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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Art and prize winning tins of faeces

By Andrew Mulenga
It might be a few years old, and may be concerned with art from a primarily western perspective, but English philosopher and author of over 30 books, Roger Scruton’s BBC documentary, “Why Beauty Matters,” an enquiry into contemporary art and its perceived fall from grace is a compelling self-examination  for artists, art lovers and humanity in general to meditate  on.

Artist's shit (1961) by Piero Manzoni
“At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art or music, they would have replied ‘beauty’”, he says, declaring that beauty is a value like truth and goodness, and that it has stopped being important in the 20th century.

“Art (in the 20th century) increasingly aimed to disturb and break moral taboos. I think we are losing beauty and my fear is that with it we shall lose the meaning of life” he narrates as images of old European master pieces such as Sandro Botticelli’s 1482 painting The Birth of Venus, slowly switch to a series of images that include Italian artist Piero Manzoni’s 1961 artwork, Artist's Shit which consists of 90 small tin cans, filled with feces, each with a label stating:  Artist's Shit, Contents 30 gr net, Freshly preserved, Produced and tinned,  in May 1961”. Ironically, a single tin from this artwork, if you can describe it as such, was sold for 124,000 Euros at Sotheby's in 2007.

Obviously it is works such as Artist's Shit that may have even prompted Scrutiny to record the documentary in the first place, because surely there can be no beauty in a tin of excrement.
“I want to persuade you that beauty matters. It’s not a subjective thing but a universal need of human beings. The great artists of the past were aware that human life was full of chaos and suffering but they had a remedy for this, and the name of that remedy was beauty,” he continues a few comments and moments later, probably bringing out the main thrust of his concern.

“A beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy; it shows human life to be worthwhile. Many modern artists are weary of this sacred task, the randomness of modern art they think, cannot be redeemed by art, instead it should be displayed”.

Displayed just as Fountain was, an outrageous 1917 work by a French artist whom Strut on blames for being the forerunner of contemptible contemporary art.
“The pattern was set about a century ago by the French artist Marcel Duchamp who signed a urinal with a fictitious signature and entered it in an exhibition designed to mock the world of art and the snobberies that go with it” he says “His gesture was satirical, but it has been interpreted in another way, that anything can be art, like a light going on and off, a can of excrement, even a pile of bricks. No longer does art have a sacred status, no longer does it raises us to a higher moral plane, and it is just one human gesture, no more than a laugh”.

Norwegian artist Jon Eirik Kopperud
with a conceptual piece that he
displayed at a gallery in Oslo in 2007
One is lured to sympathize with Scrutiny’s lamentation and concur with a good deal of what he says and brings to the fore. Of course art is not always about drawing and painting; sometimes it is about a hidden message within a picture or sculpture. But surely the work that is brought to mention in the documentary should never be treated as art in the first place. It is an enigma in itself why a tin of feces can be sold for over 100,000 euros, or how a video clip of people vomiting, like Martin Creed’s Sick Film which won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001 should be allowed in an art gallery. How is such a thing even acceptable? This also provokes the thought of how difficult it is for African’s to show their finest works in the academically elite and financially lucrative galleries in on the European grid, but Europeans themselves are free to display their own excrement.
Anyway, this peculiar strand of expression, referred to as conceptual art, has not spared Zambia either. Although it has not really taken to the galleries that much and has been mild in comparison to the ones Scruton highlights. In recent times a few Zambian artists have dabbled in conceptual art, particularly a group of young artists who have lived and studied in Norway with the exception of Lawrence Chikwa who trained in Switzerland. Returning from Europe for a brief visit, whilst holding Links & Translations, a solo exhibition at the Swedish School in Lusaka in 2011, Chikwa told this author: “art is there to provide aesthetic beauty as well as tackle society’s matters. If you keep the public dancing to the tune of beauty, they will look at it as the only purpose of art. But art should also engage them to think”.  

In 2008, Norway-based artist Victor Mutelekesha decided to put up an exhibition upon returning for a holiday after being away for seven years. Entitled Dagali Meltdown, the idea-driven show featured video footage and photographs. But owing to its unfamiliar context, the exhibition met sharp criticism among the Zambian audience. The videos and photos depicted the snow-covered Nordic woodlands and mountaintops of Dagali, alien to the audience the work labored to find relevance.
In one video clip, Mutelekesha himself wore the mask of an ape and was scouring around the woodlands in the summer.

Viewers Discretion, (2007)
by Chanda Mwenya
“I wear the mask of an ape not necessarily to drum up the prejudice that has existed towards people from Africa, but I wear the mask of an animal that is synonymous to Africa, trying to adapt in a different forest environment” he explained in an interview during the exhibition.
One of the visitors to the exhibition, a fellow artist was recorded as saying: “Kaya ma pictures aya, niziba chabe ndiye kwamene bankala ku vyalo” (I don’t know what he is trying to say but I think he is just showing us where he lives abroad).

Weeks later and while studying at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in Norway, Chanda Mwenya who is now a photojournalist and art columnist with the Zambia Daily Mail,  responded in support of his colleague.

“I felt obliged to respond to the reaction of the young Zambian artists and many other patrons who saw and did not seem to understand the work of Victor Mutelekesha… I would generally like to comment on the issue of the Zambian audience as regards to conceptual art. Understandably, this art form is said to be very theoretical and quite abstract in context. It is also perceived as a western ideal.”

At the time, Mwenya suggested that the paradox lies in what was generally defined or seen as art in Zambia or what the west describes as art. He also seemed baffled by the fact that conceptual art was not getting the admiration he thought it deserved. To strengthen his argument on how sober Mutelekesha’s conceptual piece was as opposed to what is shown in Europe, Mwenya introduced us to his Norwegian friend, artist Jon Eirik Kopperud whom in an exhibition in Norway displayed a white canvas, empty except for the words “This Painting Will Be Sold for a Blowjob” on it.
Another Oslo trained Zambian, Kate Naluyele, a promising young female artist who mysteriously fell off the grid following a somewhat stealthy return home a few years ago also delved into conceptual art and her piece Defeatism, basically a bucket of broken bottles, a light bulb, an empty chair and accompanying text was well received when it was shown at the Historical Museum in Oslo City Centre, 2007.

Nevertheless, apart from a little European influence here and there, maybe here in Zambia we should not worry too much that we are on the brink of losing our appreciation of beauty, fortunately here, no matter how thought provoking a work of art might be, our artists always make an effort to make it something nice to look at, something that in Scruton’s words is“…brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy” something that “Shows human life to be worthwhile”. In Zambia and pretty much in many places on the African continent, a work of art is still something beautiful and not a tin of faeces.

1 comment:

  1. I guess we all appreciate art in our own little ways, as far as am concerned art speaks to us in different ways. One's tin of artist's shit can be a cup of tea while to another a cup of poison. What ''normal'' people percieve as ugly' artist's see beauty.