods.
Compared to such works (for example older editions of Frederick Hartt's Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture , H.W. Janson's History of Art� and the much-dreaded Gardener's Art through the Ages), The Oxford History of Western Art , on closer inspection, boasts some definite progress and revisions. Even the cover design, for example, hints at a more post-modern stance and varied points of view by including seven quite different examples of western art in a grid. It always has puzzled me how authors/ designers manage to choose one solitary image to represent the massive body of knowledge contained inside such volumes( in Hartt's case it is a Caravaggio image, Gardener uses Coreggio's Jupiter and Io and so on) but here it is clear from the outset that �history� is relative and that Hockney or Barbara Kruger have as much place in it as a 14th century diptych or stained glass window.
On the back cover, the book claims to give � a radical and stimulating overview of the 2,700-year story of the western world's vast artistic heritage...�. and from glancing over the contents page it seems that it might just fulfill this promise. This history has been grouped into five main sections along socio-political lines as opposed to the more traditional art �movements� . Greece and Rome are seen as �The Foundations�. Part Two, �Church and State�, clearly introduces issues of power and the importance of Christianity in art production of the Middle Ages. The High Renaissance and Baroque is under the umbrella �The Art of Nations: European Visual Regimes 1527-1770� . �The Era of Revolutions 1770-1914� refers not only to political change but formal and technological advances in this period.
Having studied and taught History of Art at High School and tertiary level, I have witnessed the manner in which these books are often used. The interested student will more often than not turn to see what the most contempory art work in the book is. If it was made more than five years ago they seem disgruntled, longing for something fresher. The wonderful thing about Kemp et al's version is it has lots of contemporary work - more than a third of the book is dedicated to the 20th century. The final section is called 'Modernism and After 1914- 2000' and includes small but clear introductions to 'Alternative Media', 'Photography' and 'Post modernism', amongst other areas. The obvious examples are of course included (Richter, Hirst, Koons, Kruger and Holzer) but I was excited to find reproductions of other recent artist's work (that of Cornelia Parker, Ian Hamilton Finley, Mona Hantoum, and even the Neue Slowenische Kunst). I did wonder why there where little or no references to or images of work by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Wolfgang Tillmans, Chris Ofili, just to mention a few of what I would think to be obvious omissions.
Having studied and taught History of Art at High School and tertiary level, I have witnessed the manner in which these books are often used. The interested student will more often than not turn to see what the most contempory art work in the book is. If it was made more than five years ago they seem disgruntled, longing for something fresher. The wonderful thing about Kemp et al.'s version is it has lots of contemporary work - more than a third of the book is dedicated to the 20th century. The final section is called �Modernism and After 1914- 2000� and includes small but clear introductions to �Alternative Media� �Photography� and �Post modernism�, amongst other areas. The obvious examples are of course included (Richter, Hirst, Koons, Kruger and Holzer) but I was excited to find reproductions of other recent artist's work (that of Cornelia Parker, Ian Hamilton Finley, Mona Hantoum, and even the Neue Slowenische Kunst). I did wonder why there where little or no references to or images of work by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Wolfgang Tillmans, Chris Ofili, just to mention a few of what I would think to be obvious omissions.
Also included in Part Five are a number of sections on art from traditionally less western parts of the world, politically correctly named �Alternative Centres�. I would have liked to have seen a more extensive set of images in these chapters, which briefly focus on The Soviet Union, Latin America, India, Canada, Australia and the African and Afro-Carribean. It is clear, however, that this book is not meant to be a complete and utter history of all art production ever and I think ultimately this is probably a good thing. The African and Afro-Carribean section seems mainly aimed at introducing the impact of modernism on such artists rather than attempting any general history of African Art production -an undeniably mammoth area of research that needs plenty of space to be correctly represented
I must of course make mention of the fact that the only piece of South African work that appears is the ever moving Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander. It seems fit to me that this stands as a good example of art work from this country that could fit within a Western Art context albeit not the only one that could have been chosen. Alexander's use of traditional realist sculpting techniques strikes resonance with Classical sculpture , such as the image of a Centaur and lapith fighting -a section of bas relief from the Parthenon- reproduced in the chapter on Greek Sculpture. Her work has always gone beyond the rhetoric of an African or national style, which makes it both ironic and yet fitting for her work to be reproduced here in beautiful A5 size colour.
The on final chapters in this section, �Art History�, �Art Museums and Galleries� and �Critics and Criticism�, give a valuable overview of these important areas which are all too often left out . The main �players�, venues and dates are outlined, and in some cases illustrated (an amazing interior view of Bilbao). What is importantly emphasised to the reader is that many other factors are involved in continually changing the boundaries of the art world: not just the actions of the deified artist and his or her work.
Finally, there is a wonderful Epilogue, which I am sure most readers unfortunately will never look at (as is the fate of the Preface, Introduction and Acknowledgement most of the time!). Kemp attempts to link images from the opening chapters with those in the concluding pages, in some way trying to point to the continuing threads of power, ownership, aesthetics and so on that have run through western art making for centuries.
If you are studying, or just looking for a comprehensive overview, I would recommend this as a good investment either to buy or to use in your local biblioteek. The images are brilliant and the text seems much clearer than most. But as a teacher I recommend you to use it only as a starting point and to keep cross-referencing: sooner or later it too will unfortunately date.
- Julia Clark is a Cape Town based artist, curator, and art teacher.
To say that Retreks:Untitled blurb is a great concept which in execution has fallen flat on its face, is to put it mildly. The idea, originating with Rodney Place and financially supported by a host of sponsors, was to produce an art newspaper, an eight-page tabloid to be distributed free in the name of bringing art to the masses. Issue No 1. would focus on trying to capture the essence of the country's three major cities - Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. The whole project would tie in the with the Urban Futures conference currently running in Johannesburg.
I watched footage on national television news of enthusiastic young women in white handing out copies at street corners, and wondered what all the people so gleefully taking one would make of it when they got it home and actually tried to read it. Lesson One in printing on cheap newsprint is surely never to print black type over a highly coloured background. Well, that is if you want people to read what you have written. Lesson Two might be that if you are attempting to reach the masses, leave pretension aside and write in a mode that your audience will understand. Place's 'Badly Framed', on Page One, falls horribly short on both counts.
Durban's travelogue-type contribution, on the centrespread, with its overly small dark images with reversed out captions also suffers from a lack of understanding of the limitations of cheap printing. The back page carries a lame game in which readers are asked to describe how they feel when engaged in creative activities.
Only Boetie Tsepho Damane's story, Out of Sight, Out of Mind about the Market Theatre and the people of that area , and Greg Smith's Lovephones, a double page spread telling two simple stories of Cape Town residents through a series of photographs and captions show the potential of the idea behind Retreks:Untitled blurb.
If there is to be another issue, a new title would be a good idea too. One which wasn't quite so dated and silly. Then we could all forget about Issue One and start again.
- Copies of Retreks: Untitled blurb are available free at venues listed in this week's Exchange
Cover of the new monograph
Wayne Barker - Artist's Monograph
introduction by Alan Crump
Published by Chalkham Hill Press in collaboration with the French Institute
of South Africa, 2000
Review by Virginia MacKenny
The first in a series of books to be published on contemporary South African artists, Wayne Barker's monograph is funky, fun and accessible. At 56 pages, including the reference details at the back, it is short, undaunting and satisfies the need for instant gratification (it can be read in an hour). Using a magazine format, with snippets of the text highlighted to catch the browser's eye, it is packed full of images and is immensely visually appealing. The lay-out evokes Barker's own ad hoc style of sellotaped collage with headings scrawled in in koki; it presents itself as a visual scrapbook of Barker's journey over the last 12 years or so.
In a narrative punctuated by anecdotes and pictures, Barker's development as an artist is chronicled through his days as rebel schoolboy (arrested and expelled for smoking dope) to wayward student (failing art history and notorious for his impersonation of a tennis court) and conscript unfit for duty (in 'passive resistance mode and pretending to be a bit mad'). A new kid on the block when he hit Johannesburg, Barker rejected the niceties of the established art world and founded Fig (Famous International Gallery) as a venue for his own work and other artists on the way to success. By 1992 he'd had a solo at the Everard Read Contemporary and his neo-pop combinations of political comment and urban bric-a-brac had firmly established him - by 1997 he had a work on the 2nd Johannesburg Biennal and was exhibiting internationally.
Described as a prankster and cultural agitator, his own artistic strategies of subversive intervention also fed his curatorial eye - creating shows such as 'Klapperkop' and 'The Laager'. This last was an acclaimed fringe event at the 1st Johannesburg Biennial and succinctly embodied Barker's concerns with the production and presentation of art in a country as conflicted in its history as South Africa.
The fact that he has now become an established artist, albeit still an iconoclastic one, is embodied, ironically, in the choice of Alan Crump for the introduction. Described previously by Barker as being part of a dominant elitist authority of 'patronising white experts' Crump accused Barker of 'playing silly games' and 'shameless self-promotion' when he entered the Standard Bank Drawing Competition in 1990 under both his own name and that of Andrew Moletse (the Moletse piece gaining entry, the Barker failing to do so). Crump now supports Barker and recognises the need for young artists to reject authority such as his own and find alternatives to the system.
Written in an accessible manner, seldom too academic, the format and the text encourage engagement by the reader. The appeal is to a general audience and, although that same audience might be floored by phrases such as the 'traumatic semiotics of cultures', the book is, on the whole, designed to engage and not intimidate. Charl Blignaut's style ranges from the colloquial to the almost poetic; see Blignaut's obviously empathetic description of Barker's escape from authority in Nature's Valley where the 'fragrance of ocean and earth mixed headily with the thrill of flight'. Aside from a lack of labels identifying the artwork directly on the page (you have to search in the tiny text at the back of the book for the titles/details of works) and although the more serious reader may find its anecdotal style lacking in depth with no serious analysis of Barker's work evident, these are minor gripes against a book which winningly promotes not only Barker, but cultural initiatives as a whole.
In a country where art and artists receive so little public recognition, where information in any permanent form on contemporary art is so hard to come by, the producers need to be congratulated for their initiative.
Priced reasonably at R80, the book is available from Exclusives from June 21.