26'10 south Architects / Art SA Vol9 issue2 Summer2010

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The Art of Being Public In Johannesburg, public art is its best when it reveals the hidden strata of a city with a fraught and varied history, writes Alexander Opper Public art, a singularity often used to describe a massive field of art production, is a problematic and misunderstood term. In its broadness it comprises a range of work that infiltrates and inhabits urban, peri-urban and rural sites (and the various landscapes in between), mostly outside of the commercial or institutional spaces of galleries or museums. By virtue of its almost endless scope and potential contexts, it is pluralistic and multi-layered in the range of readings it enables, and asks of its diverse public(s). The focus of this essay is the place referred to as Johannesburg, whose geography consists of many Johannesburgs1 – many versions of the city characterised by their fragmentary and dysfunctional relationships to one another. It is an assortment of parts stitched together by trajectories of carand taxi-infused asphalt, a collection of dislocated territories consisting of surfaces making up a politically and economically segregated collage. This ostensibly taut surface begins to give way to reveal its extreme depth – of meanings and narratives – once one starts tugging at and cutting through it. In this context, public art becomes a vehicle for revealing the multiplicity of hidden, silenced and removed strata of the city’s various histories. Art in public space is able to vocalise the absence and loss that are the direct results of the discovery of the stratified core of this city’s original reason for being. At its best, public art is able to revisit and challenge readings of the surfaces and depths that make up what we refer to as Johannesburg. Two recent artistic contributions to the urban surface of Johannesburg use the city in different ways as support for their expressions. These are: Fire Walker,

an ambitious public art collaboration between the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and intermediaries, The Trinity Session; and a project showing the work of Mary Sibande, as the first iteration of the Joburg Art City initiative – steered by Art At Work! Art Project Management (AAW!) and sponsored by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund. I initially had my doubts about Fire Walker, a collaboration between William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx, not in terms of its presence, but because of its site. Revisiting my original scepticism, however, I have come to see the piece as a successful and revealing part of the urban texture of its surroundings. At eleven metres in height it does not lack scale. Its size is nonetheless downplayed by the urban “noise” of its visual backdrop to the south, a mixed bag of concrete-andglass volumes of built form that reduces the sculptural figure’s visual impact. The result is that the work almost camouflages itself, attaining an embeddedness that is ultimately its strength. It is an excellent example of what might be referred to as economic-kinetic sculpture: it does not try to impress by literally moving, but requires the movement of the city’s users around it to unlock multiple potential readings. Its placement on a large roundabout-like piece of land – a triangular leftover space or uitvalgrond – results in the city carouselling, as it were, around it in a 360-degree exchange of mutually considered projection and perception. The result is a tango-like partnership between the viewer and what is being viewed: the fragments comprising the work require the participation of the passer-by in order to “assemble”

Joseph Gaylard and Urban Inc, map showing public art sites in the inner city, Johannesburg, 2009/10. Courtesy JDA and Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage artsouthafrica


THE ART OF BEING PUBLIC ALEX OPPER themselves. From an urban placement perspective better exploited the geographic range of loci, Park Project, for example, has, over the last the sculpture becomes the physical point at the based on previously political and now class-like decade, intelligently used inner-city Johannesburg end of the line begun by the arterial and visual stratifications which make up the other CBDs as a platform for public interventions that address trajectory of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge. The of a multiplicitous Johannesburg, namely (and important urban issues. Most recently, X Homes anonymous fire walker, bearing a brazier as her following Clive Chipkin) CBD 2 (Sandton) and, Johannesburg (a project format conceived eight everyday crown, offers a clever deconstruction of as I would like to suggest, CBD 3, that is Soweto. years ago by Matthias Lilienthal, a Berlin-based the imperial “ownership” of the surfaces of former Before elucidating the nature of this fragmented theatre director), hosted by the Goethe-Institut, colonial cities, of which Johannesburg is one of city I would like to backtrack fifteen years to offered a very powerful example of time-based, the most notorious examples. The subject matter another city, Berlin. The German capital offers a performative interactions with audiences moving of the work reminds of the way the Bosnian useful lens through which to assess the value and from one private dwelling to the next in Soweto artist Braco Dimitrijević, in his series “The role of public art (I lived, worked and studied and Hillbrow. The site-specific performances were Casual Passer-By” (begun in 1971), resituates the there from 1995–2005 and have, since moving used to engage curious audiences and to question everyday user of the city, moving them from a to Johannesburg in 2006, considered the parallels and, to some extent, discredit some of the fears marginal to a central position. between these two equally unequal cities, in terms and myths attached to these parts of the city. Similarly to Dimitrijević’s method and medium of of their segregated and often schizophrenic pasts). There are, of course, the “other two CBDs” iconic photography, the first iteration of Joburg Similarly to the way that Joburg Art City uses the that I have already mentioned, which are both Art City subverts the banality of the everyday urban surface as a ready-made scaffold, Christo informed by various public art projects. AAW! use of billboards. In this case the billboard, as a and Jean-Claude used a single but exceptionally have worked as intermediaries, with the Sandton vehicle for the selling of products, is destabilised significant building in Berlin, the Reichstag Central Management District, to realise a number and its language appropriated if not initially to (before Sir Norman Foster’s conversion of that of public art projects in Sandton. Outdoor sell, then at least to talk about the potency of the building into the seat of the relocated German exhibitions such as Nadine Hutton’s I have large-scale display of art in the residual spaces of parliament), as simultaneous scaffold for and Fallen (shown in Sandton Central in July 2009), the city. Mary Sibande’s work was chosen to fill subject of intervention. The famous covering, or documenting a poor white community, challenge the first slot of what will hopefully be an ongoing “wrapping,” by the artists, of that politically and a narrow understanding of Sandton. The and changing annual exhibition, effectively historically layered building in the summer of insertion of one public’s poverty into, reputedly, making Johannesburg’s urban environs the largest 1995, exposed it significantly more than hiding the wealthiest square mile of real estate on the “gallery” in the city’s history. The strength of this it – the work was a potent demonstration of the African continent prompts real public discourse. bold move (nearly a decade in the making), is its Derridian concept of the mutually interdependent Hutton’s insistence that the photographic series clever and opportunistic use of Johannesburg’s relationship between revealing and suppressing, also be shown in Alexandra, a stone’s throw away urban shape – the direct result of an economically visible and invisible. The project literally held me from Sandton, drives the complexity of South and vertically driven extrusion of its mining-town in its gaze for the two weeks of its existence. African extremes home and offers possibilities origins – as a scaffold for public dialogue. The Although the German example is a site-specific for unblinkered dialogue between publics that simple cladding of the edges of are generally divorced buildings on either side of the each other partly as a Mary Sibande is effectively making Johannesburg’s urban from M1 South results in a threshold result of assumptions often environs the largest “gallery” in the city’s history. where none existed before. made from positions of Sibande’s hybrid reformation economic privilege. Brief of the traditional maid’s garb and her subversive one – a quarter of a century in the making, largely interventions such as these break open the slick borrowing, stylistically, from the formal apparel as a result of a complex process of determined urban surface of Sandton and suggest many other of the colonial housemistress, offers thought- political navigation and communication by the and possibly more effective ways to represent or provoking juxtapositions. These interventions artists – it has valuable lessons to offer future think a representation of Nelson Mandela and his contrast the de- and rematerialising consumer- iterations of the Joburg Art City platform. Not legacy in Johannesburg. The monumental, literal driven aesthetics of, for one, the filmic “frames” least of these are that it is said to have earned and totemic “presence” of Mandela on Sandton of billboard surfaces on either side of Sibande’s Berlin millions in revenue (an impressive spinoff Square excludes many layers of possible meaning work: on one side, a bank ad sporting a woman considering the actual intervention lasted a mere and reflection, layers exposed at sites like the in a similarly exuberant but more worldly dress, two weeks and did not require a cent of taxpayers’ Alexandra Interpretation Centre, also known as holding an oversized credit card; and on the money in order to be realised). The sponsorship Mandela’s Yard (by Peter Rich Architects), and at other, a politically correct underwear ad. This links between the National Lottery and Joburg the former president’s home on Vilakazi Street in threshold of commentary represents a successful Art City are part of Johannesburg’s history of Soweto. curatorial decision regarding placement. Sibande’s “making a plan” to realise public projects: the In CBD 3, Soweto, a project that began as a brief work, sandwiched between the freeze-frames most famous or, depending on one’s perspective, for a public upgrade by the JDA, working through of public and private desires along the hyper- notorious example of such sponsorship is the the intermediary team of Stephen Hobbs of The modern ribbon of the highway, allows – in a way realisation of the Apartheid Museum as a trade-off Trinity Session and architect Thiresh Govender that borrows strongly from Yinka Shonibare’s for permission to build a casino at Gold Reef City of Urban Works, was extended as a result of the mode of image production and subversion – – an example of the opportunism at work in the intermediaries’ engaged rereading of the Vilakazi for intense visual dialogues in the minds of the city and of the way memory and material desire Street precinct in Orlando West. Their conclusion city’s anonymous passers-by. Some of the other inhabit the same tenuously speculative surface. was that an overly pragmatic solidifying and billboard manifestations of Sophie (the name As significant and necessary as such sources of infrastructural stabilising of the area, with the chosen by Sibande for her alter ego), however, funding have been in our context, where spending obligatory kit of paving, benches and trees, could have been better considered. Sibande’s on arts and culture is often woefully limited, the would actually threaten to destabilise and erase work visualises and centralises the often invisible Berlin example illustrates other possible models of its traces of history and heroism. Through a series and marginal, lending it new agency and respect. funding for public art. These need to be explored of mappings, which formed a conversational The work’s careful and juxtapositional placement, locally to avoid over-dependence on single and and critical basis between Hobbs and Govender, across the surface of the whole city, would have commercially interested funding sources. the JDA was persuaded of the vital layer which lent an additional layer of complexity to the The Berlin example also makes a strong argument art (not initially included as part of the thinking project; curatorial considerations could have for the value of ephemeral public art. The Joubert around the upgrade) would add to this context. 46 a r t s o u t h a f r i c a

TOP Approach to Fire Walker, Queen Elizabeth Bridge, Johannesburg. Photo: Alex Opper BOTTOM LEFT Mary Sibande, Long Live the Dead Queen, 2010, installation view, New Town, Johannesburg. Photo: Alex Opper BOTTOM RIGHT Mary Sibande, Long Live the Dead Queen, 2010, installation view, Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Photo: Alex Opper




Public art was mobilised to allow various narratives to surface and to resurface the context in a communally driven mode of artistic place-making. Govender describes the conceptual thinking behind a reimaging of the Vilakazi precinct as an extension of the Hector Pieterson Museum. This is a radical proposition, if indeed the carefully considered neighbourhood achieves the atmosphere of a living “museum.” In the Vilakazi precinct, the simple angling of a bench so that it is orientated to correspond with the line of site of the position of shelter to which Hector Pieterson is believed to have been carried (on 16 June 1976), and where Sam Nzima is said to have taken his famous photograph, illustrates just one way in which the prospective open-air museum is activated and becomes a stage for contemplation and interpretation. The artistic interventions – which now animate and conceptually thicken the precinct’s surface – were realised by slow and considered workshopping and sensitive filtering of a multitude of ideas and proposals by Soweto-based artists. Naturally not every idea and not all participants’ work could physically manifest, but the process allowed for the vocalisation referred to in my introduction, and for the remaking of this very particular place. The (previously) unknown artists are now able to use their contributions to the resurfaced and retold precinct as their own proud calling cards, a gesture that is echoed in the work of Sibande in the inner city. The extending of briefs with regard to design around public space and public use clearly offers rich terrain for the inclusion of emerging artists. Such opportunities in the context of an exceptionally small art market and an even smaller range of possibilities for artists to show their work (in the commercial gallery network), makes the availability of the urban surface to artists invaluable. Another good example of what artists are able to do in the scope of important public buildings is at the Metro Mall urban taxi nucleus in the inner city. The architects, Urban Solutions, recognised that the sun screens that make up a very visual component of the building’s primary corner did not have to be realised by sub-contractors but could be designed by artists. This observation resulted in an intelligent extension of the budget for public art and, by implication, an unusual and poetic interpretation of what might have remained a sober and purely functional device. The same firm of architects was able to integrate public art as a poetic layer into the surface and spaces of the more than a kilometre long Baragwanath Transport Facility and Market. As a result, this landmark building situated at the entrance to Soweto can be read as another form of open-air museum. The motor vehicle-laden infrastructural corridors referred to earlier are the devices that ultimately stitch together the more place-specific “limbs” that make up the loose anatomy of the city. In terms of public art these arteries offer opportunities to visually and atmospherically link Johannesburg’s splintered parts. In the manic pre-2010 FIFA World Cup deadline rush the opportunity to alter the visual landscapes along these traffic spines was, in many cases, botched. The results were mostly clumsy and watered-down attempts at ideas about cultural identity and place, amounting to half-hearted touristic welcoming devices. One exception to this was Strijdom van der Merwe’s ephemeral intervention, realised through AAW!, of fields of stencil-based yellow hands on the raked inclines adjacent to the newly reconfigured Gillooly’s Interchange. Another is the integration of public art into the city’s new Bus Rapid Transport system, which links many of Johannesburg’s separate parts. In CBD 1, on a much smaller scale, a meaningful connection has been achieved with the Pageview/Vrededorp (also known as Fietas) and Fordsburg Gateway project. The project, by The Trinity Session and 26’10 south Architects, in collaboration with Feizel Mamdoo, commissioned by the JDA, is in the final stages of completion. The proposal was publicly launched through an exhibition at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg, as part of the 2009 Fietas Festival. The work comprises a curved sliver of an underpass that is held, along its longitudinal edges, by two facing murals. These animated edges, along the chicane-like subterranean stretch connecting Fietas to Fordsburg, “converse” with the passing pedestrians and motorists. The work has been considered and executed with extreme visual and historic sensitivity, and its translation into reality is reinforced by the fact that the practice of 26’10 south Architects is housed in one of the few remaining original TOP The Trinity Session and 26’10 south Architects, Fordsburg Gateway, 2010, mural. Photo: Alex Opper MIDDLE Clive van den Berg, Commuter, 2008, at Baragwanath Transport Interchange and Market, laser-cut steel, 4.5m. Image courtesy Urban Solutions Architects and Urban Designers BOTTOM The Trinity Session and 26’10 south Architects, Fordsburg Gateway, 2010, mural. Photo: Alex Opper OPPOSITE The Trinity Session and 26’10 south Architects, Fordsburg Gateway, 2010, mural. Photo: Alex Opper

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double-storey and arcaded vernacular structures that defined the formerly dense and cosmopolitan character of Fietas. Over a number of years, through community engagement, the architects have collected carefully observed mappings and recordings of the area, cultivating an understanding of the vibrancy of the suburb (before it was forcibly removed by the apartheid regime). The final iteration of the mural resulted from working closely with artists Bronwyn Lace, Reg Pakari and Rookeya Gardee. The result is a range of visual registers of memory carefully collaged onto the “cheeks” of the underpass. The artwork metaphorically exposes subterranean Johannesburg and passing by and through it becomes an almost cinematic experience partly owing to the alternating flashes of light and darkness resulting from the railway bridges spanning the subway. Moving through this unique space is a process of excavation, a discovering of lost traces. In a deceptively simple way the subway connects severed pasts and presents, and draws our attention to the lost futures eliminated by a fascist system. Public art as an engagement with the pasts and futures of places deserves more intelligent and critical reporting than it generally receives. Exactly because it does not form part of the money-generating commercial gallery circuit its worth is often under-estimated. The recent prototype for a new house typology on Mary Fitzgerald Square, by architects Sarah Calburn and Dustin Tusnovics (of Space Matters), illustrates an interesting juxtaposition. The dwelling, which is simultaneously the most public (it constitutes the overwhelming majority of building types that make up the South African built landscape), and most private building block, is here placed on the publicly programmable surface of the square – on an urban tabula – as a catalyst for provoking discourse around the radical housing shortage in this country, as well as drawing attention to the monotony of most of the housing that is currently being delivered. Showcased as part of the recent AZA2010 architectural festival held in the inner city, the compact private urban

dwelling, in contrast to the vast public surface of the square, makes reference to the famous Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck’s idea that a successful city functions like a large house and a good house is much like a small city. It also talks about the art of being public which, as Stephen Hobbs remarks, means “strategically mobilising political will in the support of public art and public engagement, as crucial vehicles and reminders of a larger public agenda of citiness,” a way of being public in and of the city. The important condition of being and feeling public has, for many of Johannesburg’s inhabitants, been lost. For many others, it is a condition to be greeted with scepticism. Perhaps, on the back of the good communal feelings generated by our recent superevent, we need to insist that this necessary art of being public be relearned and cultivated by all of us, as a way of navigating the urban and human condition of “Johannesburgness,”2 which makes and shapes who we are. Acknowledgments Although only a fraction of the research conducted can be included here, I would like to thank the following role-players, artists, intermediaries and architects, for the generous time they gave for discussions with me in preparing this essay: Lael Bethlehem (former head of the JDA), Stephen Hobbs (of The Trinity Session), Lesley Perkes (of Art At Work! Art Project Management), Joseph Gaylard (of Visual Arts Network of South Africa), Ludwig Hansen (formerly of Urban Solutions, now of Ludwig Hansen Architects & Urban Designers), Thiresh Govender (of Urban Works Architecture + Urbanism), Thorsten Deckler (of 26’10 south Architects), Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Bettina Malcomess and Kathryn Smith. 1 In her latest book, Writing the City into Being: Essays on Johannesburg 1998–2008 (Fourthwall Books, 2010), Lindsay Bremner makes clear how the place we refer to as Johannesburg, consists of “different Johannesburgs.” 2 “Johannesburgness” is the word Leon van Schaik uses in an attempt to describe the multiplicity of this elusive city, consisting of many cities.

Alexander Opper is an architect and senior lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. His professional practice focuses on the theory and production of both ephemeral and more permanent architecturally inspired installations and environments. artsouthafrica