The second Johannesburg Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor in 1997 and titled ‘Trade Routes: History and Geography’, serves as the leitmotif for Joost Bosland’s three-part exhibition series at Stevenson Gallery, the ‘Trade Routes Project’. At a public lecture, Bosland described Enwezor’s now somewhat folkloric biennial as ‘the most important exhibition of the 1990s’. More revealing, however, was Bosland’s likening of gathering testimonies and documents related to the original exhibition – arguably a key moment in the globalization of contemporary African art – to ‘an archaeological dig’. Fifteen years after the premature closure of the second Johannesburg Biennale, which was also the city’s last, hard evidence of its existence remains scarce. His metaphor nonetheless offered an insight. Johannesburg, a sprawling metropolis founded during a period of colonial adventurism prompted by the discovery of gold in 1886, is a kind of ghost town. Its ruins, though, are psychic rather than actual.
In the first instalment of the exhibition series, ‘Trade Routes Over Time’ at Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, a new film by Penny Siopis – who, like all 12 invited artists in this quasi-retrospective, participated in the original biennial – explored this idea. Composed from homemade movies and newsreel footage, The Master is Drowning (2012) describes the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd by farmer David Pratt at an agricultural fair in 1960. The Johannesburg in Siopis’s film is fleshy and antique, its white male subjects all sporting haircuts modelled after Norman Rockwell characters. The decisive moment shows Verwoerd, an unlikeable ideologue, incredulously staunching the flow of blood from his face after being shot at point-blank range. Verwoerd survived, but six years later a knife decisively and fatally punctured his swollen pride. It took another three decades to off his grand idea.
Staged in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet empire, the transfer of Hong Kong to China, and the successful transition of South Africa to a non-racial democracy, Enwezor’s biennial set out to map the ‘epistemological closures’ marking the end of the Enlightenment’s game run. It also aimed to essay the awkward rise of its dubious successor, economic globalization. Diller & Scofidio’s contribution to that exhibition, Pageant (1997), was a graphically simple black and white floor projection archiving well-known corporate logos. Profitably re-shown here, it pithily describes globalization as a regime of brands.
Bosland included only four works from the 1997 biennial, pushing his pseudo-historical commemorative show into the category of remix or adaptation. So, alongside Pierre Huyghe’s contribution to the original show, Atlantic (1997), a three-screen projection of the three versions of Ewald André Dupont’s eponymous 1929 disaster movie, ‘Trade Routes Across Time’ included recent works by other mid-career artists first featured in Enwezor’s show, like Stan Douglas (in his role as a fictional mid-century studio photographer) and Yinka Shonibare (whose costumed critique of empire in his film Addio del Passato, Forever to the Past, 2012, is sumptuous but laboured).
While the filmic bias was true to the original event, dealer gamesmanship stymied the potential of this exhibition. More than a few people noted that it should have been staged by one of the country’s two national museums. A marked lack of vision amongst museum programmers, however, who disingenuously blame budgetary constraints, created the obvious gap for this dealer-based interpretation of an important moment in the country’s art history.
Ângela Ferreira, one of three South Africans in the show (all of them Stevenson artists), presented an updated version of Double Sided (1996–7/2012), a bookshelf-like installation that included documentation of works made at two remote artist sites – Helen Martins’ spooky ‘Owl House’ in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, and Donald Judd’s ranch in Marfa, Texas. Like many of Ferreira’s works, this physical structure was less about the contingent sculptural form than the information it housed. It seemed oddly lost, however, next to Jo Ractliffe’s ongoing series of black and white documentary photographs of ravaged architectural structures in Pomfret, a border village given to Angolan soldiers who fought for the apartheid military.
When he was appointed artistic director of the Johannesburg Biennale, Enwezor moved to Johannesburg for a year, where he authored some devastating reviews (notably for this publication) that pierced the hubristic bubble of the city’s provincial art scene. Curator Colin Richards recently recalled the strong ‘nativist paradigm’ marking local responses to Enwezor’s project. This ‘locked position’, as he described it, reified ‘strangeness and familiarity’ – a kind of ‘us and them’ attitude mirrored in the critical silence around Bosland’s exhibition, which has received no mainstream media coverage in South Africa. A pity, since this timely exhibition deserved argument.
Possibly the most interesting thing about the Johannesburg Biennale was not that it heralded a new generation of artists – or prompted established artists like Siopis and Isaac Julien to embrace new media and contexts – but the site of the exhibition itself. ‘We fancy she matters,’ wrote Johannesburg poet and editor Lionel Abrahams of his hometown nearly a half-century ago. But Johannesburg is also a parochial frontier town where arrogance and ambition mingle with a kind of xenophobic loneliness. It is a generative proposition politely avoided in this ahistorical archive show. To be fair, 1997 was a period of optimism; Johannesburg did momentarily matter. Bosland’s second exhibition in the ‘Trade Routes Project’, featuring emerging artists and held in Johannesburg, takes on the challenge of what came after.