Clive van den Berg and the Spier Contemporary
by Michael Smith
Whether you like or loathe art awards and competitions, they seem to be a fixture on South Africa's busy art scene. As long as I've had a sense of the practice and production of contemporary art in SA, it has been coupled with an awareness of art competitions. That controversy attends such endeavours is a given. The Brett Kebble Art Awards was only the most recent competition to be touched by controversy (albeit a tough act to follow in that sense). Beezy Bailey's 1992 submission of work under the name Joyce Ntobe to question judging fairness, and Kendell Geers' tagging of the outside of the Sandton Civic Gallery after he didn't win the 1999 Vita Art Now are two memorable examples from further back in our immediate history.
What interested me during a recent conversation with Clive van den Berg, chief curator and organiser of the newly launched 'Spier Contemporary', was how he seeks to reinvent the art award system for South Africa, not for the purpose of avoiding controversy, but rather to allow productive frictions that arise to be part of the process. In fact, van den Berg sees the chief task of the Spier Contemporary (SC) not as the award part, but rather the curation of a strong touring exhibition, a fairly unorthodox shift away from, as he puts it, the tradition of having 'the smiling sponsor handing over an oversized cheque'.
Michael Smith: Clive, tell me how your involvement with the Spier Contemporary (SC) began.
Clive van den Berg: Spier approached me after the Brett Kebble Art Awards (BKAA) were terminated, with the idea of starting a new kind of award. They had seen the exhibition and had liked the scope and inclusivity of the curatorial process. We sat down and had a series of conversations to identify core concerns. Simply put, we agreed amongst other things that there had to be as few physical restrictions as possible. If organisers prescribe that an artist has to work within a certain size or with certain materials, what is effectively being controlled is not only the material languages of art but also conceptual articulations. Secondly, because of the cultural, economic and geographic complexity of the country, we believed if we really wanted to explore the linguistic diversity of contemporary South African art we would have to devote considerable resources to outreach and to extending our infrastructure outside of cities. We are interested in using breadth to combat the standard phenomenon where one has the same constituencies, represented by graduates from the same art schools, coming through, and as a result the same subjects recurring. These concepts fitted in with what Spier as a brand/organisation is interested in doing: exploring the local, and promoting the local in a broader context.
MS: The mission statement of the SC seems to be pitched or calculated to avoid some of the pitfalls previously experienced by other major competitions, in my opinion particularly the 2006 Sasol Wax Art Award. Would you concur with this?
CvdB: I'm not sure that the SC's position has been specifically calculated to avoid these problems, but we certainly were mindful of them. When we wrote the mission statement some two years ago we did a survey of the awards and competitions around and defined the Spier Contemporary cogniscent of what we wanted to avoid and what we thought were needs. We did not want to force an identification of the sponsor or its products with art, though the idea of wine as a medium would be of interest to some. The idea of cultural difference has become something of a cliché but it is still an edgy part of our culture and provides real challenges to shared notions of value.
Engaging with that, the SC has a very conscious and structured outreach programme, run by Churchill Madikida and Jay Pather. We have established relationships with Fort Hare and other institutions to facilitate this programme. Yet, this must be seen as a parallel programme, not necessarily a feeder for the SC. Jay Pather is also running outreach initiatives, with which the SC challenges the notion that outreach only needs to happen in rural areas. Pather will run performance workshops in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town, which I believe will have a broad, possibly delayed impact on how young artists view creative practice. Foregrounding performance in this way helps the SC to resist the way in which object culture seems to be determining what happens in art culture. Essentially we didn't want the SC to be simply another 'market' show.
MS: You've explained Madikida's and Pather's roles within the SC organisation. Could you explain your role a bit further?
CvdB: I shape the curatorial process and I provide organisational depth. I know how to structure and design an event of this scale. However what is important for me is that I don't want to be in this role forever. The inclusion of others is, in part, to provide them with an opportunity to gather the experience in managing this type and size of event. Choosing Pather as my co-curator was also about extending the very core concern for difference of perspective. He has a very different background, training and practice from mine, and these differences are very valuable... Similarly, Madikida can make recognitions that I may not make, and speaks with a different generational voice. Including Thembinkosi Goniwe and Virginia MacKenny on the selection panel makes for a panel that is constructed in a way that will initiate debate. There will very likely be a few constructive fights...
MS: How do you respond to the idea that aligning art with wine will leave an indelible mark of gentrification on the SC?
CvdB: Well, a certain amount of gentrification is inevitable and I don't think that is an entirely bad idea. However, there is no attempt on Spier's part to predetermine the way we look at art. Certainly there will be some works on the show that belie that notion of gentrification, or at least a polite form of visual art. If I'd felt any pressure from Spier, I would register anxiety, but I have none. When I started speaking about the kind of work in SA that excited me, there was a sense of support from them. The themes that interest me are by no means easy. In particular, I'm finding that the mutant body is cropping up over and over again, in rural and urban areas. Artists are altering, mutating and mutilating the body in their work, often to speak of disease, but also social dis-ease. This is a potent indicator of the capacity of art to speak the less comfortable realities of SA life. The exhibition will hopefully have a great capacity to speak of various and varied realities of the country.
MS: What is your sense of art competitions in South Africa?
CvdB: I think they have been core to the development of SA art. Events like the Standard Bank Drawing Competition, the Cape Triennale etc. were key to mapping the terrain of SA contemporary art through the 80s and 90s. They helped to shape traditions, even though these traditions were not sacred. Competitions or awards function as points around which debate gathers. Without them one would end up with an art scene that is quite amorphous and without punctuation. The SC will be important in that it will provide a platform that allows artists to speak in ways that commercial and other spaces possibly don't. Certain competitions apply implicit or overt restrictions that are not what the SC will be interested in. If an artist like Nathaniel Stern, for example, wanted to create an extensive installation, (normally) he would be restricted in terms of space and scale. With the SC, if an artist wanted to create a specific installation but didn't have the money, s/he could make a proposal to the SC, and would be in line to realize the work with our assistance. The danger of competitions is that they perpetuate outmoded manners, a scenario I wanted to avoid with the SC.
MS: My knowledge of you, other than as an artist, is as an educator: you lectured at Wits University for a number of years. Do you see your involvement in the SC as an extension of this role as an art educator?
CvdB: Absolutely. This is obviously a different form from lecturing. I've always felt the need for education to happen in arenas other than, but complementary to institutional ones. For me what's really important is public education, which can be well served by a large-scale touring exhibition like this. Increasingly, the development of patronage is crucial: we need to create opportunities for people to become enthusiastic about art and culture, and even possibly become collectors of art. In this context, what Spier is doing makes sense: that is, putting a large amount of money into creating a national forum. I've always believed that, to be involved in South African culture with its status of marginality, one has to be a kind of missionary - one has to accept responsibility for furthering the practice. Culture has a tenuous placement within the national scale of values. Despite that, I do get a sense that business is increasingly waking up to the the value of culture - Rand Merchant Bank's sponsorship of The Magic Flute is a good example of that happening.
MS: Lastly, Clive, could we talk about the nature of the awards in the SC?
CvdB: We spent a long while thinking about whether we wanted the SC to have an award component at all; we often veered towards having no prizes at all. I suppose what we really wanted to avoid was the kind of scenario where one has a smiling patron handing over a big cheque. In the end we decided on an award. What we're saying to (winning) artists is this: decide on what would be the best next step in your professional career, and submit a proposal. If an artist wants to do residencies, for example, or if they want to have books or monographs published, or they would like to study with established artists whom they've dreamed of working with, they should submit a proposal. Every artist that exhibits will receive a R3000 exhibition fee. That's a tradition I want to encourage in the South African art scene. Generally, we're interested in the judges being connected to a broader paradigm: all involved are passionate about helping artists make connections. I don't want the competition or award aspect of the SC to dominate unduly: if five or seven artists get an opportunity out of it, then that's great. Ultimately, however, I'd like the exhibition to be the main focus of the process. I�m hoping, too, that awarded artists will feel some responsibility to give back, to contribute back to the world of culture.
Artists have until August 27 to get their entries in. Submission details on www.artthrob.co.za/07may/exchange.html or www.spiercontemporary.co.za