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Spier Contemporary 2010

Ja, it’s a nice

by Sean O’Toole / 14.03.2010

Of the 100 odd art works selected for the Spier Contemporary 2010, a biennale-like festival of new South African art that opens tomorrow evening at the Cape Town City Hall, one work deserves your undivided attention. It tells the story of a road. Not just any road.

In their mixed-media installation, Flyover: An Ethnography, Eugene Arries, Jonathan Cane and Zen Marie present a curious anthropological account of Johannesburg’s elevated Eastern and Southern Bypasses, an unlovely section of road that ring fences Jozi’s inner city. The installation combines audio, video and still photography and draws on contemporary and historical sources. The outcome is a fragmented documentary portrait of Joburg told from the ground up.

Pairing video recorded testimonies of “insiders/native informants” (tow truck drivers, the homeless, the guys who keep the white lines white) with “outsiders/experts” (intellectuals, artists), the three collaborating Johannesburg artists function as mute, impartial referees – they refer to themselves as “participant/observers”.

Eugene Arries, Jonathan Cane and Zen Marie, Flyover: An ethnography, mixed media installation
Eugene Arries, Jonathan Cane and Zen Marie, Flyover: An ethnography, mixed media installation

“The main thing is to speak to people and acknowledge them,” offers graffiti artist Faith 47 in one short interview. Of her interest in the non-spaces where her graffiti often manifests, including highway underpasses, Faith 47 offers: “What I have come to appreciate are the textures and environments, lost spaces, empty spaces… There is so much of it in this country.”

The graffiti artist also points our attention to the smoke-scarred concrete verticals on which the road rests, evidence of other lives and ways of inhabiting the city. In an interview with a group of homeless people living beneath one section of the flyover, a woman proudly (although with evident shyness) says she voted for Zuma. A boozy voice angrily pitches in from the side.

Eugene Arries, Jonathan Cane and Zen Marie, Flyover: An ethnography, mixed media installation
Eugene Arries, Jonathan Cane and Zen Marie, Flyover: An ethnography, mixed media installation

There is one voice missing from the trio’s constructed narrative. In his new book, Johannesburg Transition, a dispassionate account of Johannesburg’s “promiscuous nature and the endless parodies of other cities”, architectural writer Clive Chipkin dedicates two pages to his home city’s tangled motorways. Conceived in 1955-56 by urban planner Maurice Rotival – in conjunction with American consultants – and completed in phases, starting in 1966, Chipkin explains that the highways acted as a much-needed gateway to the city. Their impact was enormous.

“The new peripheral elevated road system took an amorphous spread-eagled city on the plains, tied it together in an urban package and provided a sense of recognition for visitors and locals alike,” writes Chipkin in Johannesburg Transition. The highways also served other secondary functions, like cutting through a left-leaning mining family’s Northern Suburbs estate – a kind of fuck you by the Nats. They also barricaded the city from Soweto and allowed for the deployment of military vehicles on the perimeter of the city.

Not everything about Arries, Cane and Marie’s documentary project is stern or historical. It includes a fine non-place painting by Mary Wafer. There is an impressionistic video sequence showing Jozi rain, insistent and gushing. The presentation is also pervaded by the trio’s subdued Constructivist appreciation for the fuck-all-ness of their subject. “Ja, it’s a nice bridge,” says a tow truck driver. “That’s about it.”

Eugene Arries, Jonathan Cane and Zen Marie, Flyover: An ethnography, mixed media installation
Eugene Arries, Jonathan Cane and Zen Marie, Flyover: An ethnography, mixed media installation

Cane and Marie, both art lecturers, are also represented on the Spier Contemporary by a video work in which they interviewed their students for an examination. The clumsy explanations cumulatively achieve an alternative stoner version of art theory. Immeasurably improving his odds of winning one of the six residency awards on offers tomorrow night, Cane is also represented by a dispassionate sculptural piece that recalls the physical plan of all the public works projects (dams, airports, hospitals, roads) once named after HF Verwoerd. It is a funny work, austere too.

As is to be expected, this all-over-the-place snapshot of what artists are thinking and doing right now offers many digressions and counterpoints. Don’t go expecting symmetry. Of the works that caught my eye, look out for Phula Richard Chauke, Dillon Marsh and Maja Marx’s contributions, respectively a series of painted wood sculptures, a collection of photos of disguised cellphone towers and a sculptural installation comprising blankets printed to resemble an exercise book. There is also a work about (not by) Julius Malema, and something sure to offend our arts and culture minister.

Maja Marx, Pile: Feint & Margin, blankets, 20 x 100 x 100cm
Maja Marx, Pile: Feint & Margin, blankets, 20 x 100 x 100cm

Chris Swift, Dreamcatcher, approximately 4000 black condoms obtained both via the SA/German arms deal and donation of De waterkant men's Helath Clinic and Tattoo
Chris Swift, Dreamcatcher, approximately 4000 black condoms obtained both via the SA/German arms deal and donation of De waterkant men

Brett Murray, Culture, metal, paint and gold leaf, 267 x 270cm
Brett Murray, Culture, metal, paint and gold leaf, 267 x 270cm

Jonanthan Cane, Het versamel, mixed media installation
Jonanthan Cane, Het versamel, mixed media installation

Phula Richard Chauke, Tutu, wood and paint, 55 x 16 x 20cm
Phula Richard Chauke, Tutu, wood and paint, 55 x 16 x 20cm

Rudolph Tshie, Mebarakeng (The market), oil on canvas, 117 x 193cm (foreground) Phula Richard Chauke, The world in our country, Fifa Wolrd Cup 2010, wood and paint
Rudolph Tshie, Mebarakeng (The market), oil on canvas, 117 x 193cm (foreground) Phula Richard Chauke, The world in our country, Fifa Wolrd Cup 2010, wood and paint

Dillon Marsh, Invasive Species, photo prints, 40 x 40cm each
Dillon Marsh, Invasive Species, photo prints, 40 x 40cm each

Phula Richard Chauke, Soccer players, wood and paint
Phula Richard Chauke, Soccer players, wood and paint

Opening image: Dawood Petersen, Watch the space… Tdd… Wishful thinking, acrylic on
canvas, 124 x 91cm

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RESPONSES (4)
  1. Niklas says:

    nice nice nice, whatever, ja, but nice. art? hm, nice. shure, yes, maye, nice art. whatever
    (and a few swearwords thrown in for good measure). text about? image-as-text? text as image? nice, (and a few primitive sculptures thrown in for goodness’ sake) and it’s all nice nice

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  2. david says:

    sparkling exhibition! lekker stuff! thanks for writing

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  3. Ian says:

    I feel like I’ve seen Dawood Petersen’s piece somewhere before.
    Oh wait, it’s a bite of Shigeo Fukuda’s work. http://bit.ly/azYqND
    Shame.

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  4. ben v says:

    More of an influence than a bite, I like Dawood’s painting. I expect Escher or someone did similar before Fukuda. The hands in the air reminded me of Mary Lou Williams Black Christ of the Andes cover.

    Enjoyable exhibition, the enormity of City Hall helped curatorially, with rooms uncluttered allowing individual works to shine. Or scare in the case of Johann Van Der Schijff’s Heartbreaker.

    Other highlights: Wilhelm Saaymon’s inks, Candice Borzechowski’s safety pin sculpture, Frans Masobe Mothapo’s Makatlzin Lerole (which made me feel I was being watched), and Washa and Gnesha by James Clayton, would attend the live performance of that if still in town. Also, glad Araminta De Clermont’s work is gaining plaudits, top photography.

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