Pandering to the public

Beside the waterfront heli-pad, on a piece of rubble-strewn reclaimed land, Barend de Wet has built a knee-high drystone fort, planted a flag of truce (or occupation), and picked

out the letters h-o-m-e in whitewashed slate.

It’s the kind of irony Europeans are prepared to pay for and it’s as good a place as any to begin a walk around the Cape Town leg of Homeport, a series of arts events in six harbour cities loosely co-ordinated and funded from Rotterdam by the Cell collective to coincide with the Dutch port’s year as European city of culture.

Cell founder Antoinette te Paske has spent the year traveling from Rotterdam to Havana, Mumbai, Jakarta, Shanghai and Cape Town, but her enthusiasm is unflagging: “We work with contemporary artists, but it doesn’t really matter to us if people don’t perfectly understand the work, what matters is that it engages them … the thing about making art in public space is that it’s an experiment, you can see what happens, you can change it.”

It’s a resolutely democratic approach and it makes for a comfortable fit with indefatigable Cape Town arts organisation Public Eye.

It’s not the most interesting work in the collection of site-specific installations dotted around the Waterfront, but De Wet’s piece is an excellent example of what Public Eye does best — making interventions or “tiny punctures” as Murray calls them, in the fabric of the city. Work like this has an immediately accessible charge generated both by its unexpectedness and a conceptual armature that churns close to the surface without demanding a sophisticated response. It’s the kind of public art that engages the public, rather than simply confronting them.

Jean Bundrit’s pinhole camera Untitled Images No.2 is of a similar order. Inside the container she has installed at the far edge of Victoria Basin it is dark, and very hot. After some time pupils closed against the blinding expanse of concrete and sky outside dilate, and an image forms on the walls. Finally the city floats into definition and Table Mountain hovers upside-down in imperfect focus as massed summer clouds push toward the floor.

The work begins by tipping its hat toward Vermeer’s Delft and David Hockney’s forays into optics, but it goes on to ask what it might mean to gaze on this inverted mirage of Cape Town, suspended in the darkness, for a voyeur who no longer needs to look through the keyhole because the keyhole itself projects a world with infinite depth of field. The ideas may not be particularly novel, but if you are looking for a synecdoche for the Homeport project, you could do worse.

If you are simply looking for a comment, however, you may prefer Alan Alborough’s uncharacteristically legible contribution. Nothing to Write Home About is simply a label bearing that title and the Homeport logo at the base of the flag mast outside the V&A shopping centre. Of course the title points up the banality of the tourism and shopping nexus it

inhabits, but perhaps more to the point, the stubborn resistance to interpretation offered by most of Alborough’s work is replaced here by resistance to the explicit curatorial project of Homeport, which the organisers describe as text-based interrogation of the various social, historical and personal potentialities of the harbour.

To be sure, a number of the contributors are seduced by the setting and the temptations of the text into either metaphoric excess or mere verbosity, but even someone sympathetic to

Alborough’s position might argue that sending them an offhand telegram to this effect is not a particularly credible alternative. On the other hand, it’s hard not to enjoy the conversation he sets up with Bridget Baker’s paean to sightseeing Bridget says I’ll see you at the telescope — The Old Curmudgeon’s grand day out, you might style it.

The dialogue is continued with particular verve by Malcom Payne, Doreen Southwood, Warrick Sony and John Nankin. Wear comfortable shoes.

Public Eye’s next grand-day-out project is the recently inaugurated Spier sculpture biennale, which debuts in February with outdoor sculpture on the estate and land art in the Jan Marais nature reserve. Participants include Jacques Dhont, Deborah Bell, Willie Bester, Jo O’Connor, Randy Hartzenberg, Bruce Arnott, Sanelle Aggenbach, Jacobus Kloppers and the Swiss artist Urs Twellman. An international symposium on public art accompanies the event.

Spier is as genteel a site of cultural consumption as you could imagine, a summer garden where the Afrikaans haute bourgeoisie of Stellenbosch and the Anglo elite of the southern suburbs dissolve their ancient animosities in champagne. As such it may prove a substantially more difficult site to interrogate than the Waterfront, and it’s public in only the most tenuous way, but Spier bids fair to move Cape Town’s cultural centre of gravity to the winelands, and at the moment it doesn’t face much competition.

Spier Summer Arts Festival’s outdoor sculpture biennial takes place from mid January to the end of March. Call Spier for details of their special holiday packages on 021 809 1100. For festival and other packages call Computicket 083 915 8000 or the Spier box office on (021) 809 1165/77/78

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