The Second Biennial of South Africa
Digital Diaspora at the Cape of Good Hope
On Sunday the 12th of October 97 the 2nd Biennial of South Africa was opened in Johannesburg in the Newtown cultural precinct. This Biennial should be complimented for looking at the multiple implications of globalisation from an African point of view, thereby adding a new twist to the ever popular discussions of the global/local problematic. It reversed the usual South to North direction of cultural import, with more than 50% of the participating artists being born in the Southern hemisphere. But Johannesburg was not only the comfortable place of meeting for a pretty cosmopolitan mix of artists, curators, theorists and journalists. The town itself offered us other zones - not of comfort but of friction, its mere existence mercilessly demonstrating what the Biennial failed to address.
The 2nd Biennial was an ambitious project, an attempt to put Johannesburg on the map of true "world exhibitions" with more than 300 participating artists and conference speakers from all around the globe. The exhibition was spread out over four different venues in Johannesburg alone plus two more places in Cape Town. The artistic director and main curator Okwui Enwezor and his assistant Octavio Zaya developed the Biennial theme of "Trade Routes - History and Geography" in their curatorial statements and in the main exhibition "Alternating Currents". The works of 85 artists were shown in a huge building called "Electric Workshop" - a former power plant refitted to the needs of the Biennial. Five other curators also took on subjects of trade routes, post-colonialism and globalisation in their own exhibitions, namely Yu Yeon Kim (Transversions), Hou Hanru (Hongkong etc.), Gerardo Mosquera (Important and Exportant), Kellie Jones (Life's Little Necessities), and Colin Richards (Graft). Additional projects using billboards and media as well as a conference and a film programme complemented this mega-project which came together under unique and difficult circumstances in a country caught in the process of transformation.
When entering the town via Johannesburg International Airport the first thing you notice are the billboards advertising the same kind of products you will find anywhere on the world, from fashion to perfumes to credit cards to computer software and hardware. The highway, the gas stations, the fast food chains might make you think that you are in Minneapolis or Toulouse. But as soon as you enter the northern suburbs like Sandton or Rosebank you start noticing the differences. In these suburbs the streets are cleaner than the streets of a German provincial town and the mansions, in style or scale, look like Beverly Hills. Actually they are in a better taste and even the settlements of multinationals try to compete with each other for architectural refinement. Moving further towards Jo'burg downtown you notice another change, without being able to determine exactly when it occurred. The architecture didn't change that much except becoming more dense. But the pavements in front of the buildings are populated with a typically African street life, the bleakness of life in urban South Africa shining through its exotic surfaces. Finally arriving to the Newtown cultural precinct where the Biennial is located you already learned that there is a difference between simply knowing about the terror of the Apartheid regime and actually seeing its long term effects first hand.
For a long time SA was a country in a state of war where a highly powerful and very high-tech security machinery did everything it could to deprive the majority of the population from its basic human rights. With the ANC gaining power through democratic elections in 1994, the inequality which was created by this system didn't vanish overnight - in particular the economic inequality. The country is suffering from wounds that will take a long time to heal, with fresh conflicts erupting daily from old accumulation of corruption and lies. Still, most South Africans show a strong confidence that the process of transformation will remain peaceful. For me it was impossible to separate the Biennial from this atmosphere of hopes and fears. But the strength of the Biennial also lies in the particularly strong potential for social explosion in SA today. Given all this, Johannesburg seems ideally suited to bring into focus the problems of globalisation. It appears to be a model for the hybridisation of the world, where roots are replaced by routes taking peoples on unsure travels into the future.
But let us juxtapose the narrations of the town with the narrations of the curators, the artists and finally my own narration. As you soon will see I will try to make my voice almost disappear. During the Biennial I recorded many conversations. Given the ideas behind the Biennial, I decided to compose a collage of different opinions rather than to write a linear text from my singular point of view. The multiplicity of voices was one of the key achievements of this event; unavoidably, this multiplicity sometimes resulted in a kind of babylonic confusion. (The following quotations are based on transcriptions of my recordings which I have slightly edited.)
Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of the Biennial who was born in Nigeria and is based in New York:
For me the main question was how to approach this subject of globalisation. But not globalisation as a phenomenon unique to the 20th century but as something which has a much longer historical trajectory. So within this problematic of globalisation which multinationals have sort of stolen, we have quite a few questions we think about, whether it is migration, identity, nationalism, post-colonialism, colonialism and so on. It was an opportunity for me to meditate on what it means at this particular historical moment and to reflect on how economic imperatives have produced very recent global cultural consequences.
Some of Okwui Enwezor's basic decisions concerning the organisation of the event were supported by many artists and visitors.
I am pretty much seduced by the fact that the national pavilions have been abolished and that artists are not representing their countries but are just showing works as individual artists and we are all mixed together.
I like this Biennial because they are not looking for artists who are from this country or from that country, instead they invited artists who fit with their concept. They try to break down this idea of nationality and I feel very comfortable with this.
But Okwui Enwezor went further than just abolishing national pavilions, the traditional Biennial structure - he also delegated curatorial power. He said:
For me it was not possible to follow once again the grand gesture of art world - being the sole artistic director. I felt that it was necessary to work collaboratively with other curators. That complicates my position but it also makes it more legible.
It is an advantage of this Biennial that there are different curators with different value systems. By having five curators the catch-phrase of decentralisation actually determines the structure of the event.
Okwui Enwezor's idea that the Biennial should "build a kind of five point star in which different cultural and aesthetic positions can mingle in a complex way letting each other know what we do", seemed to work. Not only young artists but even Dennis Oppenheim, one of the stars of the exhibition, apparently enjoyed the communicative spirit of the Biennial. Oppenheim told me that he particularly liked that different events were "infiltrated" by young South Africans who were all eager to see and to learn. He also pointed out that the curators of the mayor U.S. museums were present, along with the representatives of the leading art publications. Alfredo Jaar, another "name" in this exhibition, shared this feeling:
Almost a third of the artists are from SA, we are all mixed together, they have a strong presence, we are meeting people, we are becoming shown around and we are becoming friends.
But Jaar also expressed scepticism about the art world's ability to change. He was concerned that while the system has known about the necessity to decentralise and to accept other views for a long time, so far it did not change.
This is one of the ironies of today's art world. Because I think we are now in the phase where, in order to be known, artists from the so-called periphery have to have a presence in the so-called centres. But we will reach a phase where it will be not necessary to actually leave the so-called Third World. You can live anywhere you want and develop your vocabulary and your work and have a certain visibility on the world stage from your own country. Now this is a wishful thinking but I think we are moving slowly towards that. The periphery will disappear, there will be no more periphery, we all will be centres and the euro-centric view of the world will disappear as well.
This was the central point of much of the discussions at the Biennial. The majority of artists shown at the Biennial came from the so-called Third World, or from the Southern Hemisphere or from other marginalised areas. But most of these artists are living in New York. It will be too easy to accuse the curators as being New York-centred. For young artists born in Africa moving to one of the centres of the Western Hemisphere like New York or London is a necessity if they want to have any art career at all, while for artists born in the West it is a matter of choice. Very often diaspora is a story of personal despair and lack of any other opportunities. So a curator like Okwui Enwezor would not follow the trend of celebrating "nomadism", a concept popular in the Western art elite circles for many years.
The question is what has happened in Africa in the last 20 years? Why people had to move out of their own country and where did they move to? I think the metropolis is maybe more receptive to this conglomeration of peoples and identities converging together. Not necessarily at the centres of these spaces, but on the peripheries, on the margins of it. The metropolis itself is no longer a centre, but a place which is fragmented. These artists live in New York but they don't get exhibited in New York. You have to go to Johannesburg to find them in an exhibition of this scale.
He adds: "New York remains a powerful centre as far as capitalism is concerned and this is a question I have to deal with." Flying to and from New York seems to be a main question for many of the members of the diaspora and this is an experience not exclusive for Africans. Diaspora, a personal experience for many participating artists, was the underlying theme of many artworks shown in the Biennial.
I think we are all part of the diaspora. This is one of the persistent questions at the endpoint of modernity. So diaspora for me is about how one constructs her or his identity through a broader affiliation as opposed to being confined to narrow racial or ethnic position.
But this is exactly where the consensus stopped. The questions of identity and its formation provoked endless discussion which did not arrive at any resolution. When Catherine David, the curator of documenta X, said during "The Politics of Mega-exhibitions" panel that she prefers to think about identity as a lifelong process of identification rather than a fixed category, she was attacked in a very emotional way by parts of the audience. The argument of her opponents was that in order to be able to choose an identity you need some degree of agency, but in Africa many people lack this power and are getting "identified" without being able to respond.
Catherine David later said in a private conversation:
I am tired of this grocery shop idea of identity. It is a very Anglo-Saxon notion: be what you want but stay where you are. I am coming from a very republican regime. I prefer the idea of citizenship to isolated communities.
The exhibitions I: Alternating Currents
The main exhibition, "Alternating Currents", brought together 85 artists in a large space which itself was impressive. Its reconstruction for the exhibition was done in a careful way in order not to destroy the aura of this industrial building. Some of the works were presented on the walls, but many artists who used video, slides and other media were placed in their individual stalls. The result was like a labyrinth through which you could wander for hours.
One of the trends was the image of "home". Many artworks displayed the interiors of peoples homes, predominantly "shacks." "Shack" is a primitive house which a family builds for itself in places like African Shantytowns or Brazilian Favelas. While some artists built complete shacks in the exhibition hall others just showed photographs. I found the photographs more interesting, in particular the works of Zwelethu Methetwa, Durban, SA, and Esko Männikkö, Pudasjarvi, Finland. Both showed ordinary people in their houses, one in South Africa, one in Finland. Both houses were very poor yet displayed lots of dignity; their similarity was in a powerful contrast to their very different geographical location. Perhaps the German-based Swiss photographer Beat Streuli wanted to say something similar, but his photographic wallpaper of people of different ethnic origins, a huge work dominating the entrance hall, reminded only of the "United Colors of Benetton" campaign.
All in all, many of the artworks presenting a home functioned mainly as signs of identity of individual artists, their belonging to this or that region. But a more synthetic approach was missing; the parts did not add to a new whole.
This exhibition is rough, it is a surface that is not quite smooth in many ways. I have to emphasise this because many people will raise the question whether some of the works we have displayed in the exhibition can be called art. I think the issues of politics of cultural survival, of social mobility, of political and economical analysis are all part of what is going on today. The artists are no longer separated from these kind of questions. So one can look at the Biennial as a multidisciplinary exhibition, rather than just as an art exhibition.
This is a good curatorial position but it does not help to explain why many artists were not able to go beyond simply expressing their individual experiences to place them within a wider and a more analytical framework. But a few exceptions could be noted.
For example, Vivat Sundaram printed texts of leading Indian economists on thin metal sheets. They were displayed as books on the walls whereas the floor was covered with little photographs of Indian markets, all framed using the same cheap red photo frames. The resulting juxtaposition of serious analytical texts and images of everyday reality had a powerful effect.
Eugenio Dittborn from Chile showed another series of his Airmail Paintings. The different paintings which were combined into one big assemblage on the wall formed a psycho-geography of colonialism in time and space, from the experiences of indigenous people with "the white man" to religion to contemporary imagery of coca-colonisation.
An almost hidden highlight of the show was a work of Marko Peljahn, Slovenia. This work used high-tech equipment to receive short-wave radio signals of air-traffic control. The equipment was hidden from the public. The audience was given a headphone to listen to air traffic control conversations and a map of the sky above Africa displaying who controls which area. Because of the particular importance of transcontinental flights are for the African diaspora, this was one of the few works in the exhibition which directly addressed the local context of the SA Biennial. This was also one of the few works which displayed raw data usually hidden from public sight without the interference of artist's "subjectivity."
There were a number of other truly professional and impressive works in the show, but they did not add much to developing further its theme. I can name Wenda Gu, Stan Douglas, or the installation version of Isaac Julien's film about Franz Fanon.
The problems of art and artists
Olu Oguibe, the organiser of the conference, gave quite a harsh statement about the intellectual capabilities of artists in the age of conceptual art. To be fair it must be added that this was not directed to the artists in the "Alternating Currents" exhibition but at the state of the art world in general:
We live in the age of conceptual art and you would assume that artists today are dealing with concepts and ideas, but if you look around this is clearly not the case. What they do is fumble around with all sorts of mass-produced ideas which they can't really think through. None of them turns up at the conference because nobody can deal with intellectual matters. They can't deal with theories, they can't deal with discourses. Anything which is beyond a two liner is beyond their ability to comprehend and articulate. How anyone who is not sufficiently intellectually endowed can deal with discourses and can translate an idea or concept into a visual form is a miracle to me.
Catherine David, who was, in her own words, studying the methodologies of other curators, talked about curators' responsibility.
This Biennial is not worse than other ones, but it is also not much better than them. I think what maybe has been missed is a very specific articulation about the Johannesburg context. It could have been interesting to experiment with other exhibition strategies. ...I think it is very important to have certain priorities and a certain focus and to try to use it in an obvious and sometimes to an extent offensive way. For me an exhibition is 50 % what you show and 50% what you do with it.
But of course it is easy to speak of missed opportunities out of the position of someone who has just finished a major show in the Western art world where the curator has a smoothly running organisational machine behind her with a number of well-paid professionals. In contrast the organisation of SA Biennial was a parcour of problems. Organisers like Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa, the Director of the Africus Institute of Contemporary Arts (the organising body), projects co-ordinator Clive Kellner, media promoter Susan Glanville and project administrator Angela Gama, among others, managed to cope with a tremendous amount of work while suffering from almost non-existing infrastructure and constant cash problems of an under-funded project where even the guaranteed funding is always arriving (too) late. The participation of many artists depended on them getting additional funding from their regional art funding bodies; some artists funded their participation on their own. Such organisational issues are usually not something one writes about in an art review. But I think they should be discussed as they are an integral part of the living and working conditions of artists functioning in a more and more Social Darwinist society. "Only the funded ones survive".
Still, even the organisers of the Biennial lacked the financial resources. I feel they could have gone further to draw more people from Johannesburg to attend the exhibitions. On the first three days after the opening the invited artists and foreign visitors had the space almost exclusively for themselves, with few "outsiders" in attendance..
Desné Maise, 19, architectural student working behind the counter in the artists' canteen, said:
I think in this country a big portion of the population was kept away from art because of the past politics. And with this Biennial, at least what I can see is that it was only advertised on the highways to the northern suburbs but there were no posters in the townships. And you know that all the art galleries are located in the north.
And Jacob, 23, who just received a degree in Fine Arts said:
I am concerned with what is happening in the townships in relation to the Biennial, I have not seen anything happening there so far. There are a lot of community art centres in the townships but I think they are left behind. Everything is taking place in the major areas of Johannesburg. I think there are people left out, excluded, not intentionally but in the way how the whole thing is arranged. Maybe my expectations for the Biennial are too high, because this is only the second one, but we should have learned from the first one. It is only the problem of accessibility, the economic problem.
Alexia Webster, 18, aspiring art student also working at the canteen counter added:
My first impression of the artists is that a lot of them have not related their works to the surroundings. For some reason I expected artists to come here with their perspective on what they are in now, what they are experiencing now in South Africa. But it is more a personal art they are showing.
When I confronted Okwui Enwezor with these criticisms, he started to talk about the "fetishisation of townships" and that the Biennial is actually doing projects in the townships and will hold workshops, and so on. But these plans, as the conference program and the film program of the Biennial, were not clearly communicated to the public.
One could get the impression that the quite outspoken elitist view of the world of the curators holds the danger of a prolonging cultural domination. Western cultural imperialism is replaced by an African international trans-modernism. This regime is more subtle, it brings more diversity to the present art system of brand names, but nevertheless it is situated in the same ivory tower of high art. The curators used the lingo of hyper-post-modernity, a kind of language which is appropriate for New York but is not very meaningful in the face of Johannesburg's reality. The missing interface between the Biennial and the city was quite "naturally" constructed by a phenomenon which is always present in Johannesburg: street crime. After a Japanese artist got mugged on the first week and a German art tourist got stabbed in the arm, the art crowd was gripped with fear. Only a few dared to explore the city beyond organised shuttle rides between the Biennial area and the hotel area there everyone was staying.
The exhibitions, II: Transversions, etc.
The other exhibitions of the Biennial did little to improve this image of art-elitist transculturalism. "Transversions" curated by Yu Yeon Kim was maybe the most "modern" (using this word in its everyday connotation) show deploying various technical devices, video, CD-ROM, and the Internet. Alfredo Jaar, who dedicated the past three years to doing research about the genocide in Ruanda, showed "The Eyes of Gutete Emerita", a touching and effective piece. Rather than displaying the expected sensational images of Ruanda, it confronted the viewers with the texts to be read and reflected upon. The only image used was that of woman's eyes, flashed for a second every two minutes. Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio from New York showed "Pageant", black-and-white computer animated logos of world companies projected onto the ground and morphing slowly from one to the next. The work hypnotised you, you felt you could not escape becoming a part of some new religious ritual of the trans-national capitalism. But, all in all, "Transversions" could not offer a narrative beyond the usual rhetoric of "artists bridging territories, zones, histories, culture" (quotation of the curators' statement), something that can be said about almost any art exhibition today.
"Hongkong, etc." curated by Hou Hanru felt even more arbitrary in its selections and presentations. The show mixed photography, video and Internet projects. The show was like a travel album of artists going to different places with photo and video cameras, a kind of high-brow art flaneurism. In this context even the tightly composed photographs of Andreas Gursky left you feeling you were under random image bombardment.
"Important and Exportant" curated by Gerardo Mosquera was maybe the most European exhibition in the context of this Biennial (I could not see the Cape Town exhibitions). But "European" here meant relying on well-established art practices of the past two decades and not taking many risks. Again the overall "quality" was good.
Sophie Calles "Detachment" was showing deserted memorial places in Berlin and East Germany. She placed texts of memories of people besides the images of empty spaces where Stalinist monuments stood before. Willem Boshoff's "The Writing that fell off the Wall" can be called a typical conceptual installation, empty exhibition stands surrounded by words fallen to the floor, words like "truth", "salvation", "meaning". Hiroshi Sugimoto, Japan, showed very beautiful black and white photographs of the worlds oceans, addressing the theme of globalisation not in didactic but in a poetic way.
Rather than trying to address all the "hot" issues of globalisation, perhaps the curators could have focused on one not two but deal with them in more depth. Less would have been more.
There is no final judgement about this Biennial and there cannot be any yet. The show will be going on for 11 more weeks and we can only hope (this word again) that it will have some long lasting effects on the public in SA and that it can also contribute to the difficult process of transformation in this country. The Johannesburg Biennial offered an intense experience for whose able and willing to attend. It had moments of power and intensity. It was also ridden with all the structural problems of the art system. In many aspects it was far more interesting than recent hyper-events like the "Sensations" show of Young British Artists in London with its intrinsic hopeless cynicism. It was also far more interesting than the repetitive exercises in techno-determinism we can see in gatherings of the digital art community. The Johannesburg Biennial at least has a potential to make a mark in the cultural new world order. The South has something to say. Please go and listen...
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