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A Portrait of a Young Artist Series: Revolution?

Posted on December 17, 2012.

The final edition of A Portrait of a Young Artist Series features the coveted Michaelis Graduate Exhibition. Michaelis School of Fine Art has a long track record of producing leading fine artists. But does this “newest crop of talented and ambitious young artists” have what it takes to create a revolution in the arts?

Artcoza's series features a range of articles showcasing art student talent from various tertiary institutions throughout the country. Each review will investigate whether the final year students have what it takes to make a change to the South African art scene.

Michaelis Graduates aim to change the world
by Natasha Norman.

You say you want a revolution. Well, you know. We all want to change the world. [1]

The Michaelis Graduate Exhibition opened last week to a throng of gallerists, collectors, alumni, staff and proud parents. It is a testimony to the standard of work expected from the institution at Post-Graduate level that collectors vied for works and fought over the fact that some had been labelled NFS (not for sale). The exhibition has become synonymous with finding affordable art by the future art stars of South Africa. My association with the institution for some time now, either as a student or part-time staff member, usually affords me an inside track on the students concerns however this year my familiarity with the work was limited to this final exhibition itself. And so it is with a 'first' sight that I sought to consider how the work of these young graduates is innovative and able to change the way art is experienced.

It is incredibly difficult to make general remarks about such a vast exhibition (it took me two hours to look at all the displays during the quiet of a press walkabout prior to the opening). Not only is the sheer amount of work produced by 48 graduates a lot to process, but each exhibition reflects unique visual research that has been produced under supervision over a one-year period. All the students graduate with a BA in Fine Arts and have access to all the school’s facilities but they focus their projects through a chosen association with a department’s lecturers and professors: painting, print-making, sculpture or new media. Even within these departments, trends can be difficult to discern and it is a testimony to the school’s insistence that students develop an independent point of view and a freedom of inquiry that such differing and unique projects have emerged. The fact that such independent approaches have manifested among the students is my first hope for the future of art. It is clear that at this institution, independent thinking and interrogations are emerging as guided by the school's curriculum.

Having stated that an attempt to draw out themes in the exhibition is improbable - although not entirely unlikely if art school can be considered a Socratic Dialogue and art something one learns from being around people as Stephen Inggs (Head of Michaelis) suggests by quoting alumni, Marlene Dumas, in his preface to the catalogue - I will attempt to draw out some processes that I perceived as worth remarking upon in the work of the students.

The work of Casey Driver is a place to start. His exhibition, Highly Improbable, considers the notion of if as something sublime. He asserts that to begin a statement with if "launches an idea into a path of possibility." It is this if used as a tool of interrogation, a process of art making, that I see reflected in the work produced by this year of students - a process of curious interrogation of the world, as we know it. Casey Driver quotes Douglas Adams in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul: "If I could interrogate this table-leg in a way that made sense to me, or to the table leg, then it could provide me with the answer to any question about the universe."

Through the construction of a table and its placement in spaces around the city, Driver attempts to do just this: to interrogate the table in order to provide answers to questions about the world around him. In this he has simplified a particular act of art itself: the creation of objects in order to ask questions about the artist’s experience of reality.

Miranda Moss, Defining the Parameters of Longing (detail)

Miranda Moss, winner of this year's prestigious Michaelis Prize makes objects that she calls "absurd experiments" that manifest ephemeral phenomena in order to analyse them. She relishes the futility of such an endeavour to highlight romantic notions about science as a supersensible knowledge. Her works are meditations on the fact that concrete answers to questions continue to remain just out of reach. She uses objects of daily life such as postcards, books and magnifying glasses as tools of extraordinary observation.

With a similar interest in making the familiar strange Megan MacNamara’s exhibition Searching for Certainty considers the continually shifting nature of perception that for her engenders an impotent form of urgency. MacNamara's objects are works of immanent (but unrealised) disaster. A chair balances in the tipping point of falling over, a sink with a running tap and plug in place is filled to the point of overflowing without flooding the exhibition space and a single pencil holds a wooden plinth in the impossible position of stability. As a fellow visitor remarked: "a room of impossible stuff."

Megan MacNamara, Catch me if I fall (found and altured chair)

Such sentiments of uncertainty of questioning reason, finds resonance in a very different approach in Kerry Chaloner's Vacation: The Activities of Simulated Production. Her response to notions of the ephemeral considers rather the lack of permanence in a world of "replaceable, renewable information." The art history that saw the dematerialization of the art object in 70s conceptualism is something she acknowledges in her process that sees the 'useless' art object recast as temporary film set. She positions her artistic practice as that of "art directing" what she calls, "the random junk that I found interesting." In the era of cyberspace and the hyperreal, Chaloner recognises that identity and information are constructed and manipulated with ever increasing ease such that ‘truths’ become mutations. "But now," Chaloner notes, "we are never supposed to get bored." Her installation, that a fellow visitor on the night mentioned to me as "confounding," is a web of artifice and stimulation, desire and display that through both an abstraction of thought and clear links to tropes of artistic representation opens up the debate around meaning(lessness) in a contemporary world.

Kerry Chaloner, Presence with objects

Interrogating the nature of the art object is a persisting theme. Chris van Eeben's approach in No Matter sees the condensing of a year's worth of producing and exhibiting art objects into two strategic points of view: a book and a ball.

For Roxy Kawitzky, her interrogation of art production extends to the producer. She uses a technique of narrative distance as a means of interrogating the notion of an author, positioning the experience of the work in the court of the individual viewer. She is interested in the possibility of varying perspectives and makes conscious acts of translation through collaborators in each of her works. Ghostwritten is a fictional autobiography written by the writer Liam Kruger. Kawitzky kept a diary of events and this became the source material of the fictional novel.

Haroon Gunn-Salie posits his artistic practice as one of Witness as the title of his site-specific exhibition in a derelict house suggests. His interest in the unresolved issues of forced removals in District Six achieved a poetic evocation of loss in the space he chose to represent the work on the graduate show that showed a great competency of working with site, space and history. Working with specific spaces and the residue of human interaction therein, Leigh-Ann Crafford and Sarah Ommanney employ a poetic-documentary style of photography that rather than a cool or critical gaze seeks to evoke a sense of the narrative inherent in sites.

Leigh-Ann Crafford, Vredehoek Quarry

A site of artistic struggle that Liesl Potgieter interrogates is that of the studio. She considers the many mistakes or futile acts that take place within the studio in the creation of a finished artwork as redundant or absurd when considered in isolation from the creative process. Her if interrogation tactic (to reference Driver's approach) of what happens in a studio space releases the site from its Romantic lore of creative legend and recasts it as a site of mundane or absurd acts. She employs the seriousness with which artistic acts are documented (one is reminded here of the films of Jackson Pollack or the documentation of Warhol's factory-style celebrity art making in an age of advertising) as a means of evoking the significance (and often humorous nature) of a daily act. Bucket Piece is a work that for me makes reference to John Baldessari's arbitrary games. Similarly with clear academic references to the work of older artists Karena Liebetrau reconsiders the early studies and ideas of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Brandon LaBelle in the creation of a beautiful meditation on the fundamental principles of Western musical theory: sound, silence, time and rhythm.

Herman de Klerk, Feedback, a conversation

Youth is so seductive, “"Surely there is something 'new' here," I can hear you coo as you scan the black and white portraits of the art graduates at the back of the catalogue. Marlene Dumas makes a good point when she considers art a product of dialogue. At an art institution that dialogue is between the history of art, the contemporary debates about art, the students and their supervisors. It is interesting that a number of students have found the seed for their art research in the theories and approaches of conceptual artists working in the 60s and 70s – John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg – the philosophers that have become synonymous with the Post-Modern – Baudrillard, Lyotard, Bourriaud, and McLuhan – and most importantly in a wide range of influential artists – Rebecca Horn, John Baldessari, Marcel Broodthaers, David Goldblatt, Dineo Bopape, to name a few. The students have entered the discourse with that most vital of tricks: an if to chart the course of an idea into a new path of possibility. It is this if that I believe will shape the way art is experienced today and tomorrow for it has occurred to me over the years that it is not that which is ‘new’ that will renew artistic practice but rather that which is questioned in an innovative way such that we may endeavour to call it 'new' one day.

1. The Beatles. Revolution. Accredited to Lennon-McCarthy. Released in 1968.

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