Writing Art History Since 2002

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Dineo Bopape is still younger than Jesus. Only just. She was born in 1981, so her years in the ranks of South Africa’s malleable and prodigious – who make good investments for commercial galleries – are almost up. The moniker “Younger Than Jesus”, comes from the 2008 edition of The Generational, a triennial exhibition launched by the New Museum in New York that year.

This edition of The Generational focused on the work of artists under the age of thirty-three, the inference being that some of the world’s most influential individuals had their greatest impact before reaching mid-life. Bopape has recently returned from an MFA at Columbia University and De Ateliers’ studio programme, so her impact on the South African art scene is probably not yet what it deserves to be. This may well be because she is charting her own path as an artist – she does not make work about being South African, black or female – and in South Africa, uncharted waters are taken for shark-infested ones. Bopape’s most recent exhibition at Stevenson in Johannesburg was unequivocally the most interesting solo exhibition by a South African artist I have seen all year. Surely at least someone else must have felt the same way. And yet, surprisingly, there seems to have been little talk about it amongst the exhibitionistas, and even less coverage in the press. This may have had to do with the show’s ungainly title, lesobana!! le^obana! le^obana!! (le bulegile); le^obana! le^obana! le^obana!! (go phunyegile). It hardly rolls off the tongue. This Pedi phrase remained untranslated in the exhibition, but, the audience was told, refers to a sudden perforation, “a small opening or abyss”.Indeed, throughout the four video installations that featured in the show, footage of solid or reflective surfaces is repeatedly interrupted by the appearance of holes, digital chasms, simulated tunnels, explosions and illusions of vast space. Like the astronomical phenomenon of wormholes, these spatial events and openings seem to bend time and space, to suggest places and temporal passages that the eye could not possibly have anticipated prior to digital imaging. Just as with revolutionary force the television set introduced the virtual space of broadcast, Bopape’s videos ask us to consider our relationship to the varied and projective worlds manufactured by art in the digital age. Do we distinguish between “the real” and “the reel”? Does our consumption of images moving across screens – for many people, the primary means of visual engagement – change the way we experience our being in three-dimensional space, in the place we innocently call this world?Bopape broaches big questions, and ones not often countenanced here, especially in the context of video- and screen-based media. For Bopape working and dwelling in the space of video calls for an acknowledgement of alternative temporalities. In her words, perhaps it is a question of “drawing a parallel timeline”. This question comes to the fore in her installation works, in which the sparkling digital worlds that distinguish her video pieces coexist with solid volumes. At the entrance to lesobana!! …, in an installation titled Intermission 2/tv life, the space of the screen is signaled by a number of television sets scattered amidst a shambolic nest of wooden beams, a disco ball, a half-done painting, the skeletons of cane furniture and the entrails of an old couch. The TV boxes play simply oscillating and static images that imitate old colour test patterns. They hum like tinnitus, and give off a prickly, warm aura. This installation is a grungy homage to the master of the cathode tube, Nam June Paik. In Paik’s TV Jungle, a dense indoor garden coexists, most unnaturally, with scores of functioning television sets. Nature and technology cohabit in a fantasy environment, the likes of which could not have been possible before every middleclass American and Western European home owned a television set. In the same way Intermission 2/tv life fetishises the endurance of this middle class, and its adaptations to South Africa. I remember, in the late 1980s, subsiding in a cane armchair in my grandfather’s Johannesburg flat while he and I watched the colour test pattern on TV, just because it was there to watch. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a three-channel video triptych whose name trumps even the exhibition title in length: They act as lovers: microwave cosmic background: so massive that its decay opened the ultimate hole from which the universe emerged:…effect no.55, 2 ends of a bent mirror. In this salad of descriptions of digital video effects and references to external subjects, Bopape’s entire artistic sensibility is summarised. Visual simulation, emotion, real objects and concepts are so co-implicated that none can be trusted over another. Love is the sum of its signs, and a single, hyper-saturated pink rose – like the one that appears in They act as lovers …- affirms its existence. The layperson’s universe is a computer-generated graphic, and fittingly, we have more sound knowledge about the traversal of digital or virtual space than we do about physical space. In another lifetime, Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson would keep a picture of Bopape in their wallets. She wouldn’t reciprocate though. The proliferation of concepts like simulacrum, intertextuality, kitsch and hyper-reality reached its apex in the theorising of postmodernism in the 1980s and early 1990s. Bopape evidences a nostalgia for this philosophical period, but merely as a facet of a more comprehensive nostalgia for a cultural era, a time of box television sets, conspicuous special effects, and synthetic lace curtains of the sort that encloses They act as lovers …. Her interest in the relationship between affect and affectation in this work is not a requiem for authentic feeling. Rather, it is a gracious acknowledgment of the potentially fabricated origins of feelings honestly felt. She is less afraid of the generative power and legitimacy of non-human and non-natural processes than her philosophical forebears. She casts off her generation’s inheritance of the postmodernist’s anxiety and cynicism, and makes new worlds, euphoric, self-defining and endless.Anthea Buys is Curator of Contemporary Art at Iziko South African National Gallery and a Research Associate at the Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg.

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