Ed Young is often the best young-ish artist working in South Africa. I say that with no prompting: I’m not part of his crowd. I went to the Kimberley Hotel once, long-time haunt of Young and the hip, and sat around feeling out of place, fighting the waves of nausea induced by the crowd’s jukebox selections. My irony gland was depleted. With Young’s work, it has always been a challenge to separate the mythology, the self-generated YBA-style hype of that scene of Cape Town artists, from the products.
But his text works, in particular, are as solid as anything else our little collection of postal codes at the end of the continent has generated. Large-scale banners, painted on canvas in white-on-black, their font consistent and their messages ranging from pithy to pissy, reveal Young’s accuracy of insight, one that eludes most other artists.
South African art frequently doesn’t know what it’s about, isn’t 100 percent sure what, or whom it’s addressing, and what exactly it’s trying to say. ‘Chuck a big concept at them,’ artists seem to say to each other, ‘say your work deals with labour, or race, or capitalism – it’ll be fine.’ Press releases are routinely beset by phrases like ‘I’m exploring [add abstract noun]’, ‘My work considers [another abstract noun]’, or ‘I’m interested in… [Guess what? Yep]’
So, when Young displays ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN at the Armory in 2016, he’s saying something very particular. He’s saying, ‘your establishment expect us artists from Africa to perform African-ness for you in your hallowed halls of contemporaneity. You expect work from Africa to stay in its ghetto. You’re curiosity cabinet collectors. So fuck you. Have a fuck-off big text work, with no feathers or beads or hand-wringing identity stuff.’ Another work, I SEE BLACK PEOPLE from 2015 shown at the FNB Joburg Art Fair, played on the popular meme-style reworking of Haley Joel Osment’s line from 1999’s supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, the fearful whisper, ‘I see dead people.’ Young was saying, ‘White people in South Africa are scared of Black people. They’re afraid of blackness. And now that black artists and black perspectives are increasingly a part of the contemporary art scene, there’s an unspoken anxiety as they hierarchy shuffles.’ Cleverly and, I believe, sincerely, Young often places himself at the centre of such a critique.
He’s on the money, every time. I suspect that those who say he isn’t are motivated by something other than an honest assessment of the work. Jealousy? He is, after all, a non-drawing, non-painting artist who nonetheless commands respectable prices. Anger? He doesn’t make the sculptures himself, but rather farms out their production to special effects companies operating in Cape Town’s bustling film industry. Offence? Well, of course: Young frequently seems at pains to provoke with his text works, his videos, and his sculptures (who can forget the realistically-rendered sculpture of Young’s hand emerging from the wall of the SMAC booth at the 2011 Joburg Art Fair, defiantly holding up its middle finger at viewers? All those pearl-clutchers who came to the fair looking to be emotionally and spiritually moved, got an entirely different message from Young). It’s probably a bit of all of these.
Arguably, if his text works are the perfect one-liners in the comedy show of contemporary South African life, his sculptures (the abovementioned hand aside) have a more poetic function; they form the confessional monologue portion of the show, the on-mic, vodka-fuelled catharsis that teeters between hilarity and embarrassment.
His recent ‘Cash or Card’ at SMAC’s satellite space in Rosebank’s Keyes Art Mile clearly demonstrates this. The sole sculpture is a scale model of Young himself, clocking in at just over half a meter high, alone in the exhibition space and leaning against the venue’s back wall. He’s exposed: his underwear is pulled down; he’s not sucking in his slight gut; his skin is blotchy; he’s wearing a cap, just above his reddened eyes, bearing the tragi-comic legend ‘COMME des FUCKDOWN’; a tiny tattoo on his right shoulder has, as Lloyd Cole put it, ‘a heart with an arrow through,’ except this one doesn’t say ‘Jennifer,’ it says ‘Your Mom.’
And that’s it. One small sculpture; a fairly large white cube: an exercise in activating space with very little. It’s probably a cliché to say, but the space becomes part of the show. It weighs down on the small figure, positively beating it up. In fact, therein lies the success of this show: the great thing about vulnerable art, far more than preachy political art or didactic social conscience art, is how it implicates you, the viewer. In ‘Cash or Card,’ there’s nowhere to hide. And so, it’s impossible to look at Young’s miniaturized body, rendered with otherwise caustic accuracy, and not feel awkwardly exposed oneself. It’s a massively unsettling experience, one which Young then packages up for sale, with the title (he tells me those are simply his preferred methods of payment, but I suspect it’s actually a joke at the commercial gallery system’s expense, especially here in the heart of the new-money swish of Johannesburg’s latest art precinct).
The comic is only as good as his material, and the best comics seem to know that they should be their own material. The humanizing effect of comedy, if the comic can laugh at their own idiocy, is that it makes us all a bit ridiculous. It levels the hierarchy, and in making us seem insignificant, makes our efforts at clawing our way out of the morass all the more heroic. It’s real nihilism, not fashionable punk nihilism; existence is tawdry and compromised, and despite its gravitational pull downwards, we make art, we make a life. It’s a simultaneous ‘I know you’ll win in the end’ and a ‘fuck you in the meantime’ to the human condition. I like to think that Young makes work for that feeling.