Reflections of an art philistine

David Bullard reports back from Riebeek Kasteel’s annual art festival


I spent last weekend in Riebeek Kasteel attending the town’s annual art festival which was presented under the collective title ‘Solo Studios. Intimate Art Encounters’. It was a superbly organised event with a very comprehensive guide to the various artists and a handy map and programme of events to make sure you don’t miss out.

There’s also (dare I say it) a fair amount of pretension when it comes to art and part of the joy of an art festival is reading how the artists themselves describe their works.

One gallery I visited displayed huge black and white works which were marked for sale at R290 000. At the time of my visit none had a red dot on them so maybe you’re all still in with a chance. The notes in the guide book tell me that the artist “deconstructs commonplace ideas and reimagines them with experimental media - old car oil, captured carbon, anthracite cobalt salts and ink from exhaust fumes etc etc. The artist is currently playing with the concept of interactivity through expressive co-operation and its moving parts”. Useful to have all this explained I feel. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

This approach undoubtedly saves a small fortune on oil paints and water-colours but there are two problems with the works which presented me, as a major art collector, from swiping my credit card for R290 000. Well, three if you include the fact that my credit card limit, while pretty generous, doesn’t reach such dizzy heights.

But, assuming I could have transferred the funds at a later date, I had a problem with a large canvas of what appeared to be a stag at bay (220cm x 180cm) in that I don’t have enough wall left on which to hang it. What became abundantly clear during my three days in Riebeek Kasteel was that you need to construct a house specifically designed for your art before you amass a collection lest you run out of wall space. That takes quite a few million rand to achieve and that’s long before you start shelling out R290 000 for an art work formed from toxic waste.

Then there’s the matter of aesthetics. But what do I know as an art philistine about such lofty ideals? Admittedly the stag (or stags, because there appears to be a doppelganger stag behind the original) is beautifully presented even if it is mostly in old car oil, anthracite and charcoal but do I really want a monochrome stag staring mournfully at me from a wall when I’m having breakfast?

Besides, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the 19th century painter James Ford’s ‘Stag at Bay; Monarch of the Glen’ which is at least painted in oils and is in colour.

Another exhibit (or ‘installation’ as I believe they are known in the art world) at the art festival was a series of eight short films. One film featured a naked woman lying on her back in a slightly blurry sepia image. Suddenly a hand appears and starts to caress her and then even more hands appear until there are 26 hands stroking all sorts of parts of her and when they get near to what is now known in medical circles in the UK as ‘the bonus hole’ the soundtrack, which until now had been mainly sighing and breathing, suddenly became a tad more orgasmic.

Like the other members of the audience I pretended that this was terrifically meaningful film making and that I fully appreciated the fact the hands were ‘activating the flow of Kundalini, the life flow energy in her body’. So It wasn’t soft porn after all.

What a relief.

Another film featured a tattooed woman in fishnet stocking and a gimp mask swinging on a trapeze and pouring what I presume was paint (but it might have been engine oil) over a virgin white canvas below her to create an authentic art work.

This is presumably the sort of thing you do when you flunked art school and aren’t very good at painting landscapes or portraits. As the well worn cliche has it… “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like”. Except that I have this nagging feeling that I might like something more if somebody took the trouble to explain it to me because much of modern art seems like a private joke that we normal mortals just cannot understand.

Take Tracy Emin’s unmade bed (1998) which was shortlisted for a Turner Prize. According to Wikipedia:

The idea for My Bed was inspired by a sexual yet depressive phase in the artist's life when she had remained in bed for four days without eating or drinking anything but alcohol.[2] When she looked at the vile, repulsive mess that had accumulated in her room, she suddenly realised what she had created. Emin ardently defended My Bed against critics who treated it as a farce and claimed that anyone could exhibit an unmade bed. To these claims the artist retorted, "Well, they didn't, did they? No one had ever done that before."[2]

So maybe the cliche should be reworked to read “I don’t know much about art but I know what I don’t like” particularly if not making your bed can be in line for the Turner prize. Incidentally, I went to an exhibition of Turner paintings at the National Portrait Gallery in London some years ago and he didn’t strike me as the sort of bloke who would have submitted an unmade bed to a gallery as an artwork.

The wonderful thing about Riebeek Kasteel and Riebeek West (known collectively as ‘the valley’) is that it’s a very civilised scenic place to live or to spend a few days at a guest house. The locals are friendly and welcoming and there are plenty of good restaurants, wine farms and specialty shops in addition to the long verandah at the Royal Hotel which is the ideal place to sip a large gin and tonic at sunset. Apart from a generous supply of artists the town obviously attracts wealthy people, some retired and others running successful businesses. It exudes contentment, rather as Swellendam exuded contentment until last week.

I can’t recall a time when I have been so despondent about the prospects for this country as when I heard the news of the torching of the municipal building (and watched the videos) and the looting of shops run by foreign nationals. If I were a betting man then Swellendam would have been one of the last places I would have bet on for a violent uprising. But if it can happen there then it can happen anywhere, including Riebeek Kasteel.

As far as I am aware there has been no condemnation from either Pres Frogboiler or the ANC over the criminal acts of arson that took place on August 16th. Which tends to suggest that burning down non ANC municipal buildings is all part of the plan in the run up to the 2024 elections.

Last week there were calls for the 106 people arrested for the violent protest to be released to participate in talks with the municipality. In the words of ANC struggle stalwart Chris Nissen, now the South African Human Rights Commissioner

"We do detect the reluctance from the side of the municipality to really engage meaningfully with the community, but our people are on the ground and engaging the community."

"Come to the party, leave political and personal issues, and egos aside and think about the future, and think about Swellendam, and let us resolve the issues."

I’m not in the least bit surprised that the municipality are reluctant to release the hoodlums that torched the municipal offices but what sort of a signal does Nissen’s ludicrous comment send? That it’s perfectly ok to set fire to municipal offices should you have a small disagreement with the municipality?

That you won’t be prosecuted for such acts? Will this courtesy also be extended to white communities I wonder? I have a few neighbours who aren’t happy about the re-rating of their properties. Nothing that a can of petrol and a box of matches can’t sort out surely? This is sheer madness and it appears to be government sponsored.

When the head of the Human Rights Commission appears to openly support arson and anarchy we must know this country is in very serious trouble indeed. The question is… who’s next? Cry the beloved country.