Beyond the Material: Conceptual Art from the Permanent Collection at the SANG
by Paul Edmunds
Working as an assistant during the installation of Colin Richards' show 'Graft' (part of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale), I found myself helping Alan Alborough. This was difficult, because he wouldn't tell me what he was doing. Describing something, he explained, produces a very different response from the actual experience of it (or that's how I recall it). That his is the first work you notice on entering 'Beyond the Material' is interesting, since this work depends so heavily on its actual materiality. But, that's not where it stops.
Heathen Wetlip is the name Alborough gave to this work, and upon finding out that this is an anagram of 'white elephant', one couldn't help but think that the artist was having the last laugh when he donated the work to the SANG. Who, after all, would know what to do with a collection of cured elephant feet and ears, some cotton rigging, a selection of sash clamps and sundry hardware? But that's just one of the ways Alborough's work slips around when one tries to pin it down. The work's title is immediately alarming, and I know a lot of people who were pretty offended by the use of elephant parts in the work itself when it was shown on the Biennale. Attached to each of the four columns in the centre of the room, the ears are raised on white cotton ropes like flags and the two pairs of feet are supported by low steel tables. The salt from the curing process remains in creases and rough areas in the hides. Without alluding to anything specific, the work invokes issues of morality and legality which never resolve themselves under Alborough's keen and elusive directorship.
The bilaterally similar arrangement of Alborough's work, as well as the myriad opportunities for its interpretation, draws immediate parallels with Malcolm Payne's adjacent and centrally hung Rorschach Test, although I suspect his work demands a more rigorous and precise interpretation (curiously, during the above-mentioned Biennale, and in a next door room, Candice Breitz's work also relied on a Rorschach-like bilateral symmetry).
Looking past Heathen Wetlip, pausing at Chickenman Fanozi Mkize's sign reading 'Outto lunch', one can't help but notice apparent similarities between Alborough's piece and Moshekwa Langwa's Untitled of 1995. This by-now-famous work comprises three rows of cement bags hanging from three parallel lines. They don't at first look like cement bags, but rather, curing hides. Their chaotic shapes are also more considered than you might expect, often several layers thick and cut carefully rather than torn as they appear. Their surfaces bear traces of pressing and are marked liberally with bitumen so as to appear burned. Closer inspection reveals the marks as sensitively made and planned, evocative and precise. Most surprising to me (having only previously seen illustrations of the piece) was the fact that some of the bags are pocked with coloured wax and some even bear traces of glitter.
A number of artists are represented by entire series of works. Gavin Jantjes A South African Colouring Book from 1974 - 5 might at first appear didactic and heavy-handed in spite of its beautiful graphic qualities. These were, though, heavy times and it was appropriate then to use to maximum effect the horrific images so carefully censored by the government. All the works bear a legend starting 'Colour�' which refers to the monotone graphic and photographic images contained within the work's borders and placed on a gridded ground. In one, two images from the Sharpeville Riots are accompanied by a text which reads 'Colour these people dead'. In another, probably making a reference to Warhol, four images of BJ Vorster are rendered in lines which recall paint-by-numbers images. One is graced by a Hitler moustache. Attached to the top left hand corner is a transcript from a journalist's interview with the Prime Minister where he reiterates that South Africa, unlike any other country, is a land of peace and calm.
Roger Palmer's Precious Metals 1 - 10 each consists of two photographic images flanking a handwritten text. Taken mostly in the Northern Cape, they depict various aspects of the landscape and habitations of modern day Khoi Khoi and Khoisan people. The texts describe phenomena like 'The Berg Wind' or 'Koperkapel'. Palmer seems to find in these subjects social parallels which play off the images he takes and scenes he evokes. This is altogether more oblique and elusive than Kendell Geers' strategy which he employs in his 1997 series LW. Here, large grainy black and white mugshots are branded with red text which labels the subjects with names like 'murderer' and 'hijacker'. Both immediately obvious and somehow cleverer-than-thou, Geers's work may be heavy-handed but it is not didactic.
The same can't be said of Martha Rosler's Semiotics of a Kitchen, a video piece from 1975. It looks really dated to me, the subject donning an apron (which is as much hairshirt as protective wear for the kitchen) and naming the objects in the kitchen as she picks them up and performs the actions for which they are intended. Perhaps it's just the politics which are dated and have long been assimilated into the mainstream that make the work seems so laboured. On the opposite end of the scale is Shelly Sacks' rather light-headed Primal Word Stone, a flattish rock engraved and topped with several other smaller ones and into which a tuning fork has been asserted. This sits on top of a felt cross. Sacks' accompanying text comes across as too emotive, and I think I'd be more convinced by the work if she spoke of it as a metaphorical device rather than an object actually and physically imbued with the attributes she describes. It's a pity, because I really wanted to like the piece.
As a survey of Conceptual Art, this exhibition covers many bases. Coming from a permanent collection, the show relies quite heavily on graphic pieces and one-off objects, perhaps at the cost of the more oblique strategies employed by artists in their attempts break from the picture-on-a-wall nature of much artmaking. However, this collection represents nearly 30 years of collecting, and although a number of works were presented to the gallery by the artists themselves, some of the work must have represented a pretty radical departure from their normal policies for the gallery when their practices were still under the watchful eye of the Apartheid state. As an unintimidating introduction to a notably exclusionary practice, the exhibition, with its comprehensive explanatory texts, does a good job.
The show closes on November 10
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