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Encountering the New at 'Rendez-Vous 12'

Various Artists at Iziko South African National Gallery

By M Blackman
11 July - 14 October. 0 Comment(s)
Foret de Juma

Julia Cottin
Foret de Juma, 2010. Sculpture Variable Dimensions .

Weaving one’s way through the young French artist Julia Cottin’s carved wooden pillars, Foret de Juna, which guard the entrance to the ‘Rendez Vous 12’ exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, one gets perhaps only the sense of a zeitgeist. The pillars of yew, pear, hornbeam, Douglas fir, alder and walnut, wedged into a space created by a false ceiling, contain clear references to the contemporary artistic proclivity to ‘represent’ the world’s malaise.  However, the work, with its ‘primitivist’ aesthetic and its clever inversion of function (the false ceiling is what holds the wedged-in pillars upright), still clings to much that has underpinned the last hundred years of art history: a mistrust of the value of objects and a circumspect distrust of the lure of beauty.
It is only when one makes one’s way through the wooded room and breaks into the adjoining spaces that one realizes that a great shift has taken place in the art world.  For unlike so many of the past art movements, whose influences sometimes took decades to spread to other parts of the world, the contemporary movement is a global

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one, that shares its forms, its influences and most importantly an entirely new idea.  Rendez-Vous, created in 2002, is an international platform based in Lyon that is dedicated to young artists from around the world.  In this endeavour it has brought together an array of artists from varying countries and cultures.  But what is  most surprising about the common themes and aesthetic choices that the artworks display is the fact that they are, despite their appearance, a definitive break from the past.

It is, of course, true that most of the artworks on display exhibit something of the past hundred years of art history.  Found objects and ready-mades are in abundance and there is a performativity and conceptual underpinning to many of the pieces that seems to contain nothing defamiliarizing. At first one would hardly mark these works as distinctively different.  But there is.  For the more and more one looks and listens, one unifying idea is apparent. And that is that objects, and in particular art objects, have for this generation seemingly retained, after almost one hundred years of absence, their ‘spiritual’ value.

This idea, that objects in themselves contain value, was, of course, the notion that almost all art and art theory from 1915 onwards has sought to deny.  From Duchamp to Collingwood, from the dematerialisation of the art object to Barthes, from post-modernism to Damien Hirst, there have been two overriding notions. Either objects themselves are corrupting agents, that dictate a ‘subconscious’ structure that must be exposed, or interpretations of the art object, being in the mind of the reader, frees the ‘art object’ from having any inherent value. But when confronted in the second room of the exhibition with Richard Proffit’s installation of found objects, these ideas are subverted. For although the work, titled Hash Knife Outfit/Sunset Spirit, seems to mimic much of Dada and conceptual art’s caveats, the mere fact that they are arranged as a shaman’s altar marks it, by its formal arrangements and its objects, as containing a notably different sensibility.

Proffit’s installation contains oilcans, distinctively from bygone eras, along with ‘dream catchers’, various books opened to specific pages, and has two double deck cassette players monotonously screeching out a disjointed mechanical sound on a loop.  At first one might very well ask, just how these found objects differ from those of the past?  The first observation is the work’s obvious religious reference, but perhaps the most significant distinction is that there is nothing contemporary, nothing from the past 15 years, that lies amongst them. This above all marks it as a divergent sensibility to the urinal showed in 1915, the mockup of Brillo boxes of 1964 or an unmade bed stained and strewn with used condoms, underwear and the general detritus of a depressant living in 1998.

Hash Knife Outfit/Sunset Spirit, with its clear atavistic references, is not an anti-aesthetic statement but can be read as a call to a bygone ‘golden age’. It intimates an idea that our salvation lies not in a forward march into the future world of technology but rather expresses a conservative yearning for the past.  What is interesting is that it not only references the notion of a return to nature’s forgotten Arcadia but shows a distinct desire to return to a past not so distant and not so imaginary.   With the tape recorders, books, oilcans and references to Native American culture (not handed down via the culture itself but rather via the medium of Hollywood), Proffit’s installation rejects the contemporary and embraces an all too common nostalgia.

It is this wistful turning to the paradisiacal past and its objects and visual language that is one of the defining themes and motifs within recent artistic practice. And one doesn’t need to look very far to find this idea reoccurring in the work of other artists on ‘Rendez-Vous 12’. For one finds it simply by turning to works of the American Sophie T. Lvoff, whose photographs, of Russian Cold War military hardware and airports, are mounted in the same room as Proffit’s altar.  Here, Lvoff chooses not only objects from the past as her subject but she uses a process of medium colour format film whose effect is entirely different to contemporary digital photography.

Again the notion that, unlike today’s commercial throwaway culture, authenticity rests heavily in the past, and its objects seems to have an overwhelming presence in the works. Even Lvoff’s photographs of airports, of Boeings taking off, seems somehow an attempt to prove that time, like the Boeing’s design, should best have stopped. Both Proffit and Lvoff - like so many of South Africa’s young graduating art students - although nominally addressing issues about the environment and identity politics, in fact participate in a myth that the past contained an authenticity lacking in our present.  The message communicated appears to be that by reverting to the past, by imitating its aesthetic, we can save ourselves from our self-induced catastrophe.

This search for lost time is not only marked out in these allusions to past objects but can also be observed in references to past art movements.  This referencing is why the subtlety of the shift from away from conceptualism has largely gone unnoticed.  The play on (rather than the engagement with) conceptualism that so many of the artists in ‘Rendez-Vous 12’ exhibit can be, and often is, misunderstood as merely a continuation of the movement itself.  However, even though it looks and acts like the conceptualism of the past it should not be mistaken for it.
What so many young artists are doing is not bringing objects into the gallery so that they can be deconstructed;, they are bringing objects into the gallery either to celebrate them, as in the case of Proffit and Lvoff, or reject them, as in the case of the Brazilian Matheus Pitta’s Figures of Conversion.  In Pitta’s case the objects that are his subject, plastic bags and mass-produced food,  need no deconstructing - that has already been done by the quotidian lambasting with which the media furnishes them. Instead Pitta brings them into the gallery not for questioning but rather so they can be playfully reviled and toyed with and ultimately dismissed as objects of a corrupt society.

However, where one can quite clearly see the new movement’s distinct features is its referencing of abstraction.  In ‘Rendez-Vous 12’ perhaps its first notable occurrence is in the video work of Thomas Léon’s Living in the Ice Age.  Here a building stands in the distance, rain falls into an icy river in front of it and slowly the city behind it begins to crumble and resemble the forms of an abstract painting.  This referencing of abstraction both post-painterly and expressionist, occurs in many of the other works on the show, from Antony Ward, Soichiro Murata, Camille Llobet, and François Daillant.  This too can be seen in many of the young South African artists like Jan-Henri Booyens and Zander Blom who have recently turned to abstract painting.
To an extent this reverting to abstraction seems to be intimately linked with the current generation’s interest in the object itself having intrinsic meaning.  On one level the allusion to abstract expressionism is a reactionary clinging to the past, to a period before the so-called dematerialisation of the art object.  However on another level it denies its expressionist underpinnings and becomes representative of the future environmental catastrophe.   The ruptures and craggy forms that recur in so many young artists’ works, both on ‘Rendez-Vous 12’ and in many young South African painters, become in a sense pure mimesis rather than the expressive gesturings of an emotional state.
The final observation of what lies in ‘Rendez-Vous 12’, and much of contemporary practice, is just how peculiar the current generation’s approach to art is.   More often than not the works can be read as protest art.  They seem, thematically, to protest against the current world’s political, social and environmental malaise.  And yet the processes and materials that are being used are conjoined so intimately to the system itself as to make their moral outcry hypocritical.   When Thomas Léon investigates the environmental impact of capitalism, with computer generated imagery, he does so with the very tools that this form of capitalism has provided him, seemingly without the slightest self-awareness.

What this suggests is that the works of ‘Rendez-Vous 12’ are not quite what they seem.  They are not protest art that seeks to deconstruct the meaning of objects; they are conversely the unashamed worship of the art objects themselves.  And they celebrate the age of capitalism far more than critiquing it.  Despite the quasi-Marxist theory and the referencing of Dada, they bear none of the characteristics and beliefs that were the basis of these movements.  They talk playfully of the need to destroy the system and yet lavishly enjoy the objects the system produces.