Ten years ago, Tracey Rose, then a little known 27-year-old South African performance and lens-based artist, showed her new video installation, Ciao Bella (2001), a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8), at the 49th Venice Biennale. Commissioned by curator Harald Szeemann, this 13-minute three-channel projection shows Rose exaggeratedly performing multiple roles – some fictional, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, others grounded in historical fact, like Marie Antoinette and Ilona ‘Cicciolina’ Staller.
A pivotal work, Ciao Bella was installed at the midpoint of Rose’s long-overdue mid-career survey, ‘Waiting for God’, which was jointly produced by the Johannesburg Art Gallery and Sweden’s Bildmuseet. Except for a crisp and adulatory wall text introducing the artist, ‘Waiting for God’ – which kicked off with a 1999 text painting that tells the story of a young woman’s inability to become pregnant, and concluded with The Cockpit (2008), a work that debuted on South African television – eschewed captioning altogether. Language, it would seem, is an incursive annoyance for curators Khwezi Gule and Renaud Proch, whose exhibition aimed to demonstrate the ‘cyclical nature’ of Rose’s work through a series of juxtapositions.
Sometimes the critical silence prompted the viewer into a renewed and committed engagement with individual works, which since 2001 have increasingly assumed a dynamically trashy and DIY aesthetic, proximate to YouTube videos. Rose’s activist performance piece, San Pedro V – “The Hope I Hope” (2005), marks the highpoint of this evolving style: a shaky video shows Rose dressed in leopard-print underwear, fishnet stockings and boots, the rest of her body painted pink. She plays ‘Hativka’, Israel’s national anthem, on an electric guitar alongside the West Bank barrier wall; the performance culminates with Rose urinating on the barricade.
Unfortunately, the near textless unfolding of ‘Waiting for God’ was not always viable. Take Ciao Bella. Biographically, this work marked a decisive shift for Rose, whose earlier performance and camera work was earnest, monochromatic and, in the artist’s own opinion, characterized by a protracted, over-determined approach. A year before her Venice debut Rose attended a residency at the Artpace Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, where she produced TKO (2000), a six-minute recording of the naked artist striking a punching bag with increasing force. The physicality of the work was modulated by its subsequent projection onto a transparent scrim, a strategy repeated in ‘Waiting for God’, where TKO occupies a threshold space between Ciao Bella and The Cockpit. While TKO took Rose two years to conceive, The Cockpit was the outcome of a radically contracted production schedule that lasted just five days. Ciao Bella is the bridge.
The Cockpit is an awkward inclusion. In 2008 Rose participated in a six-part television documentary-cum-reality series, Through the Arts, each episode challenging an invited artist to make a new work in an unfamiliar medium in five days. Rose opted to work with a group of actors on the set of a soap opera. A surreal pantomime in which a bearded, God-like figure is set upon by a mob in stagey costumes and mock-executed, the made-for-television film was produced during a wave of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa and includes footage of a burning shack. For all its chaotic incomprehensibility, The Cockpit is also remarkably lucid. Its Christian iconography, including a crucifixion scene, also speaks to Rose’s education at a white Catholic convent school. None of these facts, however, is self-evident from the viewing and would have benefited from explication.
Despite its slack curatorial hand, ‘Waiting for God’ did not diminish the vibrancy or argumentative qualities of Rose’s work. Unexpected but refreshing, the mute unfolding of the exhibition allowed me to see past the rote narratives of feminist urgency that have defined Rose’s critical reception, and encounter an artist who reframed her visual activism with a painterly sense of colour and an anti-epic attitude to narration.