WRECKERS OF CIVILISATION
HOW MUCH FURTHER CAN AVANT CAR GUARD PUSH THEIR TICKET? AND FOR HOW MUCH LONGER CAN THIS BE INTERESTING? BOTH KEY QUESTIONS, ANSWERED IN PART BY ANDREW LAMPRECHT.
Taking the South African art world as their primary theme, Jan-Henri Booyens, Michael MacGarry and Zander Blom, each respected and successful artists in their own right, have achieved success – and even notoriety – for their critical, insightful, humorous and even scurrilous take on their subjects as the artist collective Avant Car Guard.
With three publications and related exhibitions under their belt, and much local and international representation beside, they have attracted considerable media attention as well as gossip and discussion amongst the art cognoscenti. Their early work saw them poking gentle fun at the structures and history of South African art with works such as Avant Car Guard at J.H. Pierneef’s Grave (2006) and Avant Car Guard Interview Bernie Seal (2007), but this soon took a more direct and confrontational stance.
It should be noted that even their earlier work was seen to be in poor taste by some, and one could argue that the increasing provocation that drives their work took its cue from this initial reaction. With Avant Car Guard Bury J.H.P. “Kendell” Geers, 1967-1998 (2007), which shows ACG literally having buried an artist widely cited as having founded the very South African ‘avant-garde’ they are critiquing, they upped the game somewhat: here was a direct attack on a living and highly respected figure in the establishment, albeit one who was in his time, as they are now, characterised as being an enfant terrible. Besides the predicable reading of this being a symbolic fratricide, the work was seen by some as the height of bad taste, by others as a witty debunking (complete with a clever linkage of Geers’ given names – Jacobus Hermanus Pieter – with J.H. Pierneef, and the use of his actual rather than his adopted birth date, 1967). The photograph Protected by Theory (2008) shows the three members of the collective in costumes made up of text reminiscent of Hugo Ball’s 1916 Dada performance; the work mocks the paper protection that so many artists construct around their otherwise slipshod work. Ironically ACG has a formidable theorist on their side in the form of MacGarry who has issued some of the most outspoken and engaging theoretical debate locally in recent years, in his interviews and discussions.
Their blatant satirising of the local art scene reached even greater heights in March with their exhibition Volume III, hosted by Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town. Here we see a naked Liza Essers (of the Goodman Gallery), an adjacent text inscription reading: “Sometimes, when we fuck our girlfriend, we pretend we are really fucking Liza.” Among the many other digs at wellknown art personalities, there was a portrait of a demonic Roger Ballen with dolphins issuing from his head and a Frankenstein-like William Kentridge, complete with Mona Lisa background.
While there have been reports that one or two of ACG’s subjects have been less than impressed with their satire, many others have taken delight (malicious or otherwise) in their lampooning, one deep insider even having purchased Invoice (2008), a large-scale canvas showing an itemised invoice made out to “The South African Art World” to the sum of R32,749,995.00.
Perhaps what is most significant in their work is what ACG neglect to critique: rampant institutionalised racism, sexism and exclusion. Or could one be generous and say that in their adopting seemingly racist and sexist stances they are critiquing these very issues? It seems a bit of an easy one out for the trio but perhaps there is something in this.
What will ACG do next? In a presentation at the Joburg Art Fair they indicated that they plan to move into the area of sculpture and ceramics. That answers the question about materials, but what of content? How much further can they push their ticket? And for how much longer can this be interesting? The South African art world, insular as it is, seems to find itself endlessly interesting and perhaps here in lies the answer. To quote a line from a recent graphic, “We promise to stop, if you promise to stop”. Clearly, and by virtue that you have got to this bit of this text, don’t expect Avant Car Guard to stop any time soon.
Andrew Lamprecht is a curator and lecturer in Theory and Practice of Art at Michaelis School of Fine Art.
About Avant Car Guard: Founded in 2005 by artists Zander Blom, Jan-Henri Booyens and Michael MacGarry after they were evicted from Dirt Contemporary, Cape Town, ahead of the scheduled opening of their solo exhibition, Avant Car Guard is an artist collective based in Johannesburg. Since their debut solo exhibition at Bell-Roberts, Cape Town (2006), they have shown at David Krut Projects, Johannesburg (2007), Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town (2007), Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town (2007/8/9) and Kuckei + Kuckei, Berlin (2008).
AN UNSAID THING THAT JUST HANGS
DINEO BOPAPE IS ONE OF 50 ARTISTS, AND THE ONLY SOUTH AFRICAN, TO BE INCLUDED IN THE NEW MUSEUM’S GLOBAL SURVEY OF EMERGING ARTISTS, DROLLY TITLED YOUNGER THAN JESUS. BY GIDEON UNKELESS.
The first time I saw Dineo Bopape, she had on underwear and a burly stick-on moustache. The self-portrait photograph, which hung on a bathroom door, was a gift to a friend whose place I was flatsitting last summer in the Woodstock, Cape Town. Playful, but slightly menacing, the picture distilled cleverly the often dull discourses on race, gender and power politics into a tempting, “So, what?” I recalled this picture when I recently met Bopape in New York at her studio in Harlem. Bopape is studying for her MFA at Columbia University.
She is one of 50 artists, and the only South African, to be included in the bombastically titled Younger Than Jesus, the first edition of The Generational, an international survey of artists under 33 years of age at the New Museum, New York. After graduating from the Durban Institute of Technology in 2004, Bopape briefly contemplated a career as either a magician or fashion designer, but finally decided to make art. Five years on, a number solo exhibitions to her credit, also a prestigious art award, the 27-year-old, a former resident at Amsterdam’s de Atliers and Thami Mnyele Studios, is well poised to contribute to the New Museum’s inaugural triennial.
Her installation – a small sheetrock room with a video projection inside – is titled Ukuthewebula, Zulu for photograph. “But it is also the word for when a sangoma turns someone into a zombie,” explains Bopape. “I found that very interesting, the relationship between the ghostly presence of a photograph, and turning somebody into an absent being, into an unsaid thing that is just hanging.”
The room is painted black and is decorated with potted plants brushed with glitter and mini disco-balls. On the far wall, a video titled Dreamweaver (shown at Michael Stevenson in 2008) reflects onto silvery wallpaper adjacent causing images to distort and diffuse like an oil slick. On the screen Bopape wears a beard and moustache and a white leotard, which expands into billowy leggings made from plastic bags stuffed with paper. Carrying an umbrella in one hand, and a light bulb
– like a ball of flaming magnesium – in the other, she alternately obscures and illuminates herself and the surroundings.
To reinforce this anti-clarity feeling, the video is edited so that her individually graceful movements become erratic in combination. “There’s the idea of a story that’s not being told, it’s promising to be told, but it doesn’t reach a resolution,” offers Bopape.
“I think what we liked about the piece was its ritualistic aspect,” says Massimiliano Gioni, senior curator and director of special exhibitions at the New Museum. “At first sight it looks like some kind of strange ceremony… Obviously when you pay closer attention to it, it turns out the piece is much more irreverent than a traditional performance piece.”
The cut-up video and soundtrack inside a space containing fronds, birdsong and darkness works. Something happens – to storytelling, gender and geography – that enchants.
Back at the studio, sitting on cushions on the floor, Bopape was keen to show me pictures of a previous exhibit in Amsterdam, “It’s a celebration bitches!!!” (It sure looked like one.) In residence at Thami Mnyele, Bopape opened her studio and invited Bacardi to serve drinks. While people explored Bopape’s watercolour musings on femininity, heartache and the performative aspect of romance, Bopape arranged for two actors to casually perform a dialogue taken from one of her “gchats” (a proprietary voice chat software) with a former girlfriend. “Restaging the relationship, repeating it, [I was] trying to find a way to frame an event,” Bopape says of her plucky decision to rehash and broadcast the personal episode.
Thinking again about the picture on the bathroom wall in Woodstock, I also remembered the things that littered the streets: faded pink baby clothes, chips of glass from broken Amstel bottles, thin braided ropes of hair extensions. These loose fragments, sloughed off during the course of everyday activities, constituted a cultural map worth exploring and understanding. Given the intentions of the New Museum’s exhibit, to show how this generation’s artists are transgressing boundaries in the hopes of establishing “alternative communities,” Bopape’s construction of a more possible space is a technique that seems particularly appropriate. This is a big part of what makes Bopape’s art relevant and cunning. By creating a space that repositions common materials against original and inquisitive moving images, she tempts us, with verve, to look again.
Gideon Unkeless is is a New York based writer and a former Fulbright Scholar to South Africa.
About Dineo Seshee Bopape: After graduating with a B-Tech from the Durban Institute of Technology (2004), Bopape (born in Polokwane, 1981) completed a postgraduate stint at De Ateliers in Amsterdam; she is currently completing a MFA at Columbia University, New York. Winner of the 2008 MTN New Contemporaries Award, she has presented solo shows at the KZNSA Gallery, Durban, in 2005 and 2008, and at Marthouse Gallery, Amsterdam, in 2007. Recent group exhibitions include In Transition: Russia 2008, National Centre of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2008); .za: giovane arte dal Sudafrica, Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena (2008); Disguise, Michael Stevenson, Cape Town (2008); Cape 07, Cape Town (2007); and In the making: materials and process, Michael Stevenson, Cape Town (2005). See http://seshee.blogspot.com.
READING THINGS THE RIGHT WAY
MICHAEL TAYLOR’S PROLIFIC CREATIVE OUTPUT, WHICH SPANS A VARIETY OF MEDIA, IS CHARACTERISED BY THE ASSURED HAND OF A SKILLED DRAUGHTSMAN. BY MILIA LORRAINE KHOURY.
Zerkall Bütten 250gsm paper, 53,5 x 38 cm; Michael Taylor, Great Dane #2, 2008, monotype on Somerset Textured Soft White 300gsm paper, 75 x 56,7cm. Courtesy artist
and Warren Editions.
Michael Taylor is often referred to as an artist-illustrator, a description that ignores the fact that he has created and exhibited artworks in various media, including painting, drawing and printmaking. Asked recently which of these disciplines he feels the most competent in, he plainly states: “I am someone who draws, I am a draughtsperson… I trust drawing.” It is the immediacy of the hand-drawn mark on paper that comes the most naturally. Taylor is by no means a newcomer to the Cape art scene, having participated in numerous group exhibitions since graduating in 2001 with a Bachelors degree in fine arts from Stellenbosch University. (His specialisation was applied graphics.) Taylor subsequently completed his Masters degree at the same institution, under the tutelage of artist Keith Dietrich. Recent exposure at the Joburg Art Fair – he was represented by João Ferreira Gallery – has helped introduce Taylor’s work to a wider audience, with an outing at the Amsterdam Art Fair in May this year introducing his work even further afield. (Cape Town audiences can look forward to a solo exhibition at Worldart Gallery in July.)
During his formative postgraduate years at Stellenbosch University, Taylor started developing a distinctive visual language from which his illustration work emerged. His first adult picture book was entitled The Book of Natural Disasters, a collection of visual narratives not based entirely on characters but rather different scenarios or events from which characters would surface. Taylor enjoyed the medium of the picture book, as he liked the association picture books have as being for children, although his aim was to provide a mature slant. From this work grew Taylor’s highly acclaimed The Book of Immediate Nonsense, which he launched electronically as a series of E-zines in 2005. Recurring characters in this electronic flipbook are The Ice Queen, The Phoenix (a character with anthropomorphic qualities) and The Golfer. Taylor describes The Book of Immediate Nonsense as containing neither a fully developed story nor fully developed characters: “it does not really follow narrative codes, it is up to you [the reader] to tell the story”. Eschewing a traditional narrative structure, the book allows for an element of randomness, which in turn may be read as nonsense by the reader. Taylor refers to the scenario of the reader/viewer constructing the narrative as being “counter-semiotics”.
A shift in authorship and control occurs from the author/artist to the reader/viewer, with the latter ultimately constructing the meaning of the work. For his Masters exhibition, Title Sequence (2006), Taylor created a series of miniature paintings entitled The Gift, from which one of his repetitive motifs appeared, a solid graphic form that pervades his canvasses. This solid monolithic form suggests a modernist graphic art aesthetic, particularly in its sense of colour and form, which recalled artist and colour theorist Wassily Kandinsky. In Taylor’s recent large-scale charcoal drawing Somewhere’s Haven (2008), exhibited earlier this year at UCA Gallery, Cape Town, this solid monolithic form re-emerges as a foreboding presence. Taylor describes his use of this monolithic shape as a playful means to investigate pure form.
In 2008, Taylor made his first foray into printmaking, participating in a residency at Warren Editions printmaking studio, Cape Town. This experience offered new insights for the artist: “Printing taught me a lot about my own process, as I work intuitively; with The Immediate Book of Nonsense much happened in one sitting. With printmaking, you have to think a little… about the process, because there
is a second process attached to it, which is like a subtext, as the technical side dictates what will happen to the image… Additionally, the process becomes collaborative as a result of the printmaker.” Possibly the best way to summarise Taylor’s prolific creative output to date is by likening it to his personality; his work is unassuming and immersed in the craft of making. For Taylor, it is all about the mastering of his craft, whether it is a piece of charcoal or a paintbrush.
Milia Lorraine Khoury is a lecturer in research, history and theory of art and design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
About Michael Taylor: “I think my work deals with the burden of reading things the right way,” reads a statement in Taylor’s CV, which also tells that he was born in Bloemfontein (1979). A graduate of Stellenbosch University, he has held two solo exhibitions, both at Whatiftheworld Gallery, Who Framed Michael Taylor? (2006) and Nocturnes (2007), an exhibition of small-scale paintings telling nocturnal stories. Taylor won 9th International Competition of Illustration, held in Venice, Italy, in 2003. Currently a lecturer at the Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography, his electronic flipbook, The Book of Immediate Nonsense, can be viewed at www.michaeltaylor.co.za.
BORN TO LOSE? NEVER!
HIS PARENTS CHRISTENED HIM CHAD ROSSOUW BUT THE ART WORLD WILL MORE LIKELY KNOW HIM AS ROBERT SLOON, ARTIST AND FOUNDER OF THE ONLINE BLOG ART HEAT. BY SEAN O’TOOLE.
Not long after the blog Art Heat emitted its first loud burp in early 2006, artist and serial blogger Nathaniel Stern posted this summary: “A seemingly ‘in-crowd’, jokey, gossipy, opinion and irony-based blog (with a few short, but well-thought out reviews in between – welcome to blog country), Art Heat is the new Cape Town-based group, online-publishing project for fine (and sometimes only relatively fine) art.” Perhaps it was the blog’s in-crowd quota, or my sense that Art Heat was a halfway house for Michaelis graduates with postpartum depression, whatever the reason, I rarely found myself reading it.
For a long time I also thought the blog’s editor, Robert Sloon, was Ed Young, or possibly Dan Halter, certainly someone from Michaelis. One day an informer whispered in my ear that Sloon was actually Chad Rossouw, the younger brother of writer Henk Rossouw, incidentally a good friend. I found myself curious, but still fundamentally unconvinced, for two reasons. The first was empirical.
Blogs are candid and immediate, something that defines both their strength and weakness. Hastily written words rarely echo after the fact, most blogs reading like a compendium of cheeky banalities. More purposefully, I don’t believe the sort of blogging appearing on Art Heat has done much to bolster an already fragile critical culture locally – notwithstanding Malcolm Payne’s statement to the contrary during a Michaelis Lunchtime Lecture.
In his foreword to The War Against Cliché (2001), Martin Amis writes, “Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power.” His insight echoes something Kenneth Clark wrote two decades earlier in his essay ‘Art History and Criticism as Literature’ (1981): “The dyspeptic critic, though he may score some small successes, is not of lasting value.” Of course, I am focussing overmuch on the anonymous jibes and not, as Stern pointed out, on the concise reviews that have been a hallmark of Art Heat’s lifespan, most of them written by Sloon. Dipping into these from time to time, I found myself slowly, tentatively, warming to this strange online avatar for Rossouw, a well-known barman on the Long Street strip.
Fast-forward to 2009, Melissa’s on Kloof Street. With the city’s property boom definitively over, this favoured hangout of estate agents was quiet, making palpable the awkwardness in my profile subject. I hadn’t anticipated this, that the fine art graduate behind those urbane putdowns would be more than a little gauche in person. We kick-off at Sloon’s blog, which introduces itself with the legend “Ars Rumor Veritas”.
“It started off as a collaborative idea, and I am moving it that way now again, to get more people involved, but it was hard to take serious at the beginning. After two years of hard work people saw it in a different light and are much more willing to put in their time, especially if it is not remunerated.”
I ask how the name Robert Sloon came about.
“It is an anagram, well almost an anagram, of “Born to Lose” (there is an extra “e” in Robert). It was an alter ego I developed as an undergraduate. I was dealing a lot with work about masculine identity and Thanatos, a sort of death drive.”
The blond, bespectacled critic shows me a tattoo of the epithet, popularised by countless songs, on his forearm. Clearly the name Robert Sloon is more than simply a pseudonym.
“Because this art scene is so small, it has become a mixture between online and real life avatar.”
I ask how he negotiates his dual personas, of being Chad and Robert at once? The question is met with an immediate response: “Chad works in a bar.” That’s it.
This strategy of containment has seen Sloon (not Rossouw) present two solo shows, both in 2006. After a two-year hiatus, during which time he almost exclusively worked on his blog, late last year Sloon staged a private performance, ritualistically drinking the amount of alcohol author Ian Fleming credited James Bond as taking in. It ended messily for the artist.
“The only people who are doing ironic performances of some kind are Avant Car Guard, but I’m trying to not go into that level of irony or self-reflexivity,” says Rossouw. “I have broader concerns than my own place in the art world, I think, I hope.” He laughs. “A lot of my stuff plays with photography as well, the real and truthful. I have been obsessed with the fiction of photography and how that fiction is perpetuated on the internet.” Pre-empting the inevitable backlash his appearance here will have amongst his peer group, I ask Rossouw how he responds to accusations that he is selling out as he sheds his reputation as a perpetual dilettante.
“I have never understood what that term means. What am I selling out from or too? I have always thought that my motives are pretty clear. I am trying to get myself noticed in the art world and make a community of interested people.”
Sean O’Toole is the editor of Art South Africa.
About Chad Rossouw: Born in Cape Town (1982), Sloon studied fine art at Michaelis School of Fine Art. He founded the blog Art Heat in early 2006, while on an extended holiday in Canada. He has had two solo shows in 2006, both one-night only events: Sightings of Robert Sloon, at Johannesburg’s now defunct Parking Gallery, and Born to Lose at Blank Projects in Cape Town. He collaborated with artist Ruth Sacks on the book I’ll stop believing in you if you stop believing in me (2006) and participated in the group exhibition Big Wednesday (2008), at Whatiftheworld Gallery. He is due to host a new solo exhibition at the same venue in July.