More or less ‘Co-existence’? Some thoughts on the Ir/relevance of the idea: opening remarks for the exhibition ‘Co-Existence part II – Manfred Zylla, Garth Erasmus and Antonin Mares’, Erdmann Contemporary, Cape Town, 28 July 2015.

POSTED ON: August 15, 2015 IN Mario Pissarra, Speeches & Statements, Word View

Mario Pissarra, 15 August 2015

This group exhibition, the press release reminds us, constitutes the second installment of a curatorial project established in 2014. The inaugural exhibit featured, again in the words of the press statement, ‘three artists from three continents’.

Now, I will begin by making what may seem to be a very disparaging set of remarks. As an idea for a group exhibition, ‘co-existence’ may be considered to be a pretty lame concept. It is lame, in the sense that it lends itself to a very passive approach to the world. It implies a disengaged acceptance, perhaps tolerance, of global diversity and difference. Now what is wrong with that, you may ask? The problem with ‘co-existence’, I would argue, is that we need more of a critical engagement with the world, not simply an acceptance of the way things are.

Now I am not suggesting that, as the agency responsible for two exhibitions on this theme, that Erdman Contemporary is promoting a glib, ‘we are the world’ kind of co-existence. Certainly, the press release notes that the first exhibition ‘commented on issues of alienation, migration, displacement and post-colonial identity.’ These issues, while certainly commonplace in curatorial statements, hint at a more fraught notion of co-existence. This sequel, we are told, does not only ‘continue this dialogue’, but, very importantly, it has ‘the additional focus of environmental politics and the exploration of dislocation and strife of a society in conflict with the land and the corporate structures that sustain it.’

When we introduce the environment into the idea of ‘co-existence’ then we begin to acknowledge the need to address what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time: That the human environment, that is the world made by humans constitutes a threat not only to the survival of the human species but more critically to the planet as we know it. The question as to whether we can co-exist, not only among ourselves as people, but with what used to be innocently called ‘nature’, represents a very pertinent line of enquiry that makes almost everything else irrelevant.

Now to bring this all down to earth, so to speak, it makes sense to begin with Manfred, since it is he that represents the link between the three artists, both of whom he has collaborated with in the past. First, one needs to note that if co-existence implies a utopia, Manfred’s work could not be further away from such an interpretation. His artistic vision centres on visualizing a world of greed, a world of exploitation of people and of the environment. This does not mean that he is not at heart utopian, but rather that he is disturbed by the way things are. Through visualizing dystopia, he implements a very necessary strategy that is ultimately concerned with fundamental social change.

A key idea that is central to Manfred’s practice is that of ‘Inter-Actions’. Many of us know this as the title of his 1982 performative event at CAP, where he invited participants to contribute to his very fine drawings of apartheid’s generals and security police. But, I think it is an idea that reoccurs in many ways throughout his work. Inter-actions is certainly a more proactive concept than co-existence, and it embodies the activism that is at the heart of Manfred’s practice as an artist. He has produced several works where he has invited the participation of his subjects and his public, in so doing he has constantly challenged the traditional binaries, the ‘co-existence’ of artist and public, he has attempted to bridge the distance between production and consumption of meaning.

A very particular co-existence that Manfred tackles concerns the political and economic relationship between South Africa and Germany, particularly its more conservative Bavarian province. That he began this theme in the apartheid years suggests that, while broad political conditions may have changed, some of the networks and interests persist, and deserve closer scrutiny.

Also, important for the exhibition theme, one can observe that Manfred regularly chooses to interact with artists that he finds affinity with, Garth being an excellent example of this. On the surface, their art appears to have little in common, but Manfred is not about surfaces. Their deep affinity, their mutual respect, dare I say their co-existence, operates at a much deeper level, no-one else, to my knowledge, has ever introduced them into the same exhibition, but for all their apparent difference they are kindred souls whose visual languages, while distinctly divergent as dialects, clearly share certain originary impulses that enable them to speak to each to each other, something I am delighted to note, will be taking place in the form of a conversation between the two artists at this gallery tomorrow.

But what is it that Manfred and Garth share? It is perhaps their commitment to visualizing erasure, the silenced, the unsaid. It is also perhaps their recognition of each other as artists pursuing their own paths, paths that are in many respects distinctly unfashionable. As unfashionable as their music, which is full of discordant sounds, of collisions on the road to finding and creating new spaces, new worlds.

If Manfred’s works comment on the interface between the physical and the psychological, Garth’s work is more emphatically spiritual. Unlike Manfred he does not comment on everyday abuses of power, rather he seeks to elucidate a deeper psychic power that is both within himself as an individual, as well as within his ancestral, collective identity as a person who self-identifies strongly with the history, or histories of Khoisan cultures. This is a journey that stands outside of the multiple trajectories of ‘identity’ that have dominated exhibitions and accounts of post-apartheid South African art. It represents an engagement with some of the most sophisticated –co-existences’ between living species and sentient beings known to humankind, ‘lost’ ways of life, modes of being that are bizarrely dismissed as ‘primitive’ but which in fact embody some of the highest expressions of civilization, certainly if one is to judge such a fraught concept not by NASA but by ways of living that, if pursued, would have rendered the very idea of the end of the world as almost unthinkable.

Antonin Mares, whose work I am being introduced to in this exhibition, introduces ideas that cross between those of Manfred and Garth. Like his co-exhibitors, he is on his own path, producing images that are not driven by the demands of curators or clients. At one end, he shares with Manfred a concern with visualizing dysfunctionality, of a world gone mad. But he also shares with Garth a love of the small scale. By producing small works, Antonin and Garth challenge us to reclaim the intimacy of engagement that has been largely eroded by the dominant ‘industry standard’ that prescribes artists to work on a grand scale. Through producing small, deeply reflective, evocative images they challenge us to focus our thoughts, to reconsider what constitutes a ‘big idea’.

All three artists urge us to step out of a world of branding, of slogans and sound-bites and to partake in the very hard work of making sense of our worlds, and of finding ways of co-existing with dystopia, not in the passive sense I highlighted earlier, but through engaging the world with integrity, guided by the deep desire to create a truly new world order.

Mario Pissarra