Archive: Issue No. 104, April 2006

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Kerim Seiler's
Creature Comfort
at blank projects


The Casa de Protocolo
in Playa, Havana


A small section of the
Fortaleza de Cabana


Lucy Orta at
the Ministry of Culture
on opening night


Wednesday, March 1

What does every tourist who comes to Africa have near the top of their 'must-see' list? The 'Big Five' - the hunter's most dangerous targets - the rhino, lion, elephant, buffalo and leopard.

Swiss artist Kerim Seiler's 'Creature Comfort' which opened at blank projects tonight is his witty response to this touristic imperative... the five animals, mixed, matched and expertly fabricated in soft fabrics by his assistant, Basil, are set on plinths to stalk through the gallery.

Monday, March 6

'The Encoded Body' (and one could wish for a fresher sounding title) is an impressive series of digital prints from Michaelis Master's student Pam Stretton. Based on the anorexic experience of the artist, each print is an extreme close up sepia-toned photograph of a section of the female body. The surface is made up of tiny cut squares, each carefully bent by the artist to form a curved shape, which when viewed from a distance catches the light and makes the overall image more difficult to read. Subtly superimposed text refers to food, weight and measurement.

The obsessive nature of the work, the extreme focus on body parts, is a successful blending of concept and technique. It opened at the AVA tonight.

Monday, March 13

Berlin artist and curator Christian Hanussek has recommended a new intern to me - Jasmin Schmidt, who attended his 'Meanwhile in Africa... ' series of lectures in Germany last year. Great. Jasmin has arrived in Cape Town, and will start on Wednesday. Just in time to help 'style' (read: get rid of the worst of the junk) my studio for the visit on Thursday morning by the film production team making an episode on Cape Town for the new BBC series, Destination Art.

Wednesday, March 15

Jasmin comes in, with a wide smile, and a willingness to help get some work on the walls, and sort out some of the awful clutter that inevitably accumulates in my space.

This evening, I meet Tosha Grantham from the Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, Virginia, here to finalise the 'Darkroom' show which will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia in January 2008. With her is Isolde Brielmeier who will write the catalogue essay.

After drinks at Jo'burg Bar, we cross the road to join a group for dinner, at that favourite artists' dining spot, Café Royale. Round the table are Ed Young, Kathryn Smith, Ruth Sacks and Christian Nerf. Introductions all round. I don't hear what Ed says to Isolde, but all of a sudden the two of them are engaged in a heated exchange, and the rest of us have fallen silent. The provocateur has struck again.

Thursday, March 16

The production team for the BBC arrives promptly at 9, and spends the morning filming, having me sit on my great grandmother's chaise longue for the interview. Asking questions about the nature of art in Cape Town, that kind of thing. Even though interviewer Sandra Reynolds has sent the questions on ahead, and the four man crew is very nice, I'm never as articulate as I would like to be and find the process really stressful.

Friday, March 17

With the BBC interview behind me, I can concentrate on the next problem, and I have to resolve this one today: am I going to go to the Havana Bienal, or not? There is still no word from the Department of Arts and Culture on the funding proposal for air fares and expenses submitted by Stephen Hobbs on behalf of the South African artists who have been invited.

Moleleki Ledimo has sent a support letter from VANSA, but there has been no reply from DAC. The opening is only 10 days away - the 27th - and it's not easy to get to Cuba. And as it's a double flight - here to Europe, then on to Cuba, it's really expensive.

An email from Havana this week has promised accommodation in a Ministry of Culture guest house. And there will be a 'specialist from the department of culture' detailed to meet me at the airport. And this will be the first time all six videos from the 'Better Lives' series will show simultaneously. Along with the prints.

Go into a travel agent and discover Air France flies to Havana from Paris. Air France? Up to now I have been having incomprehensible long distance conversations with the Paris and Madrid offices of Cubana de Aviacion, the Cuban national carrier. They are supposed to be giving artists discounts, but only fly two days a week.

Check my air miles with Air France and SAA and to my great surprise find I have just enough between them to make the trip - SAA to Paris, Air France to Havana.

Fate has decided for me. I'll go.

Monday, March 20

Spend the day trying to juggle air miles flights between SAA and Air France to allow me to make the trip. Manage this. Also getting my 'Better Lives' DVDs transferred to NTSC VHS tapes.

Stephen Hobbs faxes me the letter of rejection for our application from the DAC. Finally, an answer. We did not fit into their poverty alleviation profile. He and Marcus Neustetter will not be able to go. Nor will Doreen Southwood, invited to do a fringe fashion show. Moshkewa Langa has already emailed from Amsterdam that since there is no funding he cannot go. So only Conrad Botes, who is paying for himself, and I, will represent South Africa.

Tuesday, March 21

Arrange for Jasmin to work at the National Gallery helping install the Picasso show while I am away.

Wednesday, March 22

Pack fast. Too fast to include my Mac laptop cord. Pick up the VHS tapes on the way to the airport. Fly to Paris.

Thursday, March 23

Fly to Havana. Am escorted through immigration by someone from the Ministry of Interior, and driven to the Casa de Protocolo, a pink house in the suburb of Playa. A bus will fetch me in the morning.

Friday, March 24

Discover Conrad Botes and his wife Jeanne are staying in the same house. At 10, the bus picks us up for the 25 minute ride to Havana Vieja, the beautiful old section of Havana, where the Bienal offices are situated in the Wilfredo Lam Centre, on one corner of the Plaza de la Cathedral.

From there, it's a short bus ride through the underwater tunnel across the harbour to the Fortaleza de la Cabana, the main venue for the Bienal. This old Spanish military fortress, with its dozens of vaulted spaces is where I showed last time, in 1994. Twelve years ago. I can hardly believe it.

To my utter dismay, the beautiful old cobbled floors have been replaced by red quarry tiles. And the kind of large four tube fluorescent light fittings that are normally hidden behind opalescent covers glare down from the walls. The wonky old glass and ironwork lights which though inadequate as light sources, were charming, have gone. It's really sad. All in the name of modernity, I suppose.

This evening, there is a presentation of the catalogue at the Wilfredo Lam Centre. Beautiful design. Really stunning. I have had a nagging feeling since this morning that I did not send my images before deadline, but there they are. Antonio Zaya tells me the catalogue has been printed in Spain.

The courtyard is packed. Loads of delicious food on enormous triangular trays circulate through the crowd. A good beginning.

Saturday, March 25

This morning artist/designer Lucy Orta, just in from Paris, gets on the Bienal bus. We last met at the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, when Lucy did a project with women where they made up overalls in African fabrics which link by a tube emanating from the stomach area to the next person, so that people connect to form a human chain.

A tour of the old town follows. Havana is famously a city in a time warp with its 50s American cars and crumbling buildings. Renovation is going on, however, and the more historic buildings are in the process of restoration. Music is everywhere. Even small cafés will have a live band to entertain patrons from lunch time on. There are many more tourists than last time, most of them Canadian.

Tonight there is the opening of an exhibition of Cuban artists at the Museum of Fine Art, the contemporary art museum. Some interesting work. Bump into Sebastian Lopez, director of the last Shanghai Biennale, who tells me he has now left the Gate Foundation in Amsterdam and is working with a new museum in Rio. It's great to see him again.

The parties are starting. Drink a mojita at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, a Hemingway hangout, then head for the home of Carlos Garaicoa, deep in the suburbs. Great party. Carlos is showing videos on the back wall of the garden. Everyone is going on to yet another party, but it is now midnight, and I have to install in the morning.

Sunday, March 26

Pepe Fernandez is the director of exhibitions, and really dedicated to getting everything up, but things are not easy. The electronic equipment has just arrived and the opening is tomorrow. I wish it had been here two days ago, but as Hani El Gowely, the Egyptian photographer explains it to me, the equipment is rented for a month, the bienal is open for a month, so everything arrives at the last minute.

At the end of the day, we still have not cut the openings in the screens for the television monitors, or rigged the platform for the video projector.

Monday, March 27

The opening will be at 7 tonight.� The day passes in a blur of work. It's too far to go back to the guesthouse and rest and change before the opening, so I have brought a silk jacket with me, but I am exhausted.

The speeches start at 7, and the doors will open at 9, but we are still working. At 8.15, Geober Guibert from the Ministry of Culture arrives to tell me I am expected at a dinner hosted by the Minister of Culture and the bus will leave at 9.

This is the first I have heard of this, and I can't believe I am expected to leave my work on opening night, but at 9.15 I am the last to be ushered onto the minibus, and am embarrassed to find I have kept waiting such august company as artists Anne and Patrick Poirier, French architect Jean Nouvel, and Alfred Paquement, director of the Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Centre.

The dinner takes place in a house of glass filled with artworks, far from the centre of Havana. I am seated at a table for 10, with writer and Minister of Culture Abel Prieta. The party includes two translators, who simultaneously translate the minister's words into French or English.

The minister comments on his meeting with our Minister of Culture, Pallo Jordan, and says what a fine thing it is that there is a cultural agreement between the two countries. Oh, right. I reflect that the DAC showed no awareness of this agreement in turning down our proposal, but keep this to myself. I really appreciate the fact that in Cuba, the ministry will host a special dinner for the visiting artists.

There is a party afterwards at Cuban artist K'cho's house. Lucy and I go. K'cho is one of the best known of his country's artists, making sculptures and installations on a theme of departure - about leaving, about boats, about fish. When we arrive, he is waving around a large red fishing net, like a butterfly net, which he is using to ensnare young female guests.

Artwork is everywhere. Outside, the garden is dark and peaceful. It's a relief to relax.