Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees
by Kathryn Smith
I spent 12 full days and nights in Oudtshoorn. This is not meant to sound wistful, as in Isak Dinesen's (aka Karen Blixen's) "I had a farm in Africa". Oh no. Think Survivor 5: Klein Karoo. Stretching from two days before the Nasionale Kunstefees opened to two days after it closed, those 12 days were packed with some really good art exhibitions intermingled with altercations with angry residents, quality time spent with the local police, vandalised art work and 40° heat.
Dodging drunk people and being subjected to some of the worst local pop music became par for the course, and in the midday sun, forgiveness and compassion were hard to come by. Stepping into the visual arts exhibition venues was like mental air-conditioning.
My curatorial effort, 'body II: sublimation', which featured Candice Breitz, Paul Edmunds, Brad Hammond, Moshekwa Langa, Jo Ractliffe, Colin Richards, Usha Seejarim and William Scarbrough, was the exhibition chosen for discussion as part of the Kunste Kabinet's Karoo Kafee programme led by philosophy professor Bert Olivier from the University of Port Elizabeth. I wasn't expected to comment much, but when the discussion, which provided a interesting and detailed theoretical "unpacking" of sublimation in terms of psychoanalysis and philosophical readings of "the sublime", ended up at God and Darwin, I was compelled to intervene. This was a visual art exhibition after all.
Jacques Coetzer's 'tydsgees' show next door elicited a chuckle every time I walked into the room. His Hollywood Confessions, a video piece shown on a sexy DVD viewer, was made by isolating the words "Jesus" and "Jesus Christ" from well-known films. Even South Park's Cartman got the nod for inclusion. Apt visual and mental fodder for the Easter weekend, methinks. Towards the end of the fees, Coetzer organised a sundowner session during which two members of Valiant Swart played his chainsaw-guitar and Coetzer grilled some sausages on his car-shaped braai.
The stellar moments of festivals are so often eclipsed by low points that have to do with misguided organisational tactics, unpredictable public reaction and the "fees-gees" or festival party spirit that makes people behave in strange ways. On the whole, the visual arts side of things was well managed with diligent venue managers and an ever-patient and helpful facilitator, Danie Bester, who could be called on day or night to diffuse potentially explosive situations.
What follows might sound like the festival is to be avoided, but what transpired is probably not all that unusual given the myriad contingencies of the festival context. While it is clear that serious cultural pursuits are generally bypassed in favour of entertainment, these kinds of events can only indicate how to proceed with more caution when next considering participating in a very busy arts festival.
An explosive case in point was Mara Verna's performance for 'Buzzard', a show located in (and out of) a caravan parked outside Principia College on the main road. Local shopkeepers, including the owner of the local art gallery and framing shop and the restaurateur across the street, did not take kindly to Verna's vocal antics emanating from the caravan. Verna and fellow Buzzards Marlaine Tosoni and Bridget Baker won a battle against a privately hired towtruck and the Oudtshoorn traffic police, which started as a complaint about the noise and chasing away potential customers and ended with power cables being physically cut.
Then eight items from Christian Nerf's 'Slightly Soiled' exhibition were stolen. Once ordinary Levi's T-shirts that had been modified by shotgun-toting artists, the items pilfered were wrapped, labelled with individual artists' names and the original red tags and deliberately arranged in a larger installation environment.
Nerf decided to open a case of theft with the local police when it was discovered that the works were only insured while in transit. With descriptions of the potential thieves from exhibition invigilators and five days of the festival still to go, we were hopeful something would turn up. On the last day while at the local shopping mall, Nerf overheard a girl laughingly tell an inquisitive bystander that her "unusual" T-shirt had been shot with a shotgun. Two cops and a brief discussion later, the girl was booked for possession of stolen property and taken into custody. A hearing will be scheduled.
Returning to the 'body II' venue to plan the packing for the next day, I entered Paul Edmunds' space where his piece Knurl, delicately and painstakingly carved from black polystyrene trays, was hanging. Working with shifts in the natural light through the day, the texture of the piece never seemed constant. This time, however, I noticed a glitch in the overall surface. Moving around the piece, I saw the perfect impression of a set of (adult) teeth that had bitten through one of the elements of the sculpture.
Another main exhibition this year was a strong and insightful two-man photographic show by Santu Mofokeng and Abrie Fourie. Installed as a simple horizon line of images by the two artists, broken by two pairs of larger prints (it wasn't identified which images were by which artist), the show looked at visual signifiers of separation that are so commonplace they tend towards the invisible - fences, barbed wire, landscapes both populated and barren and so on. The show was called 'Vyande/Enemies' and it quickly started becoming a point of reference for the situations and relationships we found ourselves having to deal with during the festival.
Not without racial incidents either this year, the festival needs to be seriously re-evaluated, especially with regards to art, drama and experimental productions. The easy meal-ticket of popular music should definitely have a strong presence (this was the busiest and most profitable festival so far, creating jobs and injecting millions into the Western Cape region) but as it stands, the festival has emerged lopsided with greater quantity than quality.
The upshot is, however, that if the organisers manage to create a balance between the commercial and the serious, the greater sponsorship exposure to increasing audience numbers means the continuation of one of the better arts festivals we have. And given Clive van den Berg's canny direction of the visual arts over the last three years and the production of two fine catalogues, the visual arts can only stand to benefit.