Many months ago Mandy Coppes-Martins sent me a whats app message - "Do you know where I can get those tiny men that the architectural students use." I had no idea, but that was the beginning of her thought process for a work which she exhibited today - a work that used over 4500 of those tiny men! The exhibition is titled "Degrees of Separation' and is a response to the comments made by art critic, Mary Corrigall who observed that 'artists don't look enough at each other's work.' This exhibition involved 20 emerging artists who took part in this 'process-driven group exhibition that encouraged collaboration, conversation and peer review.'
Did Assemblage achieve their objective? Absolutely! I know many of these artists and in this exhibition I could see how closely they must have worked with one another. I also saw growth in ideas, skills and workmanship. What is even more valuable is the successes behind the exhibition. Assemblage has managed to create a community of artists that supports challenges and teaches one another. It is an environment that is addictive and once you have experienced it you never want to leave! Yet at the end of this exhibition I left feeling slightly foolish, a little irrelevant and not inspired in the least...
My concern, once again, is not about the works exhibited but rather the rules and expectations that come with the space that they are exhibited in. The 'Degrees of Separation' between the viewer and the artist was very evident at this exhibition. What is it that happens when an artwork is removed from the studio where it is made and put into the gallery? Where does the pretence and discomfort come from? Where does the conversation and fascination in the actual art disappear to? I say this and I know these people - I know the artists, the curators, I am connected to this world. If I am feeling uncomfortable and somehow irrelevant - where does that put the viewer who is not from this world at all? I want to see conversations encouraged, 'realness' created, that the viewer feels welcome.
Some may argue that there was respect for the guest; we were catered for right down to our dietary requirements. We received drinks for the total 2 hours, there were good speeches, and there was secure parking. We even had to RSVP. What am I complaining about?
I am complaining about the unsaid - the mood - the importance of certain people above others. The look of shock when my child laughs too loud or I spill some of my wine. The feeling that you shouldn't ask too many questions, you should know the answers. The arrogance, the self-proclaimed importance that oozes out of the gallery, down the escalator right into the covered parking lot. Some may think I am being touchy, but I promise you I am not! There is a reason the same 100 people attend exhibition openings (half being artists exhibiting or wanting to exhibit).
It is this 'unsaid' - that causes much of the problems we face in the visual arts industry. You can say I am a guest and give me wine and food till the cows come home, but if you do not say hello with a smile; or allow me to ask a question without feeling foolish, or simply make the space feel like I am invited there, then I am not your guest. I just don't understand how this huge shift happens. Artists are storytellers, they like to talk about their process, sometimes their ideas, or how they came to the final work. The artworks are a full stop of one sentence, with many more to follow, and yet the gallery shuts that conversation.
In an explanation of The White Cube, Doherty writes "As modernism gets older, context becomes content. In a peculiar reversal, the object introduced into the gallery 'frames' the gallery and its laws" (Inside the White Cube, 1986). Has this exhibition succeeded if its intention was to reflect a concept which the gallery cannot uphold? The gallery does not offer the space for that dialogue which the works speak about.
Perhaps my frustration with ABSA Gallery goes back to a conversation I had with Stephan Erasmus over a year ago. I was speaking to him as the curator of FADA (Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture) gallery about viewer engagement and how do we get more people interested in coming to galleries, engaging with galleries and art. His response really surprised me; he said that he would rather have one investor walk into his gallery, than a hundred people just having a look. In a country where only 2% of our population step into a gallery each year, and only 1% of that are potential investors (according to VANSA report 2011), I find this kind of arrogance very short sighted. Yes artists want to sell their works, but if we could increase viewership and increase interest in the visual arts, then we could also increase the potential investors. On top of this his statement concerns me as he is seeing more importance in the sale of a work, over the sharing of ideas and concepts. Artists need to make a living, therefore artists need to sell their works, but art is not about selling - Coke is!
The Degrees of Separation that our gallery system forces between the artist and the viewer is what makes galleries remain empty, and artists hesitant to express their profession (as Anthea Pokroy's work describes). No one likes to feel unwelcome, irrelevant or unimportant. No one will choose to go to a space, in their free time that enforces this. Artists are important within society, not because of how many works they have sold, but because they are a reflection of a time, they are visual philosophers challenging the way society is and what it does. Their value can only be respected when the pretence is removed. What is the purpose of challenging ideas and concepts within a society and then exhibiting those concepts and ideas in a space that upholds what is often being challenged? Most important is that we are far past a modernist society - why are our galleries still following the rules of that way of thinking? When will the galleries start living in this post post-modernist paradigm? Elitism, exclusiveness is no longer the ways in which we function, they are out-dated and irritating concepts. Can’t we leave them behind and move with the times?
When leaving the gallery there were 6 security guards as we went down the stairs (yes… 6!). I took my son's plastic gun and shot them all, they laughed and a little bit of 'human' was finally seen, but not enough to improve the whole experience!