'The Dogs of War' - Willie Bester at the Goodman
by Brenda Atkinson
Detractors of Willie Bester's work are often bewildered by his relentless revisiting of the theme of racial injustice. It's as if, by refusing to conspire with the soothing discourses of rainbowism and renaissance, he is committing some kind of horrible social faux pas, like revealing an operation scar over dinner party hors d'oeuvres.
But of course it is precisely at dinner parties that white South Africans do much of their post-apartheid eyeball-rolling and breast-beating, most bemoaning the fate of the nation in an injured kind of way, as if black South Africans really no longer have anything to feel bitter about. And these days it's just so damn inappropriate to be earnest about race.
Seven years after the formal demise of the apartheid regime, Bester's exhibition 'Dogs of War' comes as a blunt, even brutal refusal to make nice about racial politics in South Africa, and its three key installation pieces distil a power which has been detectable but not always fully realised in his previous sculptural work.
The colossal sculptural forms which either constitute or are part of these works are visually linked by uniformity of material and style: the metal has a soft silver sheen that glows along numerous smooth surfaces, but the forms themselves are anything but soft. The articulation of their bolted joints, the heavy weight of their eyeballs or their hair, the jagged perfection of their teeth, suggest brute power or brittle fragility. Unlike Bester's more usual metal work, which is roughly finished and often rusted, these pieces are all labour-intensive perfection.
The central work, Who let the dogs out?, combines video and sculpture to moving effect. In a curtained-off and dimly lit space, viewers can peep through slots in board frontage to watch the full footage of the SAPS dog unit "training exercise", televised here in November last year, in which six policemen are seen to use three black African immigrants as live bait for their German Shepherd dogs. One of the most harrowing aspects of this viewing experience is precisely the fact that it can be viewed, because a member of the dog unit has filmed it all in stomach-churning detail - including close-ups of the wounds inflicted by the dogs.
Bester picks up on the perversity of the situation in which sadism is propped up by voyeurism, both in his mediated presentation of the footage and in the accompanying sculptural installation. In the latter, two metal figures, monumental in their menace, focus their attention on a figure writhing with fear on the floor. One of the standing figures is a policeman who holds a chain trailing a dog muzzle; the other is the invisible cameraman of the footage, imagined by Bester as an implacably focused interrogator whose single light bulb beams down on his victim like a metaphysical threat. The attacking dog need hardly be there - the sheer malice generated by the two male figures is sufficient to explain the hollow-mouthed terror of the fallen man.
Around the back of this work, in another dark corridor of the gallery, Bester has installed The Dog of War 111, a potent sculpture which "blows up" the dog to monumental and mythical proportions: partially constructed of red-tipped warheads, the dog's chest cavity holds a plastic toy US Marine. It's an awesome creature, conjuring Yeats' beast slouching towards Bethlehem.
Between these two works, just off the main gallery space, is the oddly poignant Thobeka Leaving - a hyper-detailed sculpture of a woman in the same metallic medium as the two main pieces.
Although the exhibition includes the usual - and I suppose necessarily commercial - Bester standards (small wall sculptures; sentimental, often bland paintings embedded in recycled metal signboards), conceptually this exhibition could stand soundly on the three sculptural pillars that are also its political mainstay. I left wishing only that Bester had had the courage not to prop up the best of his new work with what has in the context of his production become palatable.
Until December 1
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
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