Thursday, July 15, 2010

A subtle, restrained, deadpan, allusive wink

In the Company of, 2008, Single-channel video shot on HD, 10-channel audio
Duration 32 min 27 sec  Stills photography: Marie Snauwaer

“Have you looked at Simon Gush’s work?” I ask the man seated next to me. It is late, nearly midnight. A dozen or so mismatched people sit huddled around a drinks table in a bar. The man next to me is slumped on a chair, drunk but undefeated by the march of the clock.

“No,” he replies, shaking his head. “What does he do?”

I think about this for a moment. How should I reply? More importantly, why am I even thinking about Simon’s deft, subtle art now, so late at night? Partly, it is his doing, the man seated next to me. It is because of him that I am here in this tiny university town; it was his idea to bring us – a group of would-be art historians, freelance theorists and art-interested writers – from all over the place to talk about new paradigms and other possibilities in art. That we all happen to live and work on the southern tip of the African continent gives our banter a particular inflection: imagine a conversation in English spoken with an unfamiliar accent.

Earlier in the day this tall, lean provocateur goaded us with an assertion: “A moral seriousness has retarded art making in this country.” He was neither bitter nor contemptuous. It was just how this frustrated “transnational citizen” had diagnosed the state of things in “post-post-apartheid” South Africa. We’re constipated, he added. Cowed by our history and disabled by a global lapse into irony, rather than being a free people, as we are so often reminded on radio and television, South Africans have become blocked up. Worse still, the country’s artists have forgotten how to imagine, also how to wink, smile, and, tellingly, perhaps even laugh through their art. (I am, of course, improvising from memory here. It’s late, nearing midnight. I don’t have a notebook in front of me to verify these things.)

“Have you looked at Simon Gush’s work?” I suddenly asked him, thinking of the imaginative wink and unaffected smile that distinguishes Simon’s work.

“What does he do?” the man repeats. His interested eyes tell me that I am taking too long to reason through my response.

“Um, he organises soccer matches,” I state.

Eight Hours, 2009, Paint on wall, Dimensions variable

In 2007, shortly after he took up a residency at the Hoger Instituut van Schone Kunsten in Ghent, Simon Gush devised an action in which two teams of largely immigrant men played the beautiful game on an unlovely stretch of Belgian railway track. When he first told me about his plans to make In the Company of, I was sceptical. Having both played and watched football since my early youth, I am cynical of outsiders – artists and intellectuals particularly – taking positions or making pronouncements on the game. I am not alone in this.

Writing about English literature’s failure to credibly speak for or about football, author and critic DJ Taylor has commented: “Novels about soccer tend to be written by educated gentlefolk who have observed the game from afar, while the cast of such works will necessarily be thick herberts, and [so] a certain amount of patronage, or rather distance between writer and raw material, is inevitable.” Substitute the word “novels” with “art” and Taylor’s statement retains an internal logic and truth.
Of course, this is not a watertight argument. For starters, Simon can credibly argue distance is not an issue in his work. He is, after all, a fervent supporter of the legendary Soweto football club, Orlando Pirates. Furthermore, as a mark of his allegiance to his other favourite team, the city of Manchester’s Red Devils, Simon is a paid-up member of the Manchester United Supporters Trust, a fan-based activist group that aims to secure a meaningful ownership stake in this world-famous football club. Fandom aside, Simon was also once a player. “I was a right back for most of my not very promising career although I made a few appearances in the midfield and at right wing,” he once told me. “Soccer is a great game to watch. It is incredibly tactical and physiological but one piece of luck or skill by an individual can change a whole game instantly. I always find it fascinating.”

There is a counter-argument. For the most part, football is an unfulfilled exercise in futility: 22 sweaty men run around a geometrically codified area of play chasing after a ball for 90 minutes, sometimes longer. The pantomime can often become dull. Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno understood this, which is why their meditative, singular observation of footballer Zinedine Zidane struck such a chord, even amongst football fans. Zidane, a 21st century portrait (2006) is obviously a reference point for In the Company of, concedes Simon, but then so too, albeit less apparently, is Marina Abramović.

“Although I would never call myself a performance artist, performance is a major part of my thinking around all of my work and always has been,” he stated in 2007. “My experience of working with Marina Abramović during her show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery [in 2005] was perhaps a turning point for me. It was probably the most singularly influential show in terms of my practice that I have worked on and certainly after that performance took on a more explicit position in my work.”

But it is football that is at issue here, at least for now. Similar to the Mexican artist Gustavo Artigas, whose action The Rules of the Game (2000-1) involved two San Diego basketball teams and two Tijuana football teams playing their respective ballgames, simultaneously, on the same playing field, In the Company of offers the sporting field as a terrain of difficulty. But why a railway line particularly? Early into the production of In the Company of, Simon remarked: “Since arriving in Gent, I have found Belgium society very welcoming, although I am very aware of my own foreignness. As a result I have been drawn to areas largely inhabited by immigrants.”

Before leaving his birth country for Europe, Simon founded and managed a project space in Johannesburg’s inner city. Known simply as the Parking Gallery, this tiny basement venue hosted 12 experimental exhibitions over the course of its six-month lifespan. Not long after it closed, the area in which the gallery had operated became a central flashpoint in the xenophobic violence that swept across the country in May 2008. These horrific events, in which local mobs attacked and murdered African immigrants, revealed just how much South Africans were struggling to embrace a newfound worldliness.

“My experience in inner city Johannesburg is crucial to how I relate to the world,” Simon remarked of this loaded context in our 2007 interview. “It is an incredible place to live. On the other hand, I am a white African and foreign everywhere. However, I think these kinds of discussions are not central to my work in that I feel much of the debate around immigrants in South Africa needs to be placed in a more global context of growing xenophobia worldwide.”

For an artist searching out “ways to rephrase political questions in ways that simulate a different discussion”, football offers a supple means to get to this pointed end. Contemporary professional football embodies many of the central contradictions of twenty-first century capitalism. Highly reliant on a skilled labour market, it demands labour fluidity and mobility, this in the face of increasingly stringent national immigration laws. Football is also propped by a system of speculative financing and is marked by a high degree of indebtedness. What was once referred to as team loyalty has in recent years been commoditised and redefined as brand loyalty. To simplify, football has come a long way since a group of coachbuilders and railway men from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company decided to found a football club that, over time, would morph into the transnational football giant Manchester United.

It is a similarly big leap from the football pitch to the concert hall, from Ryan Giggs (Simon’s favourite footballer as a youth) to the composer Sergei Prokofiev. Perhaps less discontinuous is Simon’s interest in the creative output of Russia’s post-revolution avant-garde. Although geographically distant, Russian creativity has loomed large in the mind of South African artists and writers. Author JM Coetzee is perhaps the most explicit in his admiration of Russia’s great tradition, having written critical essays on Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. William Kentridge meanwhile has been guided and influenced by the work of avant-garde filmmaker Dziga Vertov and nineteenth century absurdist writer Nikolai Gogol, recently presenting an adaptation of Shostakovich’s The Nose (1930) in New York. Shostakovich disliked Prokofiev, who is still remembered as too much in tow of Stalin. Not so, argues the literary essayist Algis Valiunas: “Prokofiev could wield an irony so delicate and unobtrusive it breezed right past the inspectorate.” Delicate and unobtrusive – these are useful words for appreciating Simon’s provocative situation-based performances and installations. To which I would also add the following: subtle, restrained, deadpan, allusive and, yes, winking.

In his quest to determine and shape a “contemporary language for politics in art”, one that isn’t indebted to old orthodoxies and rote practices, Simon has managed to draw high praise from a notoriously laconic commentator. The conceptual artist Joachim Schonfeldt has repeatedly told me that Simon’s work offers a lone beacon of hope for new South African art. Simon is however by no means sui generis. Like Cape Town artist James Webb and French-Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch, both highly mobile artists, Simon’s work exhibits an acute sense of what it means to think and act politically. In Simon’s case, he achieves this by devising absurd visuals conundrums that hint at how the ostensibly apolitical – football, dancing, even composing – are shaped by larger, contextual political concerns.

It is the morning after our big night out. The man I’d been seated next to at the bar has bloodshot eyes and dishevelled hair. As he ushers us into the hall for round two, he pulls me aside. “What was the name of that artist you mentioned last night?”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Topologies and Archaeology

– 1 –

“I’m here to meet Lindiwe Mthethwa,” I say, pulling up the handbrake. “She’s a driver.”

The uniformed man at the entrance to the Church Street bus depot mutely hands me a wooden clipboard, a geometrically sectioned-off page held in place by the greasy metal clip. Visitor Record – City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality. I fill in the blank spaces next to the already penned-in date (“22/3/2010”), listing my name (“SEAN O’TOOLE”, a journalistic pseudonym), identity number (“6811292076073”, largely fictitious), employer (“SELF”, true), and phone number (012 9910946, my mother’s home number, which I still use as an emergency contact number whenever I enter cycling races). Upper case is the preferred style of all four the previous visitors, respectively G. RAMOKGOPA, ANTON, LUCKY, and ANTON (again!). I take a further cue from these earlier visitors, repeating the word “BUSINESS” in the field enquiring of the purpose of my visit. Not work, not toil, not labour, simply business.

I return the clipboard to the security guard. He retreats indoors. The red and white boom momentarily stutters before tracing a vertical arc. I steer my car to a parking bay adjacent the lone building, a squat post-war structure with red brick walls and a tin roof. I reach for my phone.

“Hi, are you Lindiwe Mthethwa?” I ask the large woman emerging from the building. She holds a pale blue mobile phone in her left hand.

“Yes,” she answers.

Her straightened hair is parted down the middle; the opened curtain reveals two thick black lines, an imagined set of eyebrows. Her dress covers her knees. She wears formal shoes, healed. Perhaps she was anticipating a photographer too.

I offer my hand, repeating my reason for having tracked her down. Her grip is slight, shy; her smile is nonetheless curious, vaguely bemused.

“What do you want to know about that story?” she asks, her tone matter of fact.

“Why don’t we walk over to the cemetery?” I suggest.

– 2 –

On July 3, 2008, the Afrikaans-language newspaper, Beeld, reported that a Tshwane metro bus crashed into Pretoria’s historical Church Street Cemetery, destroying 25 graves belonging the city’s earliest residents. Established in 1867, the cemetery, which is located directly adjacent a large bus depot, includes a section known as Heroes Acre where a number of prominent Afrikaner statesmen were laid to rest.

The bus crashed through the steel-coloured palisade fencing shortly after six in the morning, veering slightly right on its destructive path through Heroes Acre. It abruptly came to a halt at a tree planted adjacent the grave of celebrated landscape painter and Pretoria resident, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886 – 1957). Had the bus veered left, it would have collided with the gravestones of, amongst others, Andries Wilhelmus Jacobus Pretorius (1798 – 1853), a Boer leader and prominent combatant at the 1838 Battle of Blood River; Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom (1893 – 1958), a former prime minister and arch nationalist; and Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (1901 – 1966), a former prime minister who is often described as the “architect of apartheid”.

The unnamed female driver of the empty bus was reportedly treated for shock at a nearby hospital. Faulty brakes were cited as the reason for the accident.

Two months after the accident a tree again featured in Pierneef’s posthumous biography. On September 10, day two of London auction house Bonhams’ South African Sale, lot number 329, a 112 x 142.5cm oil on canvas featuring an enormous baobab tree with five tiny figures seated beneath it sold to an anonymous buyer for £826,400, including buyer’s premium. The price established a new world record for Pierneef, whose work once decorated Johannesburg’s central train station but in recent years has been criticised for its ideologically suspect depiction of rural South Africa as a vast, un-peopled place. Notwithstanding a now rote liberal-left disdain for Pierneef, a prominent (black) art dealer in Johannesburg has spoken of the marked interest amongst his wealthy (black) clients in owning a Pierneef landscape.

– 3 –

It is a short walk to the cemetery. In the time it takes us to pass the security guard at the entrance, cross north over Church Street, and walk east to the entrance of the cemetery on DF Malan Drive, I learn the following:

Lindiwe’s second name is Lucille, from her mother;
Her favourite singer is Rebecca Malope, Dolly Parton registering a close second;
She has never been married;
Her salary is just over R5,000;
News reports of a whites-only toilet at the depot are true; and
She has never seen a painting by Pierneef, nor heard of him.

Clack, clack, clack, clack. Her heals beat a rhythmic beat as we walk.

“Is it open?” she asks, looking at the green sliding gate used by both vehicles and pedestrians entering the cemetery.

I walk to the tall, multi-panelled signboard next to the gate. The san-serif notice wants to say something, that visiting hours are seasonal, perhaps. It is hard to say. April – August 7am – 5pm, September – March 7am – 5pm. We are here during the latter season: summer, perhaps. It is Monday, this much is certain, nearly four hours after opening time. The cemetery is empty.

Burial times, I notice, are listed using an alternative 24-hour clock format: Mon – Thurs 08h00 – 14h30, Fri 08h00 – 13h30. The schedule for tombstone erections is governed by the same format and precise allocation of times. It is nonetheless given its own panel. A final statement, placed at eye-level, cautions that we “Enter at own risk”. Appended beneath, like footnotes, a series of graphic icons, four in total, each enclosed in a box. The first box houses a pistol, the second a hawkers stall, both struck through with lines. The fifth box offers a visual request to use the waste bins. The fourth box is empty. I point at the third.

“That one was made for you.”

Lindiwe snorts, half in laughter, but also with a measure of slight disgust. The icon depicts a bus with a line through it.

– 4 –

In 2006, three then relatively unknown Gauteng-based artists – Michael MacGarry and Zander Blom from Johannesburg, and Jan-Henri Booyens from Pretoria – released a staple-bound, softcover catalogue in a limited edition of 500 ½ copies. Collaboratively designed and edited by the three artists, the packaging for the catalogue mimicked the look and feel of classic vinyl records. Titled Avant Car Guard Volume 1, the catalogue included 19 original photographs (excluding the cover), four biographical portraits and a preface, the title and words of the text meticulously blacked-out, line by line.

The second photograph appearing inside the catalogue aroused great interest when the South African art media circulated it. Captioned “AVANT CAR GUARD at J.H. Pierneef’s grave. 1954”, it showed Booyens placing yellow flowers in front of the painter’s gravestone, Blom cart wheeling over the top the grave, and MacGarry leaping in the air next to him. The mood is celebratory. Stylistically, the colour photograph adhered to the bleached aesthetic and de-saturated tonalities of the documentary photography committed by David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo.

In an interview on June 5, 2007, MacGarry explained that the photograph was taken using a tripod and the camera’s self-timer function. Only the artists had been in attendance. Asked if the photograph had prompted any reactions, MacGarry said, no. “Nobody says anything,” offered Blom, to which MacGarry added, “If we were jumping on Chris Hani’s grave, we would have a lot more currency. But because Pierneef is such an icon of a particular moment, who is going to get upset about it?” After a pause, MacGarry further stated: “We thought of jumping on [painter Gerard] Sekoto’s grave, but he is buried in Paris.”

Visible in the upper right-hand corner of the photograph is Kruger Park, an apartheid-era tower block designed to accommodate low-income white occupants. On July 22, 2008, nearly three weeks after the bus accident at the nearby graveyard, disgruntled occupants of this stern Pretoria approximation of Johannesburg’s Ponte City – incidentally the subject of an essay by Mikhael Subotzky – started a fire on the 20th floor. Five people died in the blaze, some from smoke inhalation, others when they leapt from the roof of the 30-floor concrete structure. An eviction notice issued to the residents of Kruger Park sparked the incident. Alongside Subotzky, photographer Guy Tillim has also recently essayed post-apartheid South Africa’s vertical slums.

– 5 –

An imprecise scar at the base of the tree’s trunk is the only evidence of the accident.

“What was the first thing you thought when it happened?”

“I don’t remember. Nothing. I opened the door; it was cold as I left the bus, that’s all. I could smell the diesel from the engine. They were already running from over to me from there.” She points at the bus depot. “So many people. I have never seen this place so full.”

“Had you ever been inside here before the crash?”

“Never.” Her answer is emphatic.


“Why?” she responds. She snorts.

We walk away from the tree to a cluster of headstones. Two obelisks, one black marble, the other sandstone, jut out above the arrangement. A bunch of mismatched flowers – gladiolas, carnations, some green filler – lie on the polished black surface of the largest grave, an austere mausoleum decorated with a small circular relief of Verwoerd’s bust. We don’t pause long, a gravestone nearby catching Lindiwe’s eye.

“Who is this?” she asks, stopping in front of a raw, oval-shaped piece of granite placed on a low marble base.

The gravestone reads Eugene N. Marais.

“Poet, writer, naturalist,” I translate the three solitary Afrikaans words that accompany his name

“Is he famous?”

“In a manner of speaking.”


“He wrote about baboons and ants.”

Lindiwe laughs. Perhaps she thinks I’m joking. As we exit the gate, I point north, at the traffic approaching along DF Malan Drive.

“He grew up on a farm, on the other side of those hills over there. Do you know where the cement factory is?”

Her eyes, framed by two black-pencilled arches, look in the direction of my pointed finger.

“There,” I say.

– 6 –

South Africa has countless roads named Church Street. What distinguishes Church Street in the nation’s capital city, Pretoria, is its length: it is the country’s longest urban street and one of the longest straight roads in the world. Running east to west, following the contour of a number of small koppies, it links a host of architectural showpieces, amongst them the Union Buildings on Muckleneuk Ridge, east of the city centre. On the day of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first democratically elected president in May 1994, many of the flats and apartments opposite this Imperial-style showpiece where the inauguration took place were vacated by their tenants, perhaps out of fear of a deluge. It was not uncommon at the time to hear of Pretoria residents filling their baths with drinkable water, just in case. At the Pretoria West branch of retailer Makro, candles and tinned food were in short supply before the inauguration. In the event, nothing happened. Not immediately.

On April 25, 1982, two months shy of a decade since the controlled demolition of the award-winning Pruitt-Igoe social housing project in St. Louis, photographer David Goldblatt travelled to Church Street and focussed his large-format camera on Strijdom Square. The resulting photograph offers a stark, geometric portrayal of apartheid’s fin de siècle moment. The photograph, which images two monuments celebrating the Republic of South Africa former president JG Strijdom, is now a historical record of what was, rather than what is. The scene doesn’t exist anymore. In a distant echo of architectural critic Charles Jencks’ famous assertion that “modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 p.m. (or thereabouts),” the monumental ensemble of horses and 3.6-metre sculpted head unexpectedly auto-destructed.

It happened early morning (or thereabouts) on May 31, 2001, a date formerly celebrated as the founding date of the white republic in 1961. Concrete reinforcements in the parking garage beneath Strijdom Square gave way. The Strijdom head, sculpted by artist Coert Steynberg, fell five floors and broke into five pieces. Although reassembled and currently on loan to the Strijdom House Museum in Modimolle (formerly Nylstroom), the head is still missing an ear. A privately owned company forming part of the Voortrekker Monument, a heritage site located on a hill a short distance south of Church Street and redolent in its design of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig, legally owns the head.

In 2004, in a moment of frank and insightful exasperation, Pallo Jordan, then minister of Arts and Culture, remarked: “If you came from Mars and you went on the evidence of what is there in these public spaces, you’d come away with the impression that whites were the original inhabitants and Africans were the immigrants.”

– 7 –

Clack, clack, clack, clack. An indifferent silence marks our conversation as we walk back. Clack, clack, clack, clack. The security guard nods but says nothing as we enter the depot. As we near the building where my car is parked I ask Lindiwe to show me the bus she drove into the cemetery. It is a last ditch attempt to wrest something from this futile attempt at journalism, this Monday morning dalliance with no outcome. She sighs, audibly.

Like the tree across the road, the Mercedes bus she leads me to has healed itself, its dents unevenly pressed out and painted over.

“We don’t use these old busses too much anymore,” she says. “Mostly, I drive a Marcopolo now.” A Brazilian make of bus, she clarifies.

Running my hand along a section of retouched paintwork, I remember a question I once asked a Malian trucker lazing in a hammock suspended beneath his exhausted vehicle, its petrol tank decorated with an idealised landscape scene.

“Do you remember your first kiss?” I ask.

The question comes out unedited. It is received in silence. Clack, clack, clack, clack. Lindiwe walks to the red brick building, sits on a shaded bench beneath an eave, and reaches into her bag. It is not the blue phone retrieves. Her tan wallet is enormous. I count ten, maybe a dozen cards – Edgars, JET, Foschini… – when she opens it. Carefully, she extricates a piece of folded paper from this ordered display of debt. She unfolds it and holds it up to me.

The photocopied page, its design elements hand-coloured in pencil, is titled The Ten Commandments of Love. It reads:

1.     I am your best choice
2.     Accept me as I am
3.     Respect me
4.     Do not criticise
5.     Do not shout
6.     Forgive me
7.     Do not blame me
8.     Settle our problems
9.     Accept your mistakes
10.  Remember to pray to God, he will solve all our problems

“Did that man of the stone over there, how’s his name, Marais, did he write poetry like this?” she asks after I return the saccharine devotional.

“In a manner of speaking,” I say, repeating myself.

– 8 –

The particularities and grit of South Africa’s interregnum have to a large extent dissipated. The nation has comfortably settled into its postcolonial identity, an identity variously marked by fitful moods of collective jubilation and somnambulant gloom, optimistic outreach and xenophobic retreat, an identity characterised by its inclination towards pathos and bathos in the same instant. Ashraf Jamal refers to it as “post-post-apartheid South Africa”. South Africa now seems far simpler. Given the assaults of the everyday – where eruptions of civic discontent are as likely to be inflamed by the lack of municipal services as the singing of political songs about machineguns and Boers, where the bodies of trespassers and shoplifters are painted silver and white, the body of a Mozambican national burned  – what space is their for the art object (as the expression of a radically imaginative will) in the popular consciousness. Not much, let’s be honest. Which is fine too. Art is a residual vestige of the time out of which it emerges; it is not an explanation of that time. Perhaps therein lies its latent potential. Although it may not always intend it, art can sometimes be the bus that mistakenly intrudes on sacred ground, rupturing the palisade fences that section off the past, making us see the now.

This story originally appeared in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Ampersand: A Dialogue of Contemporary Art from South Africa & the Daimler Art Collection, on view at Daimler Contemporary, Berlin (June 10 – October 10, 2010).