Hell Yeah at the Museum of Contemporary Art
by Bettina Malcomess
Many people seem to be under the impression that the 'Hell Yeah' show was an Ed Young production. This slippage between roles is perhaps symptomatic of something other than the now almost mythical size of the artist's, um, ego. (Certainly a 'large part' of his opening 'speech' about a detachable penis presented an interesting metonymic variation on this.) The show was in fact conceptualised and 'curated' by Christian Nerf and Douglas Gimberg, under the aegis of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the brainchild of artist Barend de Wet, now under the custodianship of Nerf. Far too often the amount of work that goes into a show like this is not reflected. However, working without budgets and depending on a community of artists rather than a gallery system is not easy. The work that comes out of this community, especially their publishing initiatives, is important. Yet, it is worrying that it is too often easily dismissed as an insider joke, both by those inside and outside.
Cape Argus correspondent Veronica Wilkinson had initially debated whether to take 'Hell Yeah!' seriously, or to dismiss the show as a little bit of fun. The email invitation extended to artists makes clear Gimberg and Nerf's intentions: to give Capetonians something to do on a rainy winter's night. They aimed to create a show where artists could contribute 'whatever' fitted with a theme that was perhaps a little on the dark side. Fun, as we know, requires a little transgression! The official public invitation consisted of a devil-red business card, on the recto inviting potential candidates to join the Church of Satan, and on the verso inviting them to a one night exhibition on Friday the 13th.
It is interesting that placing an event like this under the label 'fun' dismisses its irony. Humour is only a possible effect of irony, which can be serious, even tragic. By definition, irony refers to the possibility of two understandings of the same thing. Often this is dependent on two types of audience, those who take that something literally, and another who read a second, less obvious, meaning. For irony to work you need to 'see' both possibilities. Here for example we might distinguish the 'art world' audience from the readers of the Argus. For the average Argus reader a show like 'Hell Yeah' does not qualify as art, but 'fun', or art that makes fun of art, and so it is dismissed. Supposedly the joke is on them, for the art world audience. Yet, it is perhaps all too easily that 'we' dismiss the Argus review and laugh: 'Obviously, they didn't get it'!
Ironically, the official public invitation and the show itself were not always obvious even to the so-called 'art world'. Criticisms came from audience and even from participating artists that artworks were not separately labelled. Others were critical of the length of the opening speech, and that the show merely became another opening event. The one-night duration of the show had meant they could not return to get a proper look at the work. Work such as Katherine Smith's forensic light drawing of murderer, entitled How I discovered facebook and the video work by Kristofer Petau and Ondrej Brody, De Profundis, were certainly worth a second visit. In the noise of the event, some work, such as Robert Sloon's The Illuminati must Die was difficult to read, while work like Andrew Lamprecht's satanic bible on a plinth may have seemed obvious - but closer inspection would have revealed that the author was in fact head of the Satanic Church, whose name appears on the invitation. The strategy of not naming individual works meant the show read as a sort of single work, for me a successful strategy in creating a sense of spatial coherence around a single theme.
Young's opening speech set the tone for the opening as a 60s style 'happening'. As with all performance there is a kind of risk: it might not work. There was a kind of vulnerability about his hot-pants-devil suit, complete with matching backpack. This was heightened by the hellishly violent screech of steel against glass during Henning's engraving and erasure of a skull on the whited-out window behind Young. It was perhaps when Young's collage of excerpts from what sounded like porn video reviews went on for too long that the performance stopped working. It was not only his tiny legs that were exposed, and I experienced a sensation of wanting drag him away with me to the balcony bar.
And so, I have been caught in the same trap and a large part of my review has been taken up by Mr. Young. What is the reason for this conflation of the artist with his friends, and fellow studio artists (a circle I admit to being very much part of)?
If this is our own brand of relational aesthetics, it is perhaps ironic that no-one noticed the most important relationship: between the artworks themselves. The reason for the extended length of Young's 'performance' was that it was in fact made up of excerpts taken from internet spam. He was in turn 'spamming us' in time to the drawing and erasure of Henning's skull. As Charles Maggs was the show's gatecrasher, arriving with his evil bath Beelzabubble, he was placed at the door, and his name added to the vinyl list of artists in marker pen. Finally, Ruth Sack's work was, at the artist's request, given an entire wall, the largest in the space. The work is an email refusing to be on the show, a Hell no!
The ultimate irony for us 'in' the artworld is that we were all so busy being 'on the show' that we didn't get it.
Museum of Contemporary Art
10th Floor, 74 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town
Hours: 6.30pm - 9pm