Spaces are not neutral to the art they show
“This ground is not neutral. This is what I am saying. None of this is neutral.’’ — Dorothee Kreutzfeldt on Extensions to the Lot Line.
Be it for its saturated chaos or its strange collision of lonely objects, paint and throwaway sketches, when the exhibition was still up, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt’s Extensions to the Lot Line was insistent on its occupation of the gallery space, overcoming the usual deadness of a painting show, wherein the contextual reality of the white cube is allowed to swallow all possibility of creative knowledge production.
This show has now ended at blank projects in Woodstock, Cape Town, but its subtle and intimate investigations of urban spaces, particularly those marked by the recent movement of people, got me thinking about the political potential for contemporary art in genuine spatial engagement. Especially art that manages to shift the feeling of the gallery.
I understood the show to be an installation, with its brightly painted canvases of urban decay, rubble and the greenery of the in-betweens nudged into conversation with architectural sketches scribbled urgently and directly on to the wall beside paint that had escaped its rectangular canvas boundaries to run along the wall.
Micro-urban moments in motion gave us details of the Johannesburg city centre — of Ellis Park, in a collaborative video piece. The work was originally made for (and around) ROOM Gallery & Projects in Johannesburg’s New Doornfontein, the same neighbourhood of constant flux because of its much-used sports stadium.
Four-by-four driving rugby fans are not the only ones who regularly fill Ellis Park — busloads of ANC supporters can also be seen arriving at mass political rallies, and Zionists use the space to gather annually and worship on Easter weekend. In between these ebbs and flows of people exist stretches of empty time, when the pavement and the things left behind are the only markers of people having once existed there.
Cities are strange things. They operate with little concern for people and their comfort, and rather function as efficient machines that are constantly calculating potential for maximal profit and productivity, while shifting people accordingly.
Woodstock is no exception and if we chose to acknowledge our history, we would be forced to recognise the gentrification of the neighbourhood as barely, if at all, varying from the apartheid Group Areas Act.
How then do we understand commercial galleries such as Stevenson, blank projects, Goodman and SMAC, and how they are clustered in one part of Woodstock? These spaces are clearly complicit in the area’s gentrification process. Is there the potential to use an institution built upon this kind of historical baggage to work as an inside agent — appropriating the languages and routines of the space to fulfil a different aim?
In this context, the artist at a commercial gallery becomes an interesting entity caught between forces: economically viable product-making, creativity and a potential political stance that destabilises the structure of the gallery itself.
These inferences are taken further by Kreutzfeldt’s construction site aesthetic. In South Africa, the construction site is so riddled with violent power relationships, often exploiting black labour to increase property value, such that these working class people are excluded from living in these spaces.
These moments, appearing through abstracted and zoomed-in landscapes, (a brick here, a broken pavement there) are what make up the layers of Kreutzfeldt’s imagery. The logic of the installation mimics the logic of a city. It loosely demarcates space and vaguely implies some or other past usage of some or other discarded object.
In the South African urban context, “extending a lot line” implies an openly radical intervention with the land. The phenomenon of “occupation” is a protest action that in much of our history has been political as well as one necessary for survival. Buildings in Johannesburg city centre are no strangers to occupation, an action mimicked nationally by students in the past couple of years during #FeesMustFall.
In all of this, a pertinent question remains: Can art in the gallery structure mobilise the means to give back what has been stolen? Can we use exhibitions as examples of embodying the politics we wish to represent us?
In the making of the work, Kreutzfeldt occupied the gallery, finding images in the installation stage of the show, as well as from outside. In the work, the notion of the extension of this line of demarcation is consistently evident. Paintings extend off the canvas and on to the wall. Or perhaps we could say that they extend from the wall and on to the canvases? The imagery lays claim to the space it occupies, including the gallery, in its conversation with the South African city space.
This physical embodiment of the artist’s concerns with urban spatial relationships brings the physicality of Woodstock, the show’s second site of occupation, into immediate focus. The walls, through Kreutzfeldt’s “renovations”, now belong to the work, and the effect is that the gallery becomes hypervisible, perhaps as it should be, as a crucial element of the art.