Jill Magid
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Dr Achille Mbembe
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21 february 2006


From: "Ed Young"
Date: Tue, 21 Feb 2006 14:30:32 +0200
To: social-engagement@googlegroups.com

When first discussing this project with Mr. Smith, he asked that I speak a bit about my own work and how it operates in a public sphere. So here follows the first of a series of posts in which I will do this. Stop me at any time…

The primary focus of my work is often located in the structural aspects surrounding the art world and art media. It is for this reason that I do not necessarily consider the works as individual projects but rather a larger ongoing one, changing accordingly within the art system in which I am located at the time. Basically I am more interested in this system and the production of work is often secondary.

Contemporary Art for me seems under constant threat of exhaustion, although the "beast" seems perfectly capable of reinvention. Even if it the latter is marginal, it is often enough to provide a subtle shift in the art market and provides sustainability, as seen in recent international art fairs and biennales. Because of this exhaustion, I sometimes feel that I have nothing to bring to the table. My work therefore relies on aspects of conceptual minimalism, banality and sometimes absurdity, often using myself (the idea of artist) as subject.

It is for this reason that I study and research these subtleties within art systems (even though my exposure to international systems has been limited), and my work over the past years has mainly focused on my South African context. The work that I have been doing here has focused on the local media (as well as public response), and I have often created work that in turn responds to the media.

Examples of this include BRUCE GORDON, 2002, in which I auctioned a well-known Capetonian bar owner who was then donated to the South African National Gallery and tattooed with the accession number SANG 03/02. Because of the media uproar I subsequently presented an exhibition called MUSE, 2003. In this I presented all the details of the previous opening, including the Muse string quartet, bar ladies, fine wine and the like. This was an exhibition of an exhibition opening itself. Once again the art public remained unconvinced. In response I presented ASSHOLE, 2004. This was a work consisting of similar elements to MUSE, but I presented things that I liked instead. The string quartet was replaced by my favourite music video at the time, the bar tenders by strippers, the sushi with KFC and the wine with Heineken. Again the public was annoyed so I started working on an apology exhibition entitled I CAN EXPLAIN, 2004, which consisted of a video piece. I lost interest in the project and it was never presented, although it was advertised. It is listed in my CV.

Internationally I have presented similar works such as Do Nothing, 2004, in Ghent, and again at the Castello di Rivoli in Torino, 2005. This is a performance in which I do nothing except what the public is doing: Admire the work and drink wine. Bruce Gordon was also seen in Torino in 2005.


In a recent article by Mario Pissarra titled ‘Decolonise the mind’, Bruce Gordon was labelled as one of the most racist works produced during 2003:

“Certainly there is enough anecdotal evidence to support perceptions that art in South Africa remains centred on white privilege, and that in the post-apartheid era the gatekeepers of art often act in ways that can at best be described insensitive to the barbarism of our imperial and colonial heritage. In my view the most vivid example of this is provided by Ed Young’s Bruce Gordon, and the generally favourable reception of this ‘very clever and very entertaining’ work received in the art media. White South Africans staged a mock auction centred on the notion of selling someone as art (the ‘work’ was later ‘donated’ to the South African National Gallery). They did this less than a decade after the black majority acquired rights not to be treated as the property of whites. They did this a short walk from where human beings were sold into slavery. They did this in a context of increasing awareness of trafficking of woman and children. Yet we are expected to discuss this cheap act of self-publicity within the context of Western art and theory. If one of the premises of ‘real time’ work is to bridge ‘art’ and ‘life’, then Bruce Gordon presents a strong indictment of the failure of elements within the white art elite to bridge that gap.”

There is a current critical tendency to indict young artists of this country for issues of the past. Although valid, this argument seems easy, un-engaging, self-prophesised and unappealing. Its intentions appear justified (in part at least), while it is mostly reliant on a kind of self-promotion through older liberal actions. As mentioned before, progress does not happen immediately, but my point here is that some of our older critics fail to see new strategies that younger artists are concerned with. Pissarra highlights the ‘cheap act of self-publicity’ while failing to engage with the piece on a more critical level, especially within a South African context. He does not mention Bruce’s tattoo (which evokes links to slavery, Nazism, property, etc.) almost as if he is unaware of this aspect of the work. Nonetheless, he links the sale of Bruce Gordon to these critical aspects.

It is not that the individuals involved accidentally overlooked this point, nor was it intended to make a racist statement, but rather to use sensitive elements that enhance the public’s reception of an artwork. I am not trying to create awareness, and I certainly do not think that art can change the world, although I do believe that using sensitive issues concerning society does make a work of art more powerful. Although the seriousness of the social issues facing South Africa are extremely complex, I feel that space should be opened up to investigate other issues, such as the state of white privilege in South Africa. Unlike ‘privileged’ artists who deal with personal and introspective issues in their work, I deliberately set myself up to be typecast as the ‘nasty white guy’. By this action I aim to spark debate, as opposed to social tiptoeing and artificial political correctness.

I find similar clichéd contributions by some individuals that do directly investigate the unease of South African society, but their work becomes extremely literal and in my opinion, conceptually easy. As a result this leaves very little room for contemplation in the mind of the viewer, which could be the overriding factor by which such work becomes popular. Not only does the system thrive on this, but it also serves to ease guilt and as a money gathering strategy for both the viewer and the audience.

A ‘vivid’ example of this is found in the recent high-profile exhibitions. Focussing on selling art at comfortable prices, a trend has developed to showcase portraits of black people and landscapes where bad things have happened, primarily to black populations. Such a capitalist venture seems exploitative to my mind, and has not been contested by local critics. I recount such events attended by local museum directors in over-worn Issey Miyake dresses, sipping Champaigne and commenting on how great the work is. And even if the work is great. Then it is this gallery experience that is problematic.

A reason for this might be located in entrenching the comfort of a predominantly white audience when viewing portraits of dying black individuals.

As previously mentioned, in order to protest unhealthy strategies within complex art systems, it is easier and more effective to do so from inside those systems, rather than rapid firing from the outside. These systems are more powerful than the individuals that contest them.

There exists a current trend in the young white art scene that is not particularly interested in treading softly around social issues, as there is a realisation that these issues exist in real life, and not the ‘fantasy land’ of the art world. This is not from a position of ignorance or disinterest, but rather a case of exposing the machinery by which the art world operates. It is opposing similar power structures that young black artists are challenging, but from a different angle. The so-called ‘young white scene’ would rather poke fun at and ignore the transparent insincerities of some of South Africa’s leading art practitioners. If it has a cause it is probably this: art is about more than issues of social discomfort. They have been labelled Eurocentric, racist, rich and not much concerned with local issues, but these are the issues that fuel the work.

By this I specifically refer to a collective known as Galerie Puta.

In his article ‘Dada and development in Cape Town’, American scholar Zachary Yorke wrote in respect of the theft of a sculpture of mine and the malicious vandalising of a my print at Andrew Lamprecht’s summer exhibition Picnic (Bell-Roberts, 2003):

Apparently these occurrences are typical in Cape Town’s avant-garde circles, apparently the thief acted on behalf of an art collaborative known as FlashArt [i.e. Galerie Puta], and apparently Cape Town’s art world is dangerously incestuous, a self-sustaining playground for rich kids posing as artists.


From: "Adam Leech"
Subject: Re: so far 2
Date: Tue, 21 Feb 2006 22:10:34 +0100
To: social-engagement@googlegroups.com

Greetings from adam leech.

the "so far" note that gregg wrote seems to touch on many of the basic
strategies artists have come up with when it comes to "meaningful
communication" and "letting the world happen as a fluid form in which
difference floats..." in relation to social art.

the idea of people becoming implicated in their own narrative was also

some issues come to mind -- it has something to do with the
conditioning process one must go through to "let the world happen as a
fluid form... AND... to be implicated in ones own narrative...

in some ways they are at odds...

i guess it seems to ask people to sustain a high level of
representational understanding of the world (implicated in ones one
narrative) and a high level of 'ebb and flow' behavior.

on the one hand sustaining these seemingly contradictory behaviors is
what we do every day in our lives. but in this context it is more
complex...it seems to be asking for a level of enchantment.