The inestimable gravity of small things

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ONLY connect: A piece on show from Hunter-Gatherer.

WHAT DOES IT mean to be human in this relentlessly throw away world in which we live? This is the kind of question which comes under the loupe of Kai Lossgott in his quietly dramatic exhibition Hunter-Gatherer, bringing together, as it does, a broad range of detritus and references, playfulness and poetry.

You may think of Belgian poet and conceptual artist, Marcel Broodthaers as you peruse this body of over 80 pieces, quietly placed alongside one another, works which overlap each other as they document time and serve as an ecological catch-all as they turn your eye and your head in unexpected directions.

You may think of work made by South African artist Alison Kearney in Switzerland about the aesthetic value of ostensibly throwaway domestic objects, as you look at the plastic garments worn by Lossgott in which he collected objects from the world, during recent residencies.

You may, indeed, think of Colin Richards’s meticulous water colour paintings of traditional divination objects as you try to make sense of the order of things Lossgott has established in his installations and prints, performances and filmed work. And in his artists’ books.

Lossgott doffs a proverbial cap to all of these practitioners, sampling the roadkill he finds as he draws lines that describe forms and others that rupture worlds. Hunter-Gatherer is an exhibition about what art is in our throwaway culture, and as you find yourself pondering the materiality of his UV-prints on foil or on household tissue, as you are mesmerised by the array of tiny bottles containing specimens, and evoking a beam of light in a darkened room, you find yourself cast among the poetry and the thinking of this unusual and thoughtful artist. It’s a deep and bold exhibition, but one that on the surface is demure as it is almost elegant.

Concept segues with achingly beautiful line work as photograph segues with found object in this contemporary extrapolation of the conventional definition of the San lifestyle. What does Lossgott, the artist as a persona on the streets of Europe hunt for and gather? Clues and gestures, meanings and disused NikNak packets, fluff and nonsense, ants and seeds … you name it, there’s a taxonomy somewhere in this exhibition into which everything meticulously fits.

It’s an important exhibition, which confronts the throwaway soul of contemporary society, as it reveals an engagement with the world which is unique and beautiful as it is audacious and not the kind of thing you might expect in this gallery space which reeks corporate through its very pores. Not only corporate but commercial: Hunter-Gatherer is a complex body of work that teeters gleefully and self-consciously between academic inaccessibility and the need to woo a buyership. The unabashed magnificence of many of the pieces grab you by the eye, but they do so in an abstract way. When the image of a plastic carrier bag evokes a priest praying, arms akimbo; when the post-consumerist world is so meticulously and earnestly explored as it is here, something magical happens and the time invested in each bit of human detritus lends it a solemn value, but one not unspiced with self-deprecation and utter levity.

  • Hunter-Gatherer by Kai Lossgott is on show at the Absa Gallery in the North Towers in downtown Johannesburg until June 15. Park in the bank’s parking garage on Polly Street (off Main Street) and take the elevator up to UG – and bring your ID. Call 011 350 3003. The gallery is open from 08:30 until 16:00 Monday to Friday.
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Books that redefine the universe

By Sinead Fletcher

  • Sinead Fletcher is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg who recently took part in the Arts Writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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A man for all books: Professor Buzz Spector. Photograph by Sinead Fletcher.

“MAKE YOUR OWN book, Buzzy,” was the instruction that a three-year-old Buzz Spector remembers most clearly as the trigger that started his illustrious career as a book artist.  Arguably one of the superstars of the Booknesses Colloquium and Exhibition – currently on show in Johannesburg – Spector spoke to My View whilst he was in South Africa for the opening and conference hosted at the end of March.

His mother’s instruction came with his first 16-page, brown craft paper book that was sewn with red yarn. This was the paper in which his three-year-old’s sister’s diapers, freshly delivered from the laundry came wrapped in. Spector explains that this moment and this investment of a kind of creative autonomy, planted the seeds of interest which began his exploration and fascination with the book.

These days, armed with qualifications in the field from the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Chicago, Spector, who is currently a professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St Louis, enjoys exploring the making of artists books by way of altering already established archival, record keeping encyclopaedias and almanacs, which boast graphically and typographically identical layouts. Working with great writing – philosophical or fiction – is a difficult process, he says,  as it requires him to explore and read the texts carefully and deeply.

Not every book that makes for great reading served his purposes though. Many do not “suit my method,” he says, explaining that he can go many years before finding books which are suitable for his forms of book alteration. The criteria which Spector follows to find his ideal book include the institutional nature of the text, the quality of paper that the text is printed on, the sturdiness of the binding, the physical properties of the dust jacket and the presence or absence of mould or mildew.

“All of these concerns, from root materiality to critical reading, have to be in play for the work to begin.”

Spector knows South African art making well. He considers Willem Boshoff, who he’s known since 1995 a “kindred spirit”. Articulating great admiration for the work of William Kentridge, Spector also mentioned that recently he has become more aware of books made by artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Stephan Erasmus.

Having worked at a few paper mills, over the years, including Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, Spector says he has been “impoverished” with his selections of paper thus far and is now “looking for the buffet” after being exposed to the work of Mary Hark and other young South African artists.

Describing the Booknesses Colloquium as having had a quality of urgency that showed both in the enormous emotional investment of professionals associated with the University of Johannesburg people – David Paton especially – and in artist book collector Jack Ginsberg’s desire to enable the exhibit to spark a transformative social interest in South Africa, he said this urgency was reflected a sense of caring and desire which, within the international community, he explains, “promotes urgency in reawakening our interest to go out and promote our practise.”

Spector spoke of the multiple panels in the Colloquium, which focused on a rich mêlée of books-related issues, including the notion of the book’s relevance to culture as well as the problem of the book being exhibited as a stillness of form whose “meaning arises in motion.”

  • The Booknesses exhibition, comprising the collection of Jack Ginsberg and curated by David Paton, is on show at the FADA Gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Gallery on the Kingsway Campus, until May 5. Contact David Paton on: dpaton@uj.ac.za or 082 888 4859. Or visit website: http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/

Sucked into abstraction’s vortex, head first

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ONLY connect: A detail of Ricky Burnett’s painting in oil on canvas, titled Ivory VI. Photograph by Liz Whitter.

THIS REMARKABLE BOOK of photographs of black paintings made and exhibited by South African artist Ricky Burnett is intentionally out to mess with your mental equilibrium, but not your self-esteem. Premised with a short text written by Tracey Hawthorne, the book situates itself in art history. In confrontation with ideals of representation. But this is no ordinary art history book – or treatise. There’s no substantial guidance into how to get through each work with its individual nuances and characteristic density. You might feel lost and a little frightened.

It’s a fear sparked by the generally bad rap that visual art has gained in the contemporary press: often visual arts writing is done in such a way that if you are not armed with several degrees in a deep and obscure specialisation in the discipline, you will fear you’re not sufficiently intelligent or well-educated to engage with the core of the work. Blame it on conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp. On writers who over the years developed such an impenetrable tendency to obfuscate their writing with specialist terminology deriding plain language that they effectively chased away popular engagement.

You could even blame it on editors and sub-editors who over the years fell victim to bullying by specialist writers with complicated and seldom-used terminology and theories. But the more you look, the less you should fear these paintings in this book, for this reason.

Yes, they’re about the work of notoriously uncategorisable artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Yes, Burnett comments that the structure of the paintings is not apparent and that they hinge on Goya’s work in a way that cannot be easily traced. But he’s not really playing games with you. No, really.

In 1936, German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. A critical paean to the idea of photography as a medium and photography as a means of reproducing art, it was to become arguably one of the more important tracts on the moral and ethical issues surrounding reproduced photographs of paintings in books.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled With Goya sits strategically on the thorns of Benjamin’s argument. The photographs – taken by Liz Whitter – are of such a quality that they actually challenge the experience of seeing the art works in the flesh, in a gallery, lit in particular ways. Here, your nose is pushed against the nuances of the paint as it is lit in a certain way. You can almost smell the paint as you gaze into its peaks and valleys that the artist as created on the canvas.

But further to that, this is not only about photography and painting. It is also about printing. Published by Palimpsest International and printed in Malaysia, this book offers a richness which you can taste. It doesn’t suffer from a tendency to be muddied and sullied with fingerprints tainting the surface of the glossy paper.

The book does, however, have a downside. But it’s a downside that you could take and stretch across a whole swath of artmaking, should you be so inclined. And that rests upon its abstraction. If Liz Whitter and the Palimpsest International team had focused their considerable skills and acumen in photographing a patch of soil after a rainstorm, or the underside of a piece of rock, they would yield something as varied and as rich, and abstract and as magical as Burnett’s paintings of Goya’s work. Does that mean that we who feel sucked in by these images in this book, down to our very toes, are beguiled and foxed by tricks and nuances that have nothing to do with the real world? Not really. This book isn’t about the underside of a rock or a piece of soil. They’re about Ricky Burnett reflecting on Goya. And there’s their rub of brilliance.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled with Goya (Palimpsest International, Malaysia 2016) Visit www.rickyburnett.com

 

Saving face with ghouls and filigree

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SLEEPING with ghosts: A digital work on paper by Banele Khoza. Photograph courtesy Pretoria Art Museum.

THE BELEAGURED GRANDE dame of visual arts in Pretoria, Pretoria Art Museum, is aware of her flaws, which in many respects are not of her own making. Like many state-run institutions dealing with the arts in South Africa right now, the neglect of the building, its environs and the ugly 1970s redolent design is something that is far away from the current issue of the day on a back-burner which may well, at this point, be ice cold. Given these limitations, the heart and soul of the museum – its staff – are clearly still hard at work in keeping the space relevant. On show in one of the museum’s smaller spaces is a gem of a debut solo exhibition by relative newcomer Banele Khoza (b. 1994).

This young product of the Tshwane University of Technology, who comes of a rural background in Swaziland, has seen an exponential rise in the interest his work has enjoyed, and this is completely warranted. Capable of working with such an intimate sense of filigree in his pen and ink drawings, that it sometimes beggars belief, Khoza is stretching his skills into the realm of watercolour and installation.

What you will see in Temporary Feelings, the first solo exhibition hosted under the ‘For Sale Project’ run by PAM – in the past, this project featured group showcases – is ghoulish images, with an intense sense of soul and wit, redolent in many ways of the work of artists such as Robert Hodgins, not only in terms of his wild and oft outrageous use of colour juxtapositions, but in his use of narrative and composition. Khoza looks at life and death, sex and identity in the curious, complex and candid way that is the privilege and blessing of his youth.

The work is not stripped of cynicism, neither is it sugar-coated, but it is exploring the sense of possibility that Khoza’s instinctively beautiful lines embrace.

Central to the exhibition is an installation behind glass deemed “artists’ books”. Gaze closely at these and you will realise that while Khoza has remarkable aptitude for the book arts, these works in question are books bursting with his distinctive mark-making, bleeding over into written words and back into drawn elements, rather than artists’ books with their own identity and reason for existing.

Overwhelmingly, Khoza is not only a ‘new kid on the block’, but the energy and fierceness he brings to PAM’s environment is an injection of hope and new blood for the institution. Whether his transient presence here, in this far room of the museum, has the fire in it to develop its own momentum, remains to be seen. The exhibition’s initiative is the brainchild of its curator, Mmutle Kgokong – and hopefully art lovers will continue to see developments under this young professional’s steerage – that has the power to override PAM’s currently crumpled reputation.

  • Temporary Feelings by Banele Khoza, curated by Mmutle Kgokong, is at the Pretoria Art Museum until September 4. 012 358 6750.

Dietrich and the skill of folding sullied flesh with frank words

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Has this broken world in which we live, replete as it is with an anything goes mentality, become numbed by the notion of horror? Have images of atrocity lost their bite? This is a question you might be tempted to ask as you enter the space of Keith Dietrich’s astonishingly beautiful exhibition which focuses on crimes and punishments relating to colonial slavery from the late 1600s until the early 1800s. But as you peruse this body of work, which in its thinking and its execution brings the spectre of slavery to the fore, you will be unnerved and seduced in a way that graphic representations of violence just cannot reach.

In 1985, film director Claude Lanzmann’s monumental work Shoah shook the foundation of what Holocaust documentary film should be. This monster production which is over 10 hours in length and which took some 11 years to create redefined the telling of a story of an atrocity. Lanzmann veered completely from any images relating to the series of brutalities which have come to be collectively called the Holocaust. Instead, his panning camera focuses on the beautiful lush green landscapes of the contemporary sites of those appalling acts of hate. And he records verbatim the words, in layers of language, of the witnesses, victims, perpetrators.

In his elegant and enormous yet profoundly subtle exhibition, Dietrich does something that cleaves to an understanding of the underpinnings of Lanzmann’s project. In reflecting on the punishment of slaves in 18th and 19th century colonial South Africa, he quotes from 1 220 legal treatises and record books, offering names, crimes and punishments. Bound magnificently into four artists’ books, the work has no images of brutality. But the words in red ink, accounting these floggings and impalings, amputations and beheadings, punishments for petty crimes, are far more emotive and evocative than any representation could be.

It’s like radio theatre: the words simply and directly open your sensibilities to the real horror under Dietrich’s loupe. The four hand-stitched unique books play with the traditions of bookbinding in a way that skirts notions of fragility and notions of tradition, yielding a kaleidoscopic series of impeccable paper folds that seize you by the eyes and pull you in to its interstices, unyielding.

The walls around the installation feature four photomontaged portraits that focus on the diversity of people who were, indeed, slaves in the period under scrutiny. Each of them – three men and a woman – are strong, iconic images that engage you directly. Each has a text on his or her body, embracing and celebrating a drawing of a vital organ.  It’s a text of records of atrocities, but in its physical presence it entraps your eye, your heart and your sense of history.

Dietrich is a heavyweight – as an academic and an artist – and yet, he exercises great astuteness and restraint, almost levity, in presenting the material in his exhibition. This is not about prowess. The writing and how it relates to the subject matter in its positioning and its layout flows with directness that takes you through geographies and moralities with a smoothness that leaves you thinking – the vessels for the ideas in this exhibition are so beautifully honed and so thoughtfully compiled that they do not stand in the way of the gem-like kernels presented.

But visiting this exhibition in its current manifestation – it will be travelling the country in the coming year – is a stultifying challenge, saved by the strength of the work. While this is a topic for another post and shouldn’t detract from an honest engagement with Dietrich’s work, the Pretoria Art Museum shrieks disrespect for the work it houses.

Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives is an important exhibition, not only in terms of the documentary insights it offers into the grim and dirty roots of slavery in this country, but also in terms of the unequivocal achievement the work offers the rather obscure discipline of artists’ books.

  • Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives, an exhibition by Keith Dietrich is at the Pretoria Art Museum until January 17. Call 012 358 6750