Sue Williamson at João Ferreira
By Ruth Sacks
The interior of a hotel. There is a bed. You will sleep in it tonight.
This is one of many scenarios presented by Sue Williamson in Hotels, part of her new show at the João Ferreira Gallery. The Hotels series provides photographic details of Williamson's travels abroad. Her experience of exhibiting internationally over a number of years is presented in strips of postcard-sized images. Fragments of hotel interiors and architectural exteriors are interspersed with prestigious art exhibitions and glamour shots. Once again, Williamson's role is that of documenter. This time, however, she surprises the audience with an uncharacteristic investigation into her own history.
At the opening of the Cape Town version of 'Hotels and Better Lives', most of the crowd singled out and gawked at snapshots of art celebrities Kendell Geers and Orlan. Those who did this missed the point. The Hotels series is far more than a parade of impressive faces and places. It is a personalised take on impersonal situations.
If one has to pick out recognisable individuals from the series, one should not overlook the insertion of the artist's close personal friends. Williamson's partner, Bruce Gordon, is present as is Penny Siopis (with noticeable attention given to her bright pink shoes). A grey and alienating pavement is warmed up by the presence of Lisa Brice, chattering away on a red cellphone. Whether or not the viewer is aware of the artist's personal connections to these people, a sense of warmth is apparent in their presentation.
In previous exhibitions/installations, Williamson addressed topical socio-political issues (for example, HIV/ AIDS in 'From the Inside' and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 'Truth Games'). There is no underlying political message in 'Hotels'. Images are presented unmediated by dates, locations or titles. This allows for multiple narratives and interpretations and breaks with earlier, more prescriptive exhibition strategies.
Williamson appears to be enjoying herself with this work. This is evident in her eye for frivolous details. She revels in the typography of tacky hotel signs and gaudy logos and replicates them in the steel name tags which accompany the photographs. Representations of sterile rented rooms are peppered with a roll of pink loo paper and monogrammed sheets.
It is not always easy to locate artworks within the snapshots. Pippilotti Rist's Open My Glade (2001) is easy to spot as it is a well-known image. It is the piece where Rist appears to be trying to break out of the huge Panasonic video screen in Times Square, New York. More difficult to place is an image of a pale pencil nude. In an explanatory walkabout led by Williamson, it emerged that the model for the drawing was French performance artist Sophie Calle. After posing for a figure drawing class, Calle found the drawing in a dustbin. It had been menacingly slashed. In Williamson's photo, the cuts have been taped over. With or without its background story, it is an intriguing image.
'Hotels and Better Lives' brings together two seemingly disparate elements: on one side of the gallery is the light-hearted Hotels piece. Opposite this is Better Lives, a serious attempt to document refugees in Cape Town. The refugee portraits take the form of a video projection and film stills. Sadly, in the move from the Goodman Gallery to João Ferreira, the integration of the video projection with the rest of the exhibition was lost. The separate viewing room in the Cape Town exhibition is not effective and detracts from the exhibition as a whole.
To create the Better Lives portraits, Williamson recorded the individual narratives of each subject. She then made video portraits while her subjects listened to their own words played back. The works rely on a single take. Thus the act of an initial listening is emphasised. The narratives of the subjects are as essential to the final portraits as their visual components.
Popular portrait studios across Africa (in the spirit of well known studios like that of Seydou Keita) utilise fantastical backdrops and props so that subjects or clients look their best. The final product must be beautiful, regardless of the realities of daily life. In Williamson's version of this tradition, the backdrop is a black-and-white street scene with Table Mountain behind.
Cynthia Gabriel, Deka Yusuf Farrh, Isabelle and Albert Ngandu and others are presented as dignified, monumental figures. Their portraits, however, do not gloss over their personal tragedies. The subjects of Better Lives were absent from the opening of the João Ferreira show. This highlights their position as outsiders.
'Hotels and Better Lives' presents a shift in Williamson's aesthetic production. In comparison with works like A Few South Africans (1985) and For Thirty Years Next to his Heart (1990), similar concerns are raised, yet Williamson's clear understanding of contemporary aesthetics is remarkable. Her work has progressed to a high standard of collaborative and multi-media projects with 'Better Lives and Hotels'. This is an artist who does not fall back on old formulae.
Closed: May 28
João Ferreira Gallery
80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 423 5403
Fax: (021) 423 2136
Hours: Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-2pm
The show was shown earlier this year at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.