/ 26 July 2002

Tough choices

This year’s FNB Vita Art Prize is currently on view at the Goodman Gallery. The gallery has consistently supported this contentious exhibition that showcases works by the nominated artists, but the decision to host the show in this particularly commercial space courts unnecessary and predictable criticism.

The competition aims at remaining on the ”cutting edge” of contemporary art practice. However, it is criticised for being Johannesburg-biased and promoting power-mongering.

Last year’s celebrated move to Durban seemed to herald a new-look Vita. But the choice of venue this year leads one to question whether the Cape — anywhere in the Cape — wouldn’t have been a logical next move? And wouldn’t it be more interesting if the controversies surrounding the prize came from a genuine public response to the work, rather than from art-world insiders positioned to criticise the machinations of this particular competition?

Despite missing out on last year’s shortlist, to the consternation of pretty much anyone interested, Alan Alborough produced this year’s winning piece. Entitled Split Decision, the installation is an intelligent and critical work that confounds and amuses in equal measure. It also directs a rather cheerful ”up yours” at the competition process.

In addition, the work gives the viewing public the chance to own an original Alborough for free — half an Alborough to be precise, for the work is divided into two parts. Of course, you can own the whole work, but for this you pay. It’s not a work you can really own anyway.

Alborough has placed his work in two parts in the outer extremes of the gallery, creating a pair of almost identical black spaces — and not much else. In each space there is a small piece of paper pinned to the wall containing a poem hinging on wordplay about nothing/something showing us something/nothing.

Black, plastic safety buttons are attached to the opposite walls in a grid formation, with silver tacks spelling out ”LEFT” and ”RIGHT” respectively. He has repeated this in reverse in the windows.

At first glance Alborough has cashed in on the controversy that contemporary art often seems to provoke. That is, that nothing is often made to mean something, even when that ”something” does not look like much. Given what it is, Alborough’s work should at least have provoked protests outside the gallery and some rancid press, as Martin Creed’s light installation did at this year’s Turner Prize.

With Split Decision Alborough has, however, achieved his objective, where the familiar concept of labour, and the material obsession of his previous sculptural work have been rendered invisible. The meaning of the work comes to the fore the moment one starts asking questions.

For me, the finer moments in an exhibition are ones where the custodians of contemporary art — be they artists, critics or dealers — permit themselves a moment of irony. By operating ”in the wings” so to speak (and rarely granting interviews), Alborough embroils himself and us in a strategic debate about value, compromise and paradox.

The words ”Fool prize” are stamped on the back of his giveaway editions, which, when added up, equal 2002 (1001 on each side). The wording seems to reflect on the notion of competitions, as they consistently place questions of value under the spotlight.

So Alborough has proven a canny master of the process. His self-imposed marginalisation results in consummate control. One is inclined to think he controls ”responsibly”. He cleverly manipulates a given set of circumstances — guiding and directing with careful intent, not dictating through visual or conceptual insensitivity.

Alborough’s installation is in fine company alongside work by Abrie Fourie, Usha Seejarim, Jeremy Wafer and a collaborative piece by Bronwen Findlay, Faiza Galdhari and Daina Mabunda.

The latter work occupies a central wall in the gallery, and is a textured intermingling of material and spiritual concerns contained within uniform square canvasses. Not willing to give up individual authorship, the three women seek common ground in diverse identities that defy the normal mode of collaboration.

Fourie’s Swallowed shows a poetic, backlit photographic diptych and digital animation. Two similar but different images of a brick façade delineated by absurdly positioned barbwire indicate denied access, safety and protection. Opposite this is a contrasting digital animation of a rumpled bed, stained fabric and simplified images of swallows.

Seejarim engages older members of the Indian community in Two Rooms and a Kitchen, a three-projection video piece that captures the poignant and often funny personal accounts of a community characterised by diaspora, rich cultural heritage and change.

Wafer’s evasive installation Abercorn, Mboniso and Muzi will no doubt disappoint fans of his organic and sensual ovoid forms. His work is an interrogation of land, ownership and power, spelt out visually through maps (one where only numbers remain) and posts. These replace places, and are stacked regimentally against the gallery wall.

It’s hard to make one decisive statement about this year’s FNB Vita Art Prize, but if the gathering of work shows anything it is that although it may seem so, no act of choice, whether personal or political, is ever simple. The exhibition itself — and its winning work — reflects on its own complexity.

The FNB Vita Art Prize nominees exhibition runs until August 3 at the Goodman Gallery and will run at the Aardkop Festival in Potchefstroom in September. Tel: (011) 788 1113.