There’s nothing inside this gallery’s white room but an upright piano, embossed with the name Hummel, probably over a hundred years old, with real ivory keys. Perhaps a marvel in its day, the piano has been palpably abused over the years. It is scratched, fingerprinted, beer-stained. Its keys dyed in blotches from many a drunken amateur’s tobacco-yellowed touch. Relocated from Roeland Street’s Kimberley Hotel, the piano lives on as an artwork by Ed Young, the titular piece of his latest solo exhibition at blank projects, ‘I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE.’
Thanks to a mechanism installed in its anatomy, the piano is designed to ring out a single high-key E note, over and over, forever and ever. (Or, at least, until the gallery staff tires of it and switches its battery off.) As Simphiwe Buthelezi commented on Instagram, ‘I keep waiting for Kanye’s Runaway to start playing.’ 1Kanye West: Runaway on YouTube
I love this observation; behind the joke, I find, there’s quite an apt critique. On the one hand, because West – like Young, or the persona Young takes on – is an artist who oscillates between genius and disgrace. On the other, because it speaks to the artwork as a relic of the place from whence it came. Those in the scene can picture easily Young and his compatriots – fellow artists, revellers, and drunks – colluding in the smoky bar in the early hours of the morning, toasting all the douchebags, assholes, scumbags, and jerk-offs.
Minimal as the installation may be in situ, its memory (if objects can have memory) is that of the perennial saturnalia that is the Kimbo and bars like it, frequented by local art farts and their ilk. A slightly more mature version of when Young ‘sold’ Jo’burg bar owner Bruce Gordon as a work of art. Bruce Gordon was subsequently ‘acquired’ by the National Gallery in a ceremony which included tattooing the acquisition number on his arm. (When Jo’burg bar closed for good in the undertow of this pandemic, Gordon released a statement saying, ‘What remains now is for Iziko Gallery to start taking care of me.’)
I’m not impressed by that project’s blatant disregard for the real-life horror that is the objectification and ‘sale’ of people for individual and institutional gain. But, what strikes me about Bruce Gordon, and now the Kimberley piano, is Young’s preoccupation with the watering hole as arts institution.
The Kimberley, in this view, is as much a part of Cape Town’s art history as its galleries, museums, and universities. Artists, curators, academics, and gallerists convene there to share ideas, critiques, far-out theories, and woes. As Young says, ‘The bar is the place where some of the work gets/is made.’ In this way, it’s kinda like a studio, our own 54.
Rundown and kitsch as it may seem for the first-timer, Kimbo has clout, begets capital. Deals are made, collaborations proposed, exhibitions pitched, and informal interviews conducted. Lots of skinnering occurs, and if you’re in the closed loop that is the Cape Town art scene, skinner can be worth its weight in gold. Perhaps the bar is exclusive in some ways, but one certainly doesn’t need a fine arts degree or a gallery contract to be included. In fact, Young says, ‘The academic institution is just a means to the bar.’ Get the timing right, and R25 not only buys you a beer, but a seat at the table with some of the most talented and influential arts practitioners in the country.
Young was planning only to borrow the piano, but purchased it instead, perhaps for fear of compromising his bar tab. The plan was also to give the piano back, but rumour has it that a number of clients have already expressed interest in the piece, raising questions like, what does it mean to memorialise these spaces? To reincarnate them in an artwork? Is it important to archive objects with cultural memory? Or is some violation done in claiming them, putting them up for sale?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions, but I will defend Young in saying that, if anyone has the right to claim an object from the Kimbo as their own, it’s him. He’s been around for ages, not only as a regular but as an instigator for activating the space’s cult history. A lesser-known project dates back ten years ago, when Young and friends staged a ‘madcap exhibition‘ and ‘affectionate tribute’ to the Kimberley, featuring the likes of Kentridge, Dumas, and Hugo, as well as as a performance by Young, where he spent all day playing with the slot machines at the back of the bar.
Today, Young stays across the street. That’s why the piano sculpture is so named, ‘I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE.’ I don’t think Young has mined the Kimberely to affirm his own self-worth and influence. For him, this work is close to home.
As a result, this piece feels so much more poetic, genuine, and personal than anything of Young’s I’ve come across before. A welcome refresher, considering Young has happily played the role of willfully-doomed-white-boy for the past fifteen years. As he should’ve: you make the bed you sleep in. In a classic case of critiquing-while-benefiting-from institutional prestige, this hapless maverick act has been rewarded just as much as it’s been deemed obsolete. And yet, beloved as he may be, he seems to be beloved only for his antics. People are surprised to hear that Young is pursuing a PhD in medical microbiology, for instance, or that he’s behind-the-scenes at eh!woza. Such efforts just don’t seem to fit the stage name. That’s probably why his newest lifesize sculpture gives me Stańczyk by Jan Matejko vibes: Young may have been wise enough to play the fool, but he’s getting tired of it now.
The sculpture in question is Young’s to-scale silicone rendering of himself – complete with fuckboi-issued Nike Cortez shoes and tennis socks – peeking out of eye-holes cut out from a white cotton sheet. Apart from creeping out unsuspecting gallery-goers and the occasional passersby, this work seems to be more about what the fool has chosen to hide than what he’s laid bare. Young says, ‘It’s probably less of a ghost and more of a coverup.’ There’s a joke involved, but it’s less obvious than last year’s self-flagellating hero. Maybe it’s that, as much as the art world claims to be tired of cis white men, they still seem to haunt its centre. Or, it’s poking fun at viewers who mine arbitrary signifiers for traces of the artist’s identity. Nuances collide in its title: THE WORLD AND I, WE DISAPPROVE OF YOU. Where the ‘I’ is located – in the viewer’s preemptive disapproval of the artist, or in the artist’s preemptive disapproval of the gaze – remains unfixed. Young’s take: ‘To be totally honest, I don’t know… It always turns up funny in my head, the idea, and then in real life it ends up more pathetic and lonely and unpleasant, as it should be.’
I’m thinking now about the fool’s fate, which is to face head-on the pathetic, lonely, and unpleasant, how that might give us, the viewer, a break from facing the pathetic, lonely, and unpleasant in ourselves. I’m thinking, too, about the Fool as it’s understood in tarot: a reminder there is no set path, only a thousand and one opportunities to break out, choose otherwise, embrace failure, to play. Jessica Dore gives us this reading:
The function of a ridiculous idea is that it shakes us out of well-worn ways of thinking & creates the possibility of shifting into new ones. If we can let go of the agenda to get somewhere new immediately & open to the outlandish, we might be pleasantly surprised.