Opinionista Cat Pritchard 22 January 2014

At last South Africans get to sample YBAs – paper versions, at least

I don’t speak ‘contemporary art’ or anything mildly postmodern. Theatre is more my language. Even in the dark I am quite capable of reading the gestures, deciphering the symbols and feeling the emotion of a well-scripted silence. But when an unmade bed complete with dirty knickers, condoms and menstrual stains (“My Bed”, Tracey Emin, circa 1998), fetches £150,000, I am usually at a loss for words, but not expletives.

But please don’t confuse my illiteracy for ignorance. I know who Emin, Landy, Hirst and their fellow Young British Artists (YBAs) are and how much their pieces fetch under the hammer. I can probably advise you as to the free exhibitions at the Tate Modern and know well enough that Charles Saatchi is more than just Nigella Lawson’s estranged husband. I would just personally prefer a Pierneef or Kentridge to appreciate the value of my one-bed apartment than I would a shark in formaldehyde (Damien Hirst, circa 1991). And I do wonder if even the Oppenheimers would pay $341,000 for a piece of plywood with the words “Holy Shit” painted on it. (Dan Colen, circa 2006). Perhaps they would, if Sotheby’s accepted Zimbabwean dollars or if the “subversive” phrase in question (it was painted upside down) were used to stain a piece of beautiful Rosewood. I have to admit that stories like these do often elicit a colourful reaction in me, ranging from the darker side of the colour palette to white-knuckle rage. So there’s that.

But while I may not support contemporary art in the way that Peggy Guggenheim does, I can see the value in bringing artworks by some of Britain’s top contemporary artists (some of them YBAs) to an isolated market like Cape Town, which is what the upcoming exhibition “PAPER” will do when it opens at SMAC Art Gallery in Cape Town on 24 January 2014.

The exhibition will offer local audiences a “rare glimpse” of many established British artists like Tracey Emin, Michael Landy and Keith Coventry, all lauded or awarded in their own right. The glimpse is rare for a few reasons: none of the featured artists, bar Gavin Turk and Helen A Pritchard have ever exhibited on South African soil. But more importantly, all the works have been created on simple pieces paper, offering local audiences the opportunity to view these artists in their most raw and rudimentary form. The paper concept has another benefit. Being lightweight and almost disposable, it is a smart way for the curators to get artists of this calibre to show their works in a country they would not normally consider a market. Presumably they convinced them of its philanthropic and educational benefits. Indeed Keith Coventry, who curated the show alongside fellow exhibitor Helen A Pritchard, believes these raw sketches can be of great value to South African audiences, especially emerging artists and creatives. Says Coventry: “When you show people a polished, super finished product, the only way they understand it is by copying it or making it into a pastiche. The beauty of drawings is that they offer insight into the creative process which allows people to absorb the material and use it as a point of departure for their own work, instead of simply copying the polished product, which would only render the end product useless.”

It’s a bit like getting a sample show of London Fashion Week, or at least the sketches that inspired the final creations. Of great value for art students no doubt, but I have to wonder if it cheats the ordinary viewer of a “real” show, one they would just as easily view in Europe? Perhaps. But then again, considering how many South Africans (myself included) still need to be schooled in the exclusive language of contemporary art, perhaps a show that breaks down this oft-inaccessible art form into its basic ABCs, is of greater value to us right now. We can’t do solids just yet.

Most South Africans will, when engaged on the topic of modern art”, will still pull out some homily about a dot painting fetching half a million pounds that they have presumably filed away under “modern art conversation topics”. But few can tell you why that is exactly. In fact, many of us Saffers still ask that rudimentary question, even though we know the debate will usually end with us being labelled uncultured country yokels. I for one know that the culture question can be a sore point for us practical, nature-loving Saffers, as it often implies we don’t have the education or experience to appreciate the “finer arts”. A well-braaied chop does not a modern art form make (yet).

Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one shouting “the Emperor is naked” (or better yet “is hy kaalgat of wat?”) under my breath at local and international exhibitions. Apparently not. As I write this, the bosses at the Eyestorm gallery in London are busy admonishing a group of dumbfounded cleaners for tossing Damien Hirst’s “artwork” into the skip. How could they mistake an expertly curated arrangement of empty bottles, cigarette boxes, full ashtrays and paint tins to be trash, they wonder? I don’t. So at least I am not alone in this, but I do wish it was rather some posh toff that had made this grievous error and not one of the usual suspects – the isolated, uneducated or working class, who know exactly what trash is when they see it.

Relevance is another question in the contemporary art world, and in an emerging economy like South Africa, a very valid one. As Coventry so rightly points out, it is always difficult for a culture grappling with fundamental bread and butter issues like poverty and job creation to give weight to something as seemingly frivolous as art. And yet as local artists will attest, art can be a powerful platform to elevate raw, sensitive everyday issues like these. Perhaps if Hirst thought to preserve a black Rhino in formaldehyde, you would see more South Africans subscribing to his school of modern art.

For content, not form, is really the question here, and is one I often pose to my sister, Helen A Pritchard. It is also no doubt one she takes to her canvas as she tries to marry her Saffer upbringing with her Royal College of Art degree under the veil of contemporary London. I know how isolated we Saffers are and how starved we are for new perspectives, if only to boo them or leverage them for our own creative processes.

Which is why I am very much in favour of an exhibition of this ilk coming to Cape Town. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect. The mother city has recently taken up its mantle as the Design Capital 2014, bringing issues of creative relevance to the fore while creating a platform that will hopefully take our cultural exchange viral or at least WiFi. And it’s about time. As for the PAPER exhibition, I am personally looking forward to finally consuming these artists on my own turf, on my own terms. And if I learn to appreciate them along the way to deciphering what they are trying to say, all the better. DM

“PAPER” opens at SMAC Art Gallery (021 4225100) on the corner of Buitengracht and Buitensingel Streets in Cape Town at 6pm on Friday 24 January 2014 and runs until 09 March 2014.


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