Arting against thunder

It’s a sweaty and humid 32°C on Roeland Street, just down the road from Parliament in Cape Town. Stuart Bird is thinly veiled in sweat—Kirsty Cokeril, his significant other, looks on in concern as he wrestles a jackhammer unforgivingly on the floor of the YOUNGBLACKMAN.

The YOUNGBLACKMAN, a collaboration between enfant terrible Ed Young and novelist Matthew Blackman, is conveniently situated next to Roeland Liquors and the Book Lounge. It has been open since September last year and has made a significant impact on the local art scene—providing an alternative, non-commercial gallery space for artists to realise projects that would otherwise be untenable in their ­commercial counterparts.

Vex and Siolence, a three-part collaboration by Bird, Belinda Blignaut and Linda Stupart, is possibly their most radical show to date that goes to extreme lengths to address the function of the white cube. Conceived as a performance, the gallery is closed to the public with the results being visible only through the windows from the street.

This is not an unfamiliar trend at the YOUNGBLACKMAN. Some months ago in a similar performance the infamous agent provocateur of South African art, Kendell Geers, re-enacted a work, Untitled 1993, originally made nearly two decades ago when he exhibited several bricks on the gallery floor. The only difference this time is that the bricks have found their way through the windows, leaving their shattered remains as testament to the event.

In many ways Vex and Siolence is similar in its attempts to question the limits of the gallery space, although its collaborative nature presents a richer viewing experience that extends and develops the various artists’ concerns. Viewed through a thin film of water running down the windows, resembling a sheet of tears, the heaps of rubble left inside by Bird’s relentless jackhammering are coated with sticky globules of a waxy looking substance that is actually boiled-down Chappies chewing gum.

There is something physical about this collaboration, attesting to the corporeal fragility of the architecture of the white cube. The ripped- up floor seems to expose the pinky fragments of the internal innards of what lies beneath. The weeping windows attest to a kind of pain, an agony betraying the rupture that this expression attempts to represent.

Yet this type of work, with its origins in conceptualism, is sometimes difficult to grasp, as could be seen by the landlord’s startled and bemused reaction during the show. The day before the show was due to open Mr M arrived on a routine visit to drop off the lease agreement to one of his neighbouring properties, Osmans, a small café owned by Mr Osman. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?” exclaimed a clearly distressed Mr M. Clearly the precedent established by the gallery hasn’t left a favourable taste in his mouth. ‘First the windows, now this!”

Young ducks for cover into Osmans as the semi-toothless grin of Bird is left to defend art in the face of the growing rage of Mr M while a crowd of spectators gathers.

The ability of art to question the environment of its mediation is one that separates it from advertising. Although it might be genuinely unintelligible to the public, this mystique promises to keep art fresh and unadulterated by the guises of capitalism that demand reproducibility.

Yet the gnawing question of the spectacle remains—in a society in which sex and violence have become so quotidian that shock has become the norm, what can be made of this intervention? One wonders whether the destructive energy of ripping apart the white cube, tempered by the sticky-sweet surface of the molten chewing gum and viewed through a veil of tears, can be seen as a metaphor for the consumptive impulse of a society driven by its primal urges.

On the other hand, and perhaps more pressingly, what is of concern is the packaging of such performance. The containment of such a gesture threatens to nullify the critical impact that the work proposes, giving it a characteristic conceptual austerity. But what rescues the show is its material tangibility. There is no veneer. Rather, the works communicate systematically with one another in a seductive interplay that entices curiosity and reinvigorates looking.

Vex and Siolence runs at the YOUNGBLACKMAN, 69 Roeland Street , Cape Town, from December 10 to January 14 2011

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