Thursday September 27
Arrived at Heathrow this morning for a five-day stay in London. The main purpose of this trip is to take part in a panel discussion at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago on October 9, and London is the first stop along the way. Here I will be staying with artists Lisa Brice and Chris Mew in their great loft space in the East End of London. Lisa's next project is a commissioned portrait of Brit pop star Robbie Williams, which she will execute in old movie poster style, with a large central image and a number of dramatic subsidiary scenes featuring the hero.
I have some work to do in London, and today I meet Lorna de Smit, who is in charge of overseeing the refurbishment of South Africa House, home of the country's embassy, on Trafalgar Square. Last time I was in South Africa House, in 1999, I was struck by the tacky appearance of the foyer - a horrible mishmash of ugly furniture and badly framed artworks - but things have changed. The architecture has been simplified, the furniture is now classic contemporary, and a piece by Lisa Brice, entitled Somewhere Over the Rainbow, first shown on 'Smokkel' on the fringe of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, hangs over a brown leather couch.
The refurbishment programme started under past ambassador Cheryl Carolus, after Madiba himself said "things have to change", and will continue under new incumbent Lindiwe Mabuza. Lorna de Smit is head of the working group planning the changes, and has not had an easy time reconciling all the different agendas of interested people and funders involved, For instance, De Beers were potentially a major funder but insisted on hiring their own art consultant who went off and spent thousands of pounds on mediocre quality South African crafts intended for display in South Africa House. It was a relationship which had to end. New funders are being sought. De Smit now says: "What I have done is to make sure what happens is not just my ideas, but involves a wide group of experts." In South Africa, Emma Bedford of the South African National Gallery is acting in an advisory role, and the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology is providing logistical support.
Along with Sandile Zulu, Willem Boshoff, Berni Searle and Senzeni Marasela, I have been commissioned to make a piece of work which will be on a glass screen in front of an existing painting. Mine will front a painting by Jan Juta, a very patriarchal number showing early Dutch governor Simon van der Stel, flanked by henchmen in big hats, leaning over and graciously receiving a gift of copper from squatting Namas. Now I am able to view the actual location of the work - though unfortunately the Juta painting has already been boarded up while other restoration work is done.
Tonight there is an opening at the Gasworks, the Robert Loder backed complex of studios and gallery located near the Vauxhall Oval. Hong Kong artist Lisa Cheung is presenting 'Lite Bites'. Lit by the artist's globular glass lights, strings of colourful vegetables hang from the ceiling of the gallery, screens have packets of noodles attached, and huge woks full of broth simmer on two cooking stations. Gallery goers are invited to select their own veg and noodles, toss them into a wok, let them simmer, then spoon them into specially designed bowls in a communal feast.
Says the press release, "Cheung draws on her personal heritage and Chinese culture with an experimentation of form and materials. Her practice encompasses participatory events and revolves around interactions between individuals and the worlds they inhabit."
Johannes Phokela is there - newly returned from an IASPA arts residency in Sweden - and so is Godfried Donker, whose prints on the Venice Biennale show 'Authentic/Ex-centric: In and Out of Africa' drew such good reviews. Robert Loder, a founder of the Thupelo workshops in South Africa, tells us that his workshop programme is now expanding through Latin America and Asia. No one can say the man has not been an important creative stimulus in many parts of the developing world.
Monday October 1
No more lounging around at Lisa's watching Stanley Kubrick videos - today is my last full day in London, and it's time for some serious artgoing. Mike Nelson was one of the surprise stars of Venice, and he opened at the ICA last night, so we make that our first stop. His show, which wanders over all the available spaces at the ICA, seems to concern the traveller; shelves in nooks contain well-thumbed budget travel guides to cheapo destinations, and an odd assortment of "souvenirs" - rubber masks, whips, belts, flags etc - are draped or hung around the space. Not very impressive. Site-specific installations which depend on an assortment of found objects brought together in a gallery space to make a statement need a stronger underlying theme than this to really work.
Next stop, the Tate Modern. Gone are the giant Louis Bourgeois spiders which occupied the vast Turbine Hall at my last visit, to make room for a cool and elegant installation by Juan Munõz, entitled 'Double Bind'. To my shock, I learn that sculptor Munõz, still in his 50s, died of a heart attack a few months ago. His work is a contemporary version of the surreal - surfaces of floors are painted in a illusionistic manner; the architecture of his installations seems designed to block rather than facilitate human movement, and the sculpted figures that inhabit his spaces are the anxious figures of an uncomfortable dream world.
Here at the Tate, the rear half of the Turbine Hall has to be viewed over a railing which runs across the space. The floor has been painted a cool grey green, with squares at regular intervals which suggest a series of shallow steps going down through the floor. The squares close to the rail are clearly painted, but a few squares away the illusion seems remarkable realistic. It is only later, from an upper floor, that I see some spaces really do cut through the floor to a lower level. At the back of the space, two white elevators on exposed runners glide slowly and unceasingly up and down past each other, humming as they go, before disappearing through the floor on the downward ride. A descent into hell?
Upstairs is a show by another contemporary master, the German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, known for her large scale pieces finished in a single strong colour. Perhaps her best known piece is Rat King, a circle of giant black rats facing outwards with their tales entwined. Her show is astonishing, a real visual treat which I am prevented from photographing by vigilant guards. Like Munõz, her work has a touch of the surreal. In one installation, 32 lifesize figures of men, all identical, face each other across a long table covered with a patterned red and white cloth. Their hands are placed on the table. Each has a plaster white face and black hair, and is dressed in a grey shirt and black pants. Fritsch has said that the inspiration for the piece was an old religious painting. Seen from the far end, against the backdrop of the view through the window of the Thames with St Paul's dome in the background, the piece is spectacular.