After the brutal impediments of the Apartheid era, South African art has been working hard in recent years to reinvent itself, to reclaim the lost opportunities of the dreary years of cultural isolation. Still, for all its punchy insouciance the country's cultural vessel remains adrift, unmoored by the fear of its potential disintegration as the glue of political reunification and social emancipation begins to dissolve from the insistent attacks of right-wing revisionism.
Be that as it may, once a year Johannesburg Art Gallery provides a forum for art that promises better things. 'FNB Vita Art Now', currently in its tenth year, is South Africa's version of the Turner Prize. A panel chooses work by artists from exhibitions held in Johannesburg during the previous year, and from this 'best of year' selection a grand prize winner is selected, the end product becoming a kind of curated bazaar à la Whitney Biennial.
This year's co-grand prize winners, Jane Alexander (sculpture) and Kevin Brand (installation), make perfect sense bearing in mind the squalls that South Africa is currently negotiating as it rejoins the global order. As with most things in this new democracy, the body is the raft upon which the course of the journey is steered, and this is visible in the obsessive engagement with its social meanings and relevancy within political discourse. Yet, as forms, the individual exhibits remain insistently sedate and reserved. The works, with their putative humanism, do not move mountains nor do they problematise what we already know about the issues they explore. However, what is noteworthy, in some of the works, is the ruminative, quiet exploration of the issues surrounding the body (marked and harangued as it is by violence, displacement and repression), which gives them a dignified intelligence.
Purportedly making some grand comment on the relationship between industrial machinery and violence, Marc Edwards' display of a crashed car lacked any hint of irony while serving up its own brand of aesthetic obsolescence. We have seen it all before in Bertrand Lavier's crashed car; in Warhol's numbing repetitions of accidents where all hints of violence are merely simulacral and decorative, dissolved into representation, anaesthetised and turned into a comic strip. Disheartening as Edwards' piece may be, more fucked-up still is C.J. Morkel's autistic drone of cheap shock tactics. The triteness of his comic bondage bimbos (part Barbarella, part Times Square), amplified with fetishistic homoerotic indulgences, is incisively deflated by Andrew Putter's diorama of little addictions (sex, pills, cigarettes, hypodermic needles): a melancholic ode to a queer loss and gain. I can only describe Ian Waldeck's installation of a row of prison beds, in which the creative labour of prisoners has been appropriated, uncredited, as a monument to authorial conceit and theft of artistic initiative. Leora Farber's gnarly, stiff, resin encrusted dresses look like they did a stint on the set of Exorcist II. Think here also of Linda Blair, or Jana Sterbak's meat dresses, when visualising these otherworldly, at times aggressively poignant, feminist pieces.
One of my faves is the contribution by 21-year old 'maverick' Moshewka Langa. His funky assemblages of found material (teabags sewn into plastic enclosures, wire, driftwood) are paeans to desire and loss. What endears me to this young artist's work are his poetic silences, and the layered, melancholic grandeur of his Arte Povera means. Minette Vari employs technology to produce what she calls 'Surface Disclosures': traces of intimate parts of her body. The smudgy, abstract reproductions achieved with the aid of an electron-microscope look like blurry pictures of solar eclipses or bad photo-reproductions. At the same time, their presence is leavened by the seductive and complacent Minimalist shimmer of the white bathroom tiles upon which the images yield their minute incidents.
For all their vaunted presence in this exhibition, many of the older generation (such as Robert Hodgins, Durant Sihlali, Azaria Mbatha and Willem Boshoff) seemed a bit out of place amongst the aggressive, no-holds-barred attitude of some of the younger artists. I cannot imagine that paintings such as Hodgins' - which look like Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon on a very bad day - represent the best of what could be seen in Johannesburg during 1995. These pictures, along with the feckless and mundane contributions by Beezy Bailey, Brett Murray and Stefan Blom, are formalism gone awry. They snuggle into a psychic space no larger than a one rand coin. Overall, however, 'Vita' leaves some interesting food for thought, and remains an important barometer for contemporary art in South Africa.