/ 7 November 2008

Scandi eye-candy

Disturbance is an exhibition of contemporary South African and Scandinavian art. I was invited there last year to give a lecture by an organisation called Organisation of Contemporary Art (OCA).

Because I run a museum there was an opportunity to make an exhibition and I began looking at this quite disparate society that is well funded, well organised and supposedly seamless. The Scandinavians have the Nobel Prize and everything is wonderful. But actually it is not that simple. Some things are quite disturbing. I had this idea to link these two contexts since there are a lot of commonalities and differences between them and us.

They have the welfare state — basically art is subsidised. They funded oil in the Seventies [Norway is the third-largest exporter of crude oil in the world]. There have been issues of colonisation and so on. We discovered that identity issues are at work in both contexts.

Filmmakers had dealt with Afghanistan and I started to see that artists were preoccupied with issues such as Iraq — and I started to wonder about our own backyard. What are the issues in our own terrain?

Scandinavia also has a wonderful landscape tradition that includes [Edvard] Munch and there is also a heavy death metal scene. We think it is the main proponent of music in Scandinavia but in fact it is not — electronic music is bigger and that led me to some of the sound artists.

The way the show is curated, when you walk down the stairs you get hit by a wall of radios in Maia Urstad’s Sound Barrier VI (2008) and then you look through the work to a beautiful washed-blue sky. This is photographer Torbjorn Rodland’s More Songs, Buildings and Girls (2003) that was shown at the Air de Paris gallery in France last year. It is made of sky-blue wallpaper and in the background there are images of churches and a quaint little girl in the landscape. He plays on notions of kitsch and the church as good news.

From South Africa we have Alastair McLachlan’s Landscape of Nostalgia (2008). The holograph he created of an old drive-in movie theatre shifts the image. The aesthetic we were looking for is reduced, very clean, and in South Africa and Scandinavia we are finding similar approaches.

We are showing work by major contemporary artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila, who has shown with Marian Goodman in New York — William Kentridge’s dealer. She has been at Documenta and at the Venice Biennale. Her video work, The Present (2003), deals with psychosis through a series of five portraits of women.

We also have works dealing with indigenous people, such as Marja Helander’s Tourist Attractions (2003). She is a Sami, one of the indigenous people from the north of Finland. Through photography she works with fictitious narrative and indigenous dress. It is poetic — not overt, not too political — and contains issues around gender and the body.

Just like the work of South African Nandipha Mntambo, you see that tradition is being dealt with in gentle and very constructed ways.

Norway is a supposedly utopian welfare state and South Africa is seen as violent, yet we have this young generation that wears Levi’s, eats MacDonald’s and is always on the internet. There is a kind of global commonality with a younger contemporary generation.

Yet, where the Scandinavians are similar to the Netherlanders — and I studied there — is that they don’t have the most vibrant of art scenes because [the comfort] nullifies a lot of what goes on. There’s something about having things that are contested and fought for that produces good things.

Norwegian Maia Urstad on her 2008 work, Sound barrier VI, constructed from 104 CD and cassette radios

It has taken a long time to collect these appliances. I started in the 1980s, I think — or maybe it was at the end of the Eighties. I collected four Panasonic cassette radios that appeared in a performance. I store them in a loft and I collect radios. But one can collect anything because you have an interest — stones, shells, anything. So I had these four and I just kept them.

Then I got four more for another theatre work. In the 1980s they were very square. I started using them as structures, as building bricks. The next step was making something like a medieval arch. Titled Stations, in 1999 it showed at Fortress Bergenhus. It was a meeting between our way of constructing, our building bricks and the ancients. The arches of ancient Egyptians and other old buildings are still there. I thought: “That was high technology and this is our high technology.” It is appearing all the time. Every time I build this work it is slightly different and I have tried to add to it every time. But it is basically the same. We are getting better and better at constructing it. It is basically about balance. It has to be level all ways and in all directions because otherwise it is going to fall down. To hold it we use Velcro.

The sound has different layers. One layer is radio stations from South Africa. What you hear is a mix of sounds from many places. From time to time you hear radios starting only on the left-hand side with the FM frequency. I have added sounds from FM recordings from my country, but in the Sami language, the tribes from the north of Scandinavia that I don’t understand. I have lived with this sound since I was a kid because then there was always news in the Sami language. It is something I feel very comfortable with. But there are only two languages in our country and they [the Samis] had to learn our language — we didn’t learn theirs.

The work shows my association of what the radio can be, what my relation to radio is. One of the relations is to travel around and hear what there is. When I was a kid we could listen to medium-wave. Tuning in to different stations, we could explore the world.

The next thing I am going to do is an installation in a train station, to transmit messages from around the world, including Cape Town, and so I recorded announcements there.

South African sound artist James Webb on Untitled States, a work projecting the horrific last breaths of a slaughtered ox

As a child my father was a keen golfer. He used to win Salton hot trays and tea-sets, but one day he came home with a Pioneer tape recorder that had one-touch recording or something fancy. It was in the late Seventies and I was able to experiment with the plasticity of sound; to record things to play back.

But now I am a freelancer, which means I am unemployed. I do sound design for theatre and I have been able to survive through commissions and project fees.

In October I did a show at the Reina Sophia in Madrid. I hired actresses and members of the national gallery to scream at Picasso’s Guernica.

It felt like a nice relationship between the public reacting to art and the museum staff having to deal with these same works. It also had something to do with the fact that when I was growing up my art teacher in school said that Guernica is the most important piece of modern art in the world.

In my new work, Untitled States, there is a recording of a black ox that has just had its throat slit. What you hear is the same animal being killed over and over and these are the final breaths being heard through the severed oesophagus. I used three microphones around the head of the ox. For me the work has something to do with the energy — in the beginning we hear something living and at the end the creature is dead. It is a kosher slaughter. A bolt is put in the head once it has been bled. I chose the ox specifically because I wanted to record something that has been happening since the dawn of civilisation. Now we have contemporary technology, but in the past people might have killed the animal with a bone and a rock.

I think it is interesting and powerful to imagine those visuals in your own head. There is something exciting when one imagines, and the horror or the beauty becomes personal. Hence the connection with the book. I grew up reading and listening to the radio.

The flourescent lights in the shape of a star bring in something sacrosanct, I am nervous to use the term religious but there is something of an iconic nature. These are also the lights that are on in abattoirs and butcher shops. They are very industrial.

Disturbance is on at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until March 1 2009