Charles Maggs at the AVA
by Matthew Partridge
Trading in the currency of the 'other' has become a common motif in much of contemporary South African art, bordering on rapacious. This tactic, employed by artists to highlight the fraught position of South African identity, in many instances functions as a deferred alibi, merely reinstating the awkward power relations which the work(s) aim to critique. Occasionally however, something arises that transcends the hegemonic status of the self and other, moving beyond the trite pluralism of contemporary production. One such instance of this is Charles Maggs' recent show at the AVA entitled 'Zombie'.
The narrative of 'Zombie' reads as an investigation into the liminal condition of dislocation that power serves to perpetuate. The choice of title, taken from a Fela Kuti song, points to the precarious nature of such a threshold; neither living nor dead, Maggs' characters operate between worlds, between the disenfranchised and the privileged, in a trade of incommensurable vulnerability. In Protection, a video work, we see edited samplings from the American television series CHiPS in which two highway patrolmen cruise aimlessly through a montage of landscapes. The menacing soundtrack suggests a darker side to this perpetual banality, where the cyclical nature of this routine is severed by Maggs' use of cuts. As he suggests, in a world of 'globalised fear', the work serves to function as 'a reflection of a symptom rather than the condition itself'.
Here Maggs subverts the notion of protection to comment on the way power perversely and invisibly shapes and influences society. This system is however revealed as essentially fragile and self-destructive. As the video draws to a close one of the policemen crashes into a parked car. The repetitive looping of the shot in slow motion reinforces the fragility of what Maggs terms 'the potential of the accident'.
This theme is explored further in the series of digital photographic prints entitled Victim/Suspect. Here Maggs investigates a case of mistaken identity that resulted in the accidental shooting of Brazilian ex-patriot Jean Charles de Menezes in a London tube station. As his point of departure Maggs takes the composite image of de Menezes mistaken by the English police for terrorist suspect Osman Hussain and then 'finishes' what he describes as a 'frankly shoddy piece of photoshopping'.
The result is four portraits of an amalgamated identity, each varying in specific and individual nuanced ways. Victim 1 and 2 feature a black rectangle over the mouth effectively serving to gag, thereby creating the 'silenced other'. The Suspect series conversely features faces blinded by a rectangle across the eyes that Maggs terms the 'obliterated other'.
In this investigation of 'amplified otherness' Maggs speaks of how such an exercise 'obliterates the historic or specific identity of de Menezes after he has been physically killed'. By completing the cycle and articulating the fear and paranoia expressed through the presence of the now hyperreal other, Maggs attempts to assert an albeit now displaced agency. This eulogy thus gives a literal and somewhat perverse face to this paranoia, exposing a level of discomfort in the ease with which it is continuously accepted.
The final work, Monologue #8, can be read as a meta-narrative on the concerns Maggs raises. Here the viewer is confronted with Maggs effectively talking to himself. Two video screens side by side present opposing profiles of the artist communicating in a form of frequently incomprehensible rambling. Shot in two scenes, Monologue #8 interrogates the interiority of the self, which sees an almost schizophrenic interaction that resists literal interpretation.
Cut into two scenes, the video ends with a deflated 'I hardly know you anymore', suggesting an unresolved surrender to the polemics raised by the other works. Each scene opens with the question: 'Have you been here before?' indicating a reminiscent and dislocated self. The disjunctive conversation never seems to run in cogniscent trajectory and thus seems partially disconnected. This irresolution is illustrated at the end of the first scene when character B posits, 'If these realms could resolve themselves we would no longer be at the mercy of temporal shifts.'
The mercy of temporal shifts is exactly what this exhibition captures. In exposing the ephemeral position of the self which, at the mercy of mechanisms of control and power from an invisible and reticent master, becomes permanently at odds with its own conception, 'Zombie' gives form to this condition of absence. In so doing the impetus of this exhibition is, at least, in attempting to forge a process of disambiguation from a seemingly benign field of inquiry.
Matthew Partridge is a MA(FA) candidate at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts, UCT
Opens: August 25
Closes: September 12
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