One Million and Forty-Four Years (And Sixty-Three Days) edited by Kathryn Smith
by Zachary Yorke
One Million and Forty-Four Years (And Sixty-Three Days) - a companion to a recent SMAC Gallery exhibition 'Gimberg / Nerf / Sacks / Young' - takes its name from Fluxus artist Robert Filliou's declaration of Art's Birthday on January 17, 1963, 44 years prior to the March 21 opening of the exhibition. With financial support from the SMAC gallery, Kathryn Smith produced the book quickly through email correspondences. The crux of her prompt asked, 'Is the avant-garde still a viable and/or tenable notion in the current contemporary moment?'
Smith's introductory essay unravels the issue: 'It seems fashionable to think that the "avant-garde" is defunct, but I imagine this denies a deep desire by artists to access exactly what the historical, anti-formalist avant-garde seemed to achieve towards political, cultural and institutional critique.' Smith's inkling is apt. And some of that fashionable thinking is on display in the book.
Writer and filmmaker Aryan Kaganof responds to the prompt by picking it apart, arguing that the '"...current contemporary moment" is always a very poor place to be making art from... art that is tenable and viable is only of interest to academics,' and that 'The notion of the avant-garde is one that [he] thought had long ago been conscripted to the garbage bin of history where all notions belong.' Kaganof rejects the language of the prompt and pokes fun at the affectation in terms like 'notion', but it's unclear if this constitutes fashionable thinking.
Other contributors take satire further. Artist Nathaniel Stern submitted a mock album that 'features classic hits like: That's Not Avant-garde (and neither are you), Hal Foster Built My Hot Rod, and Boundary transgressions are for pussies (a drinking song)'.
Some see the current moment as liberating while others see it as restrictive. Some emphasize the South African context while others emphasize the international context. Art South Africa editor Sean O'Toole makes a case for the avant-garde embracing the particularities of contemporary South Africa: 'I like to believe that the rupture embodied in our recent history has been, and could still possibly be helpful here... In other words, the transitional fuck-up that is now has created a window of opportunity for fertile new artistic practices... in my view, few have siezed the opportunity.' From one international perspective, critic and curator Robert Storr concludes his contribution with a cogent insight : '... academically enshrined but anachronistic ideas about the avant-garde have become as much a conservative force in the arts as old style arriere gaurds, and maybe more so. Old modernism versus old anti-modernism - two half truths, two mirages, "fascinating fascism" and "fascinating revolutionary fantasies" - not much of a choice.'
Colin Richards, artist and lecturer at Wits University, offers a rigorous analysis of avant-garde history in South Africa. He points out the extent to which one of the avant-garde's essential tools, critique, has been commodified and co-opted. For him, the central conundrum facing the avant-garde is that it forever remains a part of the political world that it seeks to escape, or destroy. No escape. Complicity around every corner. Complicit even when critiquing complicity. He muses, 'I wonder, for example, what the alleged difference is between the dirty money of, say, a criminal like Brett Kebble who until his murder funded the then-most-expensive art competition in South Africa amongst other things, and the dirty money allegedly associated with the Sindika Dikolo African Collection of Contemporary Art currently going on show at the Arsenale at the forthcoming 52nd Venice Biennale.' Richards cites Charles Baudelaire's idea that dandyism and criminality make up central parts of the avant-garde's foundation. He bemoans the overabundance of the first and calls for a restoration of avant-garde violence and criminality.
Lize Van Robbroeck, a senior visual arts lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, also shuns dandyism in favour of a more turbulent avant-garde. She praises Steven Cohen's work: 'In a world held to ransom by terror (state sanctioned and other), Cohen is one of a mere handful of effective art terrorists who manage to blast away our mirrors and lies, leaving us naked in a bloody pool of exploded prejudices. To achieve this, you must first be prepared to eat your own shit, like Cohen has done.'
Stacy Hardy, with typical eloquence, echoes the call for increased turbulence. She links transgression in late-capitalist liberalism to Ed Young's surly egotism and gives a touching description of the impulse to 'cut through his cool'. She cites a French author who analogizes the way today's art gets stuck in your throat. She narrates a late night blowjob that she gave to a 'wanna-be-artist-illustrator type' behind the wheel of his Mercedes SUV. This is today's art getting stuck in your throat. But more seriously, Hardy's story speaks to the complicity and violence that Richards describes.
On the whole, the book's most compelling moments lie in the discussions of violence and complicity since that's what unites the various perspectives: postcolonial, racial, sexual, historical, self-hating, ironic. Sampling these perspectives in the same salad makes for a tasty meal, but don't be surprised if some parts get stuck in your throat.
Other contributors to the book include: Andrew Lamprecht, Cesare Pietroiusti, Liam Gillick, Peet Pienaar, Ed Young, Elan Gamaker, Johan Thom, James Beckett, Michael Smith, Sylvester Ogbechie, Candice Breitz, Wayne Barker, Barend De Wet, Bettina Malcomess, Siemon Allen, James Sey, Ruth Sacks, Brian Eno, Robin Rhode and Thando Mama.
Edited by Kathryn Smith