SMAC, Cape Town
22.09.2016 – 22.10.2016
After leaving Ed Young’s Little at SMAC and wandering into a store nearby, I was asked by the shopkeeper if I had visited the gallery. I responded that I had just come from there. Perhaps identifying me as someone who could rescue her from confusion, she promptly asked if I had seen ‘that video of the babies fighting’, and what do I think it means?
Ed Young’s Little is a short video work, which is a record of two little people fighting each other. The performers are both wearing large, fabricated baby heads. The masks are distorted into expressions of pain and anguish; one face even cries realistic tears. The faces were changed once or twice during the video work causing momentary suspensions in disbelief, as casually disrupted by a rogue beard sticking out of the bottom of a mask or a hairy adult arm. Babies do not settle their disputes in reason, they’re usually found crying about it or fighting clumsily and unfairly (hair pulling is a classic move). But these characters throw adult punches. The characters fight with a maturity that turns weird coming out of figures that Young has obviously characterised as babies.
Little was filmed on the lawns of the Company’s Garden, on axis with the National Gallery. The characters are dressed in classic colours of opposition, red against blue. The conflict is bookended by clichéd childlike amiability: the characters now holding hands, now skipping down Government Avenue, as if it were a game of sport. Once in a while Young’s footage catches sight of a captivated audience on the pathways surrounding the block of lawn on which they were fighting. And of course it would: what a scene Ed Young was making.
As far as we can tell, the performers in Little were hired on the basis of their dwarf-like stature. As a thought experiment, imagine the performers to have been actual children, or 6-foot tall men. The effect of the video is lost. The characters in Young’s video are made both of the construction ‘baby’ and of the performer who is dwarf-like. And it is at this point that one wonders what Young said to explain his project to the prospective performers, or if an explanation was even granted. Are these little people agents in the performance of their particular oddity, or was this just another job?
Consider something like the ‘bumfights’ phenomenon from the early 2000s. People would seek out ‘bums’ or the impoverished and homeless and convince them to fight each other on camera, in exchange for money or booze. The whole situation was a morass of immoral behaviour, it was a spectacle which capitalised on the ‘performers’ disadvantage. Now banned, this series of videos existed with the intention to entertain. ‘Bumfights’ strikes one as completely immoral and distastefully un-PC, but why not Ed’s Young’s work? He is still making a spectacle that hinges on the performers’ specific ‘otherness’. But it is perhaps useful to consider how the two videos differ. Crucially, in Young’s work the performers have been asked to act a fight scene, they have not been asked to fight. It is a performance in which their personal dignity is not at stake, as the performers are made anonymous by masks and wardrobe. And, naturally, the difference in intention behind the work: seen in isolation, the request of two dwarf-like adults to put baby masks over their faces and mock-fight in one of Cape Town’s few public leisure spots does, no doubt, seem disturbing. This is however very much in line with Young’s practice, which often seeks to provoke and bother its audience.
Young’s work is known to push against the extents of acceptability, from art world norms to larger problematic ones. A recent installation of his that gained much attention was ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN for the Armoury show’s invitational Focus: African Perspectives section. This was a large text-work hanging near the entrance of the space, with a teddy bear holding YOUR MOM balloons standing just below it. On the other side of his ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN text-piece Young planned to have another text, BLACK PUSSY, in hot pink. BLACK PUSSY was ‘censored’ or ‘rejected’ by the two female curators of colour. Young responded to this by handing out flyers at the show that exposed the act of censorship and showed an example of what he had planned to put up (defiantly including the work in the show anyway). The Armoury show installation, and a fair amount of his other work, operates as incisive one-liners. My Gallerist Made Me Do It, I <3 NEW WORK and BLACK IN FIVE MINUTES each rely on straightforwardness and ingenious simplicity for their effect. Little is relatively opaque. The video makes use of the ‘other’ and the PC anxiety tied up with it, as the title Little also suggests. However, this doesn’t bring our curiosity and confusion to any resolution. The video bothers your emotions, it loops on frustratingly, and there seem to be no words to hang the feeling from; does one have to react in order not to be complicit?
In a recent interview, on being asked what he found rewarding in art-making Young responded, “I’m in it for the money and the snacks.” He has a knack for ironically exposing the absurd. His last video work at SMAC Agnus Dei or another past video work It’s Not Easy can leave one feeling silly about how the world has come to be, phenomena that represent our culture, the things we value and why. Just look at the opposition and conflict that prevail in contemporary life: politics is arguably one of our society’s most entertaining and face-palm prompting spectacles around, reaching whole new levels of absurdity this 2016. Some of the most powerful people in the world have been reduced to the indignity of squabbling kids – this silliness is self-evident – and perhaps the only appropriate response is found in ironic mockery.
It seems that for Ed Young politeness has come to depict something like denial or apathy. He finds his means in discomfort. His work outlines a pattern of inserting some blatant controversy or absurdity into view, one that we’re all aware of, that we’re all skipping around the edges of, but tend not to talk about openly or ‘use our words’. It’s significant to notice the audience’s reaction to Little, fascinated at the side-lines of the lawn, phones in hand and converting spectacle into social media currency. Or the gallery visitors concerned about the meaning of it, and the feeling they’re supposed to feel. As I write this, squirming through tight cracks by PC terms, the effect seems to have no real bounds. And much like the persistent looping of the video, I still sense my mind instinctively looping back to that feeling of alienation and bafflement. Perhaps the joke’s on us?