2003 in review
It's been the best of times; it's been the worst of times. England won the rugby World Cup, and in Venice a UK curator treated Africa shamefully. We have seen Bruce Gordon being tattooed and Kathryn Smith being tattooed. (Get the chronological order right with those.) Here follows by review of 2003 followed by a piece that will probably cause me to have a very difficult 2004.
1) Best Show(s): Locally, the launch of Michael Stevenson Contemporary with 'Contact Zones', and internationally, 'Pittura/Painting', curated by Francesco Bonami, as well as Chris Ofili representing Great Britain, both at the Venice Biennale. Participating in Christian Nerf's 24.7 residency was a personal highlight. It was an amazing event, brilliantly arranged.
2) Best individual artwork: Kathryn Smith's Jack at the JAG, which I stupidly missed even though I was in Johannesburg at the time. What I've seen of the documentation is astounding. Another work that was really nice was I've waited hours for this, the mini ramp, equipped with a score of young male skateboarders, that Julia Clark installed for YDEsire. Paul Edmunds went off about it at considerable length in his 'review' of YDEsire for ArtThrob, remember?
3) Most memorable quote: Not so much a quote rather than the extended diatribe against Mgcineni "Pro" Sobopha, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Vuyile C. Voyiya at the SAAAH conference by Anitra Nettleton and in the case of Goniwe, Sandra Klopper. That moment is permanently seared into my memory. As far as a quote proper goes, I'd offer this from Francesco Bonami: "Art is the most useful of all the useless things in the world".
4) Biggest disappointment: The art world never disappoints me.
5) Best review: It's a bit self-obsessed, I know, but I really enjoyed Colin Richard's review of my book Bruce Gordon: An Art Work by Ed Young. He called the review 'Working the White Cube', but I think he gleamed the cube in this case.
6) Artist to watch in 2004: Anyone except Ed Young.
7) Additional comments: A big question that everyone involved in the arts should be asking is how insidious is racism in the arts and what needs to be done, especially by White people, to address this? Racism is so dominant within our sector and so little ever seems to be said about it, except by a few Black commentators, who are invariable shouted down or muzzled by the powerful bloc that currently controls so much of the discourse around art.
This leads to the next question: who controls discourse and how can it be opened up? ArtThrob is a leading light in allowing free exchange of ideas, a sometimes vigorous feedback section and the like, but many still do not have access to the web or feel diffident in participating or excluded from such fora. We are seeing a new generation of commentators arising but there voices seem still to be marginalized.
I wish to pay particular credit to Michael Godby who is training art historians to become critics of the very highest standard. However, so long as a certain band of entrenched writers (many of whom are out of touch with contemporary art and current developments) are seen to dominate the press, especially the newspapers, we are doomed to have mindless waffle in place of cogent and informed discussion, debate and critique.
Next question: why so little debate? And why is it so contrived and controlled? Why do some seem so arrogant? A small group of art insiders seem to be so powerful that to speak one's mind in our sector can mean instant ostracism. Several times this year it has been implied that I should "be careful" in some of the views and opinions I express in print and at public fora. We are operating in a strange space of paranoia, it would seem. Recently a piece I had been commissioned to write, in which I named and criticised two well-known art historians, was dropped at the last minute, the editor citing space issues and repetition of stuff covered elsewhere as the justification for this action.
I have subsequently learnt that another figure in the art world was offered a "right to respond" to the very issues I wanted to highlight in the same publication, something that has not been offered to others who have been critiqued before in the same space. This is unacceptable. Editors should be free to publish what they want, writers and critics to say what they want and artists make what they want.
We all have to live with the criticism. I don't believe the art world in South Africa is incestuous but actions like these will help those who wish to promote this view. One need only refer to the absurd attack from NAC Chairperson, Dr Gomolemo Mokae, that Fiona Ramsey had to endure on her SAfm radio programme Art of the Matter recently, to see how pathetically intolerant of even a hint of criticism many are in the South African arts sector.
The relevant questions facing the art community can be summarised as follows: Why are we so scared? Why will we not engage with dialogue? Why can we not discuss issues that are vital for the integrity and growth of art in South Africa? As long as we turn our backs on those that critique, and embrace and include in cosy meals those that sycophantically adore, we remain in a haze of self-referential irrelevancy.
There seems to be some cleaving in the kind of art that our most innovative artists are making and the traditional outlets for that art, be they galleries, collectors or (the worst) some very out-of-touch critics that still lurk on the margins of debate. A good counter-example is the support that the Goodman is giving to really innovative stuff while still maintaining the status of a commercial gallery. In Cape Town Michael Stevenson Contemporary, which is a fantastic space and has the brains of Kathy Grundlingh and the charm of Andrew da Conceicao, unfortunately seems to be opting for quite conservative fare. This may be a bit harsh because all the shows that they have hosted have been good, but it would be even better to see some more imagination at work.
Bell-Roberts is still willing to take a chance on untried new voices but this can sometimes backfire embarrassing as the indescribably bad Alterior demonstrated, not to mention Ed Young's Muse a few days later: even the artist's mother cried at that one. But seriously, commercial galleries are one thing. At the end of the day they are entitled to do as they please: they are privately owned. I think it is unfair to constantly expect them to play a subsidiary position. They are there to make money and to show the sort of work that they think they can sell.
We don't go into a coffee shop and complain that they don't stock snacks made by up-and-coming avant-garde confectioners that no one will ever buy. Why the equivalent in commercial galleries? The problem is that many institutional and semi-institutional galleries seem to be lethargic, under funded to the point where they cannot operate and reluctant to engage with contemporary modes of production. Having said this one must still acknowledge that the South African National Gallery have managed to include everything from the Rourke's Drift through Jane Alexander and Willem Boshoff to Ed Young's Bruce Gordon in their programme this year. And all this with a shameful budget provided by Government.
We are a terribly fragmented bunch. We bicker, gossip and are petty and small-minded (and in this sentence I am only referring to Ed Young and myself). In spite of all of the above I am fantastically enthusiastic about the future of art in South Africa and the world.