13.05 - 29.05.2021
As it stood, it was a table of additions, much like certain schizophrenics’ drawings, described as ‘overstuffed,’ and if finished it was only insofar as there was no way of adding anything more to it, the table having become more and more an accumulation, less and less a table…One didn’t know how to handle it (mentally or physically). – Henri Michaux
About a month ago, Stevenson ran an online exhibition called ‘Studios’. Noticing, perhaps, the short-fallings of the Online Viewing Room (OVR), ‘Studios’ was framed as an exhibition of the artist’s studio practice, rather than the art itself. Twelve artists were featured, each with a separate webpage complete with a video of the studio and images of selected works. Beside these items were texts, mostly quotes, and a short biography accompanied by a portrait. The title page was a stylised line-drawing of a manor-house made up of twelve rooms, each labelled: Zander Blom, Penny Siopis, Rahima Gambo, Paulo Nazareth, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Portia Zvavahera, Hilton Nel, Viviane Sassen, Steven Cohen, Deborah Poynton, Moshekwa Langa, and Simphiwe Ndzube.
When commissioned to write about ‘Studios’, I began with what I saw on my screen: the images of the work, the texts, the videos of the studios. But I was constantly frustrated by the format. Not because it was digital or online, but because ‘Studios’ was behaving like a physical exhibition. I felt as though I was wearing very thick prescription lenses; – what was being framed as the artworks, so to speak. Was I supposed to consider these digital images of Hylton Nel’s plates as the actual objects? I thought of Marcel Duchamp photographing the Mona Lisa and putting his name to the photograph, and so I began to describe and analyse the images and the videos as though they were in themselves the art works. But I felt an awkwardness, like I was performing the role of an art critic, who happened to have my name.
This awkwardness, I think, arose from a fundamental contradiction in ‘Studios’: on the one hand, pretending to be a physical exhibition, and therefore exclusive, authentic and scarce. On the other hand, being online and digital, means it is duplicatable; there is no original. The digital doesn’t care for authenticity. ‘Studios’ was always, I felt, shying away from the word ‘online’ or drawing my attention away from this fundamental schism. Stevenson’s website has a tab called simply ‘viewing room’: it’s telling that this, too, omits the crucial adjective: online. Schism comes from the greek root skhizein, to split. A root shared for example with the word schizophrenia, literally meaning ‘a splitting of the mind’. A symptom of schizophrenia is a confusion between the real and the not-real–-hearing voices, unusual beliefs and seeing things not there. Don’t all online exhibitions create fantasmic realities they seem to believe?
‘Studios’ was different to other OVRs insofar as it sought to be an exhibition of production rather than of product. But there was an underlying pathos, slight, hardly discernible. A soft desperation in the attempt to convince us of its own virtual reality. It was apparent in the naiveties, and almost human shortcomings of the project: the ad hoc approach, the cell-phone footage, the bad photographs: an exhibition of scraps stuck together, bits of text from art critics and unsourced quotations. The result is bricolage! Levi Strauss says of the bricoleur, or self-proclaimed handyman: “His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’[.]”
This anxiety between hodgepodge and high taste, made it difficult to judge what I was seeing. How for example was I to write about Simphiwe Ndzube? His studio, his work, as it was shown, seemed staged. To treat ‘Studios’ as a regular physical exhibition was to ignore the almost human anxiety expressed there. It seemed to have little to do with any of the artists. Nor anything to do with the studios. It definitely was not the artworks and wasn’t the digital images or videos either. Was the website itself the object? A website can be an art work – look at the work of Ben Jonson and Cameron Platter. There was something else here, though, an affect trying to express itself.
Let’s consider how the spatial restrictions of the pandemic threw galleries into an identity crisis from which they have not yet fully recovered. Space has always defined galleries and legitimated their claims to good taste. The gallery and the museum are the only spaces in which one can see original art with a seal of approval. Galleries and museums have gone to great lengths to emphasize this. Think of Tate’s Turbine Hall, the architecture of the Guggenheim, Zeitz MOCAA, The Norval Foundation, even the white minimalism and the glass door of Stevenson’s interior.
As the tabernacle houses the Ark of the Covenant (arkhe– : origin), so too the gallery houses the original artwork, singular and scarce. These are no ordinary places. They are special, exclusive, daring, difficult to understand; and they define art, give it meaning and value through the persuasive technique of spectacle. A mythopoeia which relies on a whole economy of rhetorizing machines. Producing ‘the look’, an enigmatic word for a certain seriousness, a certain language, a certain choice of font, a certain people: the cryptography of style is something arcane. A whole structure that relies on the central mystery of the original, physical art object or arch-object. All the rhetoric that goes into reaffirming this idea, all the subtle aestheticising to convince us that these galleries are authentic and prestigious.
With the pandemic, this persuasion machine breaks down, and the gallery’s role is reduced to a floating entity; what is a gallery without a gallery? Not much more than a middleman between collectors and artists – a role that is fast becoming obsolete with the rise of social media. Once the organs of the gallery are removed, it becomes fluid, free floating, untethered and anxious. Heidegger says that anxiety and placelessness are intrinsically connected, a fear that cannot be allocated, and which calls one’s very existence into question. It is in this schizophrenic moment that the gallery, like Buchner’s Lenz, wishes it could walk on its head.
In order to reassert itself, it is forced to become the bricoleur, a DIY handyman who, left with a finite set of parts and materials, reconstructs an ad-hoc virtual equivalent of its former self. Not a gallery but a bricolage. Not an online exhibition, but an artwork in its own right. And is it no surprise then, that the gallery, having lost the integrity of its mythical space, would make its first artwork an amalgamation of artist’s studios: the other sanctuary, even more private and impenetrable than the gallery.
Does not the studio, like the gallery, have an aura with all the reverence and naughtiness of a boudoir? And there certainly is a kind of fetish or sacredness around the studio. Think of Francis Bacon’s studio in Dublin, or closer to home, Irma Stern’s studio in Rondebosch. Consider the studio-visit. Artists are wooed, praised, their work undressed and admired. While the studio has no immediate commercial value as such, it has great value as the workshop of the artist’s soul.
The studio is to the artist what the journal is to the writer. In the writer’s diary and the artist’s studio a sense of self is constructed in an image of an artist — a selfing machine! Between the hard leather bounds of a diary, between the walls of a studio, transgressions on language, on art, on the self, can be made freely without consequences. As something off limits or out of bounds, it is only because the studio constitutes a space of exception that the strange and dirty, the broken down machines and remnants are valued. Susan Sontag says only in the author’s journal “[t]he uninhibited display of egotism devolves into the heroic quest for the cancellation of the self.”
It is no surprise then that a gallery, faced with an existential crisis, would appropriate the mythology of the studio. A space that destroys and reconstructs the self from its own bits and pieces. The result is a strange, half-bodied image of a gallery. It doesn’t fulfil its role as a gallery, or as an exhibition. But maybe as a bricolage––as something that doesn’t come entirely into focus––it does express something poignant and human. Maybe, there, in the moment the automaton runs down or when the machines break, something of ourselves is disclosed to us. Maybe there and then, the schizo gallery accidentally becomes the artist.
Images courtesy of Stevenson, Amsterdam/CapeTown/Johannesburg