Wednesday January 9
First day in Washington DC. I'm here to install my work The Last Supper Revisited at the National Museum for African Art, part of the Smithsonian Institute. The piece is about the demolition of District Six and dates from 1993. It is a follow-up to an installation I made in 1981 at a time when District Six was still being demolished, in which I took raw demolition materials - doors, windows, books etc - and plonked them in the middle of Cape Town�s pristine Gowlett Gallery, surrounded by chairs draped in white. A tape, recorded over a six-month period, played the voices and sounds of the district. That was The Last Supper. In the second version, tiny fragments of rubble are encased in clear resin blocks and placed on a round glass table with concealed lighting. Photographs of the Ebrahim family, owners of the dining room chairs used in the first installation, are placed in light box windows around the walls. In these three photographs, the family is seen celebrating Eid for the last time in their home in District Six.
The work has, of course, come ahead of me in a series of crates, and on this first morning I am met by the assistant curator for contemporary art, Christine Mullen Kraemer, and taken up to the exhibition space. The walls have been painted soft grey, according to a colour swatch sent ahead, and rubdown letters are being applied to announce the title of the exhibition. The big problem with transporting the work from South Africa to Washington has been the difference in voltage - the piece depends for illumination on dozens of little halogen lights in the base of the table. I had a new transformer built in Cape Town to cope with this, but here at the Smithsonian the electricians are struggling to get it all to work. When I inquire if the cable from the centrally placed table will run across the floor, Alan Knezevich, the exhibition designer, tells me airily that no, they have drilled a hole right through the floor beneath the table for the cabling to go down to the level below, so it will be completely invisible! I am staggered by this extraordinary attention to detail, and the willingness of the museum to drill into a carpeted floor.
Soon it is lunchtime. I discover that the entire Smithsonian is linked by a system of underground tunnels, and going to lunch means heading off down one of these and popping up in the red brick Gothic building which houses the SI dining room. Lunch today is with David Binkley, deputy director of the NMAFA, and colleagues. The museum has an interesting history. Started as a repository for beautiful traditional objects, in recent years the museum has started to build up a collection of contemporary African art. My visit marks the first time an artist has actually come to the museum to set up an installation. It will be up for a very short time only - about two weeks. The idea was that this would give the buying committee an opportunity to see the work as it should be seen, but I now learn that the museum has received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to purchase the work for them.
I spend the afternoon in the archive section of the museum, where there is a remarkable collection of something like 7 000 photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee - the great majority of which have never been shown. There is a box of photographs taken in Cape Town�s Bo-Kaap area in the 1940s, I think. The remarkable thing about this photographer is that she would stand in one position and shoot off half a dozen frames, and almost every one would be perfectly composed and lit. On any one spool, there would hardly be a bad shot. Another box held images taken on behalf of the Johannesburg Department of Welfare in the mid-1930s of various welfare projects.
Thursday January 10
It is not until late afternoon that all the connections finally work and switch on is achieved. In the meantime, the light box windows have gone up on the wall, and we have been listening to the sound track. The voices on the tape, with their distinct Cape Town accents, are not always that easy to catch for an American ear, and I wonder whether that is all right, in the name of art, or if it would be better to edit the 75 minute track down a bit, and eliminate the harder to understand bits. If I do, that will have to be for the next time the piece will be shown.
Tonight, there is a dinner in honour of the event held in a historic restaurant in Washington. A really great evening, with interesting company and an opportunity for extended conversations. I am seated next to Blake Gopnik, art critic for the Washington Post. I have heard that he was extremely critical of William Kentridge�s show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington last year, but one cannot worry how a critic will react to one�s work beforehand. Just have to wait and see - and in any case, to most artists it is greatly preferable to get a critical and engaged review than one that is blandly approving and says little that cannot be learned from a press release.