Archive: Issue No. 81, May 2004

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Art at your service: D.I.E.N.S. at the KKNK
by Carine Zaayman

The Klein Karoo Nationale Kunstefees this year celebrated its 10th birthday. Even though it is often derided for bringing out the worst of Afrikaans culture (reports of it turning into a drinking fest abound among festival goers), it unarguably provides an important platform for the articulation of post-apartheid Afrikaans culture on a large scale.

This year, the festival boasted an impressive line-up of artists, including those featured on the Sasol-sponsored exhibition 'Demokrasie en Verandering' (Democracy and Change): Lien Botha, William Kentridge, Penny Siopis, Berni Searle, Willem Boshoff, Sue Williamson, Tracy Rose, Candice Breitz, Lisa Brice (in what they called the kunsreuse, or "art giants" section) and Natasha Christopher, Kathryn Smith, Gerhard Marx, Abrie Fourie and Doreen Southwood (who were called "rising young stars") made up the numbers. Solo exhibitions were held by Frikkie Eksteen, Matthew Hindley and Churchill Madikida. Importantly, the festival also presented a craft festival artist for the first time - Katherine Glenday and artefacts from the Karos embroidery project were shown.

While most of the work was largely gallery-oriented (excluding Strijdom van der Merwe and Laurinda Hofmeyr's outdoor work) an interesting exception was the D.I.E.N.S. project, lead by Cape Town-based artist Liza Grobler. Announcing themselves as an "interactive project", the D.I.E.N.S. group articulated their concerns as follows: "Hoe kan ons diens lewer aan die gemeenskap? Watter vorme kan dit aanneem, en kan ons deur kommunikasie diens lewer?" ("How can we offer a service to the community? What form can this service take, and can we offer service through communication?").

D.I.E.N.S. comprised Liza Grobler, Pierre Fouché, Norman O'Flynn and Johan Thom. Throughout the festival, they were located not inside a gallery, but at a freestanding structure on the street, in the heart of activities. Their projects were launched from this structure, it was used to show documentation and it was here that the artists engaged with the public about their work. All the activities were site-specific, performance-based or interactive. Liza Grobler, for instance, strategically placed hundreds of pompoms around the town, with little tags that read, "ek is nie 'n pommie nie" ("I am not a pommie"). Johan Thom and Norman O'Flynn staged a private performance on an airstrip outside the town. In the performance, they crawled, naked and painted white, towards each other across the breadth of the strip through a cloth cylinder. In another work, O'Flynn orchestrated an interactive process that produced large drawings on a blackboard, themselves made up of smaller drawings done by members of the public. One such drawing by a woman read "hy slaan my, maar ek is lief hom" ( "he hits me, but I love him").

Grobler's performance in which she wrote "Jy sal nie valse getuienis lewer nie" ("Thou shall not bear false witness") on the blackboard, took place outside a church during a Sunday morning service. Another of her projects entailed asking passers-by to write down a secret of theirs on a serviette she obtained from a restaurant close to the group's base. She did not look at the secret, but surreptitiously returned the serviettes to the restaurant where patrons used them. Some of the serviettes were read and anonymous secrets were outed, while others were simply discarded by the unsympathetic habits of the diners.

A highlight from D.I.E.N.S. was Pierre Fouché's project LVJ+MJB XXX, which stands for "Lief Vir Jou en Mis Jou Baie" ("love you and miss you lots"). This refers to an sms message sent by Fouch� to his lover with whom he has had a long distance relationship for 6 years. Fouch� has contact with his lover mostly through such text messaging, and they have developed a shorthand that succinctly and poetically allows them to communicate intimately. These messages inspired Fouch� to obtain such "troetelnaampies", or affectionate nicknames, used by lovers, families or close friends from the public. In order to do this, he placed an advertisement in the local paper, on which appeared the nickname he uses for his lover "bi-polarbeertjie" ("bi-polar bear"). In this advertisement he invited people to submit their own nicknames to him via sms.

Fouché obtained around 400 contributions, which he wrote down on red flags and placed around town. His favourite among these came from his lover's mother: it simply said "liefkind". An interesting twist occurred when the festival's cleaners took down the flags. When Fouché complained, they returned the flags, apologetically explaining that they did not know it was art.

But what service does D.I.E.N.S. offer? Does it actually communicate something of value? If, as I have suggested above, the festival is an important platform for the ways in which contemporary Afrikaans art and culture are articulated, then the kinds of art on offer provide important clues to the identities that operate in these spheres. There is a rumour that Lucia Burger, art co-ordinator of the festival, had to struggle to accommodate artists' demands for space of a professional standard, and finally exclaimed in exasperation, "There is no white cube in Oudtshoorn!". In response, D.I.E.N.S. had a white cube (literally) made by a local handyman, and displayed it at their base. This gesture, together with the confusion around Fouch�'s flags, perfectly captures the quirky atmosphere of the project, and D.I.E.N.S.' irreverent attitude to the rest of the art programme on offer. In effect, it also comments on the preference institutionalised art clearly enjoys at the festival.

Grobler categorises the work of D.I.E.N.S. as 'Die Taal Wat Ons Praat' - ('The Language We Speak'). This project addresses notions of language - both the larger (e.g. religious) and more intimate (e.g. private relationships) aspects of the culture that employs that language. For this reason, its project-oriented nature served the purposes excellently. Through interaction and accessibility, D.I.E.N.S. was able to infiltrate more insidiously, and importantly, reflect more directly the nature of the environment in which the festival events took place. Perhaps predictably, however, the project was not granted much coverage by the local press, which decided to focus more on the gallery art.