Beyond the white cube

2011-03-18 15:51

Writing about African art, writer and curator Simon Njami once asked: “What good is a mask that refuses to dance, apart from a pretty sculpture? A still mask cannot contradict the ­interpreter; it just lets him ­comment.”

Art pieces mostly hang quietly on walls, but more and more they interact with us, and perform for and with us.

These spectacles are called performance art.

This genre of visual art has found able practitioners and ­audiences on the South African art scene.

Local artists, such as Berni Searle and Steven Cohen, have found it a potent ­medium to explore identity issues across gender and religion in unique ways.

Young artists like Nandipha Mtambo are also managing to ­create conversations between sculpture, photography and performance.

Pieter van Heerden, meanwhile, explores the identity predicament of the Afrikaner male for whom the death of apartheid has created a need for a rebirth of sorts. He uses performance to grapple with that question.

Though it’s still very much ­contemporary, performance art generally denotes work that started to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s in visual art.

This type of work is generally executed by an artist or a group of artists in front of a live audience at a specific place.

In contrast to theatre, performance art doesn’t present an ­illusion of events but rather presents actual events as art.

Johannesburg gallery owner Monna Mokoena of Gallery MOMO; Donna Kukama, a performance artist based in Joburg; and Nontobeko Ntombela, a curator based at the Joburg Art Gallery, differ on their views of the genre and its ­ramifications.

It’s clear listening to them speak that there’s an art historical ­contest whose trajectory is to be followed in these sorts of ­debate.

Plus, there’s the all-important question of who has the last word when the creative journey of the art meets the gallery’s ­commercial interests. In other words, like all art, a way has to be found for it to be consumed.

Recently, the Goethe Institute hosted an assortment of events and exhibitions of performance work. Partnered with a seminal colloquium on art history held at Wits University, it had the makings of an epoch-marking event – ­especially when coupled with the Emerging Modernities conference convened at the University of Cape Town soon thereafter.

The curators of the Goethe ­series invoked art writer Brian O’Doherty’s seminal essay, Inside The White Cube (referring to the gallery space), where he quipped: “The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is art.”

Hence performance art, by breaking with the need to be shown in the “white cube”, is challenging the ­centrality of the gallery space in the consumption and distribution of artworks.

But Mokoena feels strongly that “in the end, the commercial appeal will always prevail”. Mtambo is cited as an example here.

The body of work she produced for her master’s degree portfolio consisted mainly of sculptures that she made from cowhide.

She only started making photographs when she joined the Michael Stevenson Gallery.

Her ­photographs created a suitable ­format for her performances to ­enter the gallery game and sell.

Mokoena doesn’t feel the idea that the gallery is being challenged has any merit. “It’s an intellectual debate that goes nowhere,” he says.

To Ntombela this is more a South African shortcoming, where “art hasn’t really been defined”.

She points out that most of our conceptual artists work internationally where there’s funding.

Performance artist Donna ­Kukama found the very history of the debate problematic and that the Goethe series of exhibitions seemed to pretend that “we here in SA are only doing performance art now, the same with the Emerging Modernities burner” which, as Kukama says, proposes that now that the West is going beyond postmodernism the rest of the world is only emerging into ­modernity.

Ntombela shares the frustration of being cast as followers in art history.

She says: “Some of these practices have been here as creative strategies long before our encounter with Western art history.”

On this score, Samson Mudzunga comes up as an example. Mudzunga’s performances incorporate sculpture, and traditional Venda ­funeral rituals and dance.

His lack of “art education” is perhaps his strength, as Ntombela observes that he “took an African traditional practice into a Western gallery context to reclaim that space”.

But Mokoena is not completely convinced by the Mudzunga factor. He argues that “even if Mudzunga’s walls were not of a white cube, he had to demarcate a space of performance that worked according to the rules of the gallery game”.

Others feel he’s being unfair.

Had Mudzunga not “worked within those walls, he would have disappeared”.

No one would have noticed him.

But one thing is certain – Mudzunga’s practice offers the chance to escape an art history and industry dominated by the West.

Which is what Kukama urges: “Instead of trying to be included in the Western concept of ­modernity, we must perform in an altermodern space, our own ­alternative of history and being.”

» See image gallery at www.citypress.co.za/Multimedia


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