FNB Vita Art Prize 2001 at the NSA Gallery
by Greg Streak
"And the winner is Alan ... um ..." Although there were some glaring omissions from this year's FNB Vita Art Prize shortlist, the opening exhibition went off with a bang - well, more a little pop really, as is often the case with such highly anticipated events. Was the winner controversial? That depends on who your favourite was, I suppose - and who was second on your betting list. Moshekwa Langa is the Vita Art Prize winner for 2001, and the ball keeps rolling, as they say ...
The Vita - a Turner Prize wannabe - is regarded by most as the premier award on the South African visual arts calendar, despite the fact that it carries less of a purse than some other competitions. The deal, however, is that the R35 000 cheque is for use as the winner sees fit and not to eke out an existence in a foreign country for some godforsaken period of time - like Survivor, Paris style.
Carol Brown of the Durban Art Gallery gave the opening address, highlighting the fact that it was great that the artists came from different regions. Wonder how that was worked out - seems to me five were from Joeys and one from Pretoria, making a six out of six, 100% Gauteng contingent. But don't trust me - I'm an artist and my maths ain't so hot. So let's steer well clear of the geographic bias. Privileged we were, though, with Durban and the NSA Gallery being chosen to host the Vita for the first time in its new format, which will see it moving to a different region each year.
Of course we had to endure the standard blurb: "By virtue of the fact that you are all nominated for the award, you are all winners." Bollocks, man, show me the money - bridesmaids don't get a rock, from what I remember. Anyway, the wind on opening night must have blown straight past the grapevine, because I caught something along the lines that "the judges were split quite vehemently". Another almost had his name in lights, but it wasn't to be.
Clive van den Berg's enigmatic perspectival light drawings took control of the main gallery space, almost saying, "I don't see any other work around here, do you?" As it turned out, yes - Moshekwa Langa's for one, positioned directly above in the mezzanine gallery. Three monitors on black plinths each display gentle images reflecting Langa's own sense of dislocation between home and home from home - South Africa vs Holland - accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack. I'm not sure whether the volume was a bit soft or if it was fighting the mechanical grind coming from the Park Gallery. Here Jan van der Merwe's piece is a stunning sculptural intervention - a mini conveyer belt carrying suitcases, like those found in airports the world over. Van der Merwe's trademark rusted steel is on show, each element lovingly caressed to a rusty orange hue, an indication of its journey to its ultimate demise - the kiss of death? Fully functional, the rusted machine moves around at a perfectly controlled speed with a monitor showing the baggage's progress as it moves behind the "curtains", out of sight of the viewer, and makes its way back out for yet another encore. With much of South Africa's recent history predicated on subterfuge, here for once we get to see what really goes on behind the scenes. I'm just not sure whether it is quite as startling as we all know it to be.
Kathryn Smith, like Van der Merwe, boxed clever. Both sought out the only real autonomous spaces in the gallery. Smith's installation in the media room downstairs is so finely controlled, so carefully plotted and arranged, it speaks volumes about her acute preoccupations with and understanding of the pathological mind. Cool aluminium floors, wet fleshy walls glistening from the light of the cathode tubes in the numerous monitors, hanging from perfectly singular poles attached to the eye-beams above, the constant monotonous soundtrack adding to the haunting environment ... It's a bit creepy in here now - haven't seen Kathy for a while - I'm out of here!
Not sure whether it was just my eyes trying to find focus, but Kim Lieberman's piece, with its "breathing pixellation", left me even more dazed. A loop of what appears to be a grid made up of smaller grids - kind of a macro made up of identical micros - expanding and contracting on the screen of a black laptop, finds itself simultaneously projected on the wall. Despite the magnification of the video projection, the crisp detail on the laptop conveys the intimacy of the work more successfully.
Suddenly there is a gathering of the masses - are they about to announce the winner? No, it's Robin Rhode up to his antics again. As he says, he's so hot his mom calls him son. Well, here he is on a humid winter evening in Durban, calling for the attention of the 150-plus audience. He's casually drawing the lines that will make up a Hiace Taxi, later to be named Elaine. Speed stripes added, he throws down his charcoal stick and nonchalantly lopes off. Most people in the space, who have never seen a Rhode performance before, are not sure - some begin to half-applaud, others mutter "I can draw like that" (so you think so, hey?). But then the show really begins. Rhode returns with bucket and water and begins to wash the taxi. Before long, out of the audience appear five or six young black assistants. Singing "Amadoda", they clean vigorously - polishing the side-mirror, wringing out the cloths and drying her down. Spontaneously two girls, aged about five, walk forward and join in. Rhode, the charmer, picks one up and has her drying down the roof. They all step back admiring the clean taxi/smudged remains of the drawing. Rhode adds the final touches - some black polish for the wheels.
Leaving the gallery, Van den Berg's light fragments beckon again. Memory, intimacy, (re)collections, on a big scale. A modernist grid of lights denied by a scattering of broken rock fragments. A bed drawn in lines high on the wall floats, casting a perfect shadow. A strange detail in red fabric opened like a flower in decay.
Well, it's all over till next year. The NSA has done Durban proud, with all the nominated artists contributing to one of the finest contemporary visual art shows you are likely to see this year. If you are in Durban, this one is not to be missed; if not, you should try and get here.
Greg Streak is a Durban-based artist and curated the recent 'Open Circuit' exhibition at the NSA