Véronique Malherbe at Bell-Roberts Art Gallery
by Hazel Friedman
There's this really provocative photograph of artist Véronique Malherbe that forms part of her 'Love and Desecration' show. Shot by Michael Shevel, it depicts her clad in a little black number beneath a stop sign with her regal profile immortalised at its most flattering angle. She's part dethroned Cleopatra, part sullied goddess, a dirty Audrey Hepburn. And in vintage-vamp Véronique style, the work is called Joan of Art.
You gotta love it! In fact you gotta love many of the unashamedly narcissistic, hedonistic, decadent, sex, drugs 'n trance images that make up her latest body of work. They strike one as footage from some retro, new-age pantomime, kinda like Woodstock meets Vortex - significantly, titles include Snortex and Trancefusion. Along with other image titles - Speed Queen and Punk Braai, Rasta Barbie and Regular Day Job - these are also the names of some of the bands conceived and created by Malherbe for her various projects.
Over the past 18 months, Malherbe and Anarchic Harmony - her "global creative collective" consisting of musos, poets, photographers, designers, collectors and performers - have collaborated on a series of multi-sensory projects. The fruits of these can be seen in the form of massive, digitally enhanced images - printed free of charge by Russel Jones at the Scan Shop.
Every Sunday Malherbe would invite a group of people - strangers to one another - to spend a day eating together, rapping and shooting the scenes. Her pantheon of creatives includes Ronnie Levitan, Adam Weltz, Justin Anschutz and Stan Engelbrecht, to mention a few. Locations included Malherbe's "world of inferiors" - her own home until, she says, it was unceremoniously trashed - the Long Street baths, kitchens, stairwells, bathrooms - and other places conducive to hanging out and/or getting high. There, they'd all act like rock stars and dress up in gaudy costumes and outlandish wigs, pretending to be forest fairies or punk rockers. And they'd send up advertising slogans, consumer brands, suburban myths and sexual taboos while making direct references to smack, crack, weed 'n speed.
The results are in-yer-face and up-yer-nose recreations of various contemporary subcultures - glamourised images of the drug scene alongside some splendid visual satires, like Extra Virgin: The Theory of Nativity. Photographed by Ronnie Levitan in a barn outside the South African Museum, it consists of three "wise guys" and five virgins (Malherbe and son Ariel included). Without taking itself too seriously it raises questions about "holy fucks" and other forms of (im)maculate con(tra)ception.
Even the more prosaic tableaux, like Eye for an Eye - Blindsight and Tooth for a Tooth - Lockjaw, which detail delicate surgical procedures, point to Malherbe's undisputed gift for double entendres and visual/verbal puns. There are also intimate mother-and-child moments and a series of cyclops images which capture the unadorned Malherne at her most vulnerable. These are perhaps the only unposed images on the show.
A work such as Miss Marvel: Good Clean and Fresh - which is anything but - clearly harks back to an early sound installation by the artist in 1990. But the retro part of the show lies predominantly in the images, which remind one of psychedelic pop posters that are truly like, fully shoo wow in terms of their visual seductiveness. They are very Sixties with a new-age slant and most of them unselfconsciously celebrate the freedom to do nothing more than revel in fantasy and cults of self-styled celebrity.
And the title of pop poster princess must certainly go to Malherbe. She is director, stylist and undisputed "startiste" of 'Love and Desecration'. The camera loves her damaged beauty - whether she's playing a bruised Barbie or the Debbie Harry of the visual arts (except now she's reverted to original brunette status). The ultimate art tart, she swanks, shimmers and shines - perfecting the process of serial self-reinvention with such slovenly glamour that the Cindy Shermans of the art world seem almost typecast by comparison. And not simply when she's making art, either.
"But there's nothing autobiographical in these images," says Malherbe. "Everything is a re-creation, except for the images photographed of me before and after eye surgery." She adds: "There were no rules except for one: the bands must have integrity. Oh, and they mustn't steal."
Ah, enter the biographical details - not all of them entirely necessary - that inevitably appear on Malherbe's press releases. 'Love and Desecration' nearly didn't happen, according to Malherbe, because of theft. Shortly before the show someone "known to the group" allegedly stole the original video footage, tapes and hundreds of Anarchic Harmony photographs, not to mention Malherbe's computer and musical instruments. Fortunately, she says, she kept the contact sheets elsewhere.
Then there are the other ignominies she's suffered in the last year - burgled four times, attacked twice by a "knife-wielding maniac" and thrown in jail - actions all perpetrated by people she knows and who she insists are out to get her.
If you didn't know she's not into hard narcotics, you'd swear she'd taken one acid cap too many and was living some weird psychodrama fantasy. But delusional she ain't. She just happens to wear her bruises like badges of honour. When you get past her self-absorption, bordering on self-obsession, and her sometimes crude methods of creative expression, Malherbe's a damn fine artist. She's also got more balls than a pinball machine. She is equally adept at sending up her vampish "Véronique d'Afrique" image as she is at erecting shrines to it. All too often, though, her witty wordplays and wild conceptual adventures take second place to her propensity for getting into shit. And not just because of her interest in bodily secretions.
In the past she's tended to attach herself to causes célèbre, albeit with noble intentions and an honest desire to expose injustice and abuse. The fact that she embraces scandal with such alacrity means that it remains inextricably entwined with her work. Thing is, the ongoing dramas associated with her persona often overshadow the resonance of her work. But then again, the subject of art is always the self, and she's had an incredibly entertaining catalogue of subject matter from which to choose: stalkings, assassinations, single parenting, sexual abuse.
Not so with 'Love and Desecration'. Here the biographical bits are present only in a subliminal sense - as calamities that occurred before and after the shoots. And you don't have to be intimate with the graphic details to enjoy the show. While not exactly visual masterpieces, the images must have been really fun to make. Professionally shot, colourfully cast and styled, they're a mixture of grunge and bohemian chic. And they make for great posters too - another first for Malherbe, whose work doesn't usually lend itself to commercial consumption.
"My approach remains that whatever happens in your life, you've got to use it to your advantage. I've taken knocks, but the older I get the less I give a shit about what people think. I find that very empowering." She adds: "And for me this show is just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down."
Until February 9
Bell-Roberts Art Gallery, 199 Loop Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm