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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fuck me this guy is dull

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fuck me a real interview would have had some real answers. yawn

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

copy paste from a university thing. such correct views!!

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting (in a boring sort of way), but when can we talk about art?

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anons 6:12 and 10:58 are spot-on: these kinds of artists are getting kudos for manifesting fashionable views in some (often any) tangible form, and spend more time talking up their thought processes than engaging with issues of form.

Whenever I hear artists talking about politics and/or philosophy, I wonder what real politocal scientists and philosophers think. Like, if I had a few half-baked ideas about nanosurgery and started to make work about that, wouldn't I be the laughing stock?

Sometimes artists are given too much latitude to pontificate on issues they have no real qualification to talk about, and to 'explore notions of______' (insert fashionable concern of your choice here).

A very cynical view, I realize, but one which i think SA will have to deal with if we are ever to truly compete on the world stage, not just be included because we represent 'difference'.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 12:07 ... are you seriously suggesting that artists should only be concerned with 'issues of form'?

If everyone needed 'real qualification' to discuss relevant issues than the world would be a mindnumbingly boring place.

And your pontification on this site would not exist.

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think he's raising a kind of plea for a less sickeningly politically correct ideologically centred practise to be given back its place of value in establishment art. The stuff that gets recognised has this straitjacket: it must be work that espouses socially appropriate politically relevant sophisticated leftist CONTENT. first and foremost. Otherwise forget it.

Its like an insidious undercurrent... reminds of the way the russians insisted prokofiev must make music that promotes the cause of the revolution. I think it was prokofiev.

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

who decides who the winner is?

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 5:41 PM: of course I'm not suggesting that form must take precedence over content. Quality art generally reveals a healthy symbiosis and constant interplay of form and content.

What I think we are seeing in SA art is the overwhelming triumph of content (and as anon 8.39 puts it 'socially appropriate politically correct...' content) over almost any formal rigour and sense of advancing the language of art. Our photographers are formally conservative (would you really take Pieter Hugo and Guy Tillim over Andreas Gursky or Wolfgang Tillmans?), our painters are really not terribly exciting (I saw the Virginia MacKenny show at David Krut recently: anachronistic at best), and I'm not sure many of our conceptual practice artists are contributing much more than totems of difference designed to represent the Periphery on international mega-shows.

To a large extent, 8.39, the insidious undercurrent you mention has almost entirely dictated the patterns of corporate and state collecting over the last ten to fifteen years, with the result that large collections, such as SABC, MTN, Constitutional Court etc are seldom more than a series of mealy-mouthed platitudes designed to reflect the most superficial level of the binary politics of the day. Obviously there are exceptions, but despairingly few.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Vince Condesini said...

As this was an interview, it was clearly going to happen in the form of words. So yes, no form visible in the interview, Duh. Ask any reasonably well-read artist to talk about their work, and it would sound similar, unless they were trying to dumb it down for a popular audience, which artheat is not. And when it comes to form, McGarry is very good at it indeed, and performs in that arena with a level of visual literacy entirely commensurate with this verbal understanding. This is not something many artists achieve.

Also about the question of what "real" philosophers think, they read exactly the same theory as McGarry, and they may or may not understand it astutely. I attended a workshop on JM Coetzee recently presented by a philosophy professor and she was a total fool, so "real" philosophy is no safeguard of intelligence. McGarry's understanding certainly is a whole lot smarter than hers was.

Also, I really don't get why being well-read should mean one is "merely fashionable" or "stultified". Does this imply that there is a kind of warm, real originality embodied in being uninformed and conservative? Like we need ignorance as part of our comforting individuality, like every small-town bigot and member of the National Rifle Association of America?

It clearly hasn't occured to some people that artists since time immemorial have actually been rather cultured people, acquainted with the radical ideas of their era. Surprise surprise.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh! So to be legitimate one must by definition not only be acquainted with progressive radical ideas but must also ESPOUSE those ideas and use ones art as a propaganda tool for those ideas? And some artists do not necessarily subscribe to the picture perfect political correctness of the leftwing academics and politicians of their time and they make just as good, if not better art. The adolescent nature of the whole scene is revealed in the way anyone who responds with revulsion at verbose pompous meticulously correct views is immediately associated with the National Rifle Association of America or the Nazis or the Apartheid regime.
Also, the way disagreement or dissent is equated with ignorance is pretty patronising.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Cheese & Tomato said...

Anonymous 12:03 – man you've never made anything of value in your short life, because losers like you have to get all angry and green at people who actually are. Why don't you just shut the fuck up and quietly get on with your own 'just as good, if not better art' that no one cares about? Stop jerking off to your own lame shit, not everyone wants to be a crap painter with reactionary views. That's 'views' and not intelligence, observation or original thought. Blogs are based solely on 'views' why don't you put your sad little paintbrush down and start a home for your dated opinions – make your own blog Sadcunt. Then go ask your mom to make you a sandwich because, by God, Sadcunt did something today.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cheese and Tomato, this is anon 9.07 here: not that 12.03 needs me to rush to his/her defence, but you pretty much prove his/her point with your fucking blind stupidity. Seriously.

Shall i give you a brief contemporary art history lesson about artists who use paint in strong, contemporary and aesthetically significant ways? Let's confine it to the last twenty years, shall we, just so we don't get you too confused with with all this pesky detail? Tuymans, Richter, Richter, Doig, Koons, Oehlen, (you'll notice I'm not including Dumas here), Chris Wool, Sasnal, the late great Michel Majerus, the late even greater Kippenberger, Marcus Harvey, maybe even Jenny Saville if you tastes run to that sort of shtick... Or are all of these also just sad c***s? Maybe, just maybe (?) there are a couple of people there who know a bit more than you? I'm just saying...

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vince... No form in the interview you say? ...nevermind.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At anonymous 3.45
Oh dear, do you think those painters you mention are in the same ideological camp as you? bwahaha, that's hilarious.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this interview sucks. liked his work more before he opened his mouth about it. now its all just illustrations of textbook theories - a formalism of the mind that is actually much more dangerous than greenberg's legacy. grow a pair mr mcgarry.

9:50 AM  

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