Archive: Issue No. 85, September 2004

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Min(d)efields: trampling on potentially explosive ground?
by Robyn Sassen

Being invited to a foreign country with an all-expenses-paid pass under the heading 'art critic' is complex. Is it about being bought by a project to say the appropriate things? Is it about being perceived as 'buyable' and implicitly expected to paint the thing delightful, come what may?

I like to think not, having returned from Switzerland earlier this month, where I played an art critical role in 'Min(e)dfields', the current South African/Swiss Bern/Basel exhibition. I like to understand my presence there as healthy: after all, if a tree falls down in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise? If there is no media presence for an exhibition in a far away place, no one, except those with heavily vested interests, can realistically comment on it.

I took part in a round table discussion in Basel, and gave an informal talk in Bern. And I spent a lot of time looking. And thinking. So rather than trotting out trite and cheerful propaganda for 'Min(e)dfields', it is my intention to exploit as many platforms as I can to extrapolate on the myriad of perceptions that have emerged from my experience. The project is curated by Stephen Hobbs, Katrien Reist van Gelder, Sabine Schaschl-Cooper and Beate Engel - the latter three, Swiss museum professionals.

Unlike the ubiquitous participation of South Africans in international exhibitions celebrating our 10 years of democracy, 'Min(e)fields'sidesteps direct political positioning. It also bypasses a temptation to comprehensively represent 'Africa' as a great big rubric on the colonial horizon. The selected work is sound and quirky, and collectively challenges the notion of a self-consciously 'national' or politically focused art, but supports the introspection of 'own' concerns.

In Bern, it would be horribly amiss to not see the world's most comprehensive collection of Paul Klee housed at the Kunstmuseum. Consequently, the Kunstmuseum in Basel is equally prestigious, housing some of the greats of western art history. This made me contemplate 'Min(e)dfields' in particular, but museum art in general.

Art is irrevocably about representing worldview. It's about ownership as well, but there's meatiness in what makes an artwork a viable representation, not only of ability, but of meaning. Some pieces in 'Min(e)dfields' draw from the holdings of The Premises - Alison Kearney's, Nicholas Hlobo's and Thando Mama's are cases in point. William Kentridge's Mine (1991), is another. Not owned by The Premises, it's beyond having to prove itself. Like almost all the pieces on show, it's become a diplomat for cause and country.

The pivot to the exercise then, is curatorial deftness and the ability to sniff out and find the most appropriate works for the project. Which puts Hobbs in a position of conductorship, if you will. By far one of the most powerful voices on the show, he has exercised the ability to sway the show, but has done so with characteristic acumen.

By the same token, the Swiss (or nearly purely Swiss, some are German) artists selected to participate offer a level of idiosyncrasy which is far from an unmitigated celebration of things South African. They each visited South Africa about a year ago, and their work is based on this experience. Journalist Samuel Herzog constructs a fantasy island, 'Santa Lemusa': a culture of his own making, one of the smaller islands on the Caribbean coastline. It's a Utopia, transcending the slipperiness and disruption of our own cultures. His installation is a participatory one, mimicking the desks and channels of bureaucracy that earn one a visa to a place.

In contemplating all of this, Penny Siopis, who is showing in Basel, commented, 'maybe we as artists are too thin-skinned'. There is much that penetrates our sensibilities and offers impetus to the creation of art. Not all of it is positive: not much is easy to grapple with, and seldom are our real issues predictable or obvious.

So, 'Min(e)dfields' in Switzerland happens in two very different cities, 80km apart. Bern and Basel are about different economies, different political structures; they're about the difference between provincialism and a contemporary metropolis, and the difference between a formal gallery space and a rather more improvised set of urban spaces. Straddling these places, 'Min(e)dfields' celebrates Africa from within Swiss values, and it raises important questions - neither easy nor direct ones. Switzerland's is an interesting culture. Irrevocably coloured by blood spilt throughout history on the European continent, it's unspeakably pretty - and unnervingly bland and structured. The city's infrastructure is oiled and on wheels, and all is well, on the surface.

Scratching beneath it, there are other issues. Less comfortable ones - does the notion 'neutrality' embrace complicity? Why is there still compulsory conscription for boys of 18? Why is the drug culture here so blatant and prolific? Why are red geraniums so ubiquitous? What's the deal with the Swiss banks, who neutrally received SA money during apartheid? And the barbaric historic bear pit in Bern?

They're ethical and aesthetic issues, which poke or threaten to poke holes in the clear fa´┐Żade of this great European country. Healthily so. After all, as the German critic Walter Benjamin once commented, 'Every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism'.

'Min(e)dfields' comes to Johannesburg late next year.