Offence and Seduction
Carol Nathan Levin and Frederick Clarke at Res GalleryBy Michael Smith
05 June - 28 July. 0 Comment(s)
In 1995 Barbara Kruger said in an art work: ‘You pledge allegiance to your dick and the pussy for which it stands’. I first saw this work as an undergrad, in a visual alongside an American art mag review. In Kruger’s inimitable style (Futura bold, in italics, for the typographically-minded), the text screamed out from the walls and floor of the Mary Boone gallery.
In my first flush of postmodern thinking, Kruger was God (sorry, Clapton): an ex-magazine art director who grew a conscience and turned, quasi-Warholian, against the industry that bred her, an industry which in turn propped up the dumbest strain of consumerism since 50s post-war USA.
And the phrase? Ah, the phrase was just another ace move by the mental gymnast who came, even more so than the superior Jenny Holzer, to define a mode, a moment and a strategy of art making.
Now, as with 90s rap, what strikes me about Kruger’s phrase is how crass it is. Why did we choose to meet Reagan-era puritanism with its most obvious counterpoint, a constant barrage of expletives? Why did we believe that the antidote to fear was a very particular brand of righteous hatred?
‘Offence and Seduction’ at RES (formerly Resolution Gallery) on Jan Smuts (Johannesburg’s OG art strip) recently attempted a laudable shift away from this sort of kneejerk tactic. A collaboration between Carol Nathan Levin and Frederick Clarke, the show positioned itself as a celebration of female genitalia and an attempt to revisit a fuller sense of the vagina’s position within culture. While soft-focus notions of
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vaginal beauty do little to change the way sexism works, the show, or at least the intentions thereof, did make one wonder about the status of the vagina in South African contemporary art. The last time the vagina held such a central position was in the late 90s, when Kaolin Thompson’s Useful Objects, a brown ceramic vagina with a cigarette butt clinging to its edge, caused a furore.
Sure, sexuality is never far from the centre of our on-going bunfight over culture, as this year’s overreaction to The Spear proved. But the vagina itself has been oddly absent from artistic discourse around feminism in recent years. Even 2010’s debacle in which then-Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana walked out of an exhibition in protest against Zanele Muholi’s work, had less to do with overt vaginal nudity than it did with imaging mutual affection between black lesbians.
And where such overt nudity does occur, it is to different ends: the dalliances artists like Tom Cullberg and Sanell Aggenbach perennially have with pornography seem to be about sensuality and the mechanics of images, rather than confrontation.
The successes of ‘Offence and Seduction’ lay in the moments of deadpan honesty. An extensive installation by Levin titled 30 Years consists of 391 unique ceramics of differently-folded sanitary pads; for the work she asked as many women as would respond how they folded their used pads, generating a seemingly endless number of permutations. The work is not shocking, but is certainly powerful in its challenge to a male audience with selective ideas about female sexuality and reproductivity.
The ceramic facsimiles of the folded pads become vaginal in their own right, small-scale echoes of how Rachel Whiteread’s cast spaces speak about the structures that forged them. Their repetition in Levin’s work sustains their message, and her faithful capturing of their variety makes the work totally engrossing.
Some kind of conjunctive phrase is perhaps needed Clarke’s works mostly revolve around a series of labial images fashioned into the sides of toilet roles. The works have an undertone of abjection similar to Levin’s but somehow seem less successful. The exact connection between the medium and what Clarke is trying to communicate seems to have somehow been flushed away. Nonetheless, their quiet rendering in soft grayscale photographs delivers some moments of real beauty, which accords with the stated intentions of the exhibition.
The show, however, stops short of any real revelations about how to recuperate the status of the vagina and its image within a shockingly patriarchal national climate. But it is refreshing to see a commercial gallery take such a forthright stance with this show.