Writing Art History Since 2002

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A recent trilogy of exhibitions by Berni Searle raises important questions about the wider practices of exhibition making and their effect on an artist’s career, argues Rory Bester

Approach, Berni Searle’s first major museum showing in Johannesburg, opened at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) on a rainy Sunday night in November 2006. It was the third opening in consecutive months for Searle, following Crush at the Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town in September, and the similarly titled but separately curated Approach, presented at University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) a month later. The three exhibitions overlapped, creating a seamless local and international exposure of Searle’s oeuvre, and even though they were separately organised, their exhibition checklists showed up common choices. The exhibitions were complemented by Berni Searle: Approach, a large-format hardcover catalogue published jointly by the three exhibition venues.
This is reason enough to think about the exhibitions in relation to each other. Johannesburg’s Approach is noteworthy for two further reasons: it is Searle’s first significant museum venue statement in Johannesburg, and Clive Kellner’s first significant curatorial move since taking over the reigns at JAG. The Johannesburg show thus provides an ideal opportunity to not only reflect on wider practices of exhibition making, but also the effect of these practices on the positionings of artists in local and international settings. Collectively, these exhibitions make for a fascinating study that starts with Michael Stevenson, whose gallery premiered a Searle’s Night Fall, a three channel video projection, and a series of related prints. Both Kellner and CAM curator Alexa Favata worked closely with Stevenson for obvious reasons: the latter represents Searle and the exhibitions at JAG and CAM were based largely on loans from his gallery.
Searle’s relationship with CAM was initiated in 2002, when she was included in The Field’s Edge: Africa, Diaspora, Lens, an exhibition guest curated for that institution by myself and Amanda Carlson. Searle was invited to the opening of the exhibition and participated in the associated public seminar. She was also part of a group that toured the Graphicstudio which, with CAM, forms part of the Institute for Research in Art at USF.”Ever since that visit to Tampa,” says Searle, “I’ve had an interest in working with Graphicstudio.”
That interest became a reality when CAM staff saw Home and Away and approached her to do two projects. The first was a commission for a new video, the second involved her producing a set of limited edition prints with Graphicstudio. While the edition of prints is yet to be completed — Searle will finish them during her extended stay in New York, which started in September 2006 — the video commission was premiered on the CAM exhibition.”When we spoke about the commission,” says Searle. “I proposed Alibama, and the exhibition at CAM took shape from there. It was obviously important for Alibama to be in the exhibition because CAM was the commissioning institution and they wanted to reflect their contribution to the creation of new work. But curatorially, the exhibition wasn’t built around the commission and doesn’t occupy a special space in the exhibition. Alibama was so recently produced that it wasn’t fully explored in the catalogue.”
Based on the sighting of a confederate a ship in Table Bay harbour in 1863, Searle’s Alibama is a reflection of the history of the popular folksong (“Daar kom die Alibama”) it gave rise to. The work explores aspects of the archive of the song and its references, unpacking the complicated layers that have been added to the meaning and interpretation of this choral favourite.
If one considers the video and photographic versions of Searle’s works together, there are many overlaps between the exhibitions Favata curated for CAM and the one Kellner produced for JAG. But in separating out the media, CAM appears more video intensive. Searle also notes a broader difference between the two exhibitions: “In Tampa there was less of an emphasis on providing a sense of development in my work, and more of an attempt to put together an exhibition that had different works speaking to each other. With the Johannesburg exhibition, the intention was to explore the developments in my work from 1998 to 2006.”
It is this development that was certainly foremost in Kellner’s mind. His JAG show is about profiling Searle in a museum context, in what he calls a mid-career retrospective: “It implies someone who has a substantial body of work and who is someone to signpost”. For Kellner, whose curatorial initiative gives real depth to the designation curator, such an event also implies a consideration of the complex relationship between local and international demands and pressures.
“Firstly, it’s about artists whose content is derived from a sense of place that’s usually South Africa and about South African issues,” he explains. “Secondly, it’s about artists who are very progressive in their practices. And thirdly, it’s about local artists who are being celebrated overseas.”
Kellner, who plans similar such exhibitions for Kay Hassan, Jane Alexander and Johannes Phokela, places emphasis on this being the first major museum show of Searle’s work in South Africa.
“Other than the Standard Bank show, she’s only ever been on group exhibitions and gallery shows,” he says. “She’s someone who has to some extent been overlooked in South Africa.” He cites the ownership of Searle’s video work Snow White (2001) as an example of this oversight.
“There are three copies of the video in the edition, along with an Artist’s Proof. All three copies are owned by overseas museums and institutions. It was only after lengthy negotiations that JAG secured the AP, creating local ownership and access to Snow White.”For Searle, the three exhibitions are not meant to sit together and she is reluctant to even speak about any connections between them.
“These are three very different exhibitions, governed by very different circumstances,” she says. “The contributions come from very different places and it’s quite difficult to speak about all of them in one breath. It wasn’t even planned that the three exhibitions would run so close to each other.”
But overlap they did. Also, the catalogue’s undeniable status as lasting testament to the ephemerality of display means that these three exhibitions are inextricably linked. The Michael Stevenson Gallery, like Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary, has established an admirable reputation for modest, but well produced catalogues that accompany each new show, and this was indeed the case for Searle’s two previous solo shows at the gallery: Vapour (2004) and About to Forget (2005). And while CAM is also known to produce catalogues on the occasion of major shows, JAG is much less prolific. The joint publication of Berni Searle: Approach, edited by Sophie Perryer, not only allowed for the production of a fine catalogue but also brought the three partners together in conversation. This was Kellner’s only contact with CAM.
“We brought Searle to Johannesburg for site visits,” he says, “and these visits, along with curatorial discussions about the works, were then fed back into discussions about the catalogue.” For Searle, the catalogue is the result of a need to reflect on more recent work: “The pooling of resources allowed for a more substantial publication around these three very different exhibitions.”
It was Searle who sounded out the three partners about a possible collaboration, but Stevenson’s gallery who took on the editing, design and printing of the publication. This sequence of events evidences an appreciation of the role of publications by both Searle and Stevenson.
A few years ago, in realising the opportunity presented by the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, Searle invested additional finances into the associated publication to extend its scope, substance, and ultimately its leverage in her own career. Similarly, it was a deft move by Stevenson to realise a publication that not only boasts the added weight of two serious art institutions, but also has the substance and appeal to feature on the shelves of commercial book retailers.
Despite serving three distinct exhibitions, the publication does not feel disjointed. Each institution selected a contributing writer. Stevenson opted for poet and academic Gabeba Baderoon, reproducing in full an essay originally published in abridged form for the 2006 Contemporary Commonwealth exhibition catalogue in Australia. It is Baderoon’s formulation of the concept of ‘approach’ that became the basis upon which Perryer brought the perspectives of the three exhibitions together.
CAM meanwhile selected Laurie Ann Farrell, the recently departed curator at the Museum for African Art in New York, to introduce Night Fall, the feature of the exhibition at Stevenson’s gallery. Kellner, writing in his capacity as curator of the JAG exhibition, offers a positional reading of Searle’s work.
“Searle has been framed in terms of body and identity in South Africa,” he says of this decision. “But in moving into a global arena her work has come to have a more poetic and displaced sense of identity. It’s become much more evocative and open-ended. South Africans haven’t fully grasped this yet about her work, and I wanted this exhibition to say something different about her new approaches.”
As Kellner rightly points out, identity politics has framed so much of Searle’s early work up until now, to the extent that Farrell too is at pains to suggest that the artist’s work is moving towards more evocative articulations — away from being specifically South African. “I’m constantly being pinned down and categorised,” says Searle, underscoring the point. “It’s difficult when you start a public profile with a body of work such as the Colour Me series because it’s so hard to get beyond being seen as the ‘spice girl’. In my own working process, experiences change and work evolves. It might have been necessary for me to produce that work at that time, but I certainly don’t want to get stuck in dealing narrowly with what is considered to be ‘identity politics’.”
In spite of such disavowals, coupled with the emergence of new readings of her work, Searle’s output remains informed by questions that are themselves deeply grounded in a history of racial difference and inequality. Within a politics of aesthetics that is continually crossed by an aestheticisation of politics, it is a difficult moment for Searle to occupy, and one that is at the heart of her past, present and future self-positionings.
Night Fall, the video that launched this trio of exhibitions, is a case in point. It is set on a wine farm on what appears to be an endless rise and fall of discarded grape husks. Dressed in a white frock that becomes stained by red grape residue over time, Searle performs various actions of balance and unbalance that respond to the materiality of her surroundings. It is vintage Searle: dressed, marked and struggling with what is all around her. Searle is adamant that, despite the setting’s evocation of “all of the possible socio-economic problems associated with the wine industry in South Africa,” she doesn’t want the work singularly experienced in terms of its setting or surface. And yet the charged history of winemaking in South Africa is unavoidable really. Perhaps this is my struggle with Searle: I’m always recognising the particularities of the local, but I’m not quite ready to be led towards an experience whose meaning is more globally shared.
Conventionally, South African artists are local before they are international in that they usually establish themselves locally before they then get taken up internationally. There are even artists who are celebrated locally and regionally but who never make it internationally. And by international, we are talking about places of distinction and quality, not, as Clive Kellner puts it, “obscure little villas in Europe”. The international move is often as a country- or continent-specific artist, a predicament and hindrance that especially plagues South African artists who run the risk of being ghettoised into this position.
Searle’s participation in the 2001 Venice Biennale is a good example of this second phase. She participated in Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa, in part because of her geographical origins. The third phase is one in which artists assume post-national positions, where they are no longer always South African artists, but rather just quality artists, as exemplified by Kendell Geers, William Kentridge and now Candice Breitz. In the case of Searle, her operation in this phase is typified by her participation in both Always a Little Further, curated by Rosa Martínez for the 2005 Venice Biennale, and Global Feminisms (2007), co-curated by Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly for the Brooklyn Museum.
Remarkably, CAM’s commissioning of Alibama is the second such commission by a US institution. A Matter of Time, commissioned by the Matrix Programme at the Berkeley Art Museum, was Searle’s debut in the US in 2003. It is also her fourth international commission: Snow White was commissioned for Authentic/Ex-centric, and Home and Away (2003) by NMAC Montenmedio Arte Contemporaneo in Vejer, Spain. In addition to being a testament to the quality of the artist’s work, this clutch of commissions is also evidence of the specific role that exhibitions can play in pollinating the new productions of artists.
These three phases of local and international careerism are certainly not linear or hierarchical — artists move between the phases. Neither are they necessarily pre-requisites for each other, which brings me to that anomaly that is Searle. She is amply represented in the second and third phases, but thin on the local ground. It has lead to an often-repeated perception that Searle is more international than local.
It is a received idea that irritates Searle: “People are far too preoccupied by the debate around an artist’s local and international profiles. What are we trying to gauge in this process? Yes, it is true that I have exhibited more extensively outside of South Africa than I have inside the country. Does that mean that I have an international rather than a local reputation? The answer is probably ‘not really’.”
While Searle might not have a North American or European gallerist, the take up of her work overwhelmingly resides outside of South Africa, something that Searle herself acknowledges in reflections on receiving the Standard Bank Award.
“The Award was a great opportunity to present my work to local audiences who had no idea about me,” she comments. “I remember the question at the time was, well, who is Berni Searle?” This in response to an artist who had already been selected for biennales in Johannesburg (1997), Cairo (1998), Dakar (2000), Venice (2001) and Liverpool (2002).The importance of this question about local and international visibilities resides in another set of questions. Does Searle’s local absence have something to do with the way we have until now thought about identity politics in South Africa, and/or the ways in which Searle has sought to engage the local complexities of this identity politics? Does the international art market demand something more, less or just different from the local market for art whose origins are embedded in the fabric of society itself? These might sound like provincial questions, and I’m all too aware that provincialism has traditionally remained unwanted for the narrowness of its view, cast off in favour of cosmopolitan accumulations of a more curious everyday life. But I am emboldened by a recent public debate organised by the New Museum in New York, entitled Location, Location, Location! Is Provincial a Bad Word?, and billed as “a frank conversation about the rise of regional culture in the wake of globalisation”.I am also emboldened by the very approach to the exhibition of Searle’s work in Cape Town, Tampa and Johannesburg. It is clear in my mind that Michael Stevenson has established himself as the premier local gallerist, not only for his refreshing showing of emerging and established artists, but also for his attention to the details of what happens on either side of a specific exhibition. But his future positioning, as a physically located gallerist, seems more awkward. The Goodman Gallery is open for business in Cape Town. Bell-Roberts and Gallery MOMO recently held a joint Christmas exhibition. With all the local geographies being covered, and the prospect of consolidations in sight, surely the next significant move by a commercial gallery is international?
It is also clear from Kellner’s articulation of a bigger picture that the health of the South African art environment lies hidden in a matrix bounded by the local and the international. When I stand back and look at all of these arrangements and positions, one of the missing elements is the international South African curator. One of the possible reasons for the lack of direction and resolution of the relationship between identity, localism and internationalism — for ourselves, living in South Africa — is the relative absence of South African curators working meaningfully in international settings. Tumelo Mosaka at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and Gavin Jantjes at the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo are two of the few South African curators who are operating internationally, but neither has positioned South African art and artists as emphatically as Okwui Enwezor, whose positions have mediated a shift in attitudes toward art from the South.
Such the problem then, of showing here and showing there. And one that a tightly focussed series of exhibitions focussing on the practice a single South African artist — Berni Searle — is deeply enmeshed.

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