Archive for the 'Art Criticism' Category


De-Definitions in a de-apartheid Society: Commodity Space.

“In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable”. Ernst Fisher.

The building, the commercial art gallery, is on the corner of a popular street in the upmarket ‘bohemian’ part of town. The appearance is of a ‘modern structure’ re-designed in an adapted post-modernist way. Research leads me to believe that this was once, before the face lift, before being annexed,, a car sales building for elite models. All this has changed; the building is now home to one of the most active and contemporary commercial art galleries in South Africa.

Once inside one observes that the inner space has been adapted in a modernist way to the turn-over of a new commodity, the sales of Art. The owners have seen fit to re-divide the large floor space into various room sizes to facilitate the maximum wall space in relation to light and area available. The aim being to present an adaptable space that will suit the needs of the variety of demands that artist will make on this place.

The space can handle traditional and multimedia works. While the patrons can meander through the space without being disturbed by sweaty curators or sales personnel. The art works are presented in the modernist genre; each work is presented on a neutral surface with enough space so as not to intrude on the next work, while the lighting is focused to enhance the works and at the same time create an almost religious, or spiritual, ambience.

This is the typical commercial art gallery. The artists selected need to produce something saleable. Something that the desperate collector can invest in. The exchange is one of money for item and is thinly disguised. All artists are hand chosen and presented as ‘good investments’ due to past victories or more popular beliefs.

The artists are presented as the continuity that lies between South African and International Modernism. Since 1995 a new art has begun to flourish in South Africa through a powerful impetus of the myth of the African Renaissance artist. An art that has begun to look outwards to Europe and America and an exploration of past atrocities. This has resulted in recognition of a collective memory, a memory with deduced resources of consciousness.

This submergence of the artist’s experience has been taken up by the contemporary commercial galleries as offering a package that is a sound investment for investors in the near future. The commercial gallery in South Africa today may find it hard to distinguish between history and art history. A history that includes the atrocities of apartheid and the de-identity of a de-nation. Their stance has been one of de-tachment, and a focus on popular trends. As Malraux has pointed out, its the galleries obligation to “compile and reflect the record of human freedom and creativeness”. But, this ‘barrier’ is not reflected in the commercial world. As Ted Leonsis a prominent new media marketer says: “I only care about what our members and consumers say”.

The gallery is partly responsible for the de-intellectualisation of art and the dead-end of of a dynamic vanguard. ‘They’ offer hero’s of mass-media and technological innovation a place to show their goodies. As Harold Rosenberg points out the gallery is “aware of itself as a medium of mass education in novelty”, it presents works art as news, “laying claim to the relevance to the contemporary”. Artists are made or broken on the mediocrity rack of consumerability.

Galleries are looking for content, because they think everyone wants content. But this is not true. Most of what is described as content is really decoration. But what they fail to see is that people really lust after context. They want the raw data to be filtered through ‘human consciousness’. The artists consciousness of imagination or analysis delivered in a way that is entertaining and hence possibly valuable in another way

The dilemma of the gallery is that it bases, its aesthetic, stands and falls on ‘the’ popularity principle. Making the arts into a decorative media ignoring the values and beliefs that inspired the works in the first place. The result is the mass consumerism of a mass consumable culture.

This is surely a place not to ‘make’ love in.


De-hidden apartheid art?

This as a gift to the community? It’s so beautiful it’s hard to see hidden behind the beatific Gold Reef City. Once found, it sits in its cocoon like a post-industrial derelict – waiting for… the next era. Waiting for closure! This museum cannot be treated as a museum; it’s an artwork that is so beautiful it’s hard to see.
“The Museum has been assembled and organised by a multi-disciplinary team of curators, film-makers, historians and designers. An architectural consortium comprising several leading architectural firms, conceptualised the design of the museum on a seven-hectare site. The museum is a superb example of design, space and landscape offering the international community a unique South African experience”.

It forces the question of “what is art?” Art in the sense of state art! Art in terms of – where and who supports this art? This is a museum, and yet, its presentation is as shocking as a ‘confiscated’ installation. So why is the state supporting art like this and more specifically this work?

The answers are an axiom of the state of art and democracy. The work supports the dictum for the state. This is the slick art of the post-modern academy. The artwork re-invented into the machinery of the state.

The message of this artwork is of hope and survival, of reconciliation and the Hollywood dream of happiness ever after – the message of re-inventing ourselves as part of the aftermath of “bumpy thing”.

Nothing or almost nothing in the museum, artwork, is real all are simulacra. The viewer views the past through the recording devises of the past and is given no opportunity to evaluate this process. The past has been re-invented in terms of the prosthetic devices of the past. Hence, we, the viewer are merely a prosthetic revived for future understanding that doesn’t exist outside of the simulacra.

“Much of what follows inside is conventional but grimly absorbing, as giant murals, texts and old television footage chart the decades of repression and violence. It’s all there in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail from the election of the National Party in 1948, through the Sharpeville massacre and Biko’s murder, to Mandela’s ultimate victory in the first free elections eight years ago. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s a small room beyond the solitary confinement cell, which is empty apart from the dozens of ropes dangling from the ceiling. Each one is a noose, representing the fate of dozens of executed freedom fighters. It’s grisly but effective symbolism”. Adrian Goldberg.

The past is a series of news items, photographs, videos, memoirs… the stench has been anesthetised. The stench is a dabbed familiar of a sterile environment. An environment cleansed by the political correctness of having such an installation that is both museum and art.

The history is fascinating, the past injustices of one government popularised because of its absurd policies, just as another government could be popularised for their corrupted ideologies. The museum/art work offers itself as a history and yet as a truth. In both cases it is correct, the work shows and explains the past and present. The work offers the viewer an understanding of present sentiment, but does it go beyond this?

The voices that speak from this work are those of the neo-corporate. The voice a self justified industrial. The story is not of the universal but rather of the ‘in’ content. The story, meaning is of a disinfected history that is within the political quota of the day, this doesn’t mean that its something to be avoided but rather in order to understand the voice of today one should experience this voice, lacking as it is. This artwork is a work that aims at medicoracy and the understanding of the uninitiated.

I say this, not glibly but rather for serious consideration. As I see this as a serious work of art that has the potential of being a great work, but due to political agendas, has lost the path, so to speak. The work becomes a survey and lacks the commentary that is necessary of such an undertaking.

When entering the museum, the initiate is given a pass. White or Black, the choice is random and purveys the seeming choice of the apartheid government, at all points the architecture compliments the contact as in no other structure in modern South Africa. Identity documents, enlarged and encaged, confront the innocent viewer in a death-defying manner.

A bleak and reflective walk is alternatively available. The viewer is left to struggle into a composite area that leads to the museum. At this point the information is cartoonised and schematic. Images of ourselves as viewer are realised and incorporated into the architecture and artwork. We are walking into… we are part of, so the work demands.

The viewer waits in a train station like foyer, for the introductory film. The film, a well-devised propaganda documentary of African history (I especially loved the part where bushman art symbolism is rationalised as “a prediction of events to come”) this ends shockened-ly, with a break at the start of apartheid… beautiful if not melodramatic.

As an artist I could only envy the amount of money available for the Museums technological equipment. The consortium of images that juxtapose time-line images, video and sound is astounding. Beautiful. Awesome.


Got a torturer: 1 & 1 is 3.

“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom”. Noam Chomky

Yes/to/day I visited an art gallery, not the nat/u/anal or any/thing, but the more con/temp/ovary one – the one that de/pics the you/th cult, the way/ward/ford. On pen/it/tration it was hard to find the works. The works must be real/lie good because they were so hard to see.

Throughout South African history we are wit/ness to the pre/dit/ors view. The position of the art gallery can be seen as a place that brings out the hunter – the collector. Objects are gathered specifically for the hunter’s enjoyment. The gallery becomes the place that displays the corpse – a place that opens the doors to public vision, thus empowering the predator.

The commercial gallery is like a drive-through-game-reserve.

“…I’d made up my mind that he would like some of my work. What made it worse was his coldness. He seemed so absolutely serious and clinical. Not the faintest line of humour or tenderness, even of sarcasm, on his face. Suddenly much, much older than me…He said, it’s quite graphic, well composed, I can’t tell you details. But it’s not living art. It’s not limb of your body…” John Fowles ‘The Collector’

When visiting the commercial ranches: On entry you/re served a glass of cham/pain. At first ‘site’ the exhibition looks like any other curio shop. Yet among the curios are the prospective art works, which are also camouflaged as curios. Fortunately the camouflage is transparent. The art works have price tags and an outdated catalogue is available, although the catalogue does not always include the works on display. We feel as if we are the aftermath, the viewers of the corpse. This is the gap that acts as a shield to the door of public vision. The art works on exhibition become the victims whose concepts assert the power of the predator.

“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true”. Ecclesiastes

The collection policy of the municipal and national galleries tends to be made up of a simulacrum. The issues of collection involve the constrains of a tightly restricted budget that is slowly shrinking each year; the problems of an inadequate staff that often lacks specialist training; the lack of storage; and a policy that tends to focus on art works from the immediate surrounding areas, more specifically local art. Hence the hunter often feels stifled when entering these establishments. And so the answer over the last decade has been to offer travelling shows. Large National travelling shows that give off a sent of promise for the hunter in a way to attract the number game.

“The gallery is deserted because it has adopted the authority of science, a belief in a system that accepts the reality of observation – of preserving the meaning within the thing as a priori. The gallery is a place where the de-certain, de-exact and de-final are presented as un-‘de’ed, a place where the de-stabilised rules of consumerism are embraced by eruditeness”. THE SAARTJIE GUIDE TO THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL DE-BATE OF SOUTH AFRICAN ART OR, PROMISCUITY IN THE GALLERY

To rearticulate our original premises: Walking through our commercial galleries is like walking through an abattoir; walking through the municipal and national galleries is like partaking in a 19th century freak show.

“…we need an o/pen mind to be/have in the Gall(URL)ery: the gallery s/p(l)ace is a maze and the 1 ON(E)ly in/side viewer the hanger of ritural/s”. THE SAARTJIE GUIDE TO Eti/quiet in the Gallery – how to be/(h)ave: a more/al(l) issue?


DI-SECTING A RACE: Art, tech-no-logy and post-da-ride-da.

All sentences of the type “technology is X” or “technology is not X” a priori miss the point, which is to say that they are false. The options confronting us seem to be “just how technology is”. How to translate “technology”? a “technology”?…

The link between technology and art is something often disregarded in history. When technology is identified in art, it is usually, rashly, seen as a type of negative theology, a theology that tends to look for the negative components in a system or approach. This dismantling of the structure of aesthetics into a techno-aesthetic is a regression towards a ‘simple element’ and results in a preconceived notion that predetermines understanding.

Through a complex and subtle process, certain ideas, certain ways of looking at the world, are promoted and come to find their way into our heads. This is a sort of “negative thought control”. Chomsky points out that we are controlled as much by what is not there, as by what is. When technology influxes art, it is a process that does not await the consideration or organisation of a subject, rather it offers a system of thought that determines the outcome and the way reality is understood.

The evidence suggests that artists’ dependency on technology and mechanical devices has been not only extensive, but also long-lived, going back centuries, and questions the unity of the ‘image’ as ‘made’. Charles Paul Freund, in his article Traces of Genius, points out that Leonardo Da Vinci was familiar with the camera obscura, the architect Filipo Brunelleschi pioneered vanishing-point perspective, and Jan van Eyck appeared to use mirrors and lenses to aid in the acuity of the world.

In his controversial book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney argues that optics began to influence painterly representation as early as 1350. He argues that painters were secretive about such aids because they were trade secrets. What this suggests is that the artists were using modern devices to re-invent an understanding of the world, a world that was progressing from a mystic to a more mechanical and operative reality – a democratic reality. It also suggests that artists were embarrassed by their reliance on mechanical processes that removed the human ‘organic’ quality from their work, reducing the elitism of the art/craft and opening it even further to mass-production and mass-consumerism.

Technology has been and was seen, as a mind-manipulating strategy used by ‘corporate enterprises’ to manipulate the way reality is understood. This implies that the use of technology in art results in a kind of ‘democratic mind’ manipulation that re-inserts an ‘articulated’ way of seeing. Chomsky points out, that thought control in democratic societies does not happen through totalitarian, Big Brother-style mechanisms rather it is the result of “a filtering process empowered by economic and political power operating in a free market system” – he points out that there is no design or conspiracy. Artists are not prevented from choosing ‘unfriendly’ approaches and concepts, they just never ‘encounter’ them and so assume they do not exist. The artist appears to use technology as a ‘device’ without understanding the full impact of the system that they are using.

Chomsky entered this debate on techno-aesthetics when he pointed out that one of the traditional and obvious ways of controlling people is to frighten them. “If people are frightened, they will willingly cede authority to their superiors who will protect them”.


A Shell Fish Place

Recently, in my not too distant past, I went to a museum to visit that old coffee shop. You know the one with its slightly tarnished furnishings and slow <<< s l o w >>> service – the real art experience kind of place. The place that is filled with ‘he art’. >> A place to stuff your face and empty your mind.

Well, to my surprise the curator had taken down all the ART! The walls were as BARE as the unwashed backside of a third rate movie star. The guard’s were guarding an empty gallery. I began to ponder on the importance of space in a world where the earth is treated like some kind of bottom/less garb\age can. >> Are we guarding an empty space???

The age old turdified question of “is it art?” was not even a question, I mean, even the toilets were locked. I suppose the ‘artists’ saw the public act of peeing as too participative. Too ooooOOOOOOOooo much of a work of Art. Confusing the art works intent with the activities of the selfish third-rate gallery goers Art activity.

So when I visit the toilet these days in a gallery, at least I know I am making a formal Art statement. I suppose this is why the Coffee Shop in the gallery is always open, stocked, and frequented. It is the Directors contribution to the participatory ongoing artwork. An art gallery without a Coffee Shop is…

On the other hand, this empty gallery stuff is also the way a society/curator/artist/s confiscate/s Art making it political. The problem is, it’s mainly the curator-artist/s who are doing this emptification. In the 1980’s, the South African artist’s greatest fear was detention – detention for thought and freedom of expression, for presenting ideas contra to the popular public view, for presenting a message of truth as believable. Now it is the curator-artist/s detaining the artists by surrounding them in a quagmire of ‘spacelessness’. >> Yes, a quagmire of spacelessness, a place that is the sewage pipe of oxymoronic systems.

The other day I went to the gallery and f**ked leisurely in the gallery antechamber – the South African and Contemporary rooms. >> It is the safest place, because no one ever visits this space anyway. The thing is, I went to the gallery to make love and ended up in turning love into art. The gallery is a place that functions as the Modern Alchemists pharmacy – a place where used materials are remastered into new materials. The material of ART, and yet it is a place that is being continually emptied of meaning. It is a space that is lost in the gap between the oxy-and-the-moron, locked between the thighs of a yellow concept.

We get down on our knees to make life and the patriarchal curator/s stand over us swing>>ing a giant dildo, and … >>no they don’t present us with the porno-videos of the 1990’s, rather a porno-emptiness and we love the vacated spaces and the Euro-centricity of it all.

So the other day my artwork went to the gallery and the antechambers were still empty I was not there anymore…



A fixed view of the world or worldview can kill. One such instance is the view of an ‘African’ identity. This view of ‘African art’ or ‘art from Africa’; with its pseudo-scientific narration of identifying the ‘African’ vision has had a disastrous impact on South African art.

Most resent South African artists have been forced to see themselves in this context, a vision that has affected their subjects and meanings. This raises a common problem, the indubitable relationship that exists between the content and form of marginalized artists and how this affects their futures, an image that is produced, disseminated and consumed through the mass media and travelling exhibitions.

The problem that lies at the he/art of this debate is whether contemporary South African artists are the products or survivors of the ‘African vision’ of itself and of a worldview. It is a debate arising from the response to the dominant image of South African art offered by artists and academics and given popular authority through a wealth of museum exhibitions, documentaries and mass consumption items.

As ‘Others’, the ‘African vision’ is regarded only as significant in offering an ‘Others vision’ of the world. Many European art movements during the last century have adopted this vision. In adopting a vision of ‘Otherness’, this vision of ‘Africanness’ has become a label that has forced artists coming from Africa to similarly adopt in order to fulfil the perpetual role of ‘Otherness vision’.

‘Africanness’ or ‘otherness vision’ is best understood as a form of symbolic capital. Like all forms of capital, ‘Africanness’ is implicated in relations of power and ownership. The concept of ‘Africanness’ is a fake that is generated by material interests. The invention of this vision is not only the result of external circumstances but also the artists themselves who have adopted this vision. On the one hand, this venture of ‘Africanness’ operates indirectly, socially and ideologically to secure a framework for boundary formation and maintenance, on the other it is a cultural survival initiative.

Galleries and tourist enterprises, commodify images of ‘Africanness’ to attract an international market to South Africa. This is easy to explain and identify in curio items that offer consumers a view on an exotic world that is ‘Other’ than their own. With digital art, the move has been to offer ‘hyperreal’ encounters that promise unmediated and total experiences of this ‘Others’ world. As with Sue Williamson’s interactive CD-ROM ‘cant forget, cant remember’ that has become a commentary of historical and contemporary injustices that can be articulated through reactive ideological resource becoming a process of identity and experience.

The ‘African vision’ is a vision of the world that attempts to commodify the loss of identity.


Floating on an Unteachable History

Joseph Beuys was born in Kleve, Germany on May 12, 1921. His first one-person exhibition was held in 1953 in Kranenburg. In 1961 he was appointed Professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he had earlier been a student, and he continued teaching there until 1972 when he was dismissed amidst great controversy, a dismissal that finally, in 1978, was deemed unlawful. From the beginning of the 1970s he exhibited widely throughout Europe and the United States, representing Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1976. Beuys died January 23, 1986, in Düsseldorf, where he had lived for most of his career. Notable among the many retrospectives of his work are those held in New York in 1979, in Berlin in 1988, and in Zürich, Madrid, and Paris in 1993-94.

He attempted in his work to harness his creative energy as a means of redressing the decline of spirituality. He tried to change the world, not unlike William Morris or John Ruskin, he believed in the power of art to mitigate the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution that in the end drew him into political activism.

“Moenie my skiet nie! Moenie my skiet nie!” cry the African-Europeans who cannot stand the march of this new beat. Beuys attempted to use myth and magic to turn us all into artists through symbolic performances. These ideas gained rather than diminished in poetic resonance with the passage of time because they exist for us today only in the realms of memory and imagination.

The change from then till now is equal to an upheaval of self – a moving of house so to speak. One has gathered the baggage from the past and scatters it into the present. What was ordered and appeared logical (Beuys’s works have a strong narrative dimension) has now changed, the matrix of control is now de-matrixised. The gallery is in a de-matrixised space, especially for the ‘babies’ who never questioned if they would be around in 2002 but still are.

Beuys absorbed formal influences both from the Old Masters and from his contemporaries loosing, stealing or destroying important items alone the way. In 1963, when Beuys became an international celebrity, and when he began to concentrate on making monumental artworks, installations, performances and multiples he was attempting “to make people free … art for me is the science of freedom.” What fitted well then now has no place. After the TLC the new space has become a yearning for new castes where the old castes yearn for a familiar place.

Evidence of his fundamental idea of bringing art and life closer together is found in Beuys’s multifarious use of materials. He incorporated materials from the “outside” world rather than just paint and canvas. This led him to venture through many different styles, including multiples, sketches, and performances. Whether it is felt, fat, food, honey, or iron, these materials symbolised his past. Cornelia Lauf points out that through the fusion of rituals and their fetishes, Beuys believed that art and artefacts could not always be distinguished from one another. Matthew Drutt noted that he developed this further in the larger environmental installations dating from the last years of his career. They are enormous in scope, magnificent in their intention, and involved hundreds of participants. They centre on a single theme, a call for a change in thinking that developed out of his personal understanding rather than from any technological advances. Beuys said of his ‘Nine Oaks’ work: “I believe that planting these oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will raise ecological consciousness — raise it increasingly in the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop planting.” — Joseph Beuys, 1982.

What is evident is that Beuys in a search for place attempts to interact with the author, the text and the reader. He creates a place where the viewer has to use a process of interpreting and imagination to interpret the text in various ways. Beuys points out that without the reader, there really would be no text, for it is the reader who brings the text to life, through his realization of the ranging interpretations. As Alexandra Reese explains, “for Beuys the value of the written text is to provide the core knowledge, while the unwritten text is greatly needed to fuel the imagination and spark the viewer’s creative ideas”. It is what the text implies in so many different ways that allows the reader to develop a picture image of the story.

According to Hans Dieter Huber, Beuys’s work is especially adaptive to systems theory. Not only because of the basic system operative in Beuys’ works, the elements and objects and their relational links, but also because it accounts for the environment as an entity equal to that of the system itself – the environment allows for the artwork’s “aesthetic effectiveness.” The perception of an artwork by a viewer plays a role in such a system and can be seen as a variant of literary theory known as “reader response” theory.

Space and place in today’s galleries is an arrangement that talks back to the 1980s offering us a concept of culture. So the new space may require us to rise up, but this time there is no alternative, there is no symbolic overtone of comfort and healing anymore.

In the new space we look at walls that are too close, that cry “leave us alone, let us determine our own future”. The future is in it seizing itself, which can only come from a tool (within the de-matrixised structure). We live in this time where the disordered boxes of the past litter our reality creating a dis-structure that makes us seek for meaning where meaning may not exist. We search through a chaotic structure left by mad men and see meaning at every turn. “Why this box here, why this order? Where is the other related content? There must be meaning…”

In other words, we are still operating in a metaphoric place where we are being played backwards.