Archive: Issue No. 118, June 2007

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The Capitol and the merry go round, Washington


Artist Joy Episalia, subversively photographing
in the Bloomberg building


Construction work at Ground Zero


The 'oil derricks' in process


Siemon Allen and his
Miriam Makeba project


Tuesday, May 1

This is my second week in Washington. The trees that were still almost bare when I arrived are greening daily, and I am getting used to finishing my morning commute by coming up out of the subway and seeing the white dome of the Capitol gleaming at the end of the Mall ahead of me. It is a little weird to be here in the town where George Bush, however much he is slagged off daily in the Washington Post, is still the president. Cavalcades of long black cars siren their way around the city, disrupting traffic. 'George is going to lunch'. says a local.

Wednesday, May 2

That august institution, the Smithsonian, has a new programme directed at visual artists, and I am part of the first intake. Visual artists are invited for a fellowship for two to six months to allow them to make use of the vast resources on offer at the various museums and archives in planning new work.

My host institution is the National Museum of African Art , and curator Christine Kreamer has given me an office and best of all, an access card which means I can get into my space any time I like and if I want to work in the library in the night, for instance, Security will come down and unlock for me.

Last week, ex-Capetonian Mark Coetzee was here, lecturing at the Corcoran Museum. Now director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, arguably the most important collection of contemporary art in the United States, Mark tells me he travels constantly. He brought me a heavy bag of catalogues from the Rubell. Very impressive. "Come down to Miami and visit', says Mark. Perhaps I will.

Thursday, May 3

Next week, an exhibition will open at the NMAFA entitled 'Inscribing Meaning' which explores the relationship between African art and the communicative powers of language, graphic systems and the written word.'

Curated by Chris Kreamer and Polly Nooter Roberts of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, the show takes on the whole panoply of text and symbols in art from the earliest known civilizations in Africa to the contemporary present. A smaller show than the curators had originally hoped, it is nonetheless a rich visual feast, with inscribed objects, jewellery, ceremonial clothing. A book follows.

I have two small pieces on the show, from the From a Government Tourist Brochure series, in which text from the brochure is etched in acid in the steel frames surrounding the images.

Friday, May 4

I have decided to use this opportunity at the NMAFA to look for other publications like that tourist brochure, but from other colonial countries in Africa. Also books which tracked the beginning of the colonial impulse in Africa.

The librarian at the NMAFA is Janet Stanley, whose vast knowledge of all books and other ephemera on Africa is astonishing. Daily, Janet prints out new reading lists for me. What a pleasure to bury myself amongst the archives. How well some of those early travellers through Africa drew the scenes that they observed daily, sitting down at the end of the day with a croqquis, a little pen with a nib to be dipped into black ink, and cross-hatching away.

Monday, May 7

Coming up out of the subway onto the Mall in the mornings, the other circular structure which catches my eye, once it has taken in the shining white dome of the Capitol is an old fashioned merry go round located next to the Smithsonian, tinkling away, children riding up and down on the horses and dragons. One structure is the symbol of executive power and military might, the other of childhood pleasure and innocence.

I begin to wonder if there is not a link which could be made between the two.

Tuesday, May 8

The press conference for 'Inscribing Meaning' is held this morning. A strong turnout, including a television team. The museum has brought two more artists in for the opening - Victor Ekpuk,, now living in Amsterdam and the Ethiopian artist Wosene Kosref - and each of us talks about our work as the press winds its way through the exhibition. Chris Kreamer takes us all out to lunch at an excellent Vietnamese restaurant where I indulge my passion for soft shelled crabs, served here on a mango salad.

Wednesday, May 9

Lunch today with Julie McGee, art historian, film maker (The luggage is still labeled: blackness in South African art, with Vuyile Voyiya) and curator, who has spent lots of time working in Cape Town, but is now here on an assignment for the Smithsonian. Try out my idea for the Capitol-merry go round video on Julie.

By now I am imagining a scenario which ends with a final scene of the merry go round with the children riding on it but suddenly there are some new faces or figures on the merry go round ... kind of a takeover ... I am a little nervous about even bringing up the subject, because Washington is a very jumpy town, but Julie thinks I should go for it.

We have lunched at the Museum of American Indian (great regional specialities) and coming out on to the green stretches of the Mall, find the military has moved in. There are tents and soldiers everywhere, tanks and lifeboats, and huge screens on top of trucks pumping out videos encouraging enlistment in the various branches of the armed services.

Turns out it is Public Service Recognition Week, and this is all being put on for the benefit of the public. What a stroke of luck! I can write it all into the script I am developing. Dash back for my video camera.

Thursday, May 10

Lots of filming.

Friday, May 11

Take an early train for New York. Have been invited to participate in an artists' conversation as a project conceived by Belgian artist Eric van Hove for a show at the gallery, Art in General. The conversation takes place in the Bloomberg building on Lexington Avenue, a communications empire which is the height of techno chic. The subject is Travel and Melancholy. Explains Eric in his text about the piece: It refers back to Three Dialogues, a 1949 text which represents a short transcription of a conversation between Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit about the nature of contemporary art. The piece also ponders on Bloomberg's statement as found in the catalogue of the exhibit We believe that communication is our most powerful tool

'Upon entering Bloomberg's New York offices, a mix of Georges Orwell's 1984 and Star Trek's Enterprise, I quickly saw these proleptical glass meeting rooms as the poignant architectural expression of both the impossibility and the willingness for exchange' writes Eric. 'I therefore decided to host ' meetings' where a number of people would come together for the purpose of discussing a (loosely) predetermined topic. While in the corporate world the aim of a meeting seems definite and the conversation focused on a precise point, in Three Dialogues I let my guests wander about until that point emerged, and vanish.'

The dialogues continued on Monday, and at one point, the surrealism of being in a place which states that communication is its most powerful tool and at the same time makes casual entry to the building impossible is heightened when we start photographing the glass walled room we are in. This action causes two corporate bouncer types to materialize instantly asking gruffly who gave us permission to photograph within the building. We need permission?

Tuesday, May 15

Call on curator Clifford Chanin. His offices are on the 20th floor above Ground Zero, and although I was in New York within three weeks of 9/11, I have never been back to the site - until now. Half the site is being developed with the soaring tower which will be even higher than the World Trade Center, the other half is being given over to public space and memorial projects. Strangely, the New Jersey PATH train which ran underground is still routed through the site and in places, can be glimpsed beneath the construction works.

Wednesday, May 16

Back in Washington, I have to work hard on completing my video. Here for five weeks, the time is going fast. Have decided that the 'characters' who are spotted in different locations in Washington and finally climb on to the merry-go-round will be three oil derricks. After all, the problem of oil in America, where it is and how to get it, seems to underlie all of American foreign policy. And it's a problem which seems to go round and round in circles, without ever reaching a resolution.

I'm perfectly aware that this all sounds a little nuts.

Thursday, May 17

The oil derricks are going to be made of foamboard and silver ducktape, and Don from the production department and Keith Conway, master armature maker at the NMAFA have been really helpful the construction. I want to try making the first shots this weekend.

Sunday, May 20

Julie McGee and local painter Trevor Young have generously agreed to help with the shoot. One of the derricks is completed, and we shoot it coming up the escalator from the subway. An attempt to follow up on this and take the derrick on to the station platform is prevented by the station master. No filming down there. Get some other good shots, though.

Tuesday, May 21

Give an artist's talk at the NMAFA, and get good feedback.

Wednesday, May 22

Take the train down to Richmond, Virginia. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art is currently adding an enormous new wing for contemporary work, and will inaugurate this in early 2009 with a show curated by Tosha Grantham entitled 'Darkroom: Photography and Video in South African Art'.

It's also an opportunity to call on Siemon Allen, whose latest obsession is Miriam Makeba. The walls of his entire studio are full of pinned up old long playing records in their plastic covers, and their printed sleeves. It's the small differences in the studio notes on the back of these, depending on which country was issuing the recording, that makes the series quite fascinating. Siemon has been buying these records up on e-Bay.

Ledelle Moe joins us for supper. She has been doing really well with her large scale sculptures, and was recently part of the Roger van Wyk curated show, Hangar, in Salzburg, Austria.

Thursday, May 23

Back in Washington again, must shoot the merry go round scene today. I leave on Saturday. Finish oil derrick costumes just in time, and assisted by Keith, Florent, Judy Knight, Alison Purpuura and Catherine we hit the Mall.

Far from being anxious, the merry go round man is only too ready to help, and gives us extra time.

The cast then wanders all over the Mall and we improvise crazy scenes. At least some of them will work.

Friday, May 24

Monday is the major American public holiday, the one that marks the beginning of summer, Memorial Day. Every year, bikers come to Washington en masse, for Rolling Thunder, a display of biker power. Judy and I go down to the Vietnam Memorial to check it out. Helicopters are above, wonderfully flamboyant bikes are parked in ranks in one closed road. Judy, wearing one of the oil derrick costumes, bravely walks straight up to and through an oncoming phalanx of bikers walking towards us. I am behind, filming.

The bikers start to jostle Judy roughly, and in running up to tell them to leave her alone, I don't get as much of the scene as I would like.

Saturday, May 25

My layover in Dubai airport is eight hours. I spend the time going through all the video footage and logging it. Hope it all hangs together in the end.