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Into the Depths of Shallowness: FNB Joburg Art Fair 2015 report

If you found the mass of art at the FNB Joburg Art Fair difficult to navigate Artsy (the online art trading portal) found a way to break it down into the following easily consumable themes: Narrative, Photo portraiture, Figurative, Engaged with traditional African art, Pattern, and my all time favourite category: Scenes of Everyday Life aka Africa’s shitty-shanty life. I think I may have made a few additions; Triangle Art (the cult of the hipster triangle has found a place in contemporary art wouldn’t you know) and er, abstract art or is that what they term “pattern”, which makes it sound helluva like design objects rather than art – abstraction has a much weightier history than “pattern” art – not sure I have even heard of ‘pattern’ art until now. What of a category you could call naïve figurative art that is too-cool-for-school expressive painting? And what about Fabric art – where the canvas is fabric… thinking here of Turiya Magadlela’s stocking canvases, Hank Willis Thomas’s vintage prison uniforms and Igshaan Adams’s textile interplay. Norman Catherine was making a case for his own category you could call: “tapscicle” or where plumbing and sexual organs intersect – it’s an oldy, but clearly a goody – who didn’t photograph his large shiny taps with low hanging balls? Um, no one, even if we all deleted them when we got home.

Perhaps Artsy are doing what critics, art historians and theorists have done for years; categorise the shit out of art. It is just a much more brutal mode, unsupported by any form of analysis and further entrenches the hyper-commodification of it, even beyond the art fair. Who thought it could get worse? Will artists eventually create art to fit these obtuse categories? Or worse, will there be room for artists to create ‘art, art,’ and can ‘art, art’ even be made anymore and would anyone care? Sigh.

Art fairs always bring-on these dreadful art-existential questions yet the organisers don’t as per art world convention provide free wine to dull the blows they deal. Artlogic could learn a thing or two from Fashion Week organisers; don’t ever send the press into a show without some cheap fizz. Artlogic don’t know how to treat the press (they need to read that manual I call: A friend in the press is better than an enemy in the press) but that is material for another story that is far too boring to tell.

I suppose the works that ultimately turn me on at an art fair are the ones that don’t fit any neat categories; not only Artsy’s, which is probably pretty easy to do, but those other fashionable ones. I love those quirky pieces that stand out from the morass and make me smile (inside). Like Barend De Wet’s DIY flat-box sculptures at the Smac Gallery stand or Johann Van de Schiff’s wooden security cameras which were discreetly placed in a corner of Art on Paper’s stand. MJ Turpin’s “We are All Slaves” from his “you’re so fukkin material” series, a sculpture consisting of kitsch symbols (including a neon triangle) held together with a chain was in such poor taste I could not help but love it. It begged not to be bought.

If you were wondering about the accuracy of Artsy’s summation of the Joburg Art Fair the Everyday Life category features Cyrus Kabiru’s bicycles – you know, like the ones you ride around on ‘everyday’. Bless, maybe the Artsy team didn’t read the catalogue where it was clearly stated Kabiru was “an Afrofuturist”, though perhaps the bicycles are probably more everyday than his Afrofuturist glasses. This was slightly disappointing as were most of works on the solo project stands at the fair. What a pity; it was the one feature of the fair I was looking forward to the most.

This was supposed to present a platform for each artist to really make a statement, solidify the characteristics of their practice and invite the public into their artistic realms. It was a great selection of artists, mostly mid-career who should be celebrated figures. This was their moment to shine and blow us away.

Except that didn’t happen. The scale of some of the installations needed to be bigger to create impact – Moffat Takadiwa sprawling El Anatsui type-work should have been larger in scale, as should have Stephen Hobbs’s model of a boat. I suspect the artists were not given big enough budgets (Hobbs’s definitely did not have the space – did Krut skimp on space?). We keep hoping artists will pull it out the bag on a shoe-string and, unfortunately, they agree to do it. It so rarely happens.

Maybe the burden of guilt lies with the artists; they are not accustomed to creating big, bold art fair work – it’s all about visual spectacle and high impact in this environment. It is hard to make an installation for an art fair… Jared Ginsberg’s music themed installation was in his usual quirky vein – the automated conductor batons twitching back and forth in front of the music stand that had been sort of ‘suffocated’ . It was charming, yet somehow it felt out of place at the fair. Perhaps because his work feels pure, like it exists outside of a commercial environment; its so fragile, so ‘unslick’ and makeshift, which is why it always appeals to me. It is kind of too special for an art fair.

Michael McGarry’s stand produced quizzical looks from insiders; the sculptures felt old – barring one large metal one, which had been battered by gun fire … and the new hanging works were odd, visually unresolved – they recalled disused felt boards with old images stuck to them you would expect to find at the back of someone’s garage – being full of politically incorrect ephemera. They were too contrived and staged; I just couldn’t buy into them. There is something there, but don’t think he knows yet where to go with it. I have every confidence he will find his way with the material but the art fair probably wasn’t the best place to show these first new works. Nepotism can sometimes backfire.

This is the first year of the dedicated solo stands, so perhaps next time around, the end results might be more rewarding as the organisers, gallerists and artists themselves come to terms with the ‘space’ and how to exploit it fully. This is the thing about the art fair, the setting almost always impacts on the art, not just its physical framing but its reception and expectations – it is not like viewing art in other settings. With so much for visitors to take in, visual impact, scale and novelty are the qualities that work best. Yes, it is lowest common denominator stuff on one level, but it also demands a different kind of ingenuity.

I keep saying it; Ed Young is the one artist in our midst who possesses this particular skill. His “I see black people” work at Smac Gallery spoke to every single visitor, probably even those who have not seen M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense and might not get the whole visibility/invisibility convo in relation to race. Does Ed Young “seeing” black people have any value, should it? The statement or artwork could be a slogan for a T-shirt and part of me sort of felt I had seen it on a T-shirt before, but a fair needs work that is clever, twisted and sits on the edge of being uncomfortable but is simple too.

Artists can poo-poo this kind of work but these are the qualities that ensures art reaches broader audiences. Candice Breitz’s Her + Him is the best example of this. Wow, what a work, though as I have intimated before I enjoyed Her better than Him. What I absolutely love about Breitz’s videowork is that she never says one thing – she takes us on a journey, revealing layer after layer and while she forces you to confront some of the worst limits of femininity in this piece, she similarly leaves you wondering whether popular culture producers not only recreate these limits but whether the strictures are part of a filmic/narrative illusion that she can’t escape as an artist either.

The insights into the female gender she delivers to us - via this kind of meta-visual cinematic language which she subverts without actually tampering with it (Meryl Streep is still Streep saying the exact same lines as she did) – are derived from a non-reality and they remain locked in this space of entertainment and illusion. She manipulates the viewer too and using strategies that filmmakers do. Does Breitz deliver us at a ‘better’, more authentic place? Yes, Breitz pulls back the curtain to some degree, but I think we are still on the stage – we never penetrate behind the scenes so to speak. I don’t mean literally – Streep having her makeup done. But the conditions she reveals, the statements are still manufactured, rehearsed, stylized etcetera.

I left Her in tears because I had over-identified with Streep and even bought into the fact that I shared “her” dilemma where her existence was tied to and defined by the “man” in the other room – Nicholson, who was merrily playing the banjo or whatever with the sardonic grin of a typical smug fuckboy (there is a term for them now). But wasn’t Breitz only replaying what had been played before? In other words she can’t deliver women from the historical limits of their gender because she works with existing material that prevents her from doing so. In reality I actually don’t suffer the identity crisis that Streep does – I only momentarily bought into that because it has been a truth for women for so long. It is not my truth, thank the lord but Breitz made me feel as if it was – and was able to move me. In other words the ‘truths’ she reveals are, can only be generic, despite being so multidimensional – she takes us in there to a place that feels deep and it is but it is shallow at the same time. The work is too clever. Need I go, on?

It is worth noting that this was really the only work at the fair that paraded this depth of shallowness shall I call it (Another category for Artsy). This is mostly because, the only work that can really do this, summon this kind of impact and deliver on so many fronts, probably is videowork and not just any videowork – the artist needs to exploit film, really understand how it works. Him + Her was also the only performance art work of any interest. The Joburg Pavillion stand, was a huge nothing – pictures on a wall with cute seats. And the live performances at the fair that I saw were nothing more than quirky little interludes. Some made me cringe.

It was a scene of “ordinary life” or was it an “engaged with African art” or even a “figurative” procession that greeted me as I entered the JAF on the opening night. It was the Pa Joe imitation (there were no dead bodies about) funeral procession with the quirky carved animal coffins. It was a jarring scene with undertones of ethnographic practices where Africans supposedly ‘colourful’ traditions are put on show – are western funerals any less of a performance – granted the coffins are less interesting but are often handcrafted and elaborate, but no one would consider putting the whole performance and procession on show at an art fair.

Can we be honest about the performance art pieces – there was no curators’ hand in there? The organisers had no idea what the performances were actually going to be in advance because most of the performers didn’t’ even know themselves. Truth. Not that all performance artists rehearse or need to but, aside from Khan and Pombo’s scripted show (which was so poorly attended on the Friday evening I cried inside), was anything developed – I mean properly conceived of? South African performance artists seem to spend more time planning their outfits than investigating what performance is, how to play with it in an art fair setting. I love a good outfit more than the next person and I am not averse to indulging in this aspect of performance, but it does also take more than a good outfit.

At the same time there were a lot of people at the art fair in good outfits who did not have the arrogance to pretend they were performers and what they were doing was ‘work’. The Joburg Art Fair have done a disservice to performance art – they did not create the context for good work to evolve the performances were makeshift solutions to a last minute non-brief (what was the brief?). They fed us with fast-food performance which created the impression that this form of art has no depth beyond its sartorial manifestations.

I saw a whole lot of empty work that felt like it hailed from the 90s. It is great that the organisers want to contribute to this form and make a place for it at the fair – but they should do so with some level of sensitivity for what they are dealing with and make a real contribution that creates a legacy. I think most of the participating performance artists would like to pretend their works did not happen. Truth.

This brings me to the big elephant in the room. Was the fair curated and by whom? Yes, they have a new curator – Lucy MacGarry, but who actually curates the art at the fair? There is very little transparency around this process, but I am given to believe that a small group of gallerists from the major galleries dictate who should show what. This is according to an international norm, but in our little backwater, this practice is bedeviled with bias and agendas. Certainly, some of the smaller galleries are unhappy with the process. Perhaps this ‘board’ should comprise of different members each year? More transparency around this process would also be good, particularly as the art fair has unfortunately become the biggest art event. As such it has or should be more closely scrutinised – and who gets to show art and what kind of art should be up for some public debate. It seems to me that the government run stand is not subject to any form of vetting – it is always so disappointing and feels like the ugly cousin, who has only been invited because of the other fringe benefits it provides.

In all honesty the art fair does get better every year. Truth. The layout, the stands, the experience and even the art, though I would argue there were no real showstopper pieces and the whole affair felt so sedate, even with Carla Fonesca walking around without her top off holding the tongue of a beast. Artlogic keep trying harder. And yes, I always find the holes in their plans. But someone has to; that’s how the wheel keeps turning.


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