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A Conversation in a Gallery

Various Artists at Brundyn

By M Blackman
17 April - 17 May. 0 Comment(s)
Gestalt

Nick Cave
Gestalt, 2014. Single Channel Video 14:00 mins.

I have felt for some time that video art is much like the work of Raphael, or, at least, what Joshua Reynolds said about Raphael’s artistic language. To understand it, one must go on and on looking at it until one starts to appreciate it. Perhaps it is this patience that I seem to have lost. Having spent at least five years trying to understand philosophy at universities, my ability to engage with things for longer than the duration of a Miley Cyrus song seems beyond me now. I have resigned myself quite comfortably to the snap judgement.

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However, I agreed some time ago to review Brundyn+’s video exhibition ‘commute with intuitive instinct’ despite the fact that I knew I would not be up to it mentally or physically. And so it proved. Having been to see the show on four separate occasions, the immensity of watching ten video pieces and then writing about them resulted in bouts of work avoidance, novel reading, general mental exhaustion and a sudden interest in jogging. But in a concerted effort of will, I am now sitting down to honour the agreement: 5kg lighter, four novels the wiser and with recently-developed interest in YouTube videos of chess gambits.   

Firstly, I hope you the reader won’t mind if I am a little more discursive in this article than is usual for a review. I have for sometime wanted to write on the subject of where the line between good and bad art is. So I thought I would take the opportunity to do so here, considering I believe there were examples of both on this exhibition. Perhaps I should also state here in this preamble that the exhibition, no matter what I might say below about the individual works, was a success and it was certainly good to see a commercial gallery exhibiting work in the attempt to grow its audience and reputation without direct commerce in mind.

To me the motivations behind video art are all too often obscure. Are works of video art an entertainment? Are they an expression of the ineffable? Are they a simple statement about politics, society or human interaction? Perhaps, more controversially, can they even be classified as visual art, or should they rather be defined as something like YouTube or Vimeo amusements?  This I cannot answer because they seem to be all of these things. Certainly, as ‘commute with intuitive instinct’ showed, there is no single form that video art takes and certainly no specific concern that it addresses. The reasons for this are numerous but perhaps Arthur C. Danto has most succinctly addressed them in his End of Art Theory.  

Danto felt the same frustration with all contemporary art – that is to say that it had no essence or defining quality to it. Instead of turning his back on the contemporary approach to art, and denying its status as art, Danto accepted one simple fact: if it is generally considered to be art, then it must be art. After all, we live in an age of artistic pluralism and there is quite simply no specific motivation underlying art that can be said to be the correct one. Where art may once have been said to be about Truth; or the expression of emotions; or propaganda; or religious articulation; or the two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space; or even about beauty; it is now quite simply all of them. There is no one discourse that can attempt to define art and no one goal that an artist can be said to be trying to achieve.

This seems to be where we are with video art and this was certainly true of the pieces on ‘commute with intuitive instinct’. Other than the fact that they are moving images, there was no apparent formal similarity. What does link them – at least in Danto’s theory – is that they all appear in a gallery and that they are all meant to be contemplated in a certain kind of way.

According to Danto, this is an ‘artworld’ which is distinct from a ‘popularcultureworld’, a ‘scienceworld’, a ‘drinkingafterworkworld’. There are certain conventions that we (whether we like them or not) subscribe to when we are in a ‘world’ of this kind. Just like the drinkingafterworkworld may contain a plurality of conventions - talking; sitting; standing; lying propped up in a jacuzzi; drinking; finding a common, mutually agreeable topic of conversation - the artworld’s conventions can address and reflect on a whole range of topics and formulas. Just as I can’t treat a drink after work as a religious confessional, or treat a hawk in the same way as I do a handsaw, or look at a painting of fruit and think, ‘Hmm, lunch time!’, I must treat the art that I am confronted with in a certain way, and an artist must understand these conventions.

Certainly the broadest kind of way that I can treat art is to accept that I am looking at it in the hope that it is going to communicate something to me. Art, like Collingwood, Wollheim and many other theorists have suggested, is a language. It is a form of communication. But just how this communication takes place and what is communicated is, of course, contested ground. As Donna Tartt wrote recently in The Goldfinch, art can literally ‘engage us in a conversation.’ It is a conversation where the other participant, the artwork, does not immediately offer you everything it has to say, nor does it necessarily offer you everything you want to hear. There is one overarching rule that pertains to this world of conversation: that it should try not to be boring; try not to repeat itself; and try not to say things that have been said a hundred times. And this is a set, or at least part of the set, of the conventions of art.

My African Mind

Bofo de Cara
My African Mind 2010, Single Channel Video, 6:12 mins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The question is then: which videos in ‘commute with intuitive instinct’ were interesting and engaging and which were, simply put, boring? This formula – that some might say is a reductive way of approaching an exhibition – is, after all, one that informs most human engagement, or lack thereof. So let me begin with the works I found I was having a ‘boring’ conversation with: that is to say the work of Bofa da Cara, a collaboration between the artist Nástio Mosquito and the film maker Pere Ortín. I say they are ‘boring’ not because the collective’s video works are badly made. They are visually engaging, formally proficient and made with a high degree of skill. But it is the overplaying of their ‘MESSAGE’ that is tiresome. Let me explain what I mean here.

I took some assumptions with me when I walked into Brundyn+ on each of my four visits. One such assumption, or idea that I carry with me most of the time, is that racism is wrong – that white people have often propagated it in a vile, repellent and barbarous manner, not only in the past but in the present. If you are not aware of this then perhaps a short trip to Iziko’s Slave Lodge might open your mind to its historical fact. But unlike a museum display, or a prosaic piece of historical evidence, art can not only inform but converse. It is, more often than not, about developing the two-dimensional statement that history has to offer into something a little more engaging.  

In the case of My African Mind, Bofa da Cara have chosen to put forward - with the help of cartoons and the printed word - that white people have represented black people visually and verbally as ‘useful monsters’, as apes and as subhumans. What is more, the work points out that there has been a liberating revolution that has freed black people from the yoke of oppression. Of course there is no doubt that pejorative representations played a huge role in the creation of the politics of difference (this should never be denied), but pointing this out like Bofa da Cara has so tirelessly done (with the subtlety of an anvil falling from the sky) is saying as much as ‘all bachelors are unmarried’.

If one contemplates this statement, one realizes that it has some relatively obvious explanatory power (and perhaps it has an educational quality to it as well). Yet it fails to address myriad issues that underpin it, which art can and does engage with and which are an essential part of art’s conventions. To keep with the analogy, this kind of statement, when it stands alone, fails because it is circularly analytic and it fails to intimate anything more than its circle. It does not ask any further questions like:

i How do we treat or think about unmarried men currently? 
ii How does the past influence our thinking?  
iii Does the concept ‘bachelor’ even exist in the same way as it did in the past? 

What is more, by constantly reverting to the past in order to criticize the present, Bofa da Cara produce a logical fallacy (the present is not the past) and, in doing so, go some way to denying how racism affects our lives currently.

If we look around at one of the most insidiously racist countries in the world (South Africa), overt pejorative representations are largely on the decline. However, what the politically correct world has done is to replace these forms of representation - something that Bofa da Cara have not been able to portray – with a skewed emotional world where people will not say certain words publicly, but will still pay a human being R80 a day for labour. With regards to how racism currently manifests itself, the collective seems to have little to offer. In its place, much like the EFF, they offer us a world of wild dreams and of a revolutionary fantasy that is over-simplified and, to be quite frank, boring.

Removal to Radium

Michelle Monareng
Removal to Radium 2013, Mixed Media 3 Channel Video Installation, Continuous cycle ~1:15 mins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Their other video, My European Mind: Rebranding Europe – in which a stock Malcolm X-like character insists that ‘Europeans’ are no longer in control of the discourse of definition – sadly so overstates the issue, in a quasi-political/religious manner, that it seems more like a parody than a work of any real conviction. Some kind of fantasy is being played out here, and one begins to feel that it is a fantasy that confirms rather than denies the point. These are works of art that do all the work for you and allow you no interpretation and no real engagement. One can simply walk away and say, ‘This work is about x, I need think no more about it.’

Some of this same heavy handedness was also on offer in the work of Michelle Monareng and her piece Removal to Radium. Monareng’s installation contained projected sentences, making one aware of the forced removals, the 1913 Land Act and land theft that took place in South Africa before and during apartheid. But these were merely appendages to the main work and ones that could (and should) have been done away with. As for her main video, it was perhaps the best work on the whole exhibition and needed no didactic moralizing signposts to help it.  

The video of a man digging and placing sods of earth onto a mound while cattle, half seen, pass by in the mist, captures something both emotive and politically significant without the need to explain with essentialising sentences. The chance happening that the one bull decides to take more of an interest in the man’s work adds to the drama of the scene, again managing to convey many of the issues that surround land in South Africa: fear, ownership, labour, exclusion, utopian ideas of the pastoral, a helpless lack of clarity. All of these are lost when one is confronted with the didactic sentences. With these on display, the conversation is lost. Instead one is left merely with an easily translatable statement.

The theme of fear and exclusion is also present in the work of the American performance artist Nick Cave (not to be confused with the lankey white Australasian singer/writer). In Gestalt, three creatures dressed in his beaded and buttoned ‘sound suits’ seem to be meeting on unfamiliar terrain. Part mating ritual, part meeting ritual, the creatures dance and threaten each other playfully and, at times, menacingly. The effect is both absurdly humorous and disturbing although it never quite gets past being a relatively simple movement piece. Nevertheless it was extremely interesting to see an international artist's work on exhibition – here Brundyn+ seem to be following in the well-trodden steps of Stevenson. 

Other work like Mocke J van Veuren and Theresa Collins's Minutes 2010: time/bodies/rhythm/Johannesburg was engaging, if slightly pedestrian in its conception. Here the video of the movement of mass working-class humanity at a taxi rank sat in juxtaposition to that of middle-class movement of swimmers in a gym’s pool. Their placement engaged the two in a dialogue, creating a binary opposition that, although visually engaging, was perhaps a little overdone. With the help of the three-dimensional taxi-rank work and the unusual angle of the swimmers, the work does create a feeling of a heaviness of movement that is intriguing both visually and conceptually.

Other work worth mentioning was Vaughn Sadie and Sello Pesa’s piece of a man rolling an oil drum into a public outdoor meeting. However, it suffered from a problem that video art so often does – it was too long. Without the catch of a progressing narrative, after five minutes of it there was a distinct urge to move on. It could also be said that it was more a documentation of an intervention than a video work, per se. 

The work of Gilad Ratman, like his fellow Israeli video artist Guy Ben-Ner, employs humour and absurdity in The Days of the Family of the Bell of 'faked' human towers. Here the supposed struggles to defy gravity are measured by the realization that it is all an illusion. What Ratman achieves quite brilliantly is an interest not in any overt message but rather in what is going to happen next and the method of creating the illusion. Only later, on reflection, does one begin to understand the parody.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, to engage with video art takes patience. It is not a simple matter. Like most good art, it takes time to get to grips with. Like Ratman’s work, it has the ability to hold you, to keep you guessing, to not reveal itself all at once. It demands something of you – you cannot passively sit back and let it do the telling: you must engage. It is not ABOUT something. And with this idea in mind, we must return to Michelle Monareng’s work and try to consciously remove the overstated political signposts. Monareng’s video suggests land, it suggests tradition, it suggests a certain melancholy, a certain helplessness, a bucolic utopia linked to romanticism and yet rejecting it, while at the same time it does not allow one to pinpoint any of these things. One can have an almost endless conversation with it without ever crossing over the same ground. On its own, it was quite simply the best work on the show. This is the conversation that good art can offer. Unfortunately, the demands of politics and a certain kind of art making in South Africa got in its way, flattening it out to a historical two dimensionality.