Truth and consequence

2008-02-16 00:00

Michael McGarry’s exhibition True/Stories, on show at the KNZSA Gallery in Durban, looks at the physical and narrative construction of Africa through colonialism and economic imperialism. It is a canvas that spans centuries past and a contemporary reality that is defined by wars, trade routes and dodgy governance. In exploring these themes, McGarry brings focus to the details, the mechanisms of control.

McGarry has been producing works of consistent deftness, predicated on work created by others, for the past decade.

In one of his early video pieces, the Healthy Qualities of Primitive Building Material, he uses a black and white photograph of an architectural interior by Mies van der Rohe as its starting point. Within that stark modernist space, adroitly drawn sticks gradually appear, seeming to support Van der Rohe’s structure.

The work offers a comparison between two opposing commodities: a modernist building and a sustainable building. It references the one-size-fits-all approach that is one of modernism’s downfalls, where architectural models designed for the workplace consume massive amounts of energy to cool these occasionally beautiful glass cages.

Many of McGarry’s works appear on his website Some of his works have no physicality, consisting, for example, of a detailed film treatment, but no actual film.

McGarry says that he is now taking a new approach, focusing on physical art production. But looking through his website, there isn’t a distinct moment when he shifts from theory into materiality.

Like his earlier projects, he continues to work with existing materials, constructing new narratives that are dependent on the original stories.

But in moving his narratives into the third dimension, as he does with True/Story, he brings them into the physical world in which they take place.

A piece that is central to True/Story is the Instrument from Will to Power — a rifle constructed from parts that the artist bought in Johannesburg. The work, taking sculptural form in the centre of the gallery, also exists in two dimensions in the photograph The Good Student.

Another piece is a life-size model of a paratrooper wearing a mask of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China. The work suggests that Chinese economic imperialism in Africa is part of the same political continuum that allows Americans to wage wars in countries where they have no claims.

Unlike many of those who comment on Africa, McGarry’s venom-tipped narratives are not executed on behalf of the oppressed masses. They are his responses to Africa’s geopolitical position on the world stage.

Much of the work on display in True/Story is phallic. Guns, bullets, soldiers, aeroplanes, alluding to the phallic-ness of war, of conquest, of domination, of imperialism. However, it is McGarry’s mind that provides a counterpoint. An essential part of the artist’s work is his accompanying text.

At the end of the gallery is a large panel that contextualises the work. Like all art, the work only becomes real in the viewing process. But with McGarry, the point of engagement is far more stressed. He talks about how in the title of True/Story, it is the backslash “/” that is important. That backslash is the viewer, is consciousness.

So, in the etymology of the exhibition title, “true” relates to the objects, “story” relates to the texts and the backslash is the “I” in between. While visually easy to read, McGarry’s work only really makes sense if it is processed and reprocessed.

He uses this approach in the series entitled African Archetypes. In the Classicist, we see the back of a voluptuous black woman. Her companions are an oversized ruler and a foam sculpture.

The foam sculpture exists as a dissonant piece in the exhibition. The artist makes it clear in his text that the woman in the photograph is a prostitute, who he hired. She said on the phone that she was thin, McGarry tells me. She lied, but her lie enriches his image.

McGarry says that the images and their text came to exist partially as a response to the work of artists like Roger Ballen (whose work he doesn’t like) and Jeff Wall (whose work he does), whose final images are heavily constructed, but at the same time intrinsically deny their construction.

It is essential to realise that McGarry is not explaining his work through text. The text is part of the work. The artist’s medium is ideas. His art is conceptual.

McGarry uses the global fictions of Africa as a starting point, converting them into something that is a more substantive representation of a continent that exists in the world’s consciousness as a one-dimensional horror story, on the back of which are written stories about hope and animals.

In the Time, McGarry paid a gardener and his two sons R100 each to dress up as soldiers, complete with fake AK47s. By acknowledging the mechanics of his photograph, he suggests that in another time, they could easily be soldiers instead of pretending to be. And is there a difference?

His sense of aesthetic precision is an integral element of his work. And the sculptures/artefacts are chillingly beautiful. But viewed as part of a larger world, their power is far greater.

Finally, I should comment that I would have liked to have seen the accompanying panel displayed larger, enticing the public to get lost in the words and to afford the images in the text the full scope of their lustre.

As McGarry acknowledges, few viewers are going to read the whole panel. It’s likely that they may read a few sentences. Which is unfortunate, but in Michael McGarry’s world, even this fact, somehow seems like part of the exhibition.

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