art

Not all art is on the wall

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The first time I saw the Mona Lisa in person I was literally stopped in my tracks. That’s because two young Americans were kneeling in the doorway, unfolding a map of the Louvre.

One of them was explaining in upwardly inflected Californian that it would be cool if they could like find a john on this floor because it had been like hours since he’d like peed and he really needed to like pee or whatever.

I said, “I’m sorry,” and they said, “It’s cool,” and I realised that they thought I was apologising. So I stepped over them and entered the room where the most famous painting in the world hung.

At least, I think it was the room where the most famous painting in the world hung. Because you can’t actually see the Mona Lisa. What you see is a scrum of about a hundred anxious people in flip-flops, bobbing and craning to get a better view of the bobbing and craning heads in front of them.

Now and then one of them manages to squirm around with his or her back to the wall before raising an arm, like a drowning swimmer calling for help, and taking a selfie. There is the sound of digitally simulated camera clicks, and the plop-plop of fresh flip-flops hurrying to join the back of the throng.

You don’t hear the people detaching from the group because they walk too slowly to make a sound. They drift off into the gallery, bent over their phones, scrolling through the pictures they’ve snatched. Like starving prospectors sieving through icy mud in search of a gleam of gold, they peer at each photograph, hoping that they captured something – a fragment of frame, two pixels of the actual painting – to prove to themselves that they had been close to something valuable.

Looking at the people looking at the people looking at the Mona Lisa was a sad experience. The painting was always going to be an anti-climax but I wasn’t prepared for the desperate hope of the plop-ploppers and the intense disappointment that filled the room.

But on the weekend, in a gleaming white cube off a bleedingly self-consciously Cape Town alley, I longed for the Mona Lisa mob. Because there was nothing between me and the art on the wall, and I was panicking.

Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur

Was I standing too close? Had I got my Hollywood tropes wrong? I had. Oh God. I had wanted to do Elegantly Ambivalent Connoisseur but instead I was doing Elderly Spotter of Excellent Fakes. I stepped back. Oh Jesus. Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur Stepping Back To Take In Some Sort of Imaginary Bigger Picture, Hoping To Bump Into Ingénue Standing Alone With Her Wine.

I glanced around and saw the artist glaring at us, despising our spineless decision to come to see his work, hating our approving nods. I understood his anger. It is a terrible thing to know that your rejection of the status quo has been paid for by your dad. I wanted to go over to him and reassure him that one day he would be able to have exhibitions that nobody was invited to, where he would be free from the insulting compliments of the masses; that one day he might even sell a painting to someone who wasn’t one of his dad’s clients. But at that moment I’d slipped into Person Who Suddenly Wants To Leave Gallery Because It’s Strangling His Soul.

Not that I could leave, of course. I’d only been there for 15 seconds, and it would be clear that I was fleeing and that I hated the work. Which wasn’t true. I didn’t hate the work. I didn’t feel anything about the work. I was like a gecko gazing at a copy of Vogue. It was just, you know, there. Perhaps I could do a slow lap of the room, pretending to pause at that one of the pig of neo-conservatism riding the Monsanto tractor, and then slip out of the door? Not yet. Maybe give it another 15 seconds.

“I like how the intervention has subverted the hegemony of flat-plane curating,” said the person next to me. I am quite fluent in Pretentious so I knew that he’d said, “I like that not all the art is hanging on the wall.”

I was going to reply that, for me, the power of the work derived from its discourse with the traditions of the Bacchanalia (“I like the free wine”) but instead I said, “Mm”.

Because, really, I have nothing to say about art. The bad stuff doesn’t deserve comment and the good stuff doesn’t require it, least of all from someone like me. But I’ll keep looking, because sometimes the most memorable pictures and mysterious smiles aren’t on the wall.

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Published in The Times

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Looking through the glasses darkly

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The spectacles are enormous. Steel-rimmed and impervious to the summer wind, they lie on the grass of the Sea Point promenade as if left behind by a myopic titan after a picnic. But their placement is not arbitrary.

The vast lenses, many inches thick, are fixed on Robben Island out in the bay.

A nearby plaque explains. The sculpture is entitled Perceiving Freedom, and encourages us to contemplate how Nelson Mandela saw the world. The artwork is, it says, a “testament to the power of the mind”.

I know very little about the power of the mind but the sculpture certainly seems to be a testament to the power of corporate sponsors: Ray-Ban, the famous brand of sunglasses, is prominently named on the plaque, causing one’s bullshit detectors to start pinging. But only for a moment. If artists didn’t take the money of merchants there would be very little art in the world. Besides, they have some grand precedents, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an advertisement for the biggest corporation of the Renaissance, the Catholic Church.

And yet my unease remains and soon I realise why. It is not the sponsored spectacles that worry me. It is the picture on the plaque, a cropped portion of a famous photograph taken on April 25 1977.

On that day a group of South African journalists was given a guided tour of Robben Island by Major-General Jannie Roux, a psychiatrist and deputy commissioner of prisons. They were shown sporting facilities, tidied cells, neatly swept and weeded paths, all carefully curated to show the outside world a picture of a humane regime. And it was on this walkabout, according to the blurb on the plaque, that “the journalists encountered a tall, thin man dressed neatly in prison clothes and leaning on a spade. The man was Nelson Mandela, in his 13th year of incarceration on Robben Island.”

The words are factually correct but they have completely excised the human tensions of that moment. Handed a spade and told to look gardener-ish, Mandela was disgusted at being forced to be part of the charade, and, according to biographer Anthony Sampson, retreated behind a large bush as the journalists approached. Roux seems to have been slightly embarrassed.

Mandela has been transformed…into a kind of sentimental pulp

“We have located him for you,” he told the group, “but he doesn’t want to see you, and we won’t drag him.” But the photographers kept coming, and so Prisoner 46664 stood his ground, making a point of not doing the work he was supposed to be doing, his rage and disdain barely hidden behind the dark glasses. The resulting photograph does not show Madiba the reconciler contemplating forgiveness. It shows a proud, intelligent man trapped, exploited and angry.

By removing this context, the photograph (and the artwork it speaks to) do us a disservice in that they subtly rewrite our collective history and therefore skew our collective present. Over the last three decades Mandela has been transformed from a man into a concept and finally into a kind of sentimental pulp, used to plaster over the widening cracks in our national psyche; but this doesn’t help us get any closer to his – and therefore our – humanity. We need to know that Mandela could be proud and angry, that his beautiful smile could become a tight, disapproving scowl. It is healthy for us to know these things.

In the last few weeks the white Right has eagerly been rewriting history. One very famous country singer even wrote an article explaining that whites have been reading “for millions of years”, a startling revelation given that vaguely whitish people have been around for only about 10,000 years, and that Sumerians (not white people) invented reading only about 5,000 years ago.

In this climate of history being up for grabs, determined not by the brightest minds but by the loudest tweeter, it is important that we get our facts straight.

Even more important is to allow expressions of anger to remain unexpurgated in our history. Group hugs are lovely but if we airbrush over expressions of anger we deny the cause and legitimacy of that anger, and lose the opportunity to discuss it in any meaningful way.

Once we begin to cherry-pick the warm, affirming bits, leaving out the complex, fractious, often ugly parts, we begin to convince ourselves that it is never acceptable to show anger, and that injustice must be suffered with a sigh and shrug.

We can begin to persuade ourselves that those who burn tyres and municipal buildings are just being thuggish; that they are concepts rather than furious human beings. And once that happens, we have lost forever any hope we ever had of seeing the world through the eyes of Nelson Mandela.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive