Michael MacGarry 'True/Story' at the KZNSA Gallery
by Julian Brown
Durbanite Michael MacGarry, like many other young Durban artists, he left town before beginning to achieve recognition. 'True/Story' is his first solo exhibition in his hometown and is, in some ways, a triumphant return. The exhibition functions as a kind of reduced-scale retrospective, incorporating elements of his work since 2000. This is not immediately obvious on entering the KZNSA, however.
Instead, the first impression is of space: three-quarters of the KZNSA gallery space has been left empty. The exhibition is concentrated in one corner, where three white tables are placed precisely in line with each other. Standing to one side is a wooden drying rack. A fibre-glass mannequin wearing a mask and a parachute, and armed with a modified toy gun stands just in front of the tables. The parachute stretches up to the gallery's mezzanine level, extending the only long vertical sightline in the exhibition. Three of the gallery's walls are blank, bare: only the far wall has anything hung on it: a two-metre long board covered in dense text, broken by dark slashes and small images.
A small number of objects are mounted on the tables, laid out almost like scientific specimens. There are few identifiable similarities between the objects: a globular white mass, a paper mask and a brown paper bag, a wooden stick, two refurbished guns – one a plastic toy and one rebuilt from a real rifle. A guitar and a toy aeroplane, the latter painted white and branded 'African Airlines', float on the edges of a table.
The works are not accompanied by labels but instead are only numbered: to discover their titles, their dates, and their prices one either has to cross the empty spaces of the gallery and find the photocopied price list, or stand in front of the large board at the end of the gallery and read its dense text. Either will reveal that, for example, work number 2 two is called Economy of Modernity and is extracted from MacGarry's latest photographic series, called African Archetypes. The board includes a small reproduction of the photograph from which the item is taken, called The Classicist – the naked back of a voluminous woman, accompanied by a tall measuring stick and the foamy mess of work 2.
The text also tells you that the woman's name is Gisele, that she comes from Nigeria, that she works as a prostitute, and that MacGarry paid her R300 for a forty minute photo-shoot. It does not – and cannot, perhaps – tell you why this particular prop, made of industrial foam and pine, enamel paint, brass, paper and epoxy, has been taken from this photo-shoot and placed in this gallery. It also avoids explaining why the work itself, resembling coagulated intestines, or a plaster-cast of a squirming rats' nest , is so disturbing and so fascinating, so hard to look closely at and so hard to look away from. The text gives the original context of the work, but withholds explanation of its current context.
The text also resists drawing obvious connections between Economy of Modernity, and other works placed alongside it on the same table. For example, work number 6 (Photostat Fang Mask) and work number 7 (Paper Mask). As it turns out, these two works are also props from previous works MacGarry has made: a video and a posed photograph respectively.
The juxtaposition of these three works on this table (and a fourth – a long wooden block, painted white and subdivided into a measuring instrument) provokes speculation. Through the alchemy of exhibition, they have become art works in their own right, and in conjunction with each other. The information presented on the board at the back of the room may add to their potential signifying powers, but does not determine their meanings.
The information on the board, in fact, is fascinating but not always fully necessary for enjoyment – or even interpretation. Most of the viewers at the opening read one or two entries, before turning back to the pieces themselves. Even with only this partial knowledge, though, the scale and scope of the exhibition seems massively expanded. The information on the board demystifies the pieces, but does not close down possible interpretations. Instead, it opens up a kind of mental space in which the viewers can speculate quite wildly.
These speculations are only be encouraged by the discovery that the board is not simply an explanatory text, but an artwork in itself – available for sale in a limited edition of five. The text is therefore not outside the exhibition, but an intrinsic part of it. The narration of the works is a part of the works themselves and the truth of the narratives printed here may be as ambiguous as that of any other artwork: perhaps they can be taken at face value, but it can't be forgotten that these words, like almost every other piece on the exhibition, even the minimally refurbished drying-rack, are for sale.
MacGarry's honesty about the commercial aspects of his art production is striking throughout the text, detailing the costs he incurs, the fees he pays his models, and the vicissitudes of the process (for example, when one model's shoes were accidentally burned in the course of a shoot, they needed to be replaced). This honesty is as much a part of the ethic of his work as his emphasis on the constructed and performed nature of his photos.
The exhibition provokes one into returning again and again to the same pieces from different angles; one reads the text and learns something about objects' manufacture and previous use. One returns to the tables look again, considering each object first on its own, and then beside its companions. It's impossible to exhaust the possibilities of these pieces. In this, MacGarry's exhibition is unusually exciting – and challenging, for it's rare to find an artist as willing to be as generous with his own work.
The end result is that the unoccupied spaces that characterise the gallery no longer seem so empty when one finally turn away from the show: instead, they have opened out.
Julian Brown is a PhD candidate at Oxford University in England and writer on art and culture.
Opens: February 12
Closes: March 9
The KZNSA Gallery
166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood, Durban
Tel: (031) 202 3686
Fax: (031) 201 8051
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 5pm, Sat - Sun 10am - 4pm