Abrie Fourie at the Museum for African Art, New York
How does one respond to a cliché? In his latest exhibition, curated by Laurie Farrell,
Abrie Fourie tackles the weighty subject of the end of the world. It's not an uncommon genre in the history of Western art, but does it have relevance in today's cynical art world? Fourie's response to a temporary stay in New York is, on the surface, an obvious one, but not lacking in either sincerity or aesthetic appeal.
In New York, clichés are difficult to avoid. To an outsider (especially this young South African, there for the first time), everything looks like the movies. The presence of Ground Zero has added an element of disbelief to everyday life for New Yorkers too. As is generally the case with tragedies, any response is bound to seem trite. Fourie's show sets an appropriate tone in the context of a city that is still coming to terms with vulnerability.
The healing process in New York appears to have been slow. Reconstruction of the area around Ground Zero is far from complete and the lower stories of surrounding skyscrapers are still shrouded in black plastic. The Statue of Liberty only opened its doors to visitors again in early August. Fourie has responded to this environment with a serious, meditative exhibition.
'End of the World' marks this Pretoria-born artist's first solo show in North America. It takes place in the Museum for African Art's Focus Gallery, a small, experimental space, separate from the main exhibition area. In this intimate display area, Fourie, an obsessive collector of images, presents us with a careful selection of large-scale light box images, c-prints, billboard projects and a DVD-installation. Wall texts and press releases invite the viewer to treat the exhibition as a space of contemplation. A minimal layout and soft lighting encourage this.
Those who are familiar with Fourie's work will recognise his signature process of capturing mundane moments and transforming them into static abstractions. As with his previous show 'wherever/whatever' at João Ferriera in Cape Town last year, he uses photographs of banal remains that seem to imply past violence. This body of work, while creating a reflective space, is strongly underscored by the passing of time. Fourie departs from his better-known work by including an image of himself in the show. This too seems appropriate as it recalls the media coverage of the events of September 11, 2001. Fourie places emphasis on individuals' stories as well as a global perspective on the event.
Crossing (2003) is a series of images that Fourie developed during his residency at the Art Omi International Artist Colony. The programme gave him the opportunity to work in New York with 31 other artists from around the world. Fourie chose to photograph a crossroad in Pretoria where many road deaths have occurred, capturing the remains of plastic chairs strewn around the site from a variety of different angles. He sought to create links between the fragments of the furniture and an archaeological dig. The violence of the crash site is avoided in favour of aesthetic details like patterns, tones and forms.
Hanging opposite the Crossing series is a dramatic scenario. In where-we-r (2003) the artist can be seen prostrating himself in front of the Reformer's Monument in Geneva. The wall text explains that the monument was built in 1909 to commemorate Geneva's role in the Protestant Reformation. It's up to the viewer to figure out how this relates to the rest of the work. Is Fourie paying his respects to monumental heroes of the past? Is he pointing out the frailty of the individual worshipper?
My own response is that it sets up an interesting, though unintentional dialogue between the Focus gallery and the surrounding gallery. In the exhibition of Urhobo art, 'Where Gods and Mortals Meet', monumental, hand-crafted idols, used in traditional religious practises are featured. The exhibition's subtitle is 'Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art'. Both words could certainly be applied to Fourie's exhibition. One wonders what parallels and contrasts will be drawn between Fourie's show and the surrounding space when the next exhibition in the main gallery is installed - a showcase of contemporary South African art entitled 'Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art'.
In more/cry (2002/3) the artist exposes himself further. This two-channel DVD installation is the only moving image in the space. Two tiny screens face-off in a corner of the space, allowing Fourie to dispassionately watch himself crying. The piece is based on Bas Jan Ader's black and white film, I'm Too Sad to Tell You (1971). Ader's tears are almost sinister in view of the remainder of his artistic career. Four years after completing this work the Dutch artist attempted to cross the Atlantic in a small sailing boat in a conceptual artwork entitled In Search of the Miraculous II and was never seen again. Six months later his vessel was found half submerged off the coast of Ireland.
The strength of Ader's earlier piece is that his grief is so great that he is unable to relay what the matter is. Unlike the Ader work, Fourie tells us exactly why he is crying: a traumatic divorce. I'm Too Sad to Tell You is conceptually strong as he lays bare his emotions without really giving anything away. In comparison, the impact of Fourie's piece is lessoned by the inclusion of personal detail. While the work is visually effective, leaving more to the imagination would not have detracted from its cathartic power.
From this extreme close-up, the title triptych End of the World (Cape Point) (2004), zooms out to present a panoramic view. Three seascapes are displayed in lightboxes, allowing them to glow with saturated colour. We are informed that these images were taken by Fourie on a stormy day at Cape Point. In this case, the story behind the images is far more relevant. The geographic detail reminds us that, for many people, the end of the world can exist quite literally, where land mass meets the sea. We are reminded that for many Americans the idea of the tip of Africa must indeed seem like the end of the world.
The site of Cape Point evokes for me, a Capetonian, thoughts of early explorers navigating unknown territories and expanding the boundaries of the known world. The piece reminds us that the end of the world is a matter of perspective. A rough wooden bench has been placed opposite, encouraging viewers to take their time in absorbing the piece. While each photograph appears at first to be the same image, careful observation reveals subtle differences, as each image was taken seconds after the other.
With this show, Fourie acknowledges the transience of major events and emotions. He has succeeded in creating a space that encourages private contemplation by imbuing all images with a sense of quiet dignity. Has Fourie escaped the cliché? Not entirely. While the work is visually subtle, it is conceptually obvious. But, perhaps this is not a problem in view of the fact that it is housed in the vast cliché that is post-traumatic New York. Andrew Putter observed last year: The end of the world happened yesterday. It will happen again tomorrow. Sometimes simple statements are necessary.
Museum for African Art, New York
Ruth Sacks is an artist who lives and works in Cape Town.