No End Contemporary, Johannesburg
15.06 – 29.06.2019
My entry point into Johannesburg-based artist MJ Turpin’s latest exhibition at No End Contemporary Art Space in Linden was a PDF statement with a series of rapid-fire sentences, a sort of statement of intent. However, in the first version I received, HTML coding had been left in, as if the text had been copied out of the back-end of a website. For the uninitiated, HTML is a basic programming language that helps with, amongst other things, the layout of text. It enables website managers to give the text a desired appearance; line breaks, paragraphs, emphases like italics and bold text are all created with HTML. In the final product, the end-user doesn’t see the coding, only its effects.
This turned out to be a valuable metaphor for Turpin’s concerns. The show is titled ‘take me apart.’ (e.e. cummings-style lowercase intentional), and the concept that is foremost for Turpin is deconstruction of privilege. So, it seems appropriate that Turpin engages a Derridean approach of drawing attention to the mechanisms of language and symbols, as much as he actually creates symbols. The HTML code is a peek behind the curtain, a fleeting glimpse at the system that orchestrates surface-level appearances.
Included in the sentences from his statement is one of key importance: “The physical realization of deconstructing history, self and the attempt to interrogate old narratives by visually and physically writing new ones.” In the works, Turpin plays with a powerful symbol: a screen-printed motif of the head of an Ancient Greek sculpture, which recurs throughout the show. Onto some of these, he has attached real R5 coins over the eyes, a reference to the tradition of placing coins over the eyes of the dead to pay the boatman for one’s cross-Styx journey to the afterlife. For Turpin, the symbol works on two levels. Firstly, it signals the death of Western cultural hegemony, or at least the need to kill this hegemony in South Africa (one title refers to the head as ‘decapitated’). Secondly, it suggests the need to embrace the transitional state, as the soul would transition between this world and the next. Turpin seems to be saying that white South Africa’s collective consciousness needs to shift away from ideas of Western cultural dominance and deconstruct how these notions have been toxic for so many here.
It seems important for a white artist to be doing his part to force the decolonisation debate onto the local art scene’s agenda. And, of course, Turpin isn’t alone; the mighty Michael McGarry has trod these trails before, to great effect. But, during Turpin’s walkabout, it became clear that meaningful decolonisation will require a critical mass of artists, thinkers and everyday people calling for restorative social change; in his statement, the artist calls for ‘The genesis of the collective voice’. Turpin’s show is an important contribution to this groundswell.
Yet, he makes no grand claims for the direct effect of art; instead, he sees it as the work of this exhibition to contribute to a debate. This makes a refreshing change from artists who immediately claim activist status; I’ve always been wary of the direct activism potential of gallery art.
One work, IE: Times Nu Roman is a very compelling installation of objects. A long, metal staff with a Christian cross at its top squares off against a traditional knobkerrie, which has both ceremonial and self-defence uses in many parts of Southern African. Traditional imphepho herbs are presented in front of an upended LED clock, which Turpin has deliberately caused to malfunction: the Western digits have extra striations and unexpected serifs, rendering them illegible. There are also three ‘plinths’ utilized in the installation: two are polished granite cubes, and the third is a concrete cover from a municipal Inspection Eye (with the ‘IE’ of the title emblazoned on it). This setting up of objects on plinths is a direct reference to the violence of 18th and 19th Century ethnographic collecting and display of traditional African objects. It’s a well-established fact that decontextualizing African sculptures, masks, ceremonial and utilitarian objects fundamentally changed their meanings; gathered together for the purposes of scrutinizing and conceptually dissecting them, the objects became proxies for the ownership, display and consumption of black bodies and cultures by colonial powers. Turpin establishes an elaborate visual and linguistic labyrinth in the work, underpinned by the concept of inspection, scrutiny and the violence of the Western gaze.
In the showstopper painting of this small exhibition, titled At the onset of any meaningful revolution, heads must roll, the Greek heads seem to tumble from top centre of the horizontally-oriented work. (Turpin speaks about the fact that even the Belgian linen onto which he has printed and painted refers to the golden age of Western European art coinciding with the advent of colonialism.) To the left, a swathe of serigraphed brushstroke marks creates a counterpoint to the tumbling heads (modern vs ancient, expressionistic vs academic), yet the suggestion of violence in both is unmistakable. Over the whole arrangement, striations of spray paint in white, black and Turpin’s signature green disturb one’s reading of the images, a sort of visual noise that unsettles. One isn’t sure whether Turpin’s ominous work foretells the metaphoric rolling of the ‘heads’ of Western culture, or a literal bloodbath.
Perhaps the first of Turpin’s sentences, ‘When the lights go out, a new history shines through’ is an appropriate way to finish my reflection on this show. This sentence speaks of the inevitability of change, of ‘the lights go[ing] out’ on one narrative, and also the rise of a new, hybridized way of thinking about our existence in South Africa. Turpin has masterfully tapped into a long, slow transition that many of us don’t see for being too close to its effects. ‘take me apart’ is a solid milestone in this gradual shift.