The exhibition 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective and the six-part panel discussion which concluded the show in October 2010 cast a sharp light on South Africa’s art scene. Lacking consistently intellectually rigorous exhibitions, agile critical discourse and robust theoretical debate, it tends to be superficial. For all the academic buzz about Afropolitanism and cosmolocalism, South Africa’s art scene is by and large provincial and defensive. I am generalising and polemicising and, true enough, this superficiality is characteristic of much of the global art world. But in South Africa potentially interesting debates about art, history and politics, national culture and multiculturalism, local and global are limited to painfully small and solipsistic quarrels, which are often about simplistically understood personal, racial, political and sexual identity. That the level of debate struggles to get beyond the first step is one of apartheid’s legacies.
In South African art and politics today, still burdened by apartheid the way postcolonialism is burdened by colonialism, identity is oftentimes confused for content, while form follows. Identity is quickly exploited as content because it is easily identifiable as a brand. And brands are only deceptively engaged with form. What you are and where you come from motivates much South African art and politics, while complex and nuanced assembly and comprehension of form and coherence tend to be lost by the wayside. It’s about effect, not internal coherence. This is particularly the problem with group exhibitions curated around the theme of South African identity— even or precisely when the theme is latched on after the fact (and here this review plays a part). Deceptive ‘then and now’ shows, such as From Pierneef to Gugulective, wittingly or unwittingly brand apartheid as well as its euphemistic flipside, the rainbow nation, as implicit markers that bind South African art produced before and after the first democratic elections in 1994. The resulting semblance of structural coherence is only superficial.
What South African art is about, then, is easily politicised and transportable content or brand, which becomes a substitute for self-reflexive and performative questions about how it is produced, presented, marketed and disseminated. Meaning – the complex production and entangling of content and form, medium and message, projection and meaning, fact and fiction, history and politics, art and commerce – which shapes artworks and exhibitions, is phantasmagorically or ideologically displaced by the superficially recognisable brand. Identity, as trauma and freedom, past and present, is a brand that excuses curators and viewers from rigorously thinking, conceptualising, mapping, projecting, weaving and unravelling the lure and purchase of identity.
It is in this context of the historical fixation with, invention and marketing of recognisable identity in South African art, that the grand scale, scope and stated agenda of this exhibition should be considered. Utilising all of the rooms of the museum, whilst sourcing Iziko’s extensive art collection as well as other collections in the country, the aim was to group together a large variety of art produced during and after apartheid, by black and white artists, in different media, under the umbrella term of South African identity. The latter served as an ideal marketing tool, even if it was a belated conceptual metaphor. This became particularly clear in the discussions as well as the marketing of the exhibition. The exhibition haphazardly thematised where we come from, where we are, and where we are going, while the curating aimed to politicise South African museums, exhibitions, art criticism and the media, particularly in terms of race. Whether the exhibition was actually a convincing form of institution critique remains debatable.
The exhibition received mixed reviews in the media and the panel discussion, open to the public and the media and organised by the curator and Iziko’s newly appointed Director of Arts Collections, Riason Naidoo, Iziko’s first ‘black’ Director, was a shrewd bit of PR. I was invited to speak on the panel ‘Art Criticism and the Media’, which turned out to be lively and illuminating. The sometimes aggressive responses to my citations of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, ‘white European males’ whose writings have played formative roles in South African art and discourse, brought home the dubious tendency towards revisionary politics in South Africa. According to this revisionism everything European is bad. In South Africa’s current revisionary climate reactionary often passes for progressive, while accusations of racism are flung as wide and fast as the sometimes deadly allegations of bourgeois behaviour that were hurled by comrades at other comrades not so long ago.
But this particular brand of identity politics is ideology and ideology can be deadening. To cite the American art critic Donald Kuspit’s review, ‘Kara Walker’s cakewalk’: ‘Identity politics art [and art exhibitions, are] ultimately about the failure of identity, for if identity is defined entirely in terms of collective history and ideological oppression, it is a confession of self-alienation’. To my mind the arbitrary overcrowding of this exhibition, which never projected a clear or thoughtful image of the criss-crossing of South Africa’s collective stories and multi-layered, plural and shifting identities, unfolding in time and space, was a confession of opportunism as much as self-alienation. There was too much on display in the name of collective, ideologically loaded South African identity, branded concomitantly with the 2010 World Cup. The messy if showy result merely signalled ‘a silent integration into the status quo’, to cite Theodor Adorno out of context. And what is the status quo if not the market place where even a disorganised and superficial brand is feasible, if it’s branded hard enough and makes you feel good?
Let me quote one irksome reviewer who writes that Naidoo
seizes the moment and leaps into the spirit of World Cup celebration, matching the excitement that is running like an electric current through this country. It is an excitement generated not only by the football, or the novelty of hosting hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors — it is the exhilaration of seeing ourselves with new eyes, as part of the larger world, and of standing together as one nation behind one team, the experience of national pride legitimated.
Can you hear the blaring vuvuselas? Crowded shows, however, are self-defeating. Most often, bloated themes and egos, universal clichés, or simple randomness define the selection. Art is transformed into tourism and the more there is to see the better. Looking at the art for any significant period is pretty much out of the question.
According to the press release, the show at Iziko had two primary aims: ‘[T]o show the Gallery’s permanent collection as well as a reflective selection of art from around the country’. A reflective selection? What about all the clutter then? Where, beyond disingenuous platitudes about ‘the soul of our nation’, was the lucid theme, the Ariadne’s thread, the astute discernment, the rhythm or rhyme? Showcasing art from ‘the length and breadth of this country’, against the backdrop of World Cup hype, smacked of political sentimentalism, hubris and blatant opportunism. The exhibition clearly catered for the expected influx of tourists to Cape Town during the World Cup, which is perhaps only good business sense. Although the initial plan was to stage a football-themed exhibition, this was scrapped late in the day in favour of the current exhibit. Either way, mass spectatorship was central to the exhibition and from this perspective, more is better, including more branding. But more is often less. And if curator Naidoo really wanted to make an entrance, he could’ve done better with a more thoughtful and careful show; one in which less was more. Instead of giving viewers the time to make mindful connections, the show reminded me of a cobbled together student art exhibition trying hard to make a big splash and to be revolutionary all at once.
In a recent essay on creative exhibition practices published in the journal PMLA, Dutch theorist Mieke Bal invokes four ‘conceptual metaphors’ to ‘discriminate between innovation and chaos’. She suggests that exhibitions might be structured like poems, narratives, theatre, or film. Exhibitions may be like visual poems, in terms of their regular contrasts and repetitions; subtlety, nuance, and sensory effect; subtle counterpoints, between quietness and loudness; coherence of the ensemble. Exhibitions produce a narrative, when the visitor ‘follows an itinerary with a beginning and end, one that develops over time, marked by specific rhythms and events that emerge in the interaction between visitor and the objects’. Narratological unfolding doesn’t presume chronology; but it does imply focalisation by ‘the expository agent’. Implicitly countering American art historian and critic Michael Fried’s notion of ‘bad’ theatricality, Bal appeals to ‘good’ theatricality. Exhibitions and theatre have in common the use of lighting and the emotional and intellectual response of visitors to what they see; acting and performance; fiction and artifice; the appeal to an audience. An exhibition is cinematic when its visual and spatial arrangement suggests animation through minute shots; dissolves and fades; close-up, medium and long shots; and cuts and pans.
The four conceptual metaphors usefully deployed by Bal — all of which imply composition, focalisation, rhythm, movement, unfolding in time and space, interaction and animation, push and pull — were absent from this exhibition. Other metaphors could also have been deployed, such as the zig-zag, morphing, extending and protraction, tracing and erasure of memory or even Michael Fried’s dialectical notion of absorption and theatricality, which could be a meaningful way to rethink big art shows. Opting to be ‘interesting’ at the level of docile information — on display were ‘important moments in South African history’ —the show simply lacked the finesse and dynamism of Bal’s conceptualising, while offering little conceptual and critical rigour of its own. The exhibition began confusingly, and ended with a whimper. What happened in between hardly managed to hold my attention for longer than it takes to skim through a ‘Best of’ record — except that this record clumped everything together.
The beginning of the exhibition augured the unfocused jumble that followed. The entrance foyer of the gallery was given over to a rather thin, narcissistic show within the show. Entitled Us, it was curated by Simon Njami and Bettina Malcomess and featured, amongst its lesser stars, the current, overrated art world fad Hasan and Husain Essop. To the right of this exhibition, the viewer was confronted with the tail end of the main exhibition, featuring, amongst other works, the irritating ‘talking’ Amanji Amdaka (2009-2010) by The Gugulective, who are referred to in the show’s title, as well as Andrew Lamprecht’s arbitrary if potentially self-reflexive ‘curiosity cabinet’, Meum et tuum (2010). Pierneef, the other name featured in the show’s title, hung next door, in the room to the right of the foyer. The easy display of one of Wayne Barker’s slick parodies of Pierneef’s ideologically motivated landscapes, next to a Pierneef, hardly made a postmodernist bang.
I felt fatigued, irritated, dejected, and frustrated wandering through the other rooms of the gallery, with their arbitrary arrangements and sudden inspirations. Let’s group a couple of portraits of Steve Biko together, here in the corner! Let’s have a room devoted to abstract art! Here, let’s hang a couple of landscapes together! Indeed, trying to see art or design in a crowded room soon became an exercise in futility, or, at the very least, star spotting.
Nevertheless, the show included some fine artworks, rescued from the hazy past. Kevin Atkinson’s dense, conceptual painterly abstractions, like White African Landscape (1982), demonstrates that abstraction was fruitfully explored in South Africa even when theorists who punted resistance art criticised it for being unengaged politically or, worse, complicit with a totalitarian regime. Brecht was then one of the models of criticism, rather than Adorno. Jo Ractliff’s haunting “drive-by” photographic strip Vlakplaas (1999) conjures the cloudiness and fuzziness of this disturbed site where currently incarcerated Eugene de Kock ordered the torture and murder of several ANC foot soldiers during apartheid. Noel Hodnett’s muscular, virtuoso Eastern Cape landscape oil painting, Euphorbias in Pluto’s Valley (1992), is painted in the mode of the ‘Grahamstown School’, whose emphasis on landscape painting during South Africa’s apartheid years seems so out of joint but worth revisiting. At the other end of the spectrum of criticism levelled against abstraction, Michael Goldberg, whose industrial grey and yellow killing machine From Here to There (1981), is on view, has been unfairly criticised for being too political, too heavy-handed, a ‘lefty’. In Sibusiso Duma’s thoughtfully modest painting When Father Comes Back (1997), the small father figure in the foreground, with his back turned to us like the monk in Caspar David Friedrich’s well-known painting of 1809-10, ambiguously serves as go-between and barrier preventing access to the tangled histories and stories of rural life in South Africa. If only the exhibition were as thoughtfully focalised around a similarly complex motif.
And there were some wonderful discoveries: Cape Town photographer Svea Josephy’s light jet prints Barcelona, Cape Town (Near N2) (2007) and Barcelona, Spain (Pool) (2007) are as crystal clear, immaculate, and absorbing as American Stephen Shore’s photographs. Were the exhibition as poetically and cinematically designed and accomplished — illuminating ‘the depths that [are] possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see’, to cite American author Don DeLillo’s novel Point Omega (2010) — it would have given time, space, and meaning to the time spent.
I am, however, deeply sceptical of big, blockbuster shows like this one. In a global art context, the free flow of information, in the form of vast collections of images intended for masses of spectators, perpetuates all too often the glut of commerce, denying time and space for thoughtful engagement, or for contemplating ‘the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing’, to cite DeLillo again. While the buzz and tourist attraction of big art shows offer the viewer or customer ‘more and more’, so that he or she ‘can wish nothing further’ (to cite Umberto Eco writing about museums, in his essay ‘Travels in Hyperreality’), they in fact offer little more than arbitrary arrangements of arbitrary art. Even if the art is not arbitrary, the big show makes it seem so.
So, beyond ‘institutionalised cultural showmanship’ (Eco again, this time in ‘Culture as Show Business’), what is the point? Even if it is true that some models of contemplation were relegated to the dustbin of history a long time ago, along with Kant, Greenberg and Adorno, why are we here in the first place, if we can’t see the trees for the crowded art? Can’t we ask South African art exhibitions to offer us more occasions of quiet contemplation, time and space, and to engage with fluid, mobile and interwoven constellations of meaning – the kind of occasions and engagements that bring us to our senses?
1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective was on view 16 April — 3 October 2010.