Christian Nerf and Douglas Gimberg at the AVA
by Katharine Jacobs
I've been having trouble writing about Gimberg and Nerf's latest offering at the AVA. I've tried different angles, reading it as collaboration, in terms of 'relational aesthetics', as a kind of Beuysian myth-making, as political satire or as a piece of absurdist literature, a joke or trick or stunt� Yet none of the possibilities seem to pin down quite what the duo are doing. Perhaps this is precisely because of the nature of criticism, which attempts to engage work and pin it down in language. Gimberg and Nerf's work, however, shrouded as it is in mystery and obfuscation, takes one on a wild goose chase, filled with potentially meaningful clues, before dumping one unceremoniously at the end of yet another cul de sac.
But let me begin at the beginning.
On May 9, according to the blog, Gimberg and Nerf, accompanied by Barend de Wet, 5 litres of Aquelle, some sandwiches and three energy bars set out in the pair's recently completed rowing boat for Robben Island. They were assailed by '8-11ft waves' and had to use their water bottles to bail out the boat, but against the odds they made it to the island, mooring safely on a small jetty. They were then approached by two island security guards and asked for their permits. Following a long debate, eventually they were made to get back in the little boat and row all the way back to shore and safety. On May 12, 'One More Day to Regret' opened at the AVA. On exhibition, the angasi nkosi angasi nkosi (I don�t know thank you/please god) rowing boat, with a tear in its fragile hull, the wood splintering away onto the floor.
From the start, this set-up certainly suggests the construction of myth. Indeed, it seems that Gimberg and Nerf have been engaged in iconoclastic myth-making since March 2007. In their contemporary version, creation takes place with the planting of an apple tree in Paradise, the fall of man brought into the sacred realm of heaven. Hedonism replaces the search for higher meaning in art in the 'Hell Yeah' show, mid-2007. They reverse the actions of that biblical carpenter by inviting their audience to assist in destroying wooden crosses in 'Carpentry 101'. They take ownership of our souls, as we, like Faust, exchange them for IOUs, called in on May 20, in 'Buyer and Seller of Souls', the symbolic currency encompassing everything from a haircut to a blowjob. In the context of this greater body of work then, 'One More Day to Regret' could read as the climax of the myth. This is the resurrection myth present in so many religious texts, from Odysseus's journey into the underworld to the rise of Christ on the third day in Christian mythology.
The manner in which the audience behaved on opening night suggests that this myth making has been rather successful: a triumphant example of 'relational aesthetics' at work. Seeded and spread by the pair's blog, most people at the opening seemed to know the story, and were busily gossiping about it. As such, the boat possessed a certain aura; like the body of a saint, a now broken vehicle which had miraculously transported its makers on a journey to hell and back. This story seemed to influence the manner in which viewers interacted with the work: rather than maintaining a respectful distance, the viewers violated boundaries and touched the piece. Crouched alongside the boat, heads cocked and ears attentive, pilgrim's fingers ran along the tar on the outside and rubbed the felt to see if it ought to be more dilapidated,
while many knuckles knocked on the hull as if trying it for strength. I found
myself, like doubting Thomas, wanting to see the hands of Gimberg and Nerf, to see the blisters and calluses that would surely cover their palms after rowing such a distance. Bourriaud would be proud.
This myth-making, however, also opens up the possibility of reading the work as Beuysian. Not unlike Beuys's fabled escape from near death and rescue by felt and fat, here is a nerve-wracking tale of miraculous survival, with objects imbued with sacred power. There are two shaman figures, who constructed this ark, one complete with a beard that Noah would have been proud of and the other complete with coyote substitute, the famous Anonymous, Nerf's wonderful dog. But just then, a third prophet enters the frame. Willem Boshoff, resplendent in suit and graying frizzy beard, who, in a perceptive and meandering opening speech slowly punctures the myth. The boat quickly becomes that which transports us to the underworld in classical myth. Of course the trip never took place. Like children disabused of their belief
in Father Christmas, the audience quickly has to deny ever having believed. Secretly disappointed, they proceed to write the pair off, as tricksters or jokers.
Freed from the need to prove the fable's feasibility, this revelation could
transform the work into one of symbolic fiction. The three gospels on the pair's blog become parables. Of course this is how we are supposed to interpret them. The press release for their show significantly quotes �i�ek: 'what is missed by the cynic who only believes his eyes is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our reality'. Was theirs a pilgrimage recalling the nation's history? Does the work begin to challenge the way in which our heritage sites are remembered? Are we back with Joseph Beuys, who 'attempted to confront problems of Holocaust representation' with his brand of mythmaking (Biro 2003:116)? This might
be an important issue, given the re-branding of Robben Island as 'shrine, museum and theme park', the 'flagship project', as Shackley has dubbed it, of the government's nationbuilding (Shackley 2001:356). At this point it all seems to make sense; it reads as an iconoclastic mythmaking, which debunks the political ideology of the 'Rainbow Nation' era, and of the government resting on the struggle heroes' laurels. But don�t get too excited, this earnestness doesn't sit quite comfortably with the pair's denial of meaning. As van Huyssteen and Burger point out, the pair 'do not motion to put the socially conscious viewer at ease', and if one wants to go down this route one must stop one's ears and ignore the sirens singing in distracting
Beckett�s philosophy (that this is not even a parable but an absurd, pointless and potentially lethal adventure) would convince us that our quest has been in vain, and that we should rather give in here, and lie down on this very rock with the Sirens. But we have come to the end of this exhausting journey, this, I think, is the final red herring (and if you're still with me on this exhausting Odyssey, congratulate yourself). 'One can only avoid the pretence of the meaningful by attempting to express meaningless' (sic), reads the artist's statement, and this is where we have
finally wound up. For all the cynicism and iconoclasm, this turns out to be a
desperate attempt at constructing meaning, a thoroughly earnest attempt to cling to meaning through the wealth of insincere and contrived political work out there. Or does it?
Ultimately, the way in which Gimberg and Nerf�s 'One More Day to Regret' works is by cultivating this realm of myth, of mists, of veils and riddles, by forcing the viewer and reviewer to go on their own quest for meaning. Fairytales and myth can be an important tool for helping individuals to find meaning in their lives, and perhaps all this mystery and myth and pretence of meaninglessness has brought about meaning nonetheless . 'One More Day To Regret''s slipperiness make it difficult to hold the show accountable for any one implication. One cannot be sure about the moral values that myths teach, and I wonder, when things become as unclear as they have here, whether one should entrust to these two irreverent meaning makers the role of picking out the moral one ought to learn at the end of the story.
Opens: May 12
Closes: May 30
35 Church Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 424 7436
Fax: (021) 423 2637
Hours: Mon - Fri 10am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm
Beckett, S and Duthuit, G. 1965. Proust and Three Dialogues. London: John Calder
Biro, M. 2003. Representation and Event: Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys and the Memory of the Holocaust. In: Yale Journal of Criticism. 16 (1). 113-146
Gimberg, D. 2008. An account � Escape to Robben Island 09/05/08. [online]
Available: http://onemoredaytoregret.blogspot.com Last Accessed: 20 March 2008
Shackley, M. 2001. 'Potential Futures for Robben Island: Shrine, museum or theme
park'. In: International Journal of Heritage Studies. 7(4). 355-363
Van Huyssteen,R and Burger, F. 2008. 'One More Day to Regret'. [online]
available: http://www.film-mag.net/content.php?review.3982. Last Accessed: 20 May 2008