The world is upside down. American sporting heroes are transforming into the new IT girls. Burgers have become gourmet dishes. And, of course, fashion and design objects are being sold as if they are art (think Guild) while art is looking more and more like products of design. The formal-pop-abstraction turn (or should I say trend?) in contemporary art, the popularity of the art fair as the main public site where art is consumed and displayed, and the consumption of imagery/art via Instagram and other social media platforms has increasingly rendered art a slightly gimmicky, trend driven, visual-game where spectacle and novelty are prized above all else. Welcome to “like” culture.
Predictably, there are those in the art world who are finding it difficult to come to terms with the manner in which art is collapsing into design. Particularly artists themselves, who often arrogantly assume they are making “art” when no cares what it 'means' (I don't give two fucks about your back story) and look down on designers. Artists and academics have long sought to collapse the boundaries between high and low art – theoretically that is. It sounded so much more risqué and exciting on paper than the reality of it, particularly when that reality threatens the status that artists have enjoyed for so long, as this noble and honoured class of people who exist in a non-commercial, theoretical and philosophical stratosphere detached from the everyday. This has allowed artists to be lauded as these veritable seers able to see into our society and expose its mechanics because of their supposed position of detachment. This may have all been an illusion, but what happens when that illusion is really threatened and when furniture makers become more anarchic than artists and artists are just reproducing designs? If you have attended a design fair of late you will know what I mean - there is space for invention there that I'm not feeling in art right now. I'm increasingly becoming as interested in what Gregor Jenkin will do to a table as I am with what manner of blob Zander Blom will arrive at next.
This isn’t a new dilemma exactly. Andy Warhol and pop artists of the sixties provoked it, when they set out to reproduce the world of design, though admittedly, there was an element of subversion in their rendering, often of scale – so that the thing they reproduced, be it a comic strip or eraser, was clearly in a different class of object. Warhol took it further, rather than simply mimicking the object, he adopted other elements of design in the production of his art, by setting up the Factory, where other people made and reproduced his art.
We find ourselves in quite different times now; where design is rare and one-offish and art is reproducible. This is because art has become trade and design has become art. We have entered a post-industrialisation era, so not surprisingly the reproduction of design is tinged with a certain sense of nostalgia, rather than critique or irony. Should this artisanal movement permeate into every nook and cranny of our lives, the “made in china” label will become a quirky collectable item/phenomenon from another era. We are still far off from this reality, particularly given how the cost of living in SA has put the brakes on ‘ethical’ consumerism and a different kind of fetishisation of everyday products, like bread, which has rather oddly become one of the mascots of this new ethos of ‘conscious mindful’ living. I rather think that in this design-driven world, where everyday objects have been imbued with more meaning than art objects, that art is trying to 'revive' itself via design.
This is an interesting condition to consider in relation to three exhibitions that have been on in Joburg that are superficially united by the fact that they are grounded in their maker’s fixation with the surface qualities of designs. Not always consciously or overtly mind you. The strong political thrust to Mary Wafer’s 9th Floor exhibition, which references Chris van Wyk’s poem about the deaths at the notorious Joburg police station, John Voster Square, stakes out a claim for this work beyond design, though in fact it is completely centred on it.
The design of the building, or any building, conceals the acts and dark history that is tied to it but also in so doing also reveals this too us – by obscuring the activities inside. Wafer keeps returning to one specific view of this building; the side of it embellished with external ‘blinds’. They are not flexible ones such as those found inside domestic settings. It is a permanent state of concealment. Her monochromatic palette allows her to emphasize the juxtaposition between dark and light, that which exists and that which is erased - or are the dark horizontals, which appear like those blocks that would cover censored information in newspapers during the apartheid era, markers of concealment?
Wafer could have made graphic renderings of the cells, the staircases on which political prisoners were pushed – the spaces haunted by the abuse that took place during the apartheid era and even now – there is enough evidence in the public domain to substantiate the fact that the police in this country continue to abuse their power.
Wafer’s last exhibition, which centred on the Marikana site, dealt with the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon. As with that study, Wafer isn’t interested in getting into the details, penetrating beyond the surface so to speak, but remaining aloof, observing from a remove. Her gaze is fixed on the surface of the building and its design, which is both mundane but also menacing, because of the history of the site and the blinds, which are the most obvious motif of concealment. This form of fixation is not tinged by nostalgia though it is rooted in the mythological narratives tied to the edifice. The building is like a live museum in the sense that the patterns of behaviour from its dark history are possibly being re-performed inside. Always hidden, though the stories (always) emerge later, becoming familiar refrains affirming the fact that the past is still with us. The building is the receptacle, but with its blinds appears like a co-conspirator in its history and corrupt conditions in the present. It’s a twisted memorial, which keeps the memories of the past alive, but in so doing has set a pattern, behavioural and spatial, for abuse to continue. In this way the design pattern - becomes an expression of a systemic condition.
Wafer fetishizes the exterior of the building. She comes at it from all variety of angles that make it appear pleasing and intriguing, so we can study it, consider its history without really confronting anything. Is this what design is; a loaded gun with a daisy sprouting from its barrel (like that 70s anti-war motif)?
This is what the fixation with the surface allows. We are not looking away, but we are not looking inside either. It’s a comfortable position where we can hold the past and present simultaneously, because there is a sense that we are looking at both quite intensely. Studying the surface, speaks of immersion in the moment, of being “present”, while at the same time, if this exterior is old, has a history it could also signify immersion in another time and place.
This is the sensation that pervaded Ian Grose’s paintings, which recently showed at The Stevenson Joburg in an exhibition aptly dubbed Refrain. As with Wafer, Grose’s visual territory of interest is narrowed down to a pattern, on a piece of fabric. His painterly gaze never extends beyond the pattern to reveal a context and on the occasion when the edge of the fabric is revealed, a shape of an absent body is suggested and little else. Grose doesn’t extend his gaze beyond the fabric, the pattern, possibly because what exists outside is probably more ambiguous than can be contained within the pictorial frame. As with Wafer this fixation on a design, a pattern suggests a form of intense scrutiny that doesn’t deliver on the substance that it hints at or promises.
In a way these designs that are read in isolation are detached from the everyday and operate as these visual plains which can lead the viewer into any psychic territory they so desire, or lead absolutely nowhere at all as they become enraptured by the emptiness that the design allows, the escape it presents from the everyday, which ultimately may be what design offers us. Think about it: the fashion object, the furniture object that is functional and fits into our everyday worlds but also allows us to believe we can transcend it. A retro toaster that turns burning bread into an act of beauty, transcendence, connecting us with the past and the now (because it is a version of history filtered through a contemporary lens). If I don’t look beyond the toaster, that is. I have to immerse myself in that toaster’s surface qualities, maybe never beyond in order to enjoy it and the escape it presents.
Is Grose prolonging the escape, albeit in a different context? Is his art, or Wafer’s just a form of tribute to design, rather than a critique? Or is the idea that the viewer should through these repetitive visual plains (both Wafer and Grose present the same image from different angles or patterns) arrive somewhere more contemplative and ‘real’? Or maybe not arrive anywhere – arriving is so banal and conditional?
Permanent Culture at 1800 metres, Stephen Hobbs’s new show that opened recently at David Krut, is also centred on patterns, reproducing them and as such keeping the gaze fixed on the surface. In this instance Hobbs draws attention to the superficiality of ‘the surface’ the false edges, silhouettes of buildings, trees, mountains, which are penetrated by manmade designs where the surface qualities have been distilled, stylised into patterns, allowing a weapon, a soldier, artillery, (a ship in his dazzle works) to go unseen.
In this way he returns us to the origin of some familiar designs (like the nostalgia I speak of earlier) to the World Wars and other battles when design was driven by survivalist purposes; it wasn’t propelled by consumerist excess and the pursuit of the latest trend. But it is malevolent design – like Wafer’s building in some ways – that conceals its true intentions or activities for deadly ends. It is about trickery, misdirection and mimicry.
In other words, he is interested in designs that are intended to go unnoticed, to become so everyday they blend in with the setting. However, Hobbs faces the trap the other artists do too; being seduced by the surface and never really being able to penetrate it, while being caught up in mimicking the thing that they intend to “reveal” or not reveal - what lies behind is not visual in any case. In this way, their work exists as de facto a 'design' that is abstracted, and simply relayed through mediums we associate with art – painting, the canvas – or in settings – such as galleries – where we view products as art. In Hobbs's and Wafer's case these are not strictly figurative representations of designs, but patterns, which can only exist if they are attached to surfaces - they exist for the surface.
Granted it was not Hobbs’s best show; he wasn’t driving a clear line throughout and his reproduction of the camouflage print, was simply that in some instances; a reproduction, even if it is on a model of a building – which is an unexpected ‘canvas’ for it. However, there were some very successful works on the show that present something else in this design-art discourse – such as a model-cum-pop-up-drawing which is an abstraction of architectural drawing, books, narratives and mapping of buildings. It is in this work where he enacts a sort of design-mashup and arrives at a language that is his, even if it resides within this uber popular graphic vibe that defines design - I can see interior mags "loving it".
Similarly, his quasi architectural drawing works, present the same aesthetic; except they could be drawings for an interior, an exterior, a building, or even a print for a carpet. It is another design mashup. There is no critique per se, nor need there be exactly; Hobbs has always been torn between the poetics of utopian and dystopian conditions; he usually re-performs the former in an attempt to reveal the latter. I don’t think this is what consciously informed this work – this is my own projection that I hope he will pursue, for this interrelationship between design and art needs to be acknowledged and harnessed by artists in more meaningful ways. This may begin with artists confronting that they are designers making art. Just as designers need to acknowledge that they are artists making design.