Bruce Gordon at the SANG
by Paul Edmunds
Of course, what everyone's neglecting to say is that this whole lark is mad. R52,000 exchanged hands for a 'Kaapse kroegbaas', although it wasn't really for him, rather the 'concept' of him. In a further twist, said 'kroegbaas' owns a bar called Jo'burg, which is situated in Cape Town. Anyway, he (or 'it', I'm not sure which pronoun to choose) was bought by art patron and bon vivant Suzy Bell, who just pipped the SANG's Marilyn Martin at the post. Bell kindly donated Gordon to the SANG.
Following this, people flocked to a first showing at the venue (and not just for the free drinks and nuts) where they listened to well-respected artist and academic Penny Siopis (her glasses slipping critically far down her nose) expound the virtues and ramifications of the museum's latest acquisition. We also heard the artwork (insofar as the artwork comprises him in the flesh) speak for himself, welcoming us all to his new home, where "some changes are going to have to be made". A poker bar in the annex, he proposed, and conceptual strip shows in the Lieberman room.
And let's not forget the artist at the centre of all this - Edward Young. Says Ed: "My work is cool to do. Bruce took me 10 seconds to come up with." Young got R26,000 for his troubles, a tattoo thrown in for good measure and he also got to keep his vintage Merc, which he had originally planned to auction.
Lost? Read on. In December last year, Michaelis School of Fine Art held their annual auction, takings from which are used to fund scholarships and other special projects of the school. Staff and senior students are expected to donate work for the auction and are given, in return, 50% of the funds generated. Ed Young chose to sell 'Bruce Gordon' (with and without the quotation marks), whose medium is described as 'found object (concept)'. Gordon's wife and ArtThrob's founding editor, Sue Williamson started the ball rolling with a R100 bid. Eventually Marilyn Martin was left to battle it out with Suzy Bell, known to most us for her early involvement with the Durban Art Gallery's 'Red Eye' events. Her R52,000 bid won and she duly packed 'Bruce Gordon' off to the SANG's acquisitions committee, who approved their latest donation.
Now personally I got a little lost when reading the texts accompanying this whole shenanigan. Prepared by Andrew Lamprecht, Michaelis Art Theory lecturer and Ed Young's colluder in all of this, these texts describe in detail the art historical precedents and the ramifications of this artwork, both for the SANG and the art-world in general. I believe Lamprecht implicitly, and I do enjoy the little bits of French and Latin he throws in too. He appears to enjoy this himself and chose the latter for a 'sympathy tattoo', which Lamprecht also acquired.
As a permanent fixture in the SANG's collection, like all the others, Bruce Gordon is required to bear an indelible 'accession number'. It was elected that Gordon (the person) should bear this number in a tattoo. Young and Lamprecht each had one in sympathy. Young chose a black rectangle and Lamprecht the word 'felicitas' - Latin for 'luck'.
I think it's important that we don't ignore the person of Gordon in favour of the loftier 'concept'. Gordon's bar, after all, is Cape Town's unofficial art HQ (at least for those of us young enough to stay awake until a suitable arrival time). His career has spanned anything from clothing salesman, to manager of Amampondo, to journalist and, most recently, bar-owner. He's not short of charisma or stamina and loves a good yarn and a few drinks. He's a founding member of Public Eye, and Suzy Bell paid for him with the money she got from the sale of a stud bull. Apparently, though, she couldn't keep her acquisition because it clashed with the curtains and the Tretchikoff print. (I think she's serious.)
So while Penny Siopis, who flew down from Johannesburg ostensibly to open the showing, opined on 'Bruce Gordon' the 'object' and the 'subject', and further related his acquisition to the military's legal possession of conscript's bodies while pondering the collection's responsibility for his preservation ('Wheesky awn eyes' said the colourfully bespectacled Frenchman next to me), Marilyn Martin did a great job of milking the event for all the media kudos the gallery could get.
Gordon, who was apparently not required to be at the opening, elected to speak and was very amusing, even while appearing to take his acquisition quite seriously. I confess that it is to the real figure of Gordon I continually return, and I don't think I'm alone. On the other hand, it's interesting to ponder just what the said R52,000 bought. How can it be utilised? Or is it just the art-world having a little laugh at itself? Or (oops!) is this fiddling while Rome burns? Go figure.
For a more sober view of things, check out the catalogue which Ed Young and Andrew Lamprecht have put together. It's a solid, sexy little booklet that adequately explains what I have failed to. But don't think that there aren't some tongues firmly in cheeks there too.
'Bruce Gordon' opened at the SANG on Saturday March 29.
South African National Gallery, Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 481-3823 from 8:30am-1pm
Fax: (021) 461 0045
Hours: Tues - Sun 10am - 5pm