'YDETAG' at the South African National Gallery
by Paul Edmunds
When 'Soft Serve 3' changed its name to 'YDETAG' (after a brief incarnation as 'Soft Sell'), there were some rumblings. YDE refers to the Young Designers Emporium, who were first in line when it came to funding the event. TAG is a play on the themes of labeling, branding and marketing that the event sought to engage with. I was reminded of a friend, a hard-hitting journalist who took up a job at Cosmopolitan. How, her friends inquired, could she tolerate working for a glossy that touted girl power on one page while showing emaciated models on the next? She replied that at least there was that contradiction, since the other possibility was unthinkable. And so it is with 'YDETAG'. Think of it more as a strategic merger than a corporate takeover. The event certainly benefited from real funding and the umbrella sponsorship resulted in a visual consistency throughout.
A review of a masive group project like this can either take the form of a focused, detailed analysis or it can read like a shopping list. An analysis might evaluate the project as a whole by discussing in detail the work of a few artists, but the second approach permits a more egalitarian take on the event, revealing it as something in which anyone could participate. The organisers, Andrew Putter, Robert Weinek and James Webb, faced the same sort of choices. Should they select a few brilliant proposals by well-established artists, or should it be seen as a process from which a wide range of younger people could learn and engage with the issues? From the start they made it clear they weren't looking for work taking simplistic swipes at corporate victims, but rather more carefully and strategically aimed interventions, which might well have to sit side by side with corporate sponsorship. Recognising branding and advertising as facets of the complex cultural whole in which we exist doesn't allow for a simple good/evil approach to the issue. It was perhaps with a certain measure of hypocrisy that this project embraced the eclectic world of branding while maintaining a critical distance from it.
I arrived at the National Gallery on Friday evening ahead of the crowds and before the sun had gone down on one of the few sunny days this winter. Above the entrance hung a not-yet-illuminated neon sign reading "Know thy worth" (a work by James Webb and Gabby Raaff). Confident that I did, I entered.
In the first room of the gallery, work by a selection of people jostled for attention. In Ellora Gosh's huge photographs, men posed awkwardly in less-than-flattering underwear. Cameron Jack and Zia Sunseri went to town in a collection of pieces addressing the use of sex in advertising. Sex Traps consisted of two grid-like arrangements of rat traps whose surfaces were covered in sleazy photographs of women in underwear. This was a witty idea that became a bit tiresome (I stopped feeling guilty after about the seventh trap).
Further into the gallery was Jo O'Connor and Paco Rodriguez's Filling. Around a series of lightboxes, a group of impeccably turned-out kitchen staff endlessly wrapped and packaged small parcels. Rodriguez was particularly fetching in his chef's hat as he handed these to purchasers for R2 each. Liberated from their layers of wrapping, the contents were revealed to be small pieces of packaging from cans of peaches or pilchards. From next door came the faint glow of television screens and mixed up soundtracks. Someone had seamlessly altered the Bobby McFerrin chorus of "Don't worry, be happy" to say "Don't happy, be worry".
At the entrances and exits to each room were charts listing the hours of the evening, with numbers scrawled next to them in felt tip. These statistics were translated into bar graphs of stacked cooldrink crates made by Gareth Chisholm, Shelly Pietersen and Anke Kotze, presenting on-the-hour updates of the number of patrons in each room. I declined the invitation by Matt Hindley and Peter Eastman to put my hand through a slot and touch someone I couldn't see. I did, however, run the gauntlet through Sheep. To the sound of bleating, I was pushed through a tunnel by hands sticking ubiquitous brand labels all over me. On the outside walls, Joe and Mark Stead, Tom Shwarer and others used renditions of carcasses to depict South African statistics according to LSM (Living Standard Mark) methodology.
On a wall nearby, a curtain of lights was punctuated by hanging seats for living Barbie and Ken lookalikes in their underwear. Next to each, LED text message boards were made to resemble speech bubbles. Ken endlessly recounted tasteless jokes about homosexuals, Barbie about blondes. Plastic Propaganda by the Daddy Buy Me a Pony Collective (Peet Pienaar, Stacy Hardy and Heidi Peterson) addresses our questionable role models and prejudiced views of the media. (At the risk of providing grist for their mill, I think that another work made by this group should not have been permitted by the organisers. Amid the cacophony of the event, a rat was confined to a length of translucent plastic tubing where viewers felt free to taunt it. I'm against censorship, but I do think judgment should be used in matters of cruelty.)
Krisna Smiles, Flowers Bloom was the name given to a number of works by Mukunda Michael Dewil, Norman O'Flynn and Christopher Slack. In Bought [sic] to you by, a large bible was opened to reveal a Camel ad opposite Chronicles. In another, Dewil sourced stock photographs representing nuclear white South African families and society. The acute styling and obliviousness to reality was revealing and particularly obvious on the large format chosen by the artist.
Ed Young's untitled work provided the most oblique and accurate comment on mindless consumerism. Inside primary-coloured hula hoops, three electronic fluffy dogs mindlessly yapped, waddled and did backflips while in the background a silent video played, showing a simply composed picture of a red dog bowl continually being filled with dog food by the hand of an unseen human. The altar-like appearance and passivity alluded to in this work related interestingly to a well produced video piece by Nicholas Hales and David Stell. A video projection in the shape of a Gothic stained-glass window morphed from ads for Coca-Cola to a Christ-like depiction of David Beckham, not without Adidas sponsorship. Projected on the end wall of a long room, the production values of this work were such that one could imagine it being a genuine piece of risqué advertising.
In the final room on my circuit, people were invited to scrawl messages to their favourite brands on a board, and have their Polaroid taken while holding up the board - the resulting picture to be sent to the said brand. This work had everyone lining up to take sideswipes at Diesel, Levi's and McDonald's. Architecture students from UCT had undertaken to brand and sell various parts of Cape Town in city.guides/capetown. The most successful of these was Cruising Pinelands by Robert Silke. A video piece showed every suburban mother's nightmare come true as her darling son was seduced by homosexuals in a public toilet. The Laurika Rauch soundtrack and spliced-in Seventies Omo ad made for an ironic and effective take on the project.
On leaving the gallery I managed to avoid the boisterous salesmen punting Laugh It Off T-shirts with jammed logos ("Unlucky Fried Chicken", for example). My retreat across the Company Gardens was cut short by a fire show by Brendhan Dickerson, Etienne de Kock and Mark O'Donovan. Burning religious and monetary symbols spelt out "Less Toxic Cost", and finally, ignited by a fire-breathing cannon and set to a soundtrack of car hooters, steel drums and homemade foghorns, the word "Repent". Having done so I went straight onto the afterparty at Rhodes House where I ate a cupcake made by CAKE, failed to understand the message on it, took in some beats, and went home confident I had experienced a flawlessly executed cultural event.
The organisers, and Andrew Putter in particular, are to be congratulated for their thorough planning, the crowd control which prevented the gallery from getting too full, the stylish visuals from the orange starburst labeling to the great poster, and the amount of energy drummed up by the event. While there was no major corporate sabotage, and perhaps (to use O'Connor and Rodriguez's metaphor) it was all in the packaging, this allowed for a subtle take on issues which are an inescapable phenomenon of contemporary life.