'Authentic/Ex-centric' at the Venice Biennale
by Nic Dawes
The 49th Venice Biennale presents itself under the title 'Plateau of Humankind'. Biennale czar Harald Szeemann evidently has a thoroughly anthropological idea of art. That is to say, he believes humanity finds itself in art, a pose of gentle naivete that has a long and unattractive history in Western art history. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Africa finds itself once again literally on the sidelines, confined to the Biennale's 'A latera' section for exhibitions that cannot find room at Mr Szeemann's high table.
That this is an improvement over past years is probably explanation enough for the fact that the curators of 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa' exert themselves so strenuously in the effort to claim a legitimate contemporaneity for African artists "working within a conceptual mode". The anxiety is understandable, but the strain is evident in a show that addresses the limits its title remarks on in only the most occasional way.
In a courtyard of the Conservatorio di Musica, Willem Boshoff has distributed some 20 rough-hewn loaves of pink granite. Each one rests on a highly polished breadboard of Zimbabwe black granite, and bears an engraved inscription from the gospel of Matthew: "And what man among you, when his son asks for bread, would give him a stone". The phrase is rendered in a different language on each board, along with an enumeration of the places in which the language is spoken, and the remaining speakers.
In the anthropological fantasy of the Biennale catalogue the installation speaks to our "common humanity", the ritual of breaking bread, the translatability of languages, and the fullness of human speech. However, in the bright glare of a Venetian noon, resting on worn blocks of Istrian stone, the glossy black breadboards with their perfectly unbreakable loaves resemble nothing so much as funerary monuments, histories of the illusion on which the plateau of humanity supports itself. Boshoff's installation points downward to the decaying wooden piles and shifting mud on which the Academia rests, rather than upward to its ornate capitals and light-filled rooms.
Boshoff's work regularly makes itself available as an exhibit in trial of dominant and subordinate languages, epistemologies or peoples and it often displays a kind of pseudo-erudition that seems calculated to lend some mystical authority to the case he is making. With Panifice, in contrast, the artist has resisted the temptation to order the elements of the work in binary pairs of any kind. As a result the installation does not exhaust itself in the pathos of mourning or the flatness of argumentation. The granite lumps are too big to serve as grist for the dialectico-conceptual mill; at once shiny and dull, rough and smooth, they anchor Boshoff's field of linguistic and textual references, but their stubborn material insistence is tough to slice through, no matter how much you sharpen the contradictions.
Would that the same could be said of Berni Searle's Snow White. Indeed, as one stands poised between the two screens that comprise the video installation, a single question imposes itself: "And who among you, when the public asks for something to chew on, would give them a video of Berni Searle making roti?"
The loop begins with Searle naked and kneeling in a pool of light. Fine white flour sifts from above, slowly turning her white - a domestic Pentecost. After some time she begins to shake the flour off her limbs and water trickles from above, washing her skin back to brown. Searle now sweeps all the flour together and begins to knead it into a rough loaf of smooth, elastic dough.
This sequence plays out on two opposed screens, one providing a level view and the other an oblique top-shot. The action is slightly out of phase so that you can turn between two subject positions. This sets up a kind of disjunctive time that fools the spectator into thinking it might be possible to look into the future, or occupy both elevated and level positions at once, but in the end leaves you acutely aware of the fact that this simultaneity is impossible. Or rather this is the effect that would be achieved if you cared about what you were looking at.
Instead one simply sighs in affirmation: indeed race, gender and domestic labour cut across the body of the black but not-quite-black woman in complicated ways. Indeed woman's work has a transformative and even sacramental character, but how tedious the lecture, how dully the point is inscribed on tape, and how easily we could have read it in a book, mirror on the wall, wicked queen and all. The perfectly banal surface of identity politics, of a comfortable academic discourse on hybridity, smoothes everything over here. In the end we are standing in front of yet another video of a naked woman performing a repetitive task, and we are bored beyond words.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons' multimedia monument to the labour of mothers - a voodoo invocation through tombstone ironing boards, votary resin irons, and video projections - is more wrought than Searle's piece, but if anything its energy is more dissipated. The exception is a video trompe l'oeil in which a needle seems to embroider the folded linen onto which it is projected.
This small corner of the installation has a delicately elegiac beauty which is somehow lost when one turns to the major elements of the piece. What we are faced with is another invocation of the dignity of maternal labour which leaves no complexity and no abjection unrecuperated. The result is sentimentalism, even if it is sentimentalism with a richer than usual field of reference.
Yinka Shonibare has been playing with multiple meanings of wax print fabrics for more than six years now. He has created tableware, wax print high heels, and a race of alien beings from the patterned cloth that ordinarily clothes the sartorially Afrocentric from Lagos to Laguna beach and points beyond.
In some respects the joke should be played out. Anyone who is familiar with Shonibare's work knows that the fabric is in fact not African, but Dutch and English. The nationalist politicians and African-American roots tourists who have adopted these fabrics as a mark of pride are implicating themselves in the history of the colonial textile trade rather than making an uncomplicated reference to their African heritage.
Like all the best jokes this one cuts both ways - and Shonibare manages to make it continually productive. Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads - for which Shonibare created an immaculately tailored and headless reproduction of the Gainsborough painting - is a particularly good example.
For the Biennale he has installed a family of tourists in immaculate wax print space suits and dark, glossy Perspex visors on a floating platform in a dark room. It's a nuclear family glowing gently in the dark: two parents and two children, rendered raceless and sexless by the bulky suits and the impassive black glass of their helmets, are frozen in exploration or play. The effect is properly speaking uncanny, a set of familiar poses and references frozen into an utterly strange tableau. The work references psychoanalysis, anthropology, trade, tourism, tableaux vivants and science fiction, but it estranges all of them to leave behind an odd, embarrassed fear that resonates just beyond the edge of the available generic categories.
Godfried Donkor's rather more obvious historiography plays itself out next door in the site-specific Lord Byron's Drawing Room. Donkor is busy reconstructing the lost history of the 18th century by creating seamless digital collages out of illustrations sourced from the British Museum. In this installation he imagines Lord Byron's Venetian drawing room decorated with digital prints on canvas that illustrate black protagonists' part in the entertainments of a fashionable young Englishman (we are reminded of Shonibare's Diary of a Victorian Dandy photographs). We are presented with black and white pugilists facing off, black saloon patrons and a London mob at least as racially mixed as any you are likely to see in a newspaper photograph today.
Donkor's work is part visual excavation, part historical speculation, and part Photoshop fabulation. The prints have a flat, museum display quality which fails to completely suppress the graphic energy of the work, but nonetheless ensures that it achieves its success primarily at a narrative level.
The narrative arc of Rachid Koraïchi's Chemin des Roses, which occupies the long and light-filled central gallery through which the other installations are reached, is far more simple, to the extent that it is accessible to a non-Islamic audience at all. A row of Arabic glyphs etched out of steel marches toward the casement windows and the Grand Canal, the walls are lined with gold embroidered cloths, and the air is thick with the scent of the rose petals that float in densely inscribed ablution bowls. The piece alludes to Safahr, the Sufi journey to enlightenment, and the decorative surfaces which dominate the room speak to the task of writing, repetition and trance in achieving that state.
The piece inserts itself and its audience on a trajectory toward a specifically religious transcendence which it is difficult to engage without debating the place of mysticism in contemporary art. Is there a place for what is essentially a mystic praxis in an exhibition dedicated to African conceptualism? And would a Catholic mysticism be similarly licensed? These are not completely trivial questions, and without them Koraïchi's work rapidly devolves into pure exotic decoration.
Zineb Sedira engages with the decorative tradition of Islam in quite a different way. Her Quatre générations des femmes is a set of walls covered floor to ceiling by computer generated patterns on tiles. Sedira repositions the prohibition on representation in Islam by introducing photographs of four generations of women as elements of the pattern and repeating them ad infinitum in a determined mathematical transformation. It is as if the vague affirmation of Campos-Pons' piece had been given a thorough and rigorous working over, forced through the Islamic decorative mode into a far more productive and compelling performance of the space between religion, gender, and artistic discourse.
The accompanying video piece Don't do to her what you did to me attempts to achieve the same transformation: a woman's hands inscribe the title on photographs of a young girl. The photographs are dropped into a bowl of water, the ink spreading out like smoke. The emulsion slowly dissolves and finally the solution is swallowed - a charm against evil. The urgency of the ritual, its secrecy and power are somehow lost in the dilatory time of video; where Quatre générations des femmes has the force of synchrony, the unfolding of the video as narrative dilutes the concept rather than complicating it, but Sedira is hardly alone in this. The 49th Biennale is padded out with acres of stunningly mediocre video work.
No doubt there is room for debate on the selection criteria for 'Authentic/Ex-centric'. Some of the artists - notably Shonibare - have provided work that explicitly folds the limits of Africa and Africanness back on themselves; others seem to be present simply as representatives of the fact that there is an African Diaspora. Perhaps it is a mark of the curators' need to stake a claim - any claim - in the mud of Venice that the conceptual framework of the exhibition is so casually dealt with, but it is disappointing nonetheless.
Harald Szeemann has told the art world that the next instalment of the Biennale will be African in the same sense that 1999 was Chinese and 2001 Finnish. These are words to strike fear into our hearts, but however ludicrous the animating intention, 2003 may represent an opportunity to create an African presence that has more to do with the work and less to do with shoring up its claims to legitimacy.
Nick Dawes is a Cape Town based writer on culture who currently heads up the new media company Maverick Interface Design
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