Field brat's blog from the bundu: National Arts Festival - visual artists turn to the archive

Posted on August 2, 2012

The Brat finds himself in illustrious company as a member of the artistic committee of the National Arts Festival that, now in its 38th year, has grown into the continent's premium concentration of theatre and physical theatre, visual art, classical and popular music, jazz, dance, performance art, film and public art. Augmented by the intellectual programme of the Think Fest, the annual event sees the little town of Grahamstown become a nucleus for the country's key cultural productions while, increasingly, attracting some of the most exciting work from the rest of the continent and the globe. Too much to digest let alone blab on about, the Brat draws in a deep breath and, excluding all else, takes a look at the ever more enticing strategies devised by visual artists who turn towards the archival record.

The main programme of the National Arts Festival hosted a total of seven visual arts exhibitions, of which five used archives in overt and direct ways. This is partly a consequence of curatorial decision, and partly an indication of the international trend of the arts - including music, theatre and dance - towards the increasing use of the record in creative work. In the case of the visual, the most common methods are translation (into new and evolving languages), interpretation (into new and evolving meanings), and mediation (from one medium to another), used to often startling effect. Here, the artists' function partly as facilitator to release the potential energy stored within the seemingly latent records, and partly as activist in allowing the agency to do its work within societies.

What is it that artists find so enticing within the record? At the simplest level, it is the narrative contained within that rare combination of the embodiment of memory within a 'thing-ness' - a coming together of the tangible and the intangible - which makes the record such a powerful narrative force. It allows the artist to construct new bridges between history and the contemporary, thus to create an architecture of meaning. The agency of archives has been irrefutably demonstrated by their ability to both construct and destroy ideologies. Working with archives, in a creative ways, therefore allows the artist to create work with the potential to change the course of our contemporary world, and therein, I would imagine, is vested one of the primary reasons why the record is becoming so increasingly alluring. The text below discusses three exhibitions that demonstrate why this is so.

Of all creative projects, it is the retrospective exhibition that is the classic example of working with archives, allowing the artist to look back and examine a history that has been compiled over a time of sufficient length to read shifts in relation to contextual flux. Often, narratives are only evident when looking back, at an archive of work, and it is here where retrospective exhibitions demonstrate their importance. The curatorial decision of the artistic committee of the Festival to focus on mid-career retrospectives allows a correlation between the immediate past and the contemporary, a strategy which increases the effectivity of this form of analysis. All this makes it sound rather ploddingly pedantic so, lest we forget the magic that is visual art, lets skip to the work.

In 'Hidden Life/Verborge Lewe', Clare Menck exhibits 140 key works from 20 years of painting in oils, probably the most sensual of all visual art media. A first viewing of the work reveals a technical supremacy in the manner in which sequential layering of pigments brings luminosity and depth, in how subtle colour shifts bring curvature to life, and in the way visually confluent colour fields are, in reality, composed of prisms. A subsequent viewing allows composition to come to the fore. The nude, often in self-portraiture, plays a pivotal role, frequently placed uncomfortably in relation to an interior, domestic space, here read as signals to the artist's allegoric interpretation of a psychological world. It is at a third or fourth visit (and this is the caliber of work that shifts with each viewing) where the technical, compositional and visuality combine into an experience that comes to rest, finally, upon the layer of the emotive. Menck's exhibition, thus, is an archive of affect.

Like Menck, Cedric Nunn also places his personal journey at the core of his work. However, unlike the introspective approach of Menck, Nunn externalizes his concern with identity by examining it in relation to the rapid and violent shifts in South Africa. 'Call and Response' is the title of his mid-career retrospective of work selected from his archive that reaches back to the 1970s to examine, using the eastern part of the country as his research site, the entrenchment of apartheid through forced removals, destruction of communities, the formation of the homelands of Transkei and KwaZulu, civil wars of the 1980s, the formation of a democratic South Africa and a contemporary that continues to be defined by disenfranchisement, inequality, poverty and a debilitating disjuncture between rural and urban. Land, in this work, becomes both the site of conflict, and a metaphor for the physical and the psyche, a thread that Nunn explores through smaller cohesive bodies of work: the effects of sugar cane farms on the landscape and communities; soil erosion as an emblem of the past... Collectively, Nunn's body of work is an archive that documents a period of 30 years which, through its continuities, demonstrates one of the significant functions of the mid-career retrospective: a view into the unrelenting persistence of history within the world that we call our home today.

Mikhael Subotzky chose, as the first work that confronts the viewer, two startling photographs of his retinas, here shown as large red orbs shot through with a network of veins. This entrance to 'Retinal Shift', the exhibition of the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Arts, interrogates both the act, and the action, of photographing. Often still denoted as an objective medium of 'truth', the fact of the matter is that, during the act of photography, the artist is unable to see the image being captured. In this way, the very act of photographing is a moment of blindness. However dramatic, that point is secondary to a greater implication of the viewer being confronted, at the start, by the artist's eyes: it places the viewer in the subjective position as interpreter of Subotzky's, a position that becomes significant later when Subotzky starts to question the reading of the archive.

Visually, the most arresting of the works is a wall-sized installation titled 'I was looking back' (2012), composed of 100 colour prints of varying sizes selected from the artist's past ten years of photography. Known for his arresting studies of Pollsmoor Prison, the town of Beaufort West and, more recently Ponte Tower in Johannesburg, this installation places selected images from these projects in and amongst more personal work, thereby drawing into sharp relief the assignation of value, a point driven home by Who's Who (2012), the installation on the facing wall. Here, 11 monitors show the more than 30,000 portraits scanned from the Who's Who of Southern Africa, arranged chronologically starting in 1911 and jumping in ten-year cycles, ending in 2011. The portraits are shown decontextlualised, becoming, in the words of the artist, 'an endless parade of importance'. Inevitably, the changing faces are telling as regards race, sex, moustache and hairstyles, the shifting meaning of the smile and the oppressive assignation of importance (versus the assignation of non-importance). But this we know, a fact the work transcends in the manner in which it forces the viewer to read what is not there. By drawing our attention to an archive of absence, the work forces us to read between the lines of what was once deemed a colonial archive. The value of this act, in contemporary archive practice, is in repositioning a once-tainted archive as an archive of absence that is as telling of the original citizens of southern Africa as it is of the actions and intentions of colonial oppressors.

Following a similar conceptual thread, Subotzky brings the ordinary, mundane everyday and the extraordinary shock of the violent to equitable levels of importance with 'CCTV' (2011) and 'Don't even think of it' (2012). The former is a composite video of police archival video clips of crimes committed in central Johannesburg (a work that raises contentious ethical issues regarding both their availability and exhibition). The latter is a stop-motion video composed of stills Subotzky captured from the window of his apartment featuring the acts of homeless people, a neighbour's intervention and the actions of a security company. Both these works, in different ways, relate narratives that are specific in time and place yet, read together, become useful tools for understanding the general characters of South African urban spaces.

Installed in a round underground gallery, the four-screen projection titled 'Moses and Griffiths' (2012) borrows its title from Moses Lamani, the guide at the Observatory Museum who leads visitors through Grahamstown via views through the nineteenth-century camera obscura, and Griffiths Sokuyeka who takes visitors through the 1820 Settlers Monument to English language and culture in South Africa. Two screens offer the unchanging 'official' version of the history of Grahamstown, unrelenting in its Eurocentric insistence on a history of the town purported to start with the arrival of the 1820 British settlers. On the other two screens, each guide provides a tour of his own history in relation to the town and to the building in which he works. In this way, the official archival narrative gives way to personal views that unfold a history imbued with the richness of a contemporary accuracy that is the lived experience.

Brenton Maart is an Archival Platform correspondent