Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannesburg Art Gallery Johannesburg

Durban-based performance artist and choreographer Mlungisi Zondi was in April named the winner of this year’s MTN New Contemporaries Award, curated by Khwezi Gule. Within KZN, Zondi has fast-established a reputation for his incisive and idiosyncratic performance language, often in conjunction with collaborator Ntando Cele. This exhibition was an opportunity to engage Johannesburg audiences with a burgeoning performance idiom clearly influenced by choreographer Jay Pather, whose public performances adroitly connect aspects of urban spectacle and intimacy. Zondi is all too aware of the shortfalls of the gallery environment (versus conventional theatre seasons) for performers like him, but nonetheless embraces the alternative freedoms it offers. Given the scope of his piece it was fitting that performance art guru RoseLee Goldberg was in attendance at the opening when Zondi performed his piece Silhouette for the second, and last time – the first was for the judging panel. Subsequent visitors to the exhibition had to make do with reconstructing the performance through costumes, props and a video projection presented as an installation environment. The evidentiary capacity of photographic or video documentation tells us “someone saw this”. But they do not – and cannot – convey that intensely felt, but always unrepresentable exchange that occurs between performer and viewer. In this case, upside-down angles and extreme close-ups in the video of the performance (which incorporated projection) was a distraction. Listening to (rather than watching) the video, the installation of costumes, objects and pigment strewn across the bubble wrap covered floor was complex and arresting. Amplified by the bubble wrap, performers’ footfalls become hundreds of small explosions over which grunting, deep breathing, and hysterical giggling/crying exchanged with hard verbal rhythms of a monologue of free associational word play and an emphasis on ‘black’ as a word as well as concept. Suggestive of collage, a descriptor Zondi himself uses to suggest his process and intention, the five episodic scenes are presented with a minimum of narrative crutches. Silhouette suggests an exciting and critical artistic voice but the residue of performance-space-as-installation does not do the artist justice. What we see after opening night is not the work the adjudicators saw and appraised. Like a BioSlim campaign, it is a fantastic stretch of the imagination to assume a convincing connection between the ‘before’ and ‘after’. At the opposite end of the space, Sharlene Khan presented an installation made of uncannily similar elements. Fabric of Society continues her interest in the genesis and contemporary conditions of street vendors in the face of regeneration projects within Johannesburg’s inner city, particularly the Fashion District. Awkwardly hung garments represent personas or individuals, and a video projection documents Khan’s performance piece, Walking the Line Despite its social framework, the work is more revealing of Khan’s rather hackneyed interrogation of an ‘othered’ self. I expected something far tougher; more technically assured, less conformist and self-consciously aesthetic from this vociferous artist and commentator/activist. In an adjacent space, Nadipha Mntambo’s Uhambo (trans. ‘the journey’) related closely in form and ethos to her earlier work, Balandzeli (trans. ‘the followers’). Occupying a vestibule more than a room, the installation of 11 bovine hides, moulded and coaxed to resemble torsos and fragments of bodies, traced the pronounced curve of the back wall of the space such that it confronted the viewer rather than suggesting interaction. Immediately suggestive of genocide, or perversely anthropomorphous taxidermy, the distressed, punctured surfaces (articulated with delicate strings of beads and bones) are abject, tactile, and powerfully evocative of how experience marks us. Mntambo’s innate material sensibility focuses her attempts to divest her chosen materials, loaded as they are, of tired cultural clichés. It remains to be seen whether she will succeed in this, or have commercial success based on the same tired clichés. Spatially speaking, the exhibition experience felt strangely ‘packaged’ and flat, with the viewer encountering installations orientated along an insistently horizontal axis through the space. Julia Clark’s heady and ebullient Lalaland and James Webb’s The Black Passage provided the only interesting sensory diversions. Clark presented a smorgasbord of existing, new and reconfigured works in a trippy and playfully indulgent space, the ethos of which is neatly encapsulated in the phrase “Around the World in a Page” – affixed to a skirting board. Absorbed by the relationships between pedagogy and ideology, Clark uses found images from educational and popular sources, and ozone-shattering synthetic materials like polystyrene and glitter to reflect on the fates and pleasures of a life commensurate with the mass-media trajectory from television in the 1970s (in South Africa anyway) to the World Wide Web, and the attendant political, social and economic complexities of globalisation. Webb’s photographic documentation of a sound intervention, There is No Place Called Home, was neatly situated at the entrance to Clark’s space. The work, birdcalls indigenous to Nigeria and China played from the trees in Joubert Park, offers a wry and incisive meditation on alienation, migration and loss. But it was Webb’s The Black Passage that got my vote for the most conceptually sophisticated, emotive and socially responsive piece on this show. Refuting forever the myopic notion that sound is not a visual medium, his recording of a lift cage descending down a shaft of the world’s deepest gold mine is frightening, disorientating and completely immersive. Illuminated by a single pin spot at the entrance, a line of speakers leads down to a black curtain, behind which is the main source of the deafening rumble. The increased volume and rapidly darkening room creates a thickening of space that truly works the nerves. Webb’s orchestration of audio and spatial volume, as a sonic portrait of an extremely confined space within a massive room, is a stunning interpretation of a vertical experience laid out horizontally. The MTN New Contemporaries award is principally concerned with the ‘new’ media of installation and technology-savvy praxis. The curator-driven format adds interesting complexity to an awards process. Handpicking artists presupposes a close engagement with their work (one hopes), yet without preference or compromise. If anything, Gule’s curatorial strategy focused on these artists’ engagement with notions of the popular, but the pressure under which artists had to work (they were notified a month before the exhibition opening) was reflected in the lack of active curatorial engagement with and between the works themselves. The nature of exhibition scheduling in museum and gallery spaces also subtly enforces a reconstructivist approach to live art. When presenting such work to an audience, the inability to respond to its specific needs is just plain dangerous. Compromise becomes convention, which is irresponsible curatorship.

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