Johannes Scott – January 2023
With exhibition halls designed in the fashion of a boutique hotel and walls styled in Salon tradition, the South African National Gallery (SANG) is now presenting its bestowed treasure as found object, irrevocably severed, and sanitised from previous order. Titled Breaking Down the Walls, the curatorial presentation invites visitors to an alternative scenario for imagining South African art.
The function of our National Gallery is to collect, label, and interpret with curatorial strategy – to engage the population in knowing and understanding the formal production of their indigenous art. Moreover, the institution is sponsored by the administration of arts and culture and historically defined as state apparatus with ideological function. The objective is to forge a curatorial scenario that enables a morally sound narrative for an imagined national identity. Success is measured by the number of visitors that enter the Gallery and with the expectation to experience the national collection as sublime treasure.
For a twenty-first century National Gallery located in post-colonial Global South, forging a lucid, popular narrative from a collection of ideologically disparate acquisitions demands curatorial cunning. Previously, SANG followed the modernist template of discursive partitioning and exclusion, showing different forms of aesthetic representation in separate exhibition halls. In itself, this form of display scenario is informative and self-reflexive; it reveals the encampment taxonomy of Western art history as modern practice. On the other hand, it conceals the binary structure of exclusion on which modern art theory is founded. In 2011, SANG addressed this binary issue by exhibiting the founding antithesis of modern art – that iconic exclusion by which we identify modern art for what it is not – namely, Kitsch. The exhibition Tretchikoff: A People’s Painter, showcased the work of world renowned South African artist Vladimir Tretchikoff. Also derogatively known as ‘King of Kitsch,’ Vladimir was a self-taught artist influenced by Paul Gauguin. The exhibition was one of the most visited curatorial projects at SANG.
To augment global visitors, public art galleries and museums revise their acquisition politics in order to invent new narratives and scenarios for displaying their collections. For example, in China, international tourists are invited to large collections of Impressionist paintings, officially acquired from the West for newly founded museums. But acquisitions based on economic logic do little for the contextual and epistemological value of artwork. The de-contextualised, ‘masterpiece-as-commodity’ object says nothing discursive about European or Chinese art history. Conversely, to group a collection by medium in order to combine conflicting ideologies voids the exhibition entirely of social context. All one is left with are ‘masters’ competing in the same medium. As one proverbial commentator once responded to such an exhibition of oils: Why is the Michelin chef not included, they’re also artistic masters working in oil.
The Decolonial Aesthetics Manifesto of 2011 continuous to impact curatorial thinking for post-colonial collections marred by Imperial acquisition. Decolonisation is not theory based; it is an activity to revise acquisition politics for finding display scenarios that narrate non-Eurocentric perspectives. The objective is to ‘cure the colonial wound’ by recasting the modern taxonomies of art history. But this is a complicated curatorial task, as Sarat Maharaj, a founding member of the Transnational Decolonial Institute commented. Inverting power relations often result in worse binaries such as Africa versus Europe. Conversely, as Holland Cotter’s 2016 call for ‘Making Museums Moral Again’ implies: Is there a point in time we can return to when museums were once moral institutions?
This ideological battle will not be over until museums become spaces of “knowledge-without-power,” writes Marie-Laure Allain Bonilla in her 2017 essay on the decolonisation of Western art collections. Moreover, such a form of disempowerment, at worst, could mean the end of the exhibition as discursive space, art as catalyst for critical inquiry, and curator as theoretician. Instead of curators returning to the traditional job of minding collections – like providing the proverbial stamp of canonical approval to objects of clerical treasure – they should, instead, take responsibility for their role of not only shaping art history, but also our collective memory of the world. Exhibitions ought to reflect the meta-history of the curatorial convention itself and show how such practice can both forge affective narratives and deconstruct exploitative ideologies.
Breaking Down the Walls, self-consciously, takes the visitor back to ground zero, the founding space of exhibition making. Salon de Paris, established in mid 18th century France, became the first public space where different genres such as history painting, portraits, landscapes and so forth were all exhibited alongside each other, without discursive partitioning. Here, prior to the sophistication of 20th century curatorial aesthetics, the exhibition organiser was no more than a designer fashioning wall space; an art dealer loading stock from ceiling to floor.
Moreover, since ancient time and up until the European Renaissance, aesthetic production was a philosophical practice; its literary domain limited to poetics and theatre. The status of visual arts was little more than iconic design making, predominantly produced by guilds and commissioned for symbolic display at temples, churches, and palaces. Throughout the Middle Ages, the meaning of objects and people were predetermined and predestined. For the object of art to be of secular knowledge and treasured for private collection is an entirely modern invention, rooted in the European Renaissance. The idea of an exhibition curated as aesthetic mediation between artwork and public – the idea that it is not the artwork itself, but the formal convention of display that defines the contextual limit of what is and what is not art – is an intellectual development that followed after the establishment of the Salon.
The Salon introduced a public space where, as 18th century philosopher of aesthetics Immanuel Kant observed, the ideological function of art became realised. The Salon was a leisure-time gathering place for the newly established mercantile class to view art and pass aesthetic judgement. This novel freedom to express one’s ‘opinion’ in public produced a social consciousness of autonomous individuality within a collective community. This ideological function, Kant observed, was unimaginable during the Middle Ages where all sense of knowledge was static and subject to the powers of church and monarch.
Breaking Down the Walls is an exhibition display of Dutch, French, and British artwork produced during the 17th to 19th century mercantile era – when colonial taxes paid for the establishment of European wealth, novelty, and privilege. Displayed alongside these are artwork acquired during the post-colonial and post-apartheid period – when resistance against oppression fuelled artistic expression. Interspersed are prehistoric and ancient artefacts alongside other bestowed treasures and found objects. All these incongruent ‘elements,’ juggled from the entire national annals, are wrought by the Salon convention into a montage-like Thing – an empty signifier that, in the face of the desiring visitor, may signify and find symbolic significance.
The free-style display scenario is an innovative strategy to broaden public participation and increase visitor numbers. The same is employed when boutique hotels style different rooms to different seasons; for competitions such swimming and freestyle rap, it provides the audience with ease of access. In prose, free indirect style is a literary scenario in which it is not a character, but an anonymous ‘third person’ that narrates symbolic significance – that speaks on behalf of characters and events in the fiction. This literary convention, exemplified in the novel Emma Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, makes it easy for the anonymous reader to step into this authorial vacancy, and signify meaning. This unbounded form of representation acts like an empty screen for the viewer or reader to find solace in free association.
The curatorial strategy of Breaking Down the Walls seems to be none other than to enable free association as ‘cure’ for the ‘wounded’ national art collection. Developed as therapeutic cure by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, free association is a healing process whereby the patient is enabled to interpret without boundary. For example, the analyst would demarcate an empty signifier, such as Rorschach’s Inkblot Test, and encourage the patient to interpret meaning by whatever comes to mind. This unrestricted freedom to access and verbalise the ‘wounded’ unconscious empowers patients to speak for themselves and work through their own material, without aping others.
Notwithstanding, the psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek warns against walls of convention broken down in the name of freedom, as this may well be depravation in disguise. The more we live as ‘free individuals,’ the more we are caught within an ideological net of social control, Zizek explains in his book, Living in the End Times. We are being given more and more new freedoms of choice, able to become ‘entrepreneurs of the self,’ like a capitalist, free to choose how to invest our acquired resources. Bombarded by these imposed ‘free choices,’ we are forced to make uninformed and unqualified decisions from within a given frame of possibilities – the more we act freely, the more the system enslaves us. Unable to break out of this vicious cycle, Zizek explains, freedom becomes a burden that causes us unbearable anxiety. To ‘awaken’ us from this ‘dogmatic slumber’ of fake freedom, Zizek insists, we need a disturbance, like a shocking scenario or a stirring gaze.
Breaking Down the Walls is an imaginary Salon inviting the visitor into a liminal space where art is stripped of surplus value. For the viewer, it is like being given the biblical task of naming undisclosed specimens found at an alien zoo. Only – while gazing, without fear or fancy, at the lure of a primal object – to be woken from the fantasy by some rouse.
Strategically placed between two halls is an empty, dark gallery. One cannot by-pass this hall; it can be navigated only in darkness. A dim light, like a siren, announces the void as being a tribute to the unselected, the excluded – a sign informing the visitor that acquisition is by ideological demand.
Further along the chain of galleries, another rouse, placed next to the entrance in line with the hall’s safety equipment, on the floor next to the fire-extinguisher – It is a neurotic gesture: to be or not to be. As an act of decolonisation, this masterly executed oil on canvas, ornately framed, is left abandoned – excluded by the curation from the dignity of hanging space on the wall. It is a portrait of the 17th century Jan van Riebeeck, the first coloniser of the Cape of Good Hope. In his stirring gaze, side-ways, as if he had fallen of the wall, the past, dramatically, becomes uncannily contemporary, as Homi K Bhabha once put it in a similar context:
‘The past reaches out to you, yearning to be reborn. Will you embrace it compliantly for what it was, once and always: “influence,” “tradition,” “convention,” “custom”? Or will you struggle passionately with the past, as you do with a lost lover or a half-remembered memory, knowing that things can never be the same again … not today, Not ever.’ (2006:34)
The Salon presents the public with a fantasy scenario where it is not intrinsic quality of artwork but rather the place these signifiers occupy within the constructed Salon that enables the viewer to reimagine and reconfigure the symbolic status of the South African national art collection. For symbolic significance, it is not only the organisers such as the curatorial team, acquisition committee, museum staff, and so on, that must play their respective roles, but also the public that must recognise these imaginary coordinates and participate in the pleasure of the phantasmatic scenario.
Breaking Down the Walls – 150 years of Art Collecting, curated by Andrew Lamprecht, is currently on exhibition at the South African National Gallery – 1 Government Avenue, Cape Town.
Bhabha, Homi K. Another Country in Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking. Exh. cat. David Frankel (ed). 2006. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. London: Thames & Hudson.
Bonilla, Marie-Laure Allain. Some Theoretical and Empirical Aspects on the Decolonization of Western Collections, in ONCURATING Issue #35: Decolonizing Art Institutions. 2017. http://oncurating-space.org/
Evans, Dylan. 1996. Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Miller, Jacques-Alain (ed). 1973. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Zizek, Slavoj. 2011. Living in the End Times. London: Verso.
Johannes Scott received the BA degree in English and Theory of Literature at UNISA in 2011; postgraduate studies in Theory of Drama (2013), Narratology (2014), Critical Theory (2015); and with specialisation in Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of aesthetics.