Desire - Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art
Lyndi Sales, Mary Sibande and Siemon Allen at Torre di Porta NuovaBy Amy Halliday
03 June - 27 November. 0 Comment(s)
Many years ago, before he was Golden Boy of Venice, Nicholas Hlobo sculpted and sewed fragments of discarded rubber inner tubing into a pair of legs rummaging in (or being expelled from?) a large black bag, and clad in an old pair of low-slung YDE jeans, revealing the elastic branding of designer underwear. I was reminded of the piece by the pervasiveness of Hlobo at the Venice Biennale – where his work is currently exhibiting in the Arsenale (and, in its monumental scale, conceptual density and laboured materiality, eclipsing much of the work in the rest of the curated show) and in several collateral shows – and by a plaintive comment by two fourth year TUKS students in the guest book of the South African Pavilion: ‘I wish Hlobo’s work was in his country’s space’. The piece was titled Ndiyafuna (2006), translated as ‘I am wanting/longing/desiring’, a title (when articulated) which positioned the viewer in the desiring position, but, in the intransitive use of the ‘ya’, endlessly deferred the object of desire.
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Ndiyafuna deftly interwove the seductive momentum of desire – ridged with consumerist interest – with the impossibility of its ever being completely fulfilled; the subject always ‘left wanting’. Indeed, the South African Pavilion, itself titled ‘Desire’, is similarly wrought by the simultaneous possibility, absence and deferral that are the product of a nation’s ongoing hankering for visibility at Venice...
After all the flogged-to-death controversy surrounding the pavilion back in South Africa – the lack of transparency in the process and the commercialised imperative of the director in his selection of participants – this backdrop was a mere ripple on the Venetian lagoon as one crossed the internal canal on a specially-commissioned boat from the largely uninspiring Arsenale to the collateral exhibitions and pavilions on the other side.
The comparison certainly worked in South Africa’s favour, as did the exhibition’s colourful, dynamic installation and selection of works – full of notions of hope, fantasy and aspiration – after the draining ubiquity of the crime/security theme in the awful parapavilion (with suitably high walls) in which David Goldblatt’s recent work (not done justice) was hung in the Giardini exhibition, and accompanied by the constant, grating siren-meets-engaged-tone of Haroun Mirza’s audio installation Sick. The South African Pavilion was housed in the imposing Torre di Porta Nuova. Recently restored and reopened as a cultural centre, it is arguably one of the most compelling sites in Venice with its incisive combination of maritime history and monumental masonry.
A resonant space like the Torre is simultaneously a gift and a curse, and the curatorial strategy met with varying success. Firstly, one had to navigate one’s way from the entrance to the actual exhibition, following the signs on successive flights of stairs: ‘Desire / Exhibition / Desire’, which, in their insistence, began to read more as a consumerist incantation than a helpful guide. Finally reaching the main exhibition space, one is met by lines of uniformed soldiers, arms raised as if to shoot, only bereft of their guns: an initial assault quickly falling away to reveal Mary Sibande’s large installation Lovers in Tango.
In this latest incarnation of Sibande’s trademark maid/superhero persona (in which Sibande draws on a maternal lineage of domestic service, reimagining the narrative possibilities in a post-apartheid era), ‘Sophie’ takes the lead in this martial and marital dance (based on the troubled relationship of Sibande’s parents). Even the figures which read as male, dressed as they are in androgynous starched green uniforms, are moulded on Sibande’s own body, complicating ideas of gender and power, both in terms of domestic relationships and ideas of nationhood.
More familiar is ...of Prosperity, in which a singular Sophie holds a clutch of shopping bags, suggesting the way in which democracy’s desires have become co-opted by purchasing power and consumer ‘freedoms’. Sophie’s tessellated skirt – constructed from over 100 hexagonal shapes – neatly echoes the staircases which zigzag behind her in a rare moment of visual consonance between art and architecture in the exhibition.
Another such echo can be found in Siemon Allen’s monumental Labels, a cascading curtain of 2565 digital prints of record labels which, in its colour-saturated presence (with a small window illuminating it from behind), takes on the reverent ambience of stained glass. In the same way as stained glass once provided illiterate congregants with an accessible Biblical account, so Allen’s audio archive provides a legible narrative of South African cultural history, told through its music: from turn of the twentieth century Afrikaans folktunes to 1950s’ township jazz.
Yet this account is far from orthodox – it can be read from top to bottom, left to right, or vice versa; by label, by date or by colour; and one’s distance and point of view leads to shifting measures of detail and relation, abstraction and patternation. As an eponymous audio archive which is ‘seen and not heard’ (to quote Ingrid Schaffner in the accompanying catalogue), the material accumulation and digital reproduction integral to the piece signals, again, the endless deferral of desire. But here it is the desire to contain the archive, to prevent the past – as Achille Mbembe once put it – from ‘stirring up disorder in the present’. In the strongest work on the show, Allen’s Labels offers an iconoclastic gesture, foregrounding the illusory totality and continuity of the archive, undermined by his personal, haphazard and serendipitous collecting habits.
While Allen’s Labels and Sibande’s ...of Prosperity converse with their setting, the diagonal thrust of Lovers in Tango and the squat horizontal of Records (a selection of Allen’s enlarged digital prints of scratchy 78s) fragment the exhibition space, such that the whole doesn’t quite hang together. But that’s a small niggle compared with the strangely adjunct nature of Lyndi Sales’ work, most of it positioned in a small room downstairs with seemingly no conceptual or visual links to the rest of the show (except in that vague way that a title like ‘Desire’ can accommodate almost anything – and indeed is made to in the attendant catalogue).
Much of Sales’s recent work is concerned with the nature of ocular perception, and its relationship to technology. This marks something of a shift from her exploration of the transience of life, figured through organic diagrams incised from the detritus of both the everyday (banknotes, lottery tickets, playing cards) and the extraordinary (official documentation of disasters, life-raft rubber, fated airline boarding cards).
One can’t help thinking that some of her earlier works would have better inhabited the space and engaged more lucidly with the overarching theme. Satellite Telescope – a ceiling-hung sculpture made from a series of lazer-cut Perspex mirrors (evoking the collision course of several orbiting electrons) which apparently alludes to the first satellite of its kind to be sent into space from Kenya in the 1970s (so I was on the right track with the orbital description) – fares reasonably well in the entrance foyer, except if, like most viewers, you go straight up to the main floor and miss Sales’s work altogether. But the mute, largely monochromatic and relatively small mounted pieces appear both conceptually abstruse and superficially decorative: insubstantial – and inexplicable – within this imposing space, devoid of context.
As a whole, the exhibition was visually compelling and slickly installed, and the attendant accessories (catalogue, carrier bag, and an impressive website) added to its professional appeal. But it is not only the weight of architecture that lends a tension to the exhibition. It is also the burden of Africa’s belated presence at the Biennale, and the hyper-visibility of specific contemporary African artists over the past fifteen years (particularly those championed by ur-curator Okwui Enwezor). As a result, it is hard to look at Mary Sibande’s allusions to Victorian sartorial style without seeing a gendered take on Yinka Shonibare at the 2007 African Pavilion; or to view Siemon Allen’s flowing multi-hued record curtain descending from the ceiling without recalling El Anatsui’s draping of the Palazzo Fortuny’s facade in a shimmering cloth of recycled metalware.
Are these the ‘Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art’ that is the exhibition’s cumbersome subtitle? Is representation at Venice really, in the end, all about the construction, circulation and consumption of an aesthetic that has already been rendered ‘ideal’ by major cultural brokers in the field of contemporary African art? Well, anyway, here’s to South Africa’s presence in the Biennale! Here’s... to Prosperity!