Selected works from the World Wide Video Festival at Michaelis Galleries
by Nic Dawes
Habitués of the Cape Town art circuit might find it a little disingenuous of Malcolm Payne to motivate the development of a new focus for the gallery at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art on the basis that "visual art involving new media is seldom being shown in South Africa". After all, you can barely walk out after dark these days without bumping into a video projection or a digital display. Perhaps what he means is that there are very few substantial exhibition spaces available for practitioners who work in these media, and the result is that their work is often shabbily mounted or shoved into some putatively site-specific corner where it is left to fend for itself.
As a first foray into correcting this situation, the selection of work by southern African artists commissioned for recent installments of the World Wide Video Festival in Amsterdam delivers mixed results.
One tends to expect a certain amount from Tracey Rose, and her three-channel Ode to Leoness would probably be disappointing even in ideal conditions, but displayed as it is here, on small monitors in a corridor, it really struggles. It's a simple, dilatory piece in memory of the Johannesburg drag artist who committed suicide last year: a working-class backyard is split across three screens; on the left a middle-aged woman with her hair in curlers smokes a cigarette, on the right a lace curtain hangs across the screen, and in the centre a goldfish-in-bowl changes colour gradually. A dancer in a feathered suit moves between the screens, changing colour with the goldfish, while the smoker remains indifferent, impassively mouthing a silent song. It's essentially a recorded performance with some minor post-production manipulation to push the fabulation of the domestic scene a little further. Rose's work is always dominated by thematic concerns, but the embodied character of her performance and the richness of her allusive vocabulary usually lifts it above the discursive. Unfortunately Ode to Leoness has neither of these advantages, and it's not finely wrought enough to engage without them.
Payne, on the other hand, presents a much more substantially produced work in Anthem, a wall-sized diptych which juxtaposes the artist's staring and inverted visage with blurred and solarised images from the Company Gardens - notably the once-controversial Smuts statue, the slave bell and the war memorial. Between these sequences an enamel bowl fills with water, and empties again as the tape reverses.
It is quite clear without the overt clues provided by the soundtrack that this work is about memory, guilt, colonisation and the persistent, repetitive dreamwork of historical consciousness. That's all very well, as far as it goes, and Anthem is the kind of work that satisfies immediately because it calls very precisely on a powerful set of resources, but in the end it all feels rather like an exercise, a demonstration of how to make this kind of art - right down to the manipulation of moving water, a technique which, thanks to Bill Viola, may now be the video cliché par excellence.
Matthew Hindley's Allow Me to Observe is a much more rough and ready exposition, dressed up as an experiment in the psychology of perception and a gentle parody of the "hidden camera exposé". Hindley's subjects are equipped with a concealed camera and video recording gear linked to fingertip sensors, which monitor their level of excitement. A simple feedback loop stops recording when excitement falls below a certain level, and resumes when it increases again, thus creating a record edited only by the camera-bearer's unconscious responses to visual stimuli. The idea, evidently, is that the subject becomes the object, as the movements of the photographer's desire are observed and exposed by the hidden camera in a kind of voyeurism right up against the mirror.
It goes without saying that this experimental design would not pass muster in a second-year psychology class. To begin with we are never informed how excitement is defined, but perhaps more importantly non-visual stimuli and environmental factors in general are not controlled for. Something is exposed, but it is largely meaningless. For example, a woman visits a petrol station bathroom: the setting is completely banal, but the tape keeps rolling. Is she worried about hygiene in public toilets, desperate for a pee, or simply nervous about exposing her thighs to the camera?
Of course photography in its most general and unreflected form is a trace of the photographer's desire moving in the world, and in this sense Allow Me to Observe simply replaces the conscious element of selection - the photographer's desire to show - with an unconscious process which shows us the photographer. Most of the time, however, what the work records for us is simply a set of environments in which excitement of some kind takes place. Perhaps if Hindley's technology showed us instances in which people are bored, or incorporated feedback to the subject, it would become more interesting, but for now it's mostly an old and rather casual piece of phenomenological inquiry vamped up with some sexy new kit - the kind of work that is more entertaining as a proposal than in its realised form.
The reverse is true of Minnette Vári's installation Chimera, which on paper comes across as precisely the same kind of inquiry as Payne's. It too takes a set of images heavy with the monumental freight of white heritage and culture, and sets them at play against the implicated historical consciousness of the artist, and white art-making in general. It's an approach Vári has taken before, and it may entail some very serious complications in the way it theorises the artist's work in relation to a traumatic history, but Chimera is so successfully achieved that it is not only able to live with those problems, but entertain them more riskily than Vári has done before.
The work fills a huge darkened room above the Michaelis library, and comprises multiple gauze screens onto which are projected elements of the bas-relief frieze that runs around the Voortrekker monument, fossilising the iconic vocabulary of Afrikaner nationalism with its staunch Boer men and women, ox-wagons and naked savages. These are completely abstracted from any background, in glowing photographic negative white, and as they slide past they are replaced by the Chimera figure of the artist, naked and goat-masked. By turns eroticised and cruel, she dances slowly before morphing back into the frieze.
It sounds like the most obvious of topoi, calling as it does on mythic figures of feminine sexuality to interrogate a monumental atrocity at its most visible site, but Vári succeeds for two reasons. The most immediate is the immersive and affective nature of the piece - video is not so much a medium here as a sculptural element - but perhaps more importantly she installs a complicated, if not unfamiliar, monster at the heart of the matter. Vári is beginning to create an avatar of the angel of history, gendered, transliterated and, like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, deprived of the right to turn back.
This is not the first exhibition to demonstrate how completely difficulties of consciousness - whether they concern perception, memory or identity - dominate video art in South Africa. What makes Vári's newer work exciting in this often rather drab context is that it begins to point out a way of engaging that field without simply re-enacting textbook questions. Hopefully others will follow suit.
Until March 9
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