Writing Art History Since 2002

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It was all “look but don’t touch” at this year’s Joburg Art Fair, with visitor numbers up significantly but sales down on last year. Fortunately this year’s special projects were more robust and provocative than Simon Njami’s bloated curatorial offering last year.

It was all “look but don’t touch” at this year’s Joburg Art Fair, with visitor numbers up significantly but sales down on last year. Fortunately this year’s special projects were more robust and provocative than Simon Njami’s bloated curatorial offering last year. Mostly invited, non-commercial and sponsored, the special projects provide a Biennale-like pause from the hard sell. This year’s offerings included Tumelo Mosaka’s Here and Now, a selection of screenings of moving images by practitioners from that fashionable conceptual misnomer called “the global South”; Bad Form: Things and Stuff, curated by Kathryn Smith, Christian Nerf and Francis Burger; and Urban Scenographies, an archival pause and performance programme curated by Joseph Gaylard, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt and Bettina Malcomess.Another reason for the greater substance and precision in this year’s special projects might have been the decision not to increase the number of commercial galleries, event organiser Ross Douglas, having approached art bodies like the Goethe Institute and French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), offering them “free space to fund an activity that would maximise the visitor experience”. Looking less stodgy and patronising under the invigorated directorship of Peter Anders, the Goethe’s presence, for example, included the partial sponsorship of the above-mentioned Bad Form and Urban Scenographies. Both projects offered performances rich in visitor participation. And what made them all the more vital was that with the exception of Warren Siebrits’ opening night staging of Joachim Schönfeldt’s Four Musicians (2008), there was precious little in the way of performance art from the commercial galleries.In Bad Form, curating itself became an innovative time-based performance of revolving exhibitions that changed at different times during the day. Smith, Nerf and Burger’s performance-based programme – devised in conjunction with Cape Town’s Blank Projects – extended to Andrew Lamprecht’s suitably coy art appreciation tours and Barend de Wet’s naked performance, The difference between life and art, which was cut short by Douglas, partly because of its proximity to the children’s art area (another special project). In a stand bristling with chaotic energy, Urban Scenographers conducted two auction sales as part of a series entitled The work you requested. The patent lack of the materiality of the objects for sale – to either have or hold – was an insult hurled directly at the consumerism that is our new identity politics.Jane Alexander’s Security (2006), the unofficial centrepiece of this year’s special projects, was originally featured on the 27th São Paulo Biennale, its dystopian vision of social and spatial disassociation a response to the original curatorial theme, “How to Live Together”. Combining the visual iconographies of the suburban, industrial and penal, Alexander created a high-security double enclosure of cyclone fencing and razor wire. The floor of the inner enclosure was covered with green wheat grass that turned to brown over the three-month duration of the Biennale. A single, bird-like figure, ancient and Egyptian in its visual references, reiterated a sense of alienated entrapment. The narrower outer corridor was covered with used machetes, sickles and industrial gloves. Five Brazilian men, apparently in the uniforms of South African private security guards, protected the outside perimeter of the enclosure.Two-and-a-half years later, still unsold, and having been shown at the 2007 Gothenburg Biennale in Sweden, Security was brought to Johannesburg by collector Gordon Schachat. The dystopian precedent for this installation was established almost ten years ago with Kendell Geers’ Suburbia (1999), a series of snapshot photographs that document suburban South Africa’s apparent obsession with home security. Sue Pam-Grant and Xoli Norman’s Guard on Shift (2008), a similarly styled and themed theatre installation, has further enlarged the topic. But it is the shame of last year’s xenophobic bloodletting that has inadvertently brought a new potency to Security, as well as urgency to the question of how we might possibly all live together. There were only three guards this time around, and at times one of them could be seen walking within the corridor of disused metal implements, in an uncomfortable shuffle over an unstable surface. The wheat grass remained pristine over the Fair’s three days.While Security was a stand-alone installation with a significant presence in a high traffic area, Encounters of Bamako, a selection of African photography produced by the combined efforts of CulturesFrance, IFAS and Gallery Momo, was a disappointing extension of the latter gallery’s commercial stand. This was probably its first mistake. The second was the limited size of the exhibition in comparison to all the photography on commercial view. Together these curatorial misjudgements made for an exhibition that felt like nothing special. The competent, if limited selection of work by Sammy Baloji, Berry Bickle, Mohammed Camara, Saïdou Dicko, Calvin Dondo, Rana El Nemr, Pierrot Men and Sergio Santimano notwithstanding, Encounters of Bamako should have been a more grandly conceived introduction, not only to the prestigious history of the biennale itself (which dates back to 1994 and, like the Joburg Art Fair, is the only one of its kind on the continent), but also the superb history of photography that has emerged from the continent. Then again, I suppose this is one of the crucial differences in the conceptual depths of art fairs and biennales.Rory Bester is an art historian, critic and essayist based in Johannesburg. He is also a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg

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