Home will never be the same again

Fabbrizio Von Grebner, Cape Times 09/04/1999

Home will never be the same again.
Artists’ installations at Oudtshoorn show there’s no place to hide.

home will never be the same

The sakkie-sakkie music welled forth, the street was a-jive with tipsy jollers and the atmosphere was one of boisterous revelry at 9:30pm on Baron van Reede Street in Oudtshoorn. Lize Hugo and Mark Coetzee, the curators of Oos, Wes, Tuis Bes, had opened the exhibition of installations plumb in the middle of the festivities in order to “disrupt” and “challenge” conventional notions of art and initiate a dialogue between the artists and the public.

Did their strategy work? Boy, oh boy, did it ever!

A gaggle of excited black kids stood transfixed before Andre Putter’s installation which, like almost all the 13 others, took the form of wood and corrugated iron Wendy house, which, now that the festival is over, will go to the community as an Arts Centre. On gazing through its windows I shared the euphoria. Putter had littered his space with the detritus of daily living – cereal packs, toilet rolls, plastic cups, newspapers, leaflets, refuse bags – lit by fluorescent lighting which tinted the space and all it contained a glowing blue, and – as in a disco – made all the whites spring into shimmering, incandescent life. One of the streetkids panted breathlessly to me: “It’s a ma-a-a-asterpiece! It’s magic, magic, magic! It’s so beau-u-u-u-tiful because it’s just junk you throw away, but the light makes it beautiful.” “It makes a lump in your throat,” his mate added, “because the dingus makes a friend of you, it says hello and talks to you.”

My new-found friends had hit the epistemological nail bang on the head. Putter’s piece was a feat of magic. He had changed junk into refulgent glory. Fluttering paper and cardboard suspended in mid-air by nigh invisible nylon fishing line gave his installation a palpitating surreal vitality, as if these discarded objects possessed a life of their own, and levitated to protest against their own degraded status and imminent immolation. Putter’s work embodied all the strengths of Oos, Wes, Tuis Bes. It expressed his ecological concerns, his compassion for poverty, his contempt for obscene capitalist glut with a soul-piercing high-frequency on everyone’s wave-length. There were two other starturns which struck a cord in the collective breast and fulfilled the curator’s ambition of contesting “the ethnic political agenda and prescriptive Afrikaner identity imposed by the festival”.

Matthew Haresnape’s House of God took the form of a skeletal iron church and steeple with a soaring, monumental sculptural beauty that had everyone gasping in admiration. Haresnape had tarred and feathered it to indicate the Dutch Reformed Church of a double betrayel: it had colluded with apartheid and betrayed the most fundamental Christian principles for decades, and then – as the final form of a weathervane so clearly intimates – the church suddenly turned tail, and thus betrayed the very volk who had always placed their faith in it. The absent walls “expose” the church and allow you to “see through it” and the sight is a condemnation as resounding as the pounding of a judge’s gavel, for this House of God was never graced by his presence and the space of the high altar is usurped by glass simulacra of the new and the old South African flags that are emblem to a nation divided by clerical apostasy.

The floor, paved with shattered mirror, dissolves the church, as history will, and lays God’s true abode, the blue eternities of heaven, at our feet. By reflecting the image of the viewer, these shards also transform the church from sanctuary to interrogation cell and compel him to gauge his degree of complicity in the guilt and shame that is our legacy. Another piece that broke ground was Liza Grobler’s astonishing mammoth doily which inverts traditional hierarchies by taking the feminine craft of crochet, normally relegated to the creation of small domestic items, and magnifying it to epic scale, enveloping an entire house in it and thereby giving women’s handicraft a grandeur and centrality that has always been denied it.

This feminist milestone subverted the whole elitist process of mounting an arts festival. It enlisted people who are almost never involved in conventional art-making, the aged and disabled, and got them to employ their traditional craft to create a collective work informed by a strong sense of social purpose. This range from the psychological benefits that accrued to the marginalised participants who felt empowered by their contribution, to the fate of the doily which has now been cut up, made into blankets and distributed to the homeless, to recycling, for the piece was made from wool unraveled from outworn garments. That the very materials already possess a history is entirely apposite, as the entire work forms an oblique feminist biography of three generations of women – the grannies who crocheted the rectangles that form the doily, and their grandchildren who contributed portraits of their mothers which adorn its base like a traditional border of beading. Although the work pays homage to these nameless women, it also formulates a critique of the traditional role played by mothers who create a safe space, a cossetted, pampering haven for their offspring, but this cosy domestic idyll – like the gigantic doily which denies the viewer entry to the hose, and conceals the structures it covers – only survives through excluding the outside world and concealing the intimacies of family life. The extreme exclusion, foreclosure and denial insinuated itself into almost all installations, forcibly reminding the visitor of the National Party’s refusal to grant land to its citizens.

The very title Oos, Wes, Tuis Bes is mordantly ironic and the exhibition, instead of celebrating Afrikaner identity, placed it in the dock and roundly condemned it for all the poverty, homelessness and economical and educational imbalances it created and which we are still struggling to redress.