Archive: Issue No. 54, Februray 2002

Go to the current edition for SA art News, Reviews & Listings.

Tibetan monks

Tibetan monks work on a mandala for peace
at the Sackler Gallery

Juan Munoz

Juan Munoz
Installation view
bronze suspended in Hirshhorn Museum atrium

Juan Munoz

Juan Munoz
Installation detail

Friday January 11

Spend the day adhering resin blocks to the table with strips of double-sided tape, checking sound, adjusting the blinds. The room is supposed to carry the faint scent of incense, but smoke detectors in the gallery prevent the burning of the real incense sticks. The production team has come up with the idea of using a liquid form of incense in two air freshening units which are heated by light bulbs. Unfortunately this smells like nothing other than ... cheap air freshener. Not the same. We'll have to come up with a better solution next time round.

Across the way in the Sackler Gallery, there is a ceremony which begins at noon. The Dalai Lama has ordered five Tibetan monks to execute a prayer of peace for America. The prayer is a mandala, the outlines drawn with a steel scribe on to a tabletop. One monk fills hollow brass tubes with brilliantly coloured sand in one of many jewelled tones, and the other four tap the contents of the tubes onto the surface, using little brass rods. Grain by grain, working from the centre outwards, the pattern is built up. It will take weeks for it to be completed, and when it is, the mandala will not be left in place, but broken down by the same monks who have built it up. It is the making which is the prayer.

Saturday January 12

Today is the big day. In a three-museum collaboration, the Hirshhorn, the Sackler and the NMAFA, all situated quite close to each other on Washington's Independence Avenue in the Smithsonian complex, will host a day in which there are tours of an exhibition at each, followed by a contemporary arts symposium in the afternoon.

The Hirshhorn is showing what was intended to be a mid-career survey of the work of Spanish artist Juan Munoz, whose chilling installation Double Bind had filled the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern last time I was in London. Sadly, Munoz died suddenly and unexpectedly two weeks before the Hirshhorn show was to open, of a heart attack, at the age of 48, thus the show has become a retrospective. In the circular atrium of the Hirshhorn, a bronze figure of a man hangs suspended upside down from a rope - a piece made by Munoz especially for this show. Inevitably, the events of September 11 are recalled, and Munoz's own recent death.

Inside the Hirshhorn, Munoz's hotel pieces, emerging high up on walls, his strange figures and his strongly patterned floors evoke a surreal world.

From the Hirshhorn to Museum of African Art and The Last Supper Revisited, I talk about the background of the piece, and answer questions.

I am not able to take the third part of the tour, to 'The Meaninglessness of Words' by brilliant Chinese artist Xu Bing as I have to prepare for the afternoon. Johannesburg viewers will remember Xu Bing's classroom situation, set in MuseumAfrica on the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997. Participants are invited to copy carefully what appear to be Chinese words into exercise books with inks and brushes. After a while, one realises the words are not Chinese at all but English, the letters arranged and designed to look Chinese!

The afternoon's symposium is part of a series on contemporary art, and the title is: 'Who defines the contemporary? Biennials and the global art world'. "Over the past 10 years," reads the preamble, "there has been a significant increase in the numbers and locations of biennial exhibits. Biennials are now hosted in such cities as Dakar, Brisbane, Cairo, Istanbul, Sao Paolo, Johannesburg and Havana. Panelists have been asked to speak on an aspect of this phenomenon."

The moderator is the informed and articulate Dan Cameron, senior curator of New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art. Starting with a look back at Jean Hubert Martin's seminal exhibition 'Magiciens de la Terre' at the Pompidou in Paris in 1989, Cameron traces the rise of what was once considered to be the peripheries of the art world as evidenced by the staging of all the new biennials.

As the artist representative on the panel, I try to describe to the audience what my own experience and that of other artists I have met has been of biennales, good and bad, finishing with an expression of regret at the demise of the Johannesburg Biennale.

Cameron jumps in with his own accolade to the Johannesburg Biennale, saying that, with its theme of 'Trade Routes and Geography', it presented art as a vital means of global communication.

Hou Hanru, who himself was a curator at the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, shows a brilliant series of slides from the Shanghai Biennale in 2000, and discusses his approach to working with artists, which is to work to give them maximum creative freedom to realise their ideas. "We all take art too seriously," says Hanru, talking of how to create a moment of crisis, of criticism, how to attack as an intellectual terrorist.

Paulo Herkenhoff tells us that the Sao Paulo Biennial was originally conceived as an opportunity for Brazil to get to know the world - 40% of the audiences who come are visiting an exhibition for the first time in their lives.

The concluding words of the afternoon come from Cameron: "Crossing class boundaries through cultural production has become one of the most important roles of the biennial."


Smithsonian's National Museum for African Art, Washington

Homeport at the V&A Waterfront

Jo'burg & the Joubert Park Project

Artist Matthew Hindley at the World Wide Video Festival

Exhibitions in Chicago and Washington

A visit to South Africa House in London

Joubert Park Project; Art Spaces in Gender Perspective, Germany

'Homeport' collaboration; Joubert Park Project; Omar Badsha