Art Insure

cape reviews

Breaking the Surface

Various Artists at Goodman Gallery

By M Blackman
22 March - 19 April. 0 Comment(s)
Amongst Men

Haroon Gunn Salie
Amongst Men, 2014. M1 casts with marble aggregate and fiber-glass blanket, gut, sound element Dimensions Variable.

Some while ago I admonished a writer for using a gallery’s press release as the critical entry point to an exhibition. Having written press releases, I understand where they come from – in fact, rather embarrassingly, I wrote the very press release that the writer decided to ridicule. The rule is, I have always believed, the press release from the gallery should be given as much credence as an advertisement for washing powder. However, for various reasons, I recently went to the Goodman Gallery’s press release for the exhibition ‘Surfacing.’

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Untitled (The English Garden)

Kudzanai Chiurai
Untitled (The English Garden) 2013, Oil and enamel on canvas, 222 x 180 x 5cm

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Another problem with this form of ‘literature’ soon became apparent as my eyes encountered the names of Franz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre, and their theory of political violence in the face of colonialism. This was, according to the first paragraph, the motivating idea that thematically linked the works on the exhibition. ‘Violence,’ the press release quotes Sartre, ‘is man re-creating himself… no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them.’ It goes further to say – rather ironically and seemingly completely contrary to Sartre and Fanon’s ideas – that the ‘exhibition understands Sartre’s notion to address culpability, selfhood and violence and trauma involved in the process of becoming, scrutinizing and (re)creating.’

The fact that so many theorist and writers (here I include the writers of press releases) in South Africa still seem entranced by Fanon and Sartre’s theory of violence is, to me, a mystery. The theory is, after all, a simple one that has been used repeatedly over the last 250 years, with abhorrent results. It is founded upon two interlinked ideas, that of hatred and the search for purity. This philosophy (which they were hardly the first to expound) when put into practice would result in the ‘cleansing’ of the French Terror, the Nazis, Soviet Communism, Apartheid’s ‘morality’, the Khmer Rouge’s butchery, Pinochet’s political ‘disappearances’ and the Rwandan genocide.  

The inference is always the same, that the violence (both passive and active) of the oppressor – be they Colonialist, monarchist, bourgeois, Sunni, Jewry, Totsi, Capitalist or Communist – should be met with an even more terrifying violence. And that this violence was not only necessary in order to overthrow the oppressor but was also psychologically necessary in order to heal the pathologies of those who had been oppressed. What would result according to Robespierre, Saint-Just, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Fanon and Sartre would be the creation of a utopia filled with a variously-imagined ubermensch. Thankfully, it is a theory that today only exists largely rhetorically in Zimbabwe, in certain parts of the EFF, occasionally in press releases and academically in the rather playfully flabby form of the work of Slavoj Žižek. 

If any of the works on show at the Goodman had propounded any of this idea, I would have turned away at the door immediately. But happily, I don’t think that they do. On entering the exhibition there is the work of Haroon Gunn-Salie; a series of floating kufis titled Amongst Men (2014). It is perhaps one of the few installations I have encountered whose back-story is a mere confirmation of one's immediate response to it. The variously angled kufis seem to suggest irregular movement within the absent figures that are ‘wearing’ them, and in doing so their absence creates a corporeal presence. 

The work, with its soft sound installation, references one of the those almost forgotten anti-apartheid activists, the Imam Abdullah Haron, whose involvement with the PAC would lead to his arrest and his subsequent death in police custody. According to the artist, the hanging kufis symbolize the almost 40 000 people who attended the Imam’s funeral in 1969. The piece works on two levels. On one level, the kufis stand in for the apartheid murder of the Imam, the politically ‘disappeared’ in the Latin American sense. But there is another disappearance that seems inherent in the work: the disappearance of the murder of Abdullah Haron in the popular retelling of apartheid history, which is so dominated by those stories of the ANC. Gunn-Salie is reminding us of a history that has been dissolved by the victors' swirling retelling of their own triumphs and disasters: the kind of revisionist history that Julius Malema was guilty of when, while still part of the ANC in 2010, he claimed that the PAC had had nothing to do with the Sharpeville protest.

Treatment

Candice Breitz
Treatment
2013
Dual-Channel Installation: 2 Hard Drives
Dimensions Variable

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As for the rest of the exhibition, perhaps one of its failings is that a number of the works have been shown quite recently at various other exhibitions. Here I am thinking of William Kentridge’s projections and Mikhael Subotzky’s work off ‘Retinal Shift’ (2012). This is not to say that these works are not interesting, and it is certainly not to say that there are no other works of interest. For example, Candice Breitz’s work Treatment (2013) is clever, witty and engaging – she is and has always been one of the few artists working with video that can hold an audience. Here the title alone creates the kind of confusing ambiguous play that draws one into a work. Two screens sit on either side of the specially-made video room. One plays three scenes from the 1979 horror film The Brood while the other shows people performing voiceovers for the three scenes. The actor Oliver Reed playing a psychotherapist in Cronenberg’s horror film is redubbed into a woman’s voice, belonging, in fact, to Breitz’s psychologist. The other characters’ voices are replaced by Breitz and Breitz’s mother and father (the family resemblance of the mother is obvious, the father slightly less so).  

The work essentially becomes a scripted ‘conversation’ amongst the Breitz family, with Breitz’s mother calling out the artist’s name during one of the scenes. Here the title Treatment seems to work at various levels; film treatment, medical/psychological treatment and ‘treatment’ as in how people treat one another. What does become disturbing are the histrionics of the scenes – it is after all a horror film. And there would be something deeply unsettling about the work if this confessional was the actual truth of the Breitz family. What lightens things a little is that it is done with the clear consent of all the members of the family. This gives the work something of the comic seriousness of the similarly themed Philip Larkin poem ‘This Be the Verse’ (and here I find it difficult not to quote the entire poem, as so many of its themes run concurrent with the Breitz work):

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

As for the other works on the show, Kendell Geers continues his interest in razor wire in waitingwantingwastingworking (2012), with this South African invention forming the mattress of a bed. This seems, at least to me, to reference Norman Catherine’s work from 1988, Intensive Care. But what really underlies the work remains, to me, a slight mystery. Perhaps what offers a way forward in understanding what Geers’s thinking is, is his other work on show, Country of My Skull (2010). More and more, Geers is moving away from any direct commentary on the country of his birth and is heading rather into a form of autobiography that is divorced from the country’s current narrative.

Another work that doesn’t quite hit the mark is Kudzanai Chiurai's Untitled (The English Garden) (2013). Chiurai’s work, which is normally brilliantly produced, in this case appears to be badly painted in parts – some of the text and background are a little too haphazard. Of course it may be intentionally done, but for what conceptual reason is unclear. Although the theme of the work takes on his usual exegesis – the root of violence and venality within Africa – the confusing levels of production detract from it a little too much for it to be effective.

And with this confusion in mind, we must turn to the curation of the exhibition itself and its motivation. The first question is why the title ‘Surfacing’? Sure, there is some nice ambiguity in it. It could connote hidden depths, or perhaps it is a reference to the emergence of something. But none of these ideas seem to me to make any real sense, neither when one encounters the work on the exhibition and the themes that run through them, nor in how the works converse with one another. Unlike the interesting ambiguity in the title of Breitz’s work, the title seems to be just a name signifying very little – and it certainly seems to have nothing to do with Fanon and Sartre’s idea of political violence. This left me wondering what the Goodman is doing with this kind of exhibition.