When there is a light brown residue of dried bird shit and maybe rain stains in vague crusty rivulets from the ceiling of a space, when works of art have lost their labels and no one in the institution can tell you what they are or who made them, might it not be time to reconsider the value of a permanent exhibition? I always bemoan the brevity of the season of an excellent play or a beautifully curated exhibition, but is there such a thing as too long?
Recently, I had the need to visit Hillbrow’s Con Hill, with a particular focus on the art collection displayed there. Drawing on happy memories of being part of an enthusiastic walkabout conducted by Justice Albie Sachs just over ten years ago, I remembered the space with fondness, as one replete with important works of art as it is with a forward looking ethos.
It’s a spooky place, innovatively recast brick by brick from an apartheid penitentiary and into a democratic court house. Characteristically: it is cold. It’s a repository for ghosts. And all the art, some of it donated, some of it purchased, is as it was hung, virtually piece by piece, at that walkabout a decade ago.
The works remain important: the Judith Mason triptych The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (1995); the Willem Boshoff seminal piece Prison Hacks (2003) made of eight granite slabs; the Regi Bardavid polyptych in conte crayon called Grief (1990) (pictured), the Marlene Dumas tapestries of 1998 and 2000 entitled The Benefit of the Doubt hauntingly installed just below the ceiling. There’s a beautiful Kentridge drawing, Sleeper (1997) and some fine work by Dumile Feni. There’s a series of HIV+ body images and some astonishingly tactile monographs of fires and riots made by Kim Berman in 1988. A sculpture in the middle of the space speaks of Noria Mabasa’s handling, but there is no label. We can’t be sure.
Each piece has a story: a fierce and powerful story of sadness and retribution, of racism and of victory, but none of them can be heard: The security staff will x-ray your handbag and be officious about your presence in the space, but can they tell you about the works themselves? Not a chance. Perhaps we came on a day when there were no tour guides available, but in the absence of labels or texts, or catalogues or anything speaking of the beauty and bravery of the space and the art in it renders them all intolerably mute.
The beautiful books created through David Krut Publishing on Con Hill’s architecture and art, respectively, seem a figment of the distant past.
Budget restraints, the organisers might bellow, as any organisers for anything cultural seem to do with monotonous regularity these days. But surely when the collection was assembled those more than ten years ago, filled with hope and enthusiasm for a democratic future, something was put in place to maintain this collection, to keep it as dynamic and relevant as when it was installed? Or is this naïve?
Ten years is not that long. Spaces weather. Things get tired. And dated. Enthusiasm palls. The internal space of Con Hill which runs down the side of the building is rich with history; it is beautiful. There’s interesting attention to detail in everything from the sunshades on the windows to the texture of the doors. There are subtle design elements on the edge of the low-slung staircase which echoes the place’s geography. There’s a peculiar use of a font fashionable at the time, to indicate names of different spaces. It speaks of a kind of self-congratulatory approach to the building, which is gimmicky yet almost endearing.
But has the Constitutional Court of this country, the home of the largest human rights library in the southern hemisphere, which boastfully calls itself the repository of the world’s most progressive constitution, and which took redoing itself so very seriously over a decade ago, lost interest in the passage of time and the upkeep of its appearance? Is it going to allow all those art works to continue to hang in this space until gravity and bird shit and exposure to air and sun shreds them to little bits?
Also read this piece.