Between Rot and Genesis
A solo exhibition by Michael MacGarry | Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg | 07 July – 06 August 2016
You felt like a ghost – not from the past – but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you, and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone.
– V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River
A little Modernity is a dangerous thing.
– Alexander Pope
The conceptual foundation of this exhibition is centred on two of my recent films – Excuse me, while I disappear. and Sea of Ash – that will be screened as installations for the first time in Johannesburg. The films form two fundamental yet quite divergent nexus points for the exhibition, whilst alluding to the binary construction inherent in the title of the show: Between Rot and Genesis. The title is itself a statement on where I feel a number of contemporary African nation states (South Africa included) find themselves socio-economically, politically and even psychologically. A fundamental concern of the exhibition is the inherent tension in both the destructive and productive outcomes of the vaudeville of human progress. In a sense, the exhibition prompts questions as to the real cost – in cultural, humanitarian and sociological terms – of rampant, feverish development and resource extraction versus the gains – both aspirant and actual. Are there viable alternatives? Can the Subaltern be heard? This doubt is underwritten by the shimmering façade of modernisation without real industrialisation – both within the contexts of the fallacies of the historical, colonial “dual mandate” as well as select case studies in the contemporary China-Africa narrative.
Filmed in Kilamba Kiaxi – a new city 25 kilometers outside Luanda, financed and built by Chinese companies, backed by Angolan oil futures and the single largest investment project by China in Africa at US$ 3.5 billion – my fictional short film Excuse me, while I disappear. follows a young municipal worker who lives by night in the old city center of Luanda and works by day as a groundskeeper at the new city of Kilamba Kiaxi far away. We see him on his morning commute and daily routine sweeping the largely uninhabited new city streets. During his Sisyphean task, he daydreams and stares at the new buildings. Unable to contain his curiosity, he sneaks into an apartment block, and in turn breaks into an unoccupied apartment. He watches Australian cricket on television. Following the lunch hour siren he climbs to the roof of the building and quietly disappears. Conceptually, the film is concerned with the visual mechanics of mid- century European ethnographic cinema, African science-fiction, the Metropolitan Picturesque and Chinese visual perspective. Accompanying the film is a key sculptural prop as well as editioned photographic work from the project, titled Kilamba Kiaxi.
The second key register is Sea of Ash - filmed on location in Italy, the form of the film is one of a fable, that grafts Thomas Mann’s 1925 novella, Death in Venice, to the contemporary crisis of African refugees and immigrants in the Mediterrean. The narrative of the film follows a single character – Tadzio – who has survived the treacherous and often fatal passage by sea to Italy – on his journey from Bassano del Grappa (the origin of my own maternal ancestry) through to the remarkable Brion Mausoleum designed by Carlo Scarpa at San Vito and finally to the Venetian lagoon. On Lido Island he visits the Hotel dés Bains as featured in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Oscar-winning film version of Death in Venice. Sea of Ash concludes on the dés Baines beach, with Tadzio embarking on a fatalist return voyage. Accompanying the film is a key sculptural prop. A recipient of a Jury Prize for the Signs Award at the 14th International Festival Signes de Nuit in Bangkok – the jury statement for Sea of Ash outlines key concerns of the film, and the exhibition as a whole:
In 1983, Gayatri Spivak, asked an influential question in her essential essay Can the Subaltern Speak?. Although the question itself was not rhetoric, the proper answers are still waiting to appear. Today where the issues about refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration are global phenomenon, this thirty-three-year-old question somehow never loses its relevance. Since the last decade, images of refugees have been flooding the media. Ethical questions have been continuously going on asked how and in which ways we should represent them. The supposed reality captured through filmmaker’s technical mastery, is mistaken for the Real and this hasn’t done those who suffer from forced migration any benefit. Sea of Ash evades the ideal of the complete capture of the Real and seeks, instead, an alternative way to portray the issue. The film somehow transcends the stereotypical image of the refugee toward something new and unexpected. Can the Subaltern Speak? is not a question demanding only one correct answer. There’s never only one most proper way of speaking for and about the subaltern; however, Sea of Ash is one of the numerous voices to arise as an answer.
Further, Between Rot and Genesis features a body of new work across large-scale sculpture and wall-based works, for the most part realised in non-traditional art media borne of a desire to embody the thematic politics of the two films within the form of the works themselves. My intention is that the form is itself political – principally manifest through the use of materials sourced from the social fabric of everyday life. A case in point, is an ongoing glossary of large-scale two-dimensional works featuring washed and hand-sewn cement bags paired with armatures and found objects. Protected and made weather-resistant with oil stick, varnish and shoe polish the sewn cement bags form improvised textiles that function as forms of refuge and repair as well as erasure and escape, whilst referencing the philosophies of Arte Povera and the politicised, outward-looking abstraction of Asger Jorn. Where traditional fine art materials such as cast bronze and marble are present, these forms are operationailised within the exhibition as forms of institutional critique and historical memory understood within the context of a post-Marikana and #rhodesmustfall South Africa. So to are a series of large scale steel sculptures, that I had shot through with assault rifles by police officers – strongly redolent of modernist, inward-looking public art – particularly Alexander Calder, whose rugged individualism and renown for traditional sculpture from West Africa is well documented. These steel works form a suite of relics as both a similar mark in the 1960s – when “the winds of change” swept the African continent – whilst manifesting our collective fate to be seemingly forever haunted by modernism’s impossible promise. Particularly, the oppositional binaries of the International Style versus the ‘tropical modernism’ of Le Corbusier and Roberto Burle Marx. The latter represented by the Super Tomorrow series of off-shutter concrete and steel rebar sculptures, functioning as a bridge between these inward and outward looking modernities. Like pieces of corporeal architecture these body parts of buildings function as secular shrines to progress and human civilisation, albeit through an optic of skeptical optimism.
Michael MacGarry has been researching narratives and histories of socio-economics, politics, forms and objects within the context of contemporary Africa for over a decade. Frequently focused on marking key registers of modernism – MacGarry creates sculptures, films, installations and photographs which look at the contextual specifics of things and their place; how they are simultaneously distributed both as ideas and as objects in the world. His sculptural work is formed through processes of grafting and mutation, to produce fictional hybrids principally designed to question systemic paradigms: sovereign nationality; logics of making and meaning; power relations; notions of value, equity and progress as well as the relationship between industrial technology and African resources. In his filmmaking and photographic work these macro concerns often take the form of micro narratives, personal memory and subtle identity politics in spaces where contemporary life is in a state of invention and flux.
Michael MacGarry (b. 1978, Durban, South Africa) lives and works in Johannesburg. MacGarry holds an MFA from the University of the Witwatersrand (2004) where he is currently a PhD. candidate (History of Art). MacGarry is a multi-award winning visual artist and filmmaker, having exhibited internationally for ten years including TATE Modern, Guggenheim Bilbao, 19th VideoBrasil, 62nd Short Film Festival Oberhausen, International Film Festival Rotterdam and Les Rencontres Internationales.