Spier Contemporary Art Awards
by Tavish McIntosh
All the hype has passed, the frenzy has settled, the beautiful clothes are back in the cupboards, but what remains? The first year of the Spier Contemporary Art Awards revealed a remarkably mixed bag. From brilliantly inspiring to the works at which one just shakes one's head in disbelief, the Spier team arranged the exhibition with varying degrees of success. The massive scale of the selection process let curators make some interesting and unconventional choices. It was this that was both the strength and the weakness of the show, giving young artists a chance to show their potential but also glutting the show with mediocre pieces.
As the award attempted to open the arena to performance and installation art, the opening event was an especially important occasion. Unfortunately it was one that did not live up to expectations. Long-winded and awkwardly arranged, the performances were supposed to take place simultaneously across the arena. Award-winner Peter van Heerden's dedication to 'the women of Africa' Die Uitlander, the African and the Vrouw was a disappointing rehash of his assault on Voortrekker mythologies. Van Heerden used iconic symbols like the kappie to allude to the nationalist rhetoric of the Voortrekker 'volksvrou', but when donned by van Heerden and his collaborators, the symbols pastiche the fashionable and satirical pieces by comedian Pieter Dirk-Uys rather than meaningfully deconstructing Afrikaner nationalism.
Performed alongside Mwenya Kabwe, Chuma Sopotela and Kemang wa Lehulere's piece, and Kai Losgott and Anthea Moys' Unsaid, there was an uncomfortable cacophony of movement and action, which negated the highly variegated messages of the pieces. Kabwe, Sopotela and wa Lehulere's majestic performance was completely undermined. However, with sufficient funding behind the show, the curators were able to produce video recordings of the performances which were later played in the exhibition space alongside explanations. This later intervention went a long way to negate the confusion spread by the opening medley.
And in other instances, the curators and the judges were spot-on. Resident subversives, the Doing-it-for-Daddy collective, scooped an award for their tour of the Spier estate, which plays with the history of the area.
Andrew Putter's sublime Secretly I will love you more won a richly deserved award. The artist utilised the exhibition space, creating an antechamber into which one stepped in order to gaze at an apparently traditional portrait of Maria de la Quellerie, wife of Jan van Riebeeck. Reminiscent of Frans Hals' portraiture, the formal three-quarter pose is rendered intimate by the direct gaze of the sitter and the delicate lighting filtered through from one side. However, just as the portrait's tranquil presence asserts itself, one is unsettled by the moving lips of the sitter and the gentle Khoikhoi lullaby issuing from these lips. The video-installation was inspired by the story of Maria de la Quellerie who, shortly after her arrival in the Cape in 1652, adopted a Khoikhoi girl-child. The intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship subverts the racial segregation and conflict that usually characterise South African histories. With Secretly I will love you more Putter puts forward an alternative narrative of love and longing between traditionally conflicting cultures.
Justin Fiske missed out on an award for his harmonious installation. Taking its cue from Paul Edmunds' paean to natural phenomena, Fiske used simple mechanics to create a wave of small rocks suspended at regular intervals on threads. Simply hung the pebbles are beautiful, offset by their floating shadows on the container wall. However, the piece came to life when operated by the handle. The handle creates a rhythmic movement in the pebbles, like a flag blowing in the wind. Fiske's manipulation of 'simple' mechanics is mind-blowingly aesthetic. Fiske includes a short DVD on the making of his pieces, which is largely unnecessary because the philosophic process is inherent in the pieces themselves.
Another impressive newcomer was Phula Richard Chauke. His collection of figurines includes a dedication to 'the greatest author of them all' - Shakespeare - and 'The man who changed South African history in 1652' - Jan van Riebeeck - as well as the 'Old man' of South Africa - Nelson Mandela. Surpassing the quality of any tourist figurine, the pieces reveal a deft touch and an astute and offbeat political commentary on post-colonialism. Van Riebeeck's mouth at half-cock and his popping eyes assert a new relationship between the Dutchman and the landscape he irrevocably changed. Rather than the stately presence usually associated with this icon, Chauke's van Riebeeck is a deeply shocked and disturbed man. Van Riebeeck's darkly pigmented skin - probably a legacy of more than 350 years under the African sun - is similarly disconcerting and quietly subversive of the politics of skin colour.
The organisers constructed a temporary space using massive containers to create walls and an elastic membrane as roofing. Interesting as this solution is, it was not without problems - including some awkward spaces and a weather sensitivity that puts cricketers to shame. As usual it was the new media works which suffered most harshly from bad spatial arrangements and an often unfortunate proximity. That said, the containers made an interesting back-drop to an exhibition that showed contemporary South African art awards are still in transit, moving towards a new model of presenting and celebrating contemporary art.
A certain continuity between the Brett Kebble Art Awards and the Spier Contemporary was apparent with the appearance of Doreen Southwood's dancers and Phillip Lice Rhikhotso's figures, but overall the Spier Contemporary offered a new take on the world of art awards with its rewarding of young collectives, unusual performances and installations. Without raising any one person to superstar status, the numerous winners will undoubtably attain a greater national profile hereafter. It is therefore an important platform and one that will undoubtably grow to become a vital part of the (bi-)annual art agenda. Spier Contemporary's collection for 2007 gave a broad and sweeping overview of current production, unlike more coherent and contained award exhibitions like the Sasol Wax Art Awards which limit their entrants to a small group of nominees. The quality of the work by some lesser-known artists vindicates this format.
Opens: December 12
Closes: February 29
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