This is the second of a series of articles exploring alternate spaces in Cape Town. Read the first part on project space JNR here.
In or out? It is a seemingly mundane question; one we are all faced with each and every day. Yet, it is a question that was embodied, both literally and figuratively, by Stevenson’s Ramp exhibition series– a set of shows on the entrance ramp at the gallery in Cape Town. Whether it be the ramp itself as a physical transition between the gallery and the street, or the figurative play between young artists and gallery representation or the exhibitions themselves as entry points to the gallery, this project deftly examined the various angles from which to view this dichotomous subject. The series text includes the following passage: ‘While the English meaning of the word “ramp” describes the project’s physical parameters, its meaning in Afrikaans – “disaster” – provides the thematic subtext of the series.’
A ‘disaster’ is defined as, ‘a complete or terrible failure.’ In art, failure is an important concept. There is much to be learnt by failing, and when it comes to the project space it is almost essential. Specifically, because in order to be able to experiment effectively and push the boundaries of creativity, one needs to accept the risk of failure. There needs to be a recognition that it may be unavoidable, based on the way these spaces intend to operate outside of commercial interests. Yet, in spite of this ever present risk, in one way or another, there is always the opportunity to do something you wouldn’t normally do. So, what if this ethos was adopted by a commercial gallery? And, what if it was a South African one?
This is how I viewed Stevenson’s Ramp exhibition series. Albeit, that this series of exhibitions was not entirely a huge risk, nor the first of its kind, it was still something different from what we have come to expect from commercial galleries in Cape Town. Although the ramp has been used before as part of exhibitions inside the gallery, this project was different. There was a real openness, fluidity and flexibility that felt more like a project space than a commercial gallery. Rather, it was Stevenson doing something more for those whose work needs a platform; for those who need a place to test experimental projects.
Sitting at a breakfast in Johannesburg, with director Joost Bosland, I was struck by a collective recognition of the need to address the shortage of inbetween spaces in the South African artworld. Only later did it occur to me that the Ramp project could very easily be thought of as an important part of this discussion. Particularly, because it raises the question of what the role of the commercial art gallery is and could be in South Africa. With art museums in the country doing what they can, with what they have and what they get, I have always felt that perhaps the galleries could do more, that they could play a greater role in supporting these types of experimental projects. It is certainly worth asking the questions, even if it is not entirely possible – or in the galleries case, worthwhile. That said, the Ramp series is unquestionably appropriate fodder for this conversation. It can stand as a worthy example of the different avenues commercial galleries can explore, and the non-commercial impact they could have.
Because, without a doubt, the Ramp project was exciting. The four exhibitions were savvy. And, best of all they came from four intelligent young artists, each of which are consistently challenging the way they work. Laura Windvogel branched out from watercolours, using the space to create a mural of her characteristic, thought provoking and overtly sexual imagery; Mitchell Gilbert Messina’s contribution was witty and playful, his interventions seemed concerned –both literally and figuratively– with getting into and out of the gallery; Buhlebezwe Siwani served up an emotionally and spiritually charged performance, leaving the detritus on view for all to see from the street and Nyakallo Maleke, turned the ramp into a spaza shop installation, giving the gallery entrance a literal ‘storefront’ feeling.
However, aside from the exhibitions themselves, perhaps what was most intriguing was what the ramp itself stood for: this transition between the inside and the outside, as Messina cleverly pointed out. It literally served as an inbetween space. An uphill slope going into the gallery and a downhill slope leading out of it. A platform – viewed by both those in the street and in the gallery- that by its very nature implied movement and industry.
I must admit, I was sad to hear that the Ramp had came to an end. So, I caught up with Bosland to find out if we would see the ramp, or something like it again soon. What ensues is a conversation that encapsulates his views on Stevenson’s role in South Africa, how the Ramp series unfolded and why Messina’s work is now in their restroom.
Knowing that artists at Stevenson have used the ramp before as an extension of their exhibitions, was there anything in particular that prompted the decision to extend this idea into an exhibition series that occupies this space?
We had experimented with different formats to incorporate younger artists into our programme—starting with the Side Gallery in 2007. We hadn’t done something in a while, and then the idea of the ramp came to me and felt right.
Did you have any specific goals or objectives when you decided to initiate the series?
For better or worse we have become part of the establishment. Projects like Ramp allow us some freedom to play a little, and get to know people who otherwise might not cross our paths.
The ramp itself is technically a transition point, both physically and figuratively, between the inside and outside of the gallery, did this metaphorical play figure into its conceptualization at all? If so how?
We specifically asked the artists to take into consideration that they would have two audiences: gallery visitors as well as casual passers-by. The metaphoric sense in which the project sits halfway between the outside world and gallery representation hadn’t occurred to us, though Mitchell quickly made this point explicit with his ‘Foot in the door’ piece.
The press write up for the series states that, “While the English meaning of the word ‘ramp’ describes the project’s physical parameters, its meaning in Afrikaans – ‘disaster’ – provides the thematic subtext of the series” With this in mind, how did you approach the programming of the space from a curatorial perspective?
That sounded good when we wrote it, but had little to do with how the project eventually materialized.
As for the artists, why in particular did you decide to turn the space over to Laura Windvogel, Mitchell Gilbert Messina, Buhlebezwe Siwani and Nyakallo Maleke respectively?
We first noticed Laura when she produced a great magazine in collaboration with Malibongwe Tyilo, who we’ve known for years. Mitchell had made a piece called ‘Low hanging fruit’ for the AVA booth at the Cape Town Art Fair which a friend of mine saw and bought. Several of Buhle’s lecturers had spoken to us about her, so we were curious. And one day I stumbled upon a fantastic installation in the Substation at Wits, which turned out to be by Nyakallo.
Is this project an ongoing one, with a foreseeable future?
Nope—we feel that these four shows exhausted the format. We do currently have a project by Mitchell in our toilet.
Finally, how do you view the role of the “South African gallery” in relation to local emerging artistic practice?
We are plugged in, and have the infrastructure to do small projects with young artists relatively easily, and of course we have a built-in audience But one shouldn’t overestimate our importance. The most successful young artists build careers independently of galleries, and only use us when it suits them to further their creative ambitions.