Shifting the Playing Field
As an art student in the early nineties, I remember going through a Flash Art magazine, thinking that these pages would have something to offer me that my own context wouldn't. What remained, unfortunately, in my psyche from this time was the work of an artist, whose name fortunately, does escape me. The work was a process work one could say. It consisted of the artist digesting numerous ingredients which would in time find their way through his digestive system and finally make their exit via his anus as a squirt of purple paint.
Since it was an American artist, I was expecting more stars and stripes than a squirt, but I suppose cobalt violet does have some royal connotations. I remember thinking back then that it was a load of crap, but in hindsight what really deserved this scatological credit was the review itself. Enamoured by the metaphorical and symbolic subtleties of the work, the critic went on to try and convince us that this was indeed a powerful contemporary work of art.
I suppose as artists we are all guilty to some extent of being too absorbed with our own pre-occupations - self-indulgent masturbators of elitist philosophical investigations. The fine line that contemporary art straddles is how relevant it is in the real world. Within the confines of the hallowed white cube it is afforded a certain comfort. Here it is allowed to exist as an autonomous entity - safe from the scrutiny of iconoclasts and charlatan hunters.
It is a system that to a large extent serves itself. It projects bright new stars onto the pages of glossy art magazines and the walls of biennales as fast as it ignores the fading stars it forgot about just yesterday. It makes names of those it wants, or rather those who it wants at the time. Perhaps, true to its terms of reference it merely reflects a society that demands constant new sensation, instant gratification, and pastiche re-runs.
We always marvel at the size of the Biennale catalogues, go through excruciating physical and financial lengths to get hold of them - and then sit trying to work out what for really? Well to have the thematic umbrella explained of course - pages and pages of semantic extrapolation - to try and give us some sense of the works we have spent days and days looking at. It is a forum for the curator, the "architect -in- chief", to explain why he/ she has selected certain artists' works in relation to others - to give some sense of his/ her grand plan; and then some.
Unfortunately, most of it comes out as a squirt of purple paint. I never needed an 800-page document to explain a Nevelson or a Newman to me; nor a Naumann in fact. I have always been interested in bits of additional information I have read on them and many others, but I never needed it. Maybe I just need to get hold of 'Documenta for Dummies'?.
As a contemporary artist, I am a/ part of the very system that I critique. I don't accept it in its entirety - none of us do. It is a curious polymorphic monster that we love to hate. Some of us do what we do because we have to - we need to, and others of us do it just because we want to. It is a case of fate or fashion, I suppose. To be honest, I am not really interested in sour grapes - I prefer a well-matured, full -bodied Merlot. I am concerned more with the ambiguous relationship that I have with the (art) world.
On one hand, I make work that interests me - work about things that concern me. I make work that attempts to negotiate, reflect and grapple with my own personal ambivalence with the world that I live in. I am then, in a sense reasonably self-centred and self-indulgent. Furthermore, I don't believe in making work for the lowest common denominator. I am then, in a sense reasonably elitist. Since I don't make work that pays homage to political correctness and/ or the curator's mantra, I am then, in a sense reasonably stubborn. These are of course all the badges that one is awarded when one is not present. But then maybe this is a small price to pay for not ending up with a split personality disorder. It is really about defining oneself in the face of contradiction. Like wearing Nike trainers with an anti-globalisation t-shirt.
Gozololo is an organisation established in 1997 in Kwamashu, a township north of Durban. It was set up in response to the need to provide care and support to a growing number of traumatised and orphaned children as a result of HIV/ AIDS (many of these children are themselves infected).
Gozololo means: "for a short while" and therefore refers to the refuge given to these children in order that they be nurtured over a period of time before relocating them with families in the community. Mrs. Miriam Cele established the Gozololo Organisation along with a group of volunteer women, and together they have established numerous satellite centres that now provide care to over 1200 children in 5 different communities.
After my initial visits to Gozololo, I was wondering how I, as an artist and curator of contemporary art projects, could have some impact - to affect some change on a place like Gozololo. Some of the questions in my head revolved around issues of artistic integrity vs. a functional contribution. My personal position as an artist is very clear.
Whilst I think that art does have a social responsibility and that it can affect social change, I do not see myself as a social worker. The issues for me with regards to running a project of this nature were more around how one could contribute in a very significant way, and still also allow the artist to retain a sense of poetry and autonomy. This is a very delicate balance, and at the same time a very fine line to walk. It would seem politically incorrect to talk of the two in the same breath.
There is also always the difficulty of venturing into a terrain that has not left a clear path to follow. Community art initiatives in South Africa tend to always follow the clich� of painting murals or producing mosaic details. This approach usually allows very little actual upliftment or functional contribution, and is not self -sustaining. It also lacks artistic credibility since it is felt that a conceptual approach cannot be considered in this sort of context.
This is precisely what PULSE intended to challenge in the project for 2004. After a year of research, PULSE looked to creating a contemporary visual art project with a social conscience. HIV(E), is the title of the current PULSE project for 2004 and it looks to address numerous complex relationships simultaneously.
The title of the project itself suggests various understandings and challenges. The word 'hive' has as one of its definitions, "to separate off from a larger group", and thus infers notions of retraction and isolation. Of course, contained in the word HIVE is the acronym HIV or human immunodeficiency virus that causes Aids. However, a hive is also the site of industry, creativity and the sweetening of collective efforts. HIV(E) looked to address this issue of social conscience coupled with artistic integrity in a way that both were adequately addressed and inter-related.
Through dialogue with the members concerned at Gozololo, a priority list began to draw itself up. Each artist began to identify an area of interest, and through consistent conversation with the rest of the group of artists and assistants - the various interventions began to unfold. From the outset, the playing field had shifted. It wasn't just about me.
It was more about how to fit me into what I am doing for others? How do I make a difference and at the same time retain some idiosyncratic stamp? The core of the project was finding innovative solutions to everyday needs. The project was /is not so much about AIDS per se, but rather a metaphor for nurturing and giving - a welcome counter-foil to the art world's appetite for wanting and taking.
Each artist had to make an equivalent work of the intervention made at Gozololo. This is to form part of an exhibition in April, 2004 at the Franchise Gallery in Johannesburg. The idea of this "echo" was to place the project - HIV(E) - into the confines of the gallery context. The exhibition will serve to highlight how context shifts the value/ meaning of the work. It also sets up the dialogue, within the sacrosanct environment of the white cube as to the possibilities for artists to work not only outside of this revered space, but to work in a way that engages more than just being up one's own arse, so to speak.
So whilst the auto repeat edits of the "big world issues" flickered on our television screens and world debt, Aids, human rights violations, anti-privatisation protests etc. all got compressed into the same sardine can (well, they are all the same thing when you look at them economically), PULSE took out the magnifying glass and went micro. HIV(E) , a project in progress, was/ is another small contribution around the issue of HIV/ AIDS, and it is hoped that it creates a ripple effect that will hopefully continue to reverberate and encourage similar inclinations. Individual efforts compound to a collective consciousness that can be genuinely influential.
Franchise, 44 Stanley Avenue, Milpark, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 482 7995
Mobile: 084 440 1688 Jena McCarthy
Hours: Tue - Sat 11am - 7pm
This essay was originally published in March, 2004, in a handout accompanying the HIV(E) exhibition at Franchise. It is reprinted with the kind permission of Greg Streak. A comprehensive catalogue is to follow.