Opinion Piece

On Michael Elion (or trying to take the speck out of someone’s eyes, when there’s a plank in your own)


They’re big. They’re shiny. They’re funky and puerile and they’ve gotten the local art world into a frenzy. This is Cape Town-based Michael Elion’s sculpture ‘Perceiving Freedom’, a gigantic pair of sunglasses, bedecking the public space on the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town.

Having been asked to voice my opinion about the piece for Cape Talk last week, it’s comforting to be able to think about it more cogently in 900 odd words, rather than two minutes on air and on the spot. It’s a funny thing, this academic art fraternity. We’re very quick to condemn bullying, but when banded together in a forum like this when we believe we have moral right on our side, we are alarmingly quick to articulate that very same behaviour, offering to dismantle people, literally or figuratively.

Regardless of the quality of the gigantic pair of sunglasses made of stainless steel touting commercial crassness and sullying Mandela’s name in the mix, this is a work in the public domain, not unlike South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen’s gestures.

And Cohen himself can speak of his own experience of a litany of filthy bullying tactics from the unwashed public, some anticipated, some not. The difference is Cohen understood from the outset in the 1980s when he started doing his impromptu interventions, how unkind and merciless the public can be, and that the tyranny of art spaces is nothing compared to that of public spaces.

But Elion’s no performance artist. The erection of his piece was a committee decision. At no point has he boasted coming out there and making this thing off his own bat. He was paid to do it. If we want to pillory someone, shouldn’t it be the guy who signed the contract with Elion? The woman who ticked all the boxes that approved these glasses? The committee members who collectively sanctioned it? Shouldn’t we be shouting against the democratisation of public art?

Indeed, public space is a very touchy one to mess with. Someone clearly screwed up here, but the understanding is that this public art gesture is temporary and that the work will not be up for longer than a year. The art community, in some kind of a phalanx of moral disapproval, is baying for Elion’s blood.

These are people boasting oodles of credential, degrees and overseas teaching and writing and exhibiting experience. Surely they understand the complexity that censorship lends to the arts?  That publicity of any stripe is good? Surely they know how anti-art through the annuls of the discipline, like Marcel Duchamp’s 1918 Fountain, which is actually a graffitoed urinal, has slipped quite smoothly into the discipline itself.

In my view, this attention focused on the work strengthens it: these protests, these Avaaz petitions, this ire and fury is something that some academic sometime soon will use as grist for their dissertation mill: forcing virtual unknown Elion up there, amongst practitioners like Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet The Rite of Spring, had rotten tomatoes thrown at it because its audience considered it pornography in 1913; or like South African-born arts practitioner Brett Bailey whose Exhibit B, a complex comment on colonialism, over 100 years later, has been censored by the British and French public as being racist; and even the Impressionists who raked up public ire in their ability to thumb their noses at established tradition. Does Elion belong in the company of these giants? Unquestionably not.

There’s a grotesque sculpture on William Nicol Drive in Sandton. It sits in some corporate building speaking obscenely of too much money. It has a motor in it, which sometimes makes the thing turn. It’s a poke in your eye as you drive that way, but do you see protests about it? Is there kicking and screaming and bullying threats in its wake? No. And as a result, it is completely invisible to the great narrative of art history. As it should be.

There’s another aesthetically sinful trend in building acumen where building-sized adverts are rigged over whole buildings or building sites. And there’s a disgusting plaster vertical shawarma spit which turns, installed on the freeway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. These are nakedly commercial. They’re hideous. They’re in our faces and have been for years.

But, you may argue, these monstrosities of excess are in private properties. Their remarkably ugly heads and headlines peek over at us in our public space, but they are not erected in a space deemed completely public. Further, by virtue of what it is, public space must be taken care of by the city in which it exists on behalf of its tax-paying citizens. And taking care means cutting grass, emptying dustbins, getting rid of dog poo. The space needs to be celebrated for itself. And a giant silly gesture like this speaks of undeveloped sensibilities: it’s student-quality in its thinking and disrespectful to those who frequent the space.

But, why has this Elion work tipped the scales of academic fury? Because he said it’s celebrating Mandela, as an afterthought after it had been accepted by the committee that installed it? Or because Elion’s an outsider to the art establishment? Or maybe it’s because it indiscriminately bends aesthetic guidelines in a public space?

The question must be asked: what public art is successful? And who deems it so? And how is it measured? You need only cast your mind’s eye around the country to think of so many shamefully ugly renditions of Nelson Mandela, let alone public monuments the world over celebrating tyrants and values in civilisations that have passed away. Whatever else Elion’s work is, it does entice the children and the graffitos to play with it. And it is temporary

8 replies »

  1. A good piece, reflecting the bizarre ironies that come together when it is ‘public art’. Still, I think the notion of Elion slapping Mandela meaning onto what could have been a silly, fun poke at the trendy and well heeled is what rubs me up the wrong way. leave our icon out of advertising, I say.

    • Indeed, Megan and thank you for this: And yet, and yet, how many dreadful pieces of art have climbed onto the Mandela bandwagon and will still do so in the next few weeks. I feel that the scapegoating of Elion, regardless of what his flaws might be, is just not right. If he was something other than a white male not a part of the arts establishment, I think this would have been a very different conversation.

  2. I find the piece quite bizarre when given its original Mandela connotation (though I can understand the “rationale” fairly easily); however, since the vandalism / interaction began, it’s become increasingly meaningful, in its own way. You are spot on when you call the baying of the pack to our attention. Maybe they’ll be suitably embarrassed by their silliness in years to come. The onanists are in such a hurry to scramble for the moral and artistic high ground, that they forget how much bad art is a) allowed or even encouraged and b) oohed and aahed over in an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario. Dear God, even Beethoven’s Eroica was banned once, as a danger to public morals or safety or something. Get a life, guys, and let bad art die a natural death, instead of getting caught up in mob mentality!

  3. Indeed, Peter! Thank you for this too! The weird thing, when you unpick the story’s facts or are as many as one can access, it degenerates quite quickly into a he said, she said story where blame is being apportioned. No one is prepared to be accountable for this whole silly saga and poor Elion is taking the fall. Some sod, I tell you, will be writing their Masters on this. I just hope to God I don’t have to supervise it!

    • Hmm, I don’t know. I think that in the way he made such a public statement he needs to take the criticism. I am not part of a lynch mob, I just don’t like his bullshit spin. It’s like blaming apartheid when someone’s fake credentials are exposed.

      • Yeah, I do agree, but is it true that the Mandela nonsense was trotted out after the work was accepted, or did the as yet unidentified committee who selected the thing get embarrassingly swayed by that claptrap and then realised what fools they were making of themselves, when the shit hit the fan? I suspect the dinkum truth in this story will never see light of day.

      • I read that the initial selection committee had agreed to the sunglasses being on Camps Bay, and there was no reference to Mandela or Robben Island in the original pitch. That was an addition.

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