Anita van Tonder at the Bell-Roberts
By Linda Stupart
Art critic Clement Greenberg in 1939 identified kitsch as 'vicarious experience and faked sensations'. Artist Anita van Tonder in 'Bennie's Games' thus uses the aesthetics of kitsch as the ideal vehicle for her modified gambling machines. Borrowing from the semiotics of the casino and the county fair, Van Tonder presents a festival of the macabre. She successfully criticises notions of capitalism, religion, tradition and greed - all the while using the notion of interactive play to both intrigue and implicate the viewer in the workings of the corruption machine of contemporary popular culture.
Van Tonder's use of both the notion of the casino and the video game - institutions that represent the ultimate simulacra, combined with symbols of tradition and mythology - also demonstrates the distance and alienation that her mechanisms of power, sexuality and money wreak on postmodern society.
One of the most striking aspects of 'Bennie's Games' is the artist's provocative use of the Bell-Roberts gallery space. The entrance to the show is heralded by two headless bodybuilders, one male and one female, both of whom hold up the garish pink and red neon sign that announces the show's title.
These icons of excessive sexuality bear the instructions 'insert coin', above a slot next to each of their skimpy undergarments. Gazing through this archway, the viewer is faced with a carpeted pathway leading to the king of the show, Tiny Dorfling, with diverging roads to the other works - a mechanism that from the very beginning presents the viewer with a choice that must end in accountability.
Tiny, named in the great tradition of beer-drinking, biltong-eating, rugby-playing, large men, appears in his throne as the overseeing force - ruler or god - presiding over both the exhibition's other characters and the actions of the viewer. His sublimely overflowing and overweight flesh is unadorned but for a pair of flip-flops - the uniform of the tourist, the outdoorsman and, ironically, the braai-making potato couch.
Also headless, Tiny clutches a real knife and fork in each hand - readying himself to attack the mound of meat that sits on a silver platter placed very deliberately in front his genitalia. In Tiny's chest is a gambling machine that presents a game that presumably can be won. The prize is uncertain as the spinning images of KFC, a dissected heart and cartoon breakfasts are difficult to line up and the viewer is forced instead to wander away sheepishly under the gaze of Tiny's loyal freak show giraffe-dog.
Tiny's associate Mr. Fortuin is dressed in a suit, tie and sunglasses and carries an acrylic briefcase containing only a homemade sandwich - a symbol of an attentive mother or wife, petrified in resin. Press the button on his lapel and his grinning mouth literally spins with platitudes. A mechanism inside selects printed sentences such as 'Elke donker wolk het a silwer rantjie' (Every cloud has a silver lining): hard-to-swallow pleasantries designed to incite short-lived gratification and tranquillity in the gambler, the short-lived belief that everything really will be all right.
On the left is Bennie, a meta-character of cheese after whom the show is named, complete with gold pinkie ring, cheap 'bling' and beer-gut, desperately trying to escape his ill-fitting T-shirt. Bennie sits in front of a luridly coloured slot machine which has been modified to incorporate a badly painted image of himself (presumably) in his leopard-print underwear and a thought bubble encasing a green 'night vision'-type video image of the gambler surrounded by hot semi-clad women. Here, the slot machine literally embodies the player's fantasies, with the line between fantasy and reality and man and machine becoming increasingly blurred.
Also flanking the main pathway up to Tiny is Miss Puckman, a sad, aging burlesque queen in a corset, fishnets and leopard-print shoes with tragic singing flowers on her head. She guards a video arcade of sleazy pornographic women and a hidden jackpot of an inflatable breast encased in neon fur - a testament to the commodification of the female body.
Summarising the ethos of the exhibition is The Three Pillars of Society. These three busts on luminous pillars show the authoritative figures of money, religion and law. These are personified in a muscle-bound jock with a dollar sign around his neck, a robed priest figure with an oversized cross and a sunglass-wearing policeman. All three figures have pornographically gaping mouths which, on activation, swivel to avoid penetration from a ball with which the viewer must attempt the near-impossible task of inserting.
Van Tonder's exhibition successfully navigates the dark streets of the alienation, corruption and false ideals of capitalist society. This is a show that reminds us of the power of the art object while simultaneously introducing notions of play and interactivity. Coming so soon after Johann van der Schjiff's equally successful and playful sculpture show, 'Bennie's Games' shows that both the medium of sculpture and the running of the Bell-Roberts Gallery are on the up.
Opens: July 19
Closes: August 9
89 Bree Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 2pm