Self/Not Self

In the halcyon days of vinyl, the double album was beloved of bands wanting to explore their ideas in more depth than the standard hour-long single album allowed. The double album had a downside, often signalling the unhappy triumph of hubris over content.

In the halcyon days of vinyl, the double album was beloved of bands wanting to explore their ideas in more depth than the standard hour-long single album allowed. The double album had a downside, often signalling the unhappy triumph of hubris over content. It is therefore a relief to find David Brodie’s curatorial skills not hampered but oddly sharpened by the sprawl of his recent two-part extravaganza, which stretched over two and a half months. Brodie claims to be a gallerist, not a curator. That’s just him being coy. Self/ Not-self is clearly the product of a tightly focused curatorial impulse, rather than the work of a merchant trader. Indeed, only a process of very clear thought could have held this ambitious project together, which came far closer to something like Personal Affects, which Brodie co-curated in 2004, than it did a standard commercial gallery offering.The two shows endeavoured to explore issues around self-representation. The first took the route of showing straight self-portraiture, the second dealing in images that problematise notions of the self. A key comparison would be Tracy Payne’s pencil and ink self-portrait from the first show, seen against performance duo Sober & Lonely’s The Wanker (2008) from the second part. In Payne’s dreamy self-portrait, familiar territory ¬- the artist as pensive thinker – is at work. In Sober & Lonely’s image, a far more layered play with identity is deployed, as Lauren von Gogh – wearing intentionally bad male drag, replete with impressive fake package – poses as a stalker-masturbator.Elsewhere, Berni Searle’s sharp photographic triptych Once Removed (2008), which splices together visual languages as disparate as Christian iconography and Guantanamo Bay torture photos, allows for the self to become a site of projection. Searle’s elaborate headdress, a veil bedecked with black flowers, works to obliterate identity, thus heightening the viewer’s sensitivity to it. This accords, on some level at least, with three image/ text combinations by Wilhelm Saayman, whose frequent deploying of tactics of sarcasm, bitter irony and humour often make the self difficult to locate. For Saayman, the self seems to be a collection of observations which, when viewed together, begin to accumulate into a whole that embraces fragmentation and lack of closure.The great thing about the two shows is that, amongst all the careful selection and methodical assembling of a curatorial argument, there are also some real showstoppers. Richard Penn’s epigrammatically titled The distant echo of the colour of the voice (2009), an ink drawing in the vein of Colin Richards’ drawings, is such a work, albeit in a quiet fashion. The dense matrix of impossibly controlled marks gives the faintest suggestion of an image, one that keeps slipping from one’s grasp. This image comes closest to giving form to Mark Rothko’s statement, reproduced on the gallery wall as an entry point: “I don’t express myself in my paintings. I express my not-self.”Penny Siopis’s numerous works on the second show remind us that, since her focus has shifted more decisively to the personal in recent years, she has become one of the most authoritative South African voices in art about the self. Of the works on the second show, Beast (2009) is the most memorable, arguably because its scale breaks with Siopis’s apparent self-imposed limitations on size of the last few years.Though certain aspects of the two shows jarred, like the expression of a new orthodoxy of medium-format photographic prints (Searle, Pieter Hugo, Lunga Kama, Zanele Muholi), and Nicholas Hlobo’s Iqinile, Bhaxa and Ikhiwane, a set of lounge furniture sculptures that feel too much like lazy retreads of Steven Cohen’s ideas, this pair of shows creates a new high-water mark for the Johannesburg scene. One wonders where else this sort of finesse may feasibly be found in a commercial space.Michael Smith is an artist and Managing Editor of
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