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Art, Culture

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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