Avant Car Guard at the Whatiftheworld / Project Room
by Clare Butcher
Artist trio Avant Car Guard (AVG) sums up their approach to art creation as 'a sincere act to invent something insincere' and their tongue-in-cheek installation/photographic/performance piece takes their sidelong glance at South Africa's art institutions to further extremes of artifice and playfulness. Currently exhibiting at the Hope Street Whatiftheworld / Project Room, Zander Blom, Jan-Henri Booyens and Michael MacGarry have once again facetiously barricaded themselves in the corner of mainstream art discourse, and one has to wonder whether they are scaling or sitting on the frontier fence of what have become contemporary conventions.
'Naked Frontier Ambition Vibes' sports a thick black line of tape dividing the 40 square metre gallery space into two - 'them' versus 'us' - drolly daring visitors to cross into the new territory of their artistic anarchy. Anarchy dressed up as a tree installation with bark, garbage bags, a ladder and a shower of primary colour, cut-out cardboard leaves on which the 'Triple Chocolate Brownie Mix' labelling remains visible beneath a thinly painted surface. The flipside of the room displays work also belonging to the band of merry renegades, this time, however, neutralised in photographic form as prints of AVG's staged performances, on high quality paper clipped clinically to white walls (don't forget to pick up your pricelist on the way in).
The roll of tape has not separated these two sides entirely and a small gap remains, suggesting that despite the collective's blatant disregard for the age-old theoretical tension of connoisseur vs. 'connoisseur' (sincerity and insincerity), there will inevitably be leakages between this false dichotomy in practice. The political implications of the group's name - 'Avant Car Guard' - play a large part in their cheeky, self-reflexive challenge levelled at the country's 'art-eratti', and positions Blom, Booyens and MacGarry within a long legacy of the avant-garde. This literally means cutting-edge artistic practices in any given historical moment, and in light of the many examples set by buccaneering cultural rebels who claimed this position, the group's skull and cross-bones logo is no coincidence.
The 'tradition' (as one is loathed to call it) of the avant-garde itself, often critiqued as being 'flawed by elitism', has always had to negotiate the dangerous frontier zone between proaction and reaction, as artists strove to simultaneously establish themselves as forerunners, pioneers in new ways of thinking about and creating art and stage a lasting critique of the stasis in art establishments. Most frequently quoted and therefore most familiar examples of this may be found in 19th century French figures of the Realist movement such as Manet and Courbet as they resisted the pretentiousness of escapist Salon painting which refused to grapple with ordinary, gritty post-revolutionary Paris. The distinct moral overtones of this opposition reveal the timelessly exhibited Utopian ambitions of avant-gardism, which assume that Debord's oft mentioned 'decolonising of the everyday' is in fact worth defending.
The question in the case of Avant Car Guard and other contemporary 'cutting edge' collectives is whether they really exhibit the sincerity to pose as some kind of art-world conscience? The viewer is caught off-guard in accepting 'Naked Frontier Ambition Vibes' as the extension of this legacy on home turf. It is the obviousness of the group's self-evident critique which leads us to conclude that there must be more to the not-so-naked ambitions of this particular show.
In ACG's short lifespan they have already attained for themselves a contentious reputation from works, for example, exhibited at the recent '3C Committee and Critics Choice' show at the AVA, comprising a photograph of the three sitting atop the 'grave' of highly acclaimed Kendell Geers who has always been considered as South African 'cutting edge'. Work such as this continues the practice and process of avant-gardists ostensibly 'spitting on Bonaparte' - the authoritative 'them' presented so clearly by the ACG's current show. Simultaneously however, it also straddles the line between being chosen and thus legitimated by the system which, on the other hand, they claim to challenge: a leak in the line of black tape. This uneasy tension between the defensive/offensive character of the vanguard remains janus-faced, and The Fort component behind which the ACG trio hid at the opening of the Project Room show reaffirms their constantly embattled position.
To own the title of avant-garde these artists would need to fulfil their mission as initiators rather than producers of derivatively critical work. However, the reworking of their name slyly disposes of these expectations as it doesn't quite align itself with the Courbets and Duchamps, this 'guard' is not that 'garde'. They successfully elude the moral responsibilities inherent in these standards set by these artistic turncoats. This potentially answers Gene Ray's call for a move away from terms so deeply embroiled in 'revolutionary traditions' of 'bad militancy' and a repositioning of focus on the direction in which new artistic interventions are moving rather than a constant looking over one's shoulder.
Perhaps it is in looking out from as well as into that South African avant-garde that they may take up Ray's challenge and reinvent these frontier notions, situating them with a contemporary relevance sans neo-colonial resonance. The large glass windows of this well-chosen Project Room gallery space enable passers-by, connoisseurs, politicians and car guards alike, to view what the Avant Car Guard has to offer and functions as the much-needed border post between the supposedly separate worlds of Art and Society (another necessary leak).
As for the work itself, The Three Musicians piece - a chaotic photographic composition of installation detritus (tree bits, wigs, Geers' tombstone, a guitar and shwe-shwe fabric) - lends the show a localised, refreshingly insular perspective where the 'Centre' being spotlit is not the rehash of post-colonial Western interpellation but rather the new bourgeois of contemporary South African art practitioners here and abroad. In their marrying of photography, painting, installation and performance media, Blom, Booyens and MacGarry also refuse subscription to any one aesthetic which could be called 'African' or even 'Contemporary'. The hand-painted cardboard leaves could be said to reference Mondrian and Miró; the punk quality of their presentation links the artists with 1970s global pop culture trends; and the alien figures (complete with surfboard cum UFO) in their Untitled seem quite Brett Murray-esque. The irony of this confusion is made complete by the fact that it is three white males, not The Gay Black Jewish Artist (another of the ensemble's photographs), who have become the new minority voice in the current South African art-political context and there is a distinct heroism in their, albeit humorous, demolition of these norms.
Indeed Blom, Booyens and MacGarry are diving forward, eyes open, into the South African Art mêlé (see Dive into the South African Art Market) and sincerely confront perceptions of authorship, the location of the artistic centre, production process and any sense of a homogenous contemporary African aesthetic. In terms of the group's further work, we can only ask whither the bounds will be moved to next?
Opens: August 17
Closes: September 29
Whatiftheworld / Project Room
11 Hope Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 461 2573
By appointment only
Malcolm Miles. Urban Avant-Gardes: Art, Architecture and Change. London: Routledge, 2004.
Gene Ray. 'Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector' in Third Text, Vol.21. Oxford: Routledge, May 2007, 241-255.