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Paragons of Misery

Paragons of Misery

by Laura Steiner / 09.08.2010

Art openings during a recession are confusing. Two things: a). Free alcohol is non existent and b). Legit art enthusiasts are pretty much in extinction. No free booze and yet everyone treks to the new gallery opening – to see and be seen of course, because nobody really gives a damn about the art. The Michael Stevenson Gallery in Woodstock recently hosted new exhibitions: an awesome photography display, an eccentric (read: disturbing) video art installation and some awful combination of tin foil, yarn and pixilated pictures with birds chirping in the background. Enter the “art connoisseurs” of Cape Town.

A few were probably there for the art – the Art art – the craft, the technique, the colors, etc – but mostly it was a bunch of faux artsy dickheads. More than the Art, I often end up enjoying the whole anthropological experience – witnessing the degree of fakeness we humanoids are capable of. But solid photography works for me and Ghana has a special place in my heart – so Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error rang my bell. His photos are brilliant. Agbogbloshie is a slum in Accra used as a dump by Western interests for technological waste.

Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010.

Hugo’s subjects are men who wrest a living from the wasteland by salvaging whatever is useful. You’re left standing in front of his arresting pictures with nausea. The bleakly infertile uninhabitable terrain is strewn with computers, floppy disks and CDs. You can’t but deplore global consumerism. Hugo rubs our faces in the consequences. But the insensibility of staring at images kills me. Stare – have all of these anti-capitalist righteous revelations, feel sorry for the people scrabbling atop that mess, feel sorrier for yourself, and walk away… never to think about it again. Even more conflicting is the video footage showing Hugo’s proletarian subjects standing still while the photograph is in the process of being taken. They stay still while the ghostly wracked surroundings shift and stay active. You’re intruding on their every day lives – but it feels like they want you to look. To bear witness. There’s a sullen self-presentation in their eyes.

Aissah Salifu, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010.

Or it could just be the thrill of being paid by Hugo, a very successful international artist, to stand around. It’s impossible not to feel guilty. Impossible not to feel implicated in their situation. That culpability makes Hugo’s work valid. You stay glued to the screen – like the subjects depicted – relieved not to be them – the ones photographed – relieved not to be contemporary paragons of misery.

the eclipse will not be visible to the naked eye. Installation view.

Dineo Seshee Bopape’s the eclipse will not be visible to the naked eye killed the night for me though. All the art savants tried to come up with a meaning for nylon, beads and polka dots painted on fabric with mirrors everywhere. What bothered me was how such banality jarred with Hugo’s accomplished provocative art. Poor curating.

Noreturn. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Noreturn video art is disturbing. A camera dwells on a bunch of primary school kids in uniform on metallic beds without mattresses. Disquieting electronic sounds are blared and lights shine in their faces. The children whisper “No return, No return” – before falling silent. Patrons and art experts were audibly exchanging bemused explanations with a glass of wine and a big pretentious stick up their asses. It was straight up creepy to me though: a rapist’s diary. Now go see for yourselves.

*Opening image title: Abdulai Yahaya, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010, from Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error.

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  1. Sean says:

    The hits just keep on coming with Hugo. Fuck he’s good. Great review.

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  2. Captain Lombard says:

    Eew … what a horrible tone.

    Sounds like there’s a big dildo up your ass. Thank God you thought Pieter Hugo’s pictures were brilliant though. And thanks for your thoughtful comments on Bopape’s work.

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  3. Vanessa says:


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  4. Legit art enthusiast says:

    Yawn. This is dull and pointless. Don’t you have anything interesting to say? Your cynicism seems way too practiced. Point of fact: if you’d attended a show at MS gallery previously you’d know that the booze has never been free.

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  5. random says:

    “Patrons and art experts were audibly exchanging bemused explanations with a glass of wine and a big pretentious stick up their asses. ”


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  6. dot says:

    poor review not because of opinion rather, lack of an objective. If you want to be critical look at the work not the people, hard as this may be.

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  7. just another Urbain granadier says:

    *whatever cape town art scene, whatever.

    thanks Laura. were you not able to pirate a bit of Dominique’s work so we can all have a gander? bummer, yo.

    also, why are all honkies mystified by dineo’s work? especially those in ctn?

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  8. Anonymous says:

    my booze was free

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  9. Anonymous says:

    and actually it has stuck with me, although i did feel pretty weird standing with a glass of champagne taking it all in. one woman in pieter’s video room said, “lets look at people’s misery for a bit” um, okay….and yes i wasn’t sure what dineo’s work was about, some celebration in there for sure. mind giving us your take on it urbain granadier and enlighten this lily white honky tonk ass a bit?

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  10. Anonymous says:

    very little or no intelligent commentary in there…mmm perhaps you are one of the brainless fools who went to check the exhibition. bin this one

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  11. Michael Smith says:

    Also not feeling the Cape Town art crowd, eh, Laura? You should witness the scene in Joburg: first-generation art aficionados who may as well be shopping for snakeskin loafers, standing around at openings pontificating about transgressive social commentary while their heavy cheque books in their jacket pockets pull the distressed cotton fabric tight around their gym-approved pecs.

    Re Hugo: I have been a (very) vocal critic in the past of his particular strain of poverty porn, but as reportage there seems to be something sharp and poignant about this body of work. I hope the show comes up here.

    Keep scribbling, Laura, you acerbic little misanthrope: I’d like to hear your take on Idols.

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  12. Pumla Mokone says:

    Dineo is the future

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  13. Igor says:

    I must say, as significantly as I enoeyjd reading what you had to say, I couldnt help but lose interest after a while. Its as if you had a terrific grasp to the subject matter, but you forgot to include your readers. Perhaps you should think about this from more than one angle. Or maybe you shouldnt generalise so a lot. Its better if you think about what others may have to say instead of just going for a gut reaction to the topic. Think about adjusting your own believed process and giving others who may read this the benefit of the doubt.

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