Michael MacGarry and End Game
Monday, November 23, 2009
I sent Michael MacGarry a series of questions about winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award.
RS:You have moved from being a relatively obscure artist (in the All Theory, No Practice days) to winning a prestigious award in a short period of time. Obviously you have worked hard, but what was the tipping point?
MM: Not sure what your question is, but I think any notion of success is always understood as being of unequal parts luck and hard work. Perhaps the notion of material change in relation to various creative fields in South Africa can be understood in terms of micro-narratives. In the resistance to the former Apartheid regime – the singularity of purpose (to remove said regime) understandably dominated as the macro-narrative of socio-political critique. Whereas contemporary South African polemics are vastly more insidious and manifold – the processes we, as South Africans, are currently engaged in as a post-colonial society were, to a large extent, predated on the African continent some 40 years ago. The political leaning of my work interrogates the characteristics of political elites in African nation-states post-independence – their power dynamics and the quality of leadership – with a particular focus on the escalating role of resource control and exploitation in this milieu. With regard to the South African context, I'm focused on vigorously questioning and critiquing the processes and consequence of political leadership based on a revolutionary mandate, and what happens after that revolution is realised. Of particular focus is the insidious role of Mercantile Capitalism on the continent – in so much as there has been no industrial revolution, the economies and social structures established under colonial rule, to large extent, are still in place today. These systems have been strategically retained by nations-state political elites to meet the needs of their own vast consumption. There is no bourgeoisie to drive entrepreneurship – and peasants, to a very large extent do not own either their land or their surplus and cannot use either to leverage credit.
RS: In your work with Avant Car Guard you playfully poke fun at the South African art world. Isn't their some sort of conflict between ACG's irony and your growing success as an artist?
MM: I guess, but that same conflict is evident in AVANT CAR GUARD's career too, which makes it simultaneously more difficult to produce and yet infinitely more interesting. I don't feel that AVANT CAR GUARD has very much to do – in a thematic sense – with my own individual work. AVANT CAR GUARD is an artist that has it's own concerns, pressures and joys entirely different from my own, but if you're asking if AVANT CAR GUARD would ever take the fun out of Michael MacGarry – I think we're entering a territory probably more suited to Heidegger, or even Freud than that of the visual arts.
RS: Your recent work has had a very distinctive style and themes. Where do you see your Young Artist Award exhibition going?
MM: For the Standard Bank Young Artist Award exhibition – titled End Game – I am showing a 25 minute film called LHR-JHB. The film is shot in a commercial 10-person liferaft far off the coast of Durban with a cast of 5. The fictional narrative charts the story of the 5 South African males following an unsuccessful journey from London to Johannesburg by commercial airplane. It is an endless, cramped, drifting voyage on a liferaft without destination or resolve. This work is concerned with global norms that have local manifestations, namely the brain-drain adversely affecting South Africa’s progress and development – coupled with problematised notions of whiteness within the historical canon of Colonial and Modernist exploration.
A concurrent theme to LHR-JHB relates to early 20th century exploration and, in turn, to the ridiculous quests of contemporary Western explorers for new places to simply go to, new things to do - never mind explore. Mike Horn on a bodyboard in the Amazon River, Sir Richard Branson endlessly attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon or Sir Ranulph Fiennes simply walking across the Antarctic continent. These endeavours have a tragedy to them vastly different from the loss of life that characterised earlier exploration, usually due to projects that can only be described as rare combinations of stupidity, narcissism and danger. With contemporary 'exploration' there is a total pointlessness of purpose – these men are too late, their projects and ambitions are dated and quite sad. Why are educated Western, white, Anglo-Saxon males still doing these things? The appeal is obviously based, in part, on a nostalgic association with a specific past characterised by larger-than-life heroes and a time of possibility and optimism - the opportunity for 'worlds' to be discovered. Yet the reality today is that these acts of exploration are fundamentally second or even third hand, amply-sponsored narcissistic endeavours to perpetuate the great-man-of-history-template that so characterised the first half of the previous century. In particular the expolits of the Kon-Tiki Expedition, onto Sir Edmund Hillary on Everest and even to the United States landing a man on the moon in 1969. Coupled with this historical quest for status was the threat of danger, diaster and chaos attendant on white, Western males visiting and briefly inhabiting these inhospitable contexts. The enduring penalty for failure of the Western male to conquer these seemingly, wild and chaotic contexts was the threat of mental breakdown closely tied to the breakdown of Western, Anglo-Saxon morals. Literary works such as The Mosquito Coast, Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness detail the consequnces of abandoning Western morality. Namely, choas, mental collapse and ultimately death.
The aegis of exploration is, today, more closely directed towards the individual than ever before – the role and association with individuated Western nation-states with regard to such projects is considerately less than during the Modern period. It is no longer the individual, with nation-state support, cataloging vast tracts of terrain for King or country. Today it is the heavily-sponsored and media-savvy white male motivated by misdirected ego, ambition, nostalgia and boredom. All traits that underwrote previous explorer's endeavours, but the explorers of today are made more vulgar and ridiculous through the absence of the naivety and optimism that characterised those of the Modern period. Today you would think white men would have learnt something from history – that this particular avenue of ego building and money wasting would have ceased. There continues to be endless projects with the singular distinction of achieving nothing, save for allowing white males to endure bizarre hardships for extended periods, and concluding with the act of sticking a flag in the ground somewhere remote. Or rather two flags – one, the mother country and the other, the sponsor.
Further the examination of identity relates closely to the linguistic construction of identity in the culture-brutalised age of globalization – with the modern, commercial airliner a ubiquitous symbol of the obliterating consequences of this globalization. In so much as, if you subscribe to the mechanics (and benefits) of the free market, then invariably you intend to accrue some for yourself. Yet due to increasingly limited resources on this planet this accrual is often at the direct expense of someone else. The co-axial binary of "one man struggles, while another relaxes" is perhaps now the true cry of the sane man. The liferaft resulting from the plane’s crashing becomes a timeless vessel, a placeless state. These men are freed from the specificities of their cultural heritage or any past mistakes, regrets and even successes. There exists the capacity for re-invention. But only up to a point – the characters are in a time warp and nothing makes sense – they are cast adrift from themselves, they struggle to find meaning on a liferaft where the absence of material time becomes a metaphor for an absence of meaning, with meaning in this instance closely linked to the formation of identity. And ultimately, they all die. The benefit of the medium of film is that within the linear narrative one can also introduce a circular one, based on the mechanics of display. Hence, the film is exhibited as a large projected loop – the characters are force to endlessly enact their traumatic crash; their struggle to survive; their slow drowning; the finality of their death – only to be proverbially resurrected once the film loop begins again and to repeat the torture forever. Reminiscent of the plight of Prometheus, these 5 males are condemned to a limbo – a frozen cycle of redemption, failure and punishment.
This film will be coupled with the display of several key props from the film as well as a large sculptural work; several smaller, individual sculptural works; and large-scale drawings.
RS: Your profile is getting seriously ramped up by this award. Where do you plan on doing after the show?
MM: There are three filmic artworks I currently have in a pre-production stage at the moment that will collectively and individually form the focus of my work in 2011.