Friday November 23
I'm in Johannesburg for three days to follow up on various art projects. First stop: the Goodman Gallery. As part of the Joubert Park Project, the three windows of the gallery which overlook Jan Smuts Avenue carried an installation which was part of the 'From the Inside' series I am doing in which quotes from people living with HIV appear in public places. At the Goodman, the two side windows carried messages etched out of black vinyl, so they were lit from within and glowed at night, while the centre window showed projected slides of the two collaborators, Judy Seidman and Nosisa Ndlela. I was away while it was up, so today we are going to cover one window with vinyl again and photograph it this evening for documentation purposes.
Willie Bester is the artist currently showing at the Goodman. The gallery is filled with the disturbing sounds of snarling dogs and the cries of men under attack: Bester's main piece is called Who Let the Dogs Out? and focuses on the incident in which Mozambican immigrants were savaged by police dogs and their handlers. A videotape of the event provides the background to Bester's steel tableau of the figure on the ground, the policeman with his dog, and the cameraman. Round the corner, The Dog of War 111 is, I think, one of the best works Bester has ever made, taut, expressive and utterly menacing with its steel musculature and bristling armaments. (See Brenda Atkinson's review for more on Bester.)
Photographer Roger Wooldridge is coming round at 6pm to photograph the windows from sunset onwards. Once the troublesome sheets of vinyl are smoothed and up, I persuade Linda, director of the Goodman Gallery and longtime friend, to take a lunch break. We talk about the postponing of Art Basel in Miami, about the new apartheid museum attached to Gold Reef City in Johannesburg which I haven't seen yet, about the Joubert Park Project. With a little time on my hands, I go hunting for the Millennium II gallery, which has been up and running for around seven months now, under the care of Susan Glanville. Behind high ochre walls close to the Rosebank Shopping Centre, the open rooms of the gallery, currently filled with sculptural pieces by Johan Moolman which combine neon with natural objects, give out onto the gravelled garden. Apparently things have been going quite well for the new gallery, with the previous exhibition, �Clean', proving a particular success.
Time for taking photos. Roger sets up and we peer through the lens at the gallery windows while a street person dances near us, miming catching butterflies with a broken sieve, and throwing his head back and drinking dramatically from a bottle in what I imagine he thinks is camera range.
The light is changing rapidly, and the sunset reflected in the window soon gives way to black. There is a terrifying moment when Roger's camera crashes from the high tripod onto the cement pavement, but Roger is totally cool about it, and seems to think no serious harm has been done. Ninety minutes and three shooting positions later, we finish, fairly certain we got what was needed.
Off to the Johannesburg Civic Theatre in Braamfontein. The Trinity Session - Kathryn Smith, Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs - are hosting an evening of video work at their new space, THE | PREMISES. An unprepossessing ex-storage space, the new gallery at least has the advantage of opening onto the outside, so one can stand around in the open air sipping wine. Videos by visiting artists Ella Raidel, Rene Straub and Susanne Jirkuff are being shown, and I particularly enjoy one by Raidel called Family Trophies, made in a one-hour photo developing spot. Photographs are filmed as they emerge from the printing machine in a jerky flow in sequences ranging from men cavorting in their underwear to wildlife to family pix.
Saturday November 24
This morning I am to give a walkabout at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, where the documentation slides of the Goodman Gallery-sponsored 'From the Inside' project are being shown as part of the Joubert Park Project exhibition. Under the curatorship of Bie Venter, Dorothee Kreutzveldt and Jo Ractliffe, the multi-media exhibition by national and international artists, photographers and performers looks stunning, ranging in tone from poetic to gritty, but with a level of engagement overall that is seldom seen anywhere. It's the closest thing to a biennale Johannesburg has seen since 1997. To my annoyance, the doors from the gallery leading to the park are chained, so the only access is from the lower side of the building. Apparently this is because there is not enough money to provide security, but quite how the JAG reconciles this with its stated desire to become more accessible to a wider public, I cannot imagine.
All the Wits students who helped put messages up and take photos have been invited to the walkabout and so have all the subjects of the photographs. Not everyone can come, but there is a respectable group and this is a great opportunity for me to thank everyone involved and invite them to share a picnic lunch in the courtyard, which develops into a very relaxed occasion.
Curious to see what lies on the other side of the chained gallery doors, I take a walk through the park and encounter drum majorettes, picnics, lovers, photographers, football players, an HIV rally, and hundreds upon hundreds of white-clad devotees of the Shembe religion seated on the grass. From this side of the doors, the gallery looks closed, hermetic. If only the doors were opened, and a huge welcome sign hung over them. One of the pieces on the exhibition is a video of the Shembe worshippers, and shows one of the leaders, in the gallery for the first time, looking intently at all the art. He suggests that the art be taken out into the park where it can be seen properly, and where the Shembe people will guard it from harm. What a fantastic idea!
Sunday November 25
Curator Monna wa Mokoena, who works with Julia Charlton as art consultant to Nedcor, has invited me to see the art installed in the new Nedcor headquarters in the yuppie suburb of Sandton. The building is massive but airy, built around a vast central atrium, and in spite of the size of the structure, the art more than holds its own. Gazing up to the far end, one sights four bronze figures of William Kentridge's Bridge Procession in endless march. Kentridge has said his figures represent archetypes from South African society, and this manifestation is just one of many - in torn black paper, the procession continues up the stairs of PS1 in New York, and as an accompanying frieze to his travelling exhibition in the US.
Willem Boshoff's piece, entitled Windfall, is also masterly. Boshoff has chosen, as is his wont, suitably obscure terms like "argentocracy" to describe 64 winds and 64 economic terms. "The wind is hard to understand, and so is the world of finance," says Boshoff in a wonderfully simple artist's statement explaining the motivation for his choices. The 128 words have been etched into irregularly shaped slabs of Belfast Black granite, and inserted into the regular paving slabs on the first two floors of the building, where their strangeness will continue to be provocative as long as the building stands. Those wishing to be enlightened can refer to monitors in the forecourts which give background information on the commissioned work.
Karel Nel has lent traditional objects relating to money from his collection. In one outsize glass case, the artist has backed some of these metal objects with a concertinaed black screen to which thousands - millions? - of coins have been attached. Kay Hassan has a mask collage on show, and Penny Siopis was given free range to delve into old bank memorabilia, ledgers and the like and has placed these objects with others like money boxes and plastic Zulu ear plugs to recontextualise and enrich the past. The commissions enhance and enliven the spaces, adding ideas and form to what might otherwise be a corporate desert.