Michael MacGarry at Art Extra
by Cara Snyman
Michael MacGarry's 'When enough people start saying the same thing' is an exceptional exhibition. It's not often one sees a body of work, especially by a young artist, that is this coherent and resolved.
MacGarry might be better known for the work, or lack of, he produced for his 'All Theory. No practice.' - the aptly named website that hosted his photo documentation, list of sources and extensive writing on the art projects that in actuality never existed. MacGarry's interest in playing the border game between fact and fiction, real and imagined, is continued here. And while the material object might be central to this show, the erosion of its value as art object still takes place - the beautifully crafted sculptures are cast as 'stills' or 'props' - mere accessories to a larger unproduced film.
Contrary to what one might expect, not producing was less a comment on market economy than a matter of pragmatics, as MacGarry tells David Brodie in an enlightening interview in the accompanying catalogue: it was 'a means to publish work and ideas at a time when I couldn't physically manifest these ideas'. This type of frankness is typical of MacGarry's output, and in fact part of the art is this kind of disclosure.
For the 'African Archetypes' photographic series, MacGarry systematically destroys the visual illusion he creates by his written addenda. The master which might have passed for a documentation shot of a masked soldier in a far away tropical forest, ala Guy Tillim, is described as follows: 'This photograph features three works I made this year - the wooden mask of Hu Jintao (President of China); the "Ghillie suit" and the AK-47 assault rifle. The Hu Jintao mask was carved from an existing Okuyi mask I bought at a market in Johannesburg for R400. The "Ghillie" suit I bought online from a US military supplier in Utah for R780 - this is a standard issue tactical marksman suit issued to all infantry snipers and spotters within the US Army and the Marine Corps. The AK-47 was made from a plastic toy I bought for R75 - which I then aged with sandpaper and carved the wooden elements from pine timber, gluing them to the plastic gun with epoxy. The person in the photograph is my girlfriend's parents' gardener. His name is Main Road Ncube and I paid him R1000 for a three-hour shoot.'
There is a sense of irony in this preference for full disclosure and seemingly straightforward rendering, and in some ways this saves the work from becoming too heavy-handed. Similarly it lightens the studious approach of his characteristically thorough documentation and detailed writing as seen in the catalogue.
Conceptual thoroughness in this body of work does not mean that craftsmanship plays second fiddle - MacGarry's objects are beautifully finished, and one sees an engagement that confirms his statement that he still sees himself 'principally as a sculptor'.
H.F. Verwoerd from the 'TippEx Politics' series might not be the most visually striking work, but one has to admire the conceptual elegance of this tower of industrial foam, both phallic and reminiscent of bodily remnant, cast in bronze. It speaks of corrupted power, futility and impotence, and is an ironic monument to South Africa's recent past. The sculpture sits next to a similar treatment of 'champagne socialist' Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, though this sculpture is painted black and left in original industrial foam state. The proximity of these two works draws parallels, and one might suggest that similarly to other work of MacGarry's, 'the concern was neither to redeem nor vilify specific past events but to alter them for review through fictional narratives and temporal comparisons'.
L'Etranger is a sculpture of a man built from the same industrial foam. He is given a mask (again recarved from a found African one), pointy black leather shoes, and clothed in seemingly haphazard stripes of black yellow and green. It reads as an eloquent statement on superficial political alliances in the service of individual enrichment.
Corrupted power and the role of commerce therein, is the central theme in 'When enough people start saying the same thing' and this is nowhere more evident than in The Instrument - a deactivated Mauser KAR98k from 1942, and The Means an accompanying Ivory bullet from his video Will to Power, which takes its title from a passage from Frederick Nietzsche,'s Beyond Good and Evil. This text offers one explanation of exploitation: '[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body... will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant - not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power... "Exploitation"... belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.'
The fetish series continues the image of guns and power. Replica automatic guns, like the AK-47, is reworked with the hammering of nails or teeth, producing an iconic image of the fetishisation of violence.
Reinterpreting the fetish object, as he did with the quintessential 'authentic' African art form, the mask, also becomes a way MacGarry challenges art conventions, while commenting on the currency that the weapon enjoys in settling scores, as a binding contract, to protect, and as such somehow imbued with the magical powers the fetish once held.
AU is a found object comprising a car door with the large emblematic AU on it, and for me one of the few weak points in this exhibition - bit of a one liner on the African Union's impotence and maybe even unwillingness to implement change.
'When enough people start saying the same thing' speaks of an Africa where colonialisation has made way for economic imperialism - the same monster with a different face. It is a dark picture, but MacGarry handles his theme and media with grace and 'When enough people start saying the same thing' is a true coup d'etat for this young artist.
Opens: July 16
Closes: August 16
373 Jan Smuts Avenue, Craighall, Johannesburg
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Hours: Tue - Fri 10.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 9.30am - 3pm