Archive: Issue No. 124, December 2007

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'The Inchoate Idiosyncratic Descent into Nihilism' at the Michaelis Gallery
by Jacqui Landey

It was a struggle to fight off some initial displeasure when walking through 'The Inchoate Idiosyncratic Descent into Nihilism' on opening night - and the putrid stench of home-made beer was only partly to do with it. With pieces seemingly tacked roughly up, a rusty screw or two rolling on the floor and a general atmosphere of playful shoddiness, the exhibition, at first, seemed successful in only one regard. Linking 'nihilism' to art galleries around Cape Town, the exhibition stands out as a rejection of accepted perceptions of a gallery's presentation. This anti-cube of sorts was neither silent nor sacred with art students bustling around a seemingly unfinished display; reacting to the mooing sound device placed inside Lily Luz's over-sized cloth chickens or the whiff of rancidness heaving from Dan Halter's pots of maize and King Korn mix beer - with more than a nod of the head, scratch of the chin or furrow of the brow.

For those uninvolved in the project, however, a furrowing of the brow was surprisingly common for a show that claimed to be exploring 'art for art's sake' - the modernist mantra that privileges form over content. This implies that the artworks themselves suffice to satisfy the gallery-goer. However, this was not the case here. Advertised as something seeking to be 'detached from reason and meaning', the show itself really did explain nothing at all, even the title was absent, overly abbreviated to 'TIIDIN', random letters which are meaningless to those not privy. The ironic inevitability of the viewer's search for meaning in a show that tries desperately to avoid it, does not escape the curators Carrie Timlin and Lily Luz. In the battle to find confirmation for an interpretation, one could reject the journey to meaning entirely, appropriately on one's descent into nihilism. However, this seems to be too simplistic a reading. It does not give enough credit to the works themselves and although not all of them necessarily exude appeal, they do deserve consideration.

And the centrally placed and highly-dominant installation piece, perhaps unfortunately, was impossible to ignore. A rusty base of a bed smothered in condoms was attached to a vandalised mannequin that 'breathed' from a fire extinguisher through an oxygen mask. This busy concoction conjures up images of the feminist terminator simply 'pissed off' at being left at the rubbish dump for too long. The unsubtle title Gratify me did not alleviate my displeasure and the work's saving grace seemed only to be an accident when an Appletiser can was mistakenly placed on the bed adding a novel irony with its slogan '100% pure pleasure'. The self-pitying concoction was at least then humoured with a comic nuance - the part I found pleasure in, however, was seemingly unintentional, as the can was removed on my next viewing.

Other works were easier to digest (excuse the unsavoury pun). Even the most random pieces deserve consideration, those too quickly dismissible as light-hearted such as Luz's Mooing Roasted Chicken Bean Bags, could be read into as having deeper meaning than the humorous sound device inside of them lets on.

This placing of the most banal of things around us on a platform, sometimes over-sized, in an art gallery inevitably leads to questioning them. Summing this up, Emil Karoly Papp's Anomie on close inspection appears to be a magnified close-up of the middle of a face, the squashed nose and emphasized blackheads allude to a transformation in perception. From seeing faces on and around us, from advertisements in mirrors to self-portraits, to viewing this same thing as something we hardly recognise and when we do, may not really like. This is perhaps useful as a metaphor in relation to the idea of contemporary art placing the ordinary on a podium and therefore turning it into something worthy of inspection. In Papp's piece, viewing conventions are subverted as the common face is magnified to such a degree it is no longer clear what one is looking at. It seems then an appropriate symbol of the gallery's habit of magnifying so as to question. And in this state of doubt perhaps one is lead to the instability of 'anomie' and 'nihilism'.

Timlin's Career Killer (Hardly Classic) is similarly successful in regard to subverting conventional ways of seeing or rather altering things we see. Coca Cola-like cans appear in a line on canvas that alludes to the reality in which the hype and slogan of the brand is only a creation and a destroyable illusion. A single spray-painted can on an A5 canvas has dropped to the ground haphazardly, stifling the monotony of the flawless row, which could reflect art's disruption of monotonous and conventional ways of seeing.

Against all suggested or rather unclear direction not given by the gallery, the search for meaning nevertheless oozes from a gallery space and the broad title allows any meaning to be found and all curatorial flaws to be excused. Lack of meaning and general confusion may be precisely what the title reveals the show is about, but when some of the audience are aware of this reasoning and some are excluded from it, the omission of explanation in a sense creates a new elite who can enjoy the 'fun' of their art, as they supposedly intended while the general public sneaks into the gallery unsure of what to laugh at. The show provided, as it set out to, an 'inchoate' display in a student space where progression of the 'imperfectly formed' framed an exhibition claiming not to ask or answer any questions. And as fun as this may have been for those aware of art's new residence in meaninglessness, those of us neither inchoate, idiosyncratic, nihilistic or art students for that matter, enter a university and art gallery expecting meaning and if there is none, inevitable ask, why not?

Opens: October 8
Closes: October 15

Michaelis Galleries
Hiddingh campus, Orange Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 480 7111
Hours: Mon - Fri 10am - 4pm