Art of place in your face

Staging an exhibition about “place” at the Johannesburg Art Gallery is not a simple affair. The space may throb with the city’s heartbeat, but it is devoid of key staff members at the moment. Its neglect is palpable for any visitor.

Sted//Place, a group exhibition by former South African, Danish resident Doris Bloom, features the work of Danish and South African artists.

From home we have Willem Boshoff, Kendell Geers and Karel Nel. From Denmark there are Claus Carstensen, Torben Christensen, Eva Koch and Marco Evaristti. Bloom offers ties to both places.

The exhibition is big. This was clear at the opening, bustling with important people, but on the following Sunday — empty of visitors. But one is prompted to ask: Are “big” exhibitions by default important? And does our world, numb to socio-political shock, still consider art gestures powerful?

On the Sunday before the opening, Evaristti coloured the fountains on Sandton’s newly renamed Nelson Mandela Square red. Public shock and outrage was tempered by security guards, and the event passed with barely a wrinkle on public sensibilities. Call it media lethargy; call it what you want but interventional art no longer has the thrust it used to have.

The concept of “place” logically points to site specificity, another concept well-used in recent decades. So we see Bloom painting with her body, à la Yves Klein, making large muted landscapes that deal with Danish specificity. In the work Tea Time she also exhibits an interview with her mother, Holocaust survivor Ascia Kusnir Bloom Lieberman, à la Steven Spielberg. Here the danger of place, the threat, is spoken of with candour and reluctance.

We see Bloom documenting violence in South Africa, in Reconstruction of a Child’s Memory. It is not clear, though, why the brutal images of white-on-black violence would be part of a young Doris’s visual recall.

They may be part of our collective memory thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the work of photojournalists during the internecine battles in South Africa.

But must we revisit them in Bloom’s extrapolation of South African space? It is not clear if Bloom’s gestures are cogniscent of a historical recycling of the concepts built into this work.

Karel Nel uses sand to create a simple, powerful two-dimensional work quoting the textures, colours and visual weight of the sands in Johannesburg and New York.

In 32 000 Darling Little Nuisances, Willem Boshoff examines Kensington, his residential suburb. The installation offers a spin on British royalty after whom the streets in this suburb are named.

The spin-off from the images of royalty ricochets into the names of children who died in the empire’s concentration camps. All 32 000 of them. The names are inverted in a mirror on the floor. The work inspires an Alice-in-Wonderland-like curiosity — à la Boshoff.

It is, however, Evaristti who steals the show visually. The reddening of the fountains in Nelson Mandela Square was not isolated; this artist has transiently dyed other parts of the world, in gestures almost like Christo’s.

He articulates the gesture to be about beauty, but the startling image of a red iceberg in Antarctica seems to be about visual interruption.

Which brings us to his Behind the Line of Fire, a large-scale photograph of a woman giving the artist a blow job.

The place from which this image comes is deeper than gratification. Blood and tattoos become medium, presenting legible, conceptual, historical text on the protagonists’ bodies.

The blurb tells us that the woman is a Lebanese prostitute. An Arab. The gesture tells us she is sucking off a Jew, tattooed on his chest with the Jewish star, a universal symbol of cultural victimisation.

But given the sexual role-play and the implied monetary exchange, the role of victim is unresolved.

Thus the work comments ambivalently on Middle Eastern politics. Visually powerful, and overt in grappling with a place’s socio-political issues, the work fits the theoretical concerns of the exhibition.

One must grapple with this exhibition on different levels. A mainstream fine-art audience would be justified in expecting visual spectacle and Evaristti’s gestures vindicate this aspect of the show.

But the question about its importance in terms of art debate, or socio-political relevance, activism, or meaning on a broader art platform, is confused.

As a show, Sted//Place hangs together uncomfortably: visual schism, conceptual gaps and imbalanced representation are patent here. Yes, it’s about the changing political landscape, awareness of socio-political environment and celebrating 10 years of democracy. But in trying to embrace all of this, it jars visually.

Ultimately it is the discussion around the actual location of the works, in Joubert Park, that distinguishes the exhibition from those held in other spaces.

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Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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