Peter Friedl at 22 Long Street, Cape Town
by Sue Williamson
Vinyl lettering at the base of the windows of a vacant shop at the lower end of Long Street announces the presence of an exhibition by Peter Friedl, curated by the Institute for Contemporary Art, Cape Town.
On entering, the curious passerby would see that the back corner of the space has been carpeted with a square of thick, silky black rubber, new enough to give off that curiously delectable smell which may form part of the material's attraction to rubber fetishists. The carpeter seems to have underestimated his requirements, however: although the covering fits neatly against the two adjoining walls which form the corner, a stretch of rough concrete floor extends out from under the rubber on the other two sides.
There isn't much in the largish space, but on another wall eight poster-sized images form a panel entitled The Power of Display. One shows the nose of a mule, another a pair of trousered legs ending in black leather-shod feet, a third a child in a gorilla mask running in a park, a fourth a seated tiger looking sideways as if to avoid clambering into the door of a truck. These are all interesting images, to be enjoyed on their own terms, but giving no hint as to their connection with one another. If this enjoyment is sufficient, the visitor can leave.
Alternatively, there is a book entitled Peter Friedl, which lies on a small table near the door. And there is a man seated at the table. His name is Tom Mulcaire: he is the curator of the show and director of the Institute for Contemporary Art, and will answer questions directed at him. The bareness of the space? Two pieces only? Mulcaire explains that Friedl is not in favour of the kind of salon-type hanging utilised by most South African galleries, where the wall space is covered in images. This show is a kind of retrospective of Friedl's work, and each of the posters is a visual clue to one of his projects, or interventions, or initiatives.
Pick up the book. In an essay entitled Peter Friedl's Use of Genre: A Battle against 'Form versus Context', Alison Gingeras talks of the Austrian artist's "somewhat elusive artistic practice". "Due to its protean nature, Friedl's practice is itself almost impossible to systematically classify. Installing a blue and white container in Prague that migrates around the city without explanation, with the exception of equally enigmatic posters that read 'please let me out &ccopy; Capt. Bellamy' (Bellamy & Bellamy, 1996); situating a sign that reads 'KINO' on top of the Documenta exhibition hall (KINO, 1997); asking the staff of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels to name the animal they would like to be, fabricating a heap of childlike costumes from their suggestions, and implicitly inviting visitors to don them as they walk though the exhibition space (Peter Friedl, 1998). The only 'category' that might apply to Friedl's oeuvre would be 'conceptually based aesthetic acts'."
Friedl, then, is one of those artists who delight in turning preconceived notions of what art should be on their head. The poster with the black shoes refers to an occasion on which Friedl was invited to submit a proposal for the City of Bremen to link various public spaces. He proposed using the budgeted money to have custom-made shoes fabricated for himself and the curators. So that is what happened. Perhaps the new shoes linked the spaces by carrying their wearers backwards and forwards.
The poster with the mule refers back to the black rubber flooring installation, which is entitled Forty Acres and a Mule. This title reprises a promise made to black soldiers in the American Civil War by their white general; a promise that was, of course, broken. Each time Friedl shows the piece, the size of the rubber is cut according to the money the curator of that show is able to raise - the Cape Town piece cost R8 000 - but it is never enough to cover the space available. Floor always extends past the carpeting.
Friedl's work is coded way beyond its deceptively prosaic appearance. His questioning of cultural practices both within and without the art world makes a study of his ideas stimulating and engaging.
With the constraints of funding and the busy calendars of the world's artists, it is only occasionally that Mulcaire's ICA is able to bring a project to Cape Town. The last one was the showing of the video works of British Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen. Friedl - whose film King Kong was shown simultaneously in Johannesburg - was a remarkable follow up. Watch out for the next one.
May 1 to 21