Tracey Rose - 'Ciao Bella' at the Goodman Gallery
by Sean O'Toole
First showcased on Harald Szeemann's 'Plateau of Humankind' exhibition at last year's Venice Biennale, 'Ciao Bella' uses a familiar technique already well entrenched within contemporary visual art. For want of a better term it can be described as "insertion", a term I have borrowed from critic Salah Hassan. As Hassan observes, insertion describes the complex manner in which an artist inserts the image of their body into a work of art. "The term 'insertion' embraces all the multiple layers of meaning inherent in this word, sexual or otherwise," writes Hassan, further observing that insertion serves as an act of counter-penetration, an assertion of one's own subjectivity in response to objectification.
It is a technique that has already been skilfully employed by artists such as Cindy Sherman, Yasamasu Morimura and Yinka Shonibare, artists whose output in some way resembles that of Tracey Rose. Like Sherman, Rose enjoys the narcissism of using herself as the perpetual subject, and like Sherman again, Rose's work is an intriguing and exquisitely crafted musing on the twin subjects of womanhood and art history. Similar to the Japanese artist Morimura, Rose's 'Ciao Bella' also draws the viewer into a landmine field of intertextual references. And as with Shonibare's 'Diary of a Victorian Dandy', Rose has created a work that cleverly inserts her image into European history, thereby creating her own narrative play between truth and fiction.
Having mentioned the likes of Sherman, Morimura and Shonibare as reference points, I by no means wish to suggest that 'Ciao Bella' is derivative or unoriginal. It is neither of these. 'Ciao Bella' is an exhibition that takes shape around a series of large-scale photographs and a triple-screen DVD video projection. The large format lambda photographs are carefully executed portraits of 13 female characters, all of them Rose hidden beneath layers of disguise. The photographs serve to introduce the audience to a series of feminine archetypes, refracted versions of womanhood that range from the coquettish Lolita to the oppressed object of wonder Saartjie Baartman, the self-neutered nun, and the ever-reliable mother figure standing at the gates to her Parktown mansion, among others.
Rose's photographic works however only truly gain import when viewed in conjunction with the action that unfolds within the baroque-styled picture frame that surrounds her video installation, a tripped-out re-enactment of the Last Supper. The action in the video is at once anarchic and fun, haphazard and absurd. On the left screen Bunnie, a rubber-clad bunny girl, jumps up and down ceaselessly, while a black, Afro-styled mermaid sits contemplating her bubble-wrap tail. In the middle Marie Antoinette slices a chocolate cake and doles it out equally onto various plates. Confrontationally poised next to her is Cicciolina, the porn art vixen. Also competing for attention, on the left screen, is a very adult-looking Lolita, the perpetually hunched Saartjie Baartman, as well as a character ceaselessly punching herself in the face with her boxing gloves.
The totality of the action unfolds against a backdrop of changing colours. Starting out with red velvet curtaining, the colour bleeds, meandering through changing intensities of blue, followed by a black and white stencil-type backdrop, before ending with the red curtains again. The red curtains are quite apt. The first words spoken in the video are Shakespearian, a quote from The Merchant of Venice, which references that well-known adage about the world being a stage, all the men and women on it merely players.
Having set up her classical milieu, Rose allows the action to meander playfully. Characters disappear and reappear, the visible parameters of the stage merely one of their playgrounds. The visual discord finally gains momentum when Bunnie executes some of the players with her shotgun. It is left for the primly dressed Mama character to clean up the mess, including giving the bloodied screen a wipe-down.
On one level it would be easy to simply say that each of the characters represents a fractured archetype of womanhood, and leave it at that. As critic Tracy Murinik however observed in her Venice Biennale catalogue essay, the various characters also "taunt one another's historical time zones and scoff at one another's histories and politics". Nabakov's Lolita confronts Jeff Koons' Cicciolina confronting the haughty Marie Antoinette, while the ghost of Saartjie Baartman flitters around the edge of the screen before suddenly sprouting wings and magically disappearing.
There are many reasons to regard 'Ciao Bella' as an accomplished piece of art. It deftly confronts its audience with the multiple legacies of oppression, be they sexual, racial or political. Rose successfully achieves this without tending towards self-conscious sentimentality. Her video installation remains mysteriously playful while pointed in its function. The artist has also managed to achieve a subtle interplay between genres, her photographic portraits buttressing the action that unfolds on the video.
Having viewed the photographic portraits first, and then the video, it was insightful to reappraise some of the portraits a second time. Marie Antoinette's act of slicing and apportioning sections of the chocolate cake suddenly obtained new meaning. The photographic portrait of her depicts this imperious monarch standing in front of an RDP settlement. Then there is also that character punching herself throughout the video; the photograph offers an unsettling portrait of a woman whose face is a mere formless mass, raw like sculptor's clay.
Not all the portraits suggest this linked dynamic, and I doubt they would all carry their own in isolation. Certainly Regina Coeli, Bunnie, Silhouetta, MAQEII and Venus Baartman are the standout photographs in the collection. Silhouetta is particularly beautiful, reminding me of the fashion photographs of Nick Knight, as well as American artist Kara Walker, who recently showed her cut paper silhouettes at the Barbican Gallery in London.
Overall 'Ciao Bella' is an accomplished achievement. It may present ideas that have been seen before, but this does little to lessen the impact of the lyrical video installation. It is to Rose's credit too that her work is underpinned by an undeniable professionalism. The production qualities throughout her video are astonishing. 'Ciao Bella' is an intriguing solo show, and offers suggestive hints of a talent about to soar to great heights.
Until April 6
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Tel: 011 788 1113
Fax: 011 788 9887
Hours: Tues - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 9.30am - 4pm