Snakes in paradise and the logic of false promises
The cultural elite make it up as they go along at the Nirox Sculpture Park, writes Hans Pienaar
Everybody had a good time at the Winter Sculpture Fair at Nirox last weekend. A Filipino friend described it as magical, so why can’t I shake the feeling that I had been used, that I was a mere extra in a gigantic work of performance art?
In the Nirox woods, where the artists usually believe they have to blend in like engineers from Dunsinane attacking Macbeth’s castle, a security guard approached me.
Did I want to see his "friend", and perhaps take a photo? What’s this, was my immediate reaction. Is it part of an artwork, with the guard really an actor? Or was he hustling me?
He cautiously proceeded to show me, alerting me to be quiet — in a vaginal split in a tree the scales of a snake were visible. I held my camera close, he pulled my hand away, and I realised then that it was a real reptile.
The guard seemed immensely proud of his "friend". There was a cultural schism between me, an overeducated urbanite, and him, a member of the precariat not concerned in the least with the complex art around him. The snake amid the multitudes had made his day, but for me … frustration.
I would have liked it to be an artwork. A snake in a suggestive tree in the paradise that Nirox is (or once was). A snake in a woman’s parts in the paradise that Nirox is (or was). Crude, surely, but abounding in layers of postmodern (de)meaning.
Earlier, we almost stumbled over a figure lying under a blanket on a piece of cardboard. Another guard assured us it was just somebody taking a rest.
Only later did we realise this was an artwork — when we noticed more figures lying about. The problem was, there was no way to tell, no tree of knowledge. You could buy a sort of journal at the entrance with a map in the middle, but that was confusing. We were soon part of a group of people puzzling over theirs, turning them upside down, turning towards what they believed was north, trying the compass on a cellphone, only to discover there wasn’t sufficient signal.
I am not against confusion in art. I love obscurity, and it has been validated ever since the Greek philosopher Heraclitus started publishing his thoughts. It makes you think, and thinking is lekker, especially with some Franschhoek wine and oysters — part of the fare brought by wineries and restaurants from those eminent parts.
The purpose of such direction by hidden hands? To make money, stupid.
In the age of slagging off Facebook, we have become used to the scandal of our most private information being abused by the torrent to make money or get fruitcakes elected to high office.
Artlogic, the company behind the fair and other events such as the Joburg Art Fair, has become a pioneer in exploiting the absence of information.
It works like this: first, no signs at the artworks to say who the artists are and what they think their work might mean. Second, apply a basic tenet of ambush capitalism: develop an app that doesn’t work, or only partly works.
The app at Nirox did, at least, give the title of a work, next to a thumbprint picture of it. But try to click through to access information on the work, and up jumps a window demanding a password to a credit card.
The feeling was inescapable that these abstracted shacks were poverty porn — although I would bet my second house on that not being the intention of the artist. We were being told that we came there and spent all that money to gawk at the poor
At this point you just give up, and in the spirit of the title of the fair, Not a Single Story, decide to make it all up. It’s not the money, you understand — if you are going to Nirox you have to be part of the richest 10% anyway — but the extra hoop you have to jump through, after being stopped at the entrance three times to make sure you have not come all the way to Krugersdorp to be a gatecrasher.
Then finally, with the half-built puzzle in your mind, you give up and salve your nerves with the nouvelle cuisine scraps of comfort food and wine from Franschhoek — although what’s comforting about kimchi for a non-Korean is also enigmatic.
Many would regard the absence of information as a blessing, because some artist statements can be tedious, and there is always the layman’s conviction that good art doesn’t need explanation.
We later discovered, however, why this lack of information didn’t work when we took a free ride on American Express’s exclusive tour — what is a fair for the rich without exclusivity?
Before the tour I was inclined to regard Enticed Contemplation by Nandipha Mnantabo as the discarded shell of a beach buggy. However, the guide reminded us that Mnantabo used to work with cowhide, and suddenly the genius of the sculpture was plain — the staple covering material of past and countryside replaced with the contemporary staple of mesh.
Ayanda Jackson’s untitled work of photographs on black perspex of herself half-clad in costume from the 19th century also suddenly made sense. Knowing that she identifies as African American is crucial, and the additional information that she is alluding to Victorian-era portraits of ancestors that have passed on as a link to Africa triggers a powerful exercise in irony and repurposed nostalgia.
But what then to make of the fake vagrants lying about? The 10%, the elite, you and I, encounter vagrants every day on our streets. So what was the point of transporting them to Nirox? In the absence of information, the only difference I saw was that Nirox’s vagrants had brand-new blankets.
The almost fanatical scurrying around to skim off some money or cost at every opportunity changed some great pieces fundamentally.
On the edge of the park was a collection of steel cubes with vagrant-like figures etched in rust on the sides. Inside, strings were hung, and recordings played the a capella voices of women singing that if one only understood the story of their lives being sung, all was well.
The feeling was inescapable that these abstracted shacks were poverty porn — although I would bet my second house on that not being the intention of the artist. We were being told that we came there and spent all that money to gawk at the poor.
Either that or we were all made interactive extras in a performance artwork by Artlogic encompassing the whole park, the message being that we are all hypocritical sods and deserve to be relieved of the burden of our surplus wealth to the greediest degree possible. There would certainly be an artful logic to such sentiments.