In an effort to reintegrate into the world of ideas, I started going to exhibitions around Johannesburg and Durban. Visual art, photography, sculpture – whatever it is, I’d go, either alone or with friends, to try and remind myself what non-commercial ideas look like (an inevitable journey when you’ve worked in advertising for a while). In short, art is always my first step towards much needed inspiration. This process has been, at best, a little exciting and at worst, frighteningly alienating. Because God forbid you don’t look the part.
Some months ago, I went to an exceptional exhibition by The Brother Moves On, hosted at the Goodman Gallery. I was there for the work, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t quite fit in. I’m trying the weave life for the first time ever, and while I’m thoroughly enjoying it, it felt as if, in that space, it was a mark of being fake, flimsy and all round out of place. Elsewhere, the wiser and more ‘alternative’ amongst the crowd make sweeping, unfounded (and verbose) comments about what was the wrong with the work, I guess comfortable in their opinions because their appearance said ‘artist’. Next to them, those even clearly at odds with the unfair reviews, simply nodded, mm’d and aah’d. Because on the totem pole of art appreciation, the real out-speak the non-real. Whatever those categories mean.
This was not the first or last time I’d experienced this weird dynamic [in] art spaces. So often, the most movement of eyes around an exhibition seems to be between the viewers, assessing their place in the hierarchy of artists, and responding to the art through this lens. Adidas superstars, entry-level scene kid, minus 10 points. Dashiki and an ironic tattoo, must be artistic, plus 20 points. You’ve seen those ‘starter pack’ memes, you know what I mean. It’s made for a space where exhibitions are less about the artist on display, than the artists in the room – fighting for a little bit of individuality by creating a one-man walking exhibition of their own.
I recognize that this is not the case for everyone, and that what I’m saying here isn’t all that original, but in the South African context, where there are already so many barriers to entry in the art space, your cool factor really just can’t be another one. In response to this feeling of being ill-at-ease, I’ve been pondering an exhibition space built on a couple of rules.
Enter thought experiment. No name brand exhibition space in a non-trendy area. Everyone wears plain black clothing with no accessories. Each piece of art is enclosed in a one-person booth and no one talks. No space for watching the thoughtful eye squinting of the trained artists. No space for saying “this reminds me of an exhibition I saw in New York”. No marker that allows anyone to say “I claim more space than you”. The art world in South Africa is so wrought with conflicts around race, class, gender, education and a web of complex, intersectional barriers to entry, that it’s almost dreamlike to imagine a space where that web exists in the work, and doesn’t necessarily spill over into a politics of watching. And because I’m still suffering from some kind of complex, I’ll probably keep writing about it instead of doing it, because after all, I’m not an artist right?