On journeys to death on dying feet

2011-11-11 10:00

You’d be forgiven for suspecting that Joburg-based artist Michael MacGarry harbours dreams of war and carnage, especially after seeing his latest exhibition now showing at the Standard Bank Art Gallery in downtown Joburg.

His fellow exhibitor, Andries Gouws, conversely picks at the details of our human existence leaving the big picture to MacGarry. In this way, the juxtaposition of the two artists offers a surprising insight into the spectrum of contemporary South African art.

Titled End Game, MacGarry’s show’s motifs comprise all the trappings and themes of a bloody conflict situation: assassinations of big, guarded, black men in suits (a sly code for post-colonial dictators), machine guns, and examinations of the vulnerability and powerlessness that precedes death.

But there’s beauty too. The artist is consistently aware of the requirement to address aesthetic questions, even as he indulges his fascinations with video games and science fiction.

End Game is MacGarry’s touring exhibition, which began last year when he was named Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year.

So, in an unofficial sense, it functions as an early career “retrospective” of sorts.

When you enter the gallery’s first floor you’ll first look right into the barrel of a sniper’s gun. Next to it, mounted on a lightbox plinth, is a sculptural construction titled Insects Cannot Love.

These two occupy the centre space of the gallery’s Pantheon-like hall. Then in the outer flanks sit the video projections and photographic prints.

To the left is MacGarry’s most stunning video, Will To Power, which casts theatre star Lindiwe Matshikiza in the central role.

We follow her journey from the great Zimbabwe ruins, through the bush where she collects her sniper gun.

We see her doing some target practice, and then quietly travel to her ultimate destination, where she assassinates her target.

So as part of his arsenal of wisdom and motivation, MacGarry has drawn on Jean-Luc Godard, the French film director who is famously quoted as remarking: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.”

So, on one level, MacGarry here parodies the clichés of cinema. And the choice to use Zimbabwe in a story about the assassination of dictators is not without meaning. It is an obvious leap, and one the artist expects, for audiences to read “Mugabe” into this work, which unfolds powerfully without a word said.

The next work is titled LHR-JNB, a 12-minute video that sketches the tale of people surviving a plane crash at sea, only to watch each other die a slower death while drifting on the indifferent waters.

The film is accompanied by a meditative commentary that poetically ponders the meaning of dying.

Included, too, are works from Entertainment, MacGarry’s recent solo show at Stevenson gallery. There’s the film, Race of Man, which mimics a video game where characters must hunt and kill each other to advance to higher levels.

Also part of that body of work is the oil painting titled Abuja, Nigeria, 2034, which projects a futuristic sci-fi vision of the Nigerian city.

And, as if to drive the point across about the foundations of MacGarry’s new media focus, the curators of the gallery have mounted Andries Gouws’ show on the ground floor.

His work resonates with much more conservative tastes at first glance, but is as powerful as MacGarry’s in a much quieter way.

Gouws presents oil paintings and drawings, and his show is aptly titled Pedestrian Paintings. These are works that were created between 2007 and this year.

The exquisiteness with which Gouws handles paint manages to raise his seemingly banal subject matter to ethereal levels. Prominent in this selection of works is Gouws’ studies of feet.

He approaches these oils with great empathy and care. So his series of nine studies of age-beaten feet act like portraits of the frail figures whose faces we are not able to see.

Poetically speaking, when a life is accounted for, where your feet have travelled is as consequential as what your eyes have seen.

These feet are also revisited in drawings on paper to provide evidence of this artist’s facility in this medium as well as his mastery and sensitivity to line and composition.

Gouws’ meditations on the banal things of our human environments lead him to the bathroom, which yields an oil-on-canvas titled Bathtub. Others include Lamp, Turquoise Wall and Bricks.

In the end, these two seemingly diverse shows combined give us multiple views of the singular cube that is art in South Africa now. It may not be definitive, but stands out as confidently refreshing.

» Michael MacGarry and Andries Gouws are showing at the Standard Bank Art Gallery in Joburg until December 3

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