Johannesburg Art Gallery – Seven Images

JAG – the Johannesburg Art Gallery – is, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a once-grand edifice, marooned like an old freighter on the manic reef of downtown Johannesburg. You enter (for free) through a turnstile, and as you do so, the last survivor of the shipwreck emerges from the wheelhouse beside the door, looks you over disinterestedly, and disappears again. The exhibition spaces are as vast and silent as empty cargo holds, the skylights and light fittings, rails and tubing, all that is left of a once-thrumming engine.

The miracle is that it keeps going at all – JAG, that is – and as we wander its halls, alone, others silently enter, and wander by, and exit again. Will they return? Will we? Or will JAG crumble, finally, into the crumbling city?

Here are seven images.

Tuinhuys, in Black and White

Tuinhuys (the Garden House) is the Cape Town office of the Presidency, a lovely piece of architecture with a history that goes back, as everything does in South Africa, to slavery and colonialism. It was from here that FW de Klerk declared the end of apartheid; it was from here that Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe and – catastrophically – Jacob Zuma steered the ship of state, in JZ’s case pretty much onto the rocks.

In this image, I have chosen to show, not just the graciousness and grace of the structure, but something of what it means in the South African context – appropriately, I would suggest, in black and white.


Reflections on Tillmans

The work of Wolfgang Tillmans, a German photographer, seems perfectly housed in the downtown, chaotic, teeming environment in which the Johannesburg Art Gallery has washed up, like a shipwreck on the beach after Fukushima, faintly radioactive.

Much of Tillman’s art is seemingly artless – and sometimes, in his work, to my eye at least, art less means without art. Yet there are images, too, in his world of found objects, circumstance, accident, composition and observation, that are interesting, unsettling, and occasionally quite powerful.

These half-dozen images are images of Tillman’s images, but also reflections.


Sea Washing

On the north side of the quay, just across the way from the Cape Grace Hotel, is the Victoria Basin, and a dry-dock where Taiwanese trawlers come to have their paintwork and their bodywork done – like elderly ladies at a beauty parlour. It is a study in contrasts.

A contrast I like even more, is this image of seaman’s washing, hanging on the rigging of one of the trawlers to dry, with the Zeitz-MOCAA – the Museum of Contemporary African Art – in the background.

Think of it as an outdoor installation. I call it, if you’ll go with the play on words, ‘Sea Washing.’

Sea washing, before the Zeitz-MOCAA

Various Moments

At the Bryanston Organic Market, these bees seemed to take seriously the organic, back-to nature meme, crawling all over the sticky cakes; in the Company Gardens in Cape Town, a seagull taking flight unsettled the classical stillness and calm of the lily pond and fountain; Rob at the Tuinhuys gates (the Tuinhuys is the official residence of the President, alongside Parliament) Rob broke the formal silhouette; down at the V&A Waterfront, where we emerged after High Tea, a rope snaked and coiled its way across the plain verticals and diagonals of the Victoria Basin.

Life doing what life does – forming a pattern, and breaking it.

Tea with Mother

I mentioned in a previous post (July 13) that Rob and I, on our trip to Cape Town, had treated my mom to High Tea at the Cape Grace Hotel, at the V&A Waterfront. Here are some photos from that rather yummy and elegant and leisurely ceremony.


I like these photos for capturing a golden afternoon with Rob and my mother. But it is the black and white image below, reflected in a mirror, that I like more – a pause for reflection, by a sixty-four year old son, a moment of quiet observation and affection.

Lucky boy, I think to myself.

Mom and Rob at the Cape Grace

Turbine Hall Art Fair

We have been up and down the country, out and about, these past few weeks – Joburg and Cape Town, art fairs and high teas – so time for a little catch up.

On Sunday last week we were at the Turbine Hall Art Fair in downtown Johannesburg. Last year, you might remember, we saw the amazing psychedelic beaded Casspir, an armoured riot control vehicle from the apartheid days, decked out in peace signs and in brilliant colours. ¬†Everything about the event – the cool venue, the ceramics, the prints, the paintings and sculptures, the whole vibe of the place – rocked our boat, so this year when it showed up again on the calendar, we were booked in a flash (thanks Rob ūüôā )

We weren’t quite as taken, this year, with the overall quality of the show, though the Irma Sterns as always were gorgeous – thickly painted, sinuous, vital – and there were some ceramics we could have sold our house for. We looked at a lovely print of a pine tree – finely hatched crosslines, beautifully detailed – but found ourselves going back (thanks Rob, again) to a series of reductive linocuts by Prince Albert artist Joshua Miles.

From a distance, the prints look like hand-coloured photographs, but up close, you see the detailed work of the artist-printmaker. One print, in particular – ‘The Square Dam’ – we thought was both lovely in itself, and quintessentially South African, and so we bought it.

Here it is, being lifted down from its place in the exhibit.

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Impotence and Gasworks

My wife said, on reading my Last Post, ‘It looks like you’re telling the whole world you’re impotent. And you’re not.’

Bless her. Impartial, naturally, and blunt (Polish Catholic American Canadian), I have to agree with her. There is no impotence here. Impotence is absent. But let me tell you what there’s lots of – as I crest the hill of 65, and open my lungs and breathe deeply – there’s Gasworks. In one end, and out the other, oh yeah baby – the machinery might be starting to creak, at sixty five, but the gasworks is just getting started. Just firing up, so to speak.

You lose some things, you discover others.

Two guest rooms and a washer

Reflecting on the indignities and rewards of middle age, the American author David Sedaris (I got this from the FT) writes, ‘Yes, the washer on my penis has worn out, leaving me to dribble urine long after I’ve zipped my trousers back up. But I have two guest rooms.’ And I think, as 65 peers with hilarious malice through the window, ‘How nice to be middle-aged. Won’t be seeing that again.’¬†Time, it turns out, is a movie you can’t see twice, a book that is always and only in it’s first, tumultuous, embarrassing draft. A book, moreover, where you don’t write the ending, the ending writes you.

Our ending has many parts, and one of the parts – one of the list of parts, is the parts that don’t work. My hip, for instance, the left one, is like a rusted car jack: it winces and protests when I crank the handle and won’t fully rise up. And the body on top, the inert mass that the jack is supposed to lift – a ’53 model, rusted, much used, not exactly well maintained – looks like it would be right at home in Old Havana, though without the pretty girls up front.

There is a certain sang froid, however, that comes with age. Maybe it is whistling past the cemetery but, at almost-65, I have the confidence these days to say what I think, do what I want, remain impressively calm under all sorts of pressure. The reason is simple: I no longer care. There’s no-one left to impress, no greasy pole left to climb. Confidence should not be confused with performance, however. Ask Donald Trump. The lesson of almost-65 is that performance is no longer something you can expect, though it is something to be grateful for. How can you expect – how can you be expected – to perform, when your equipment these days is so much less reliable than before, puts out so much less horsepower, is more so much more inclined to break down – with wry apologies – than to lift you up?

Mind you, these days I carry it off better than before – failure, I mean. Just think, for a moment, of the meaning of that phrase – wry apology. That is not a young man’s phrase. A young man with my spectacular failures to perform would be wracked or peppered with shame, as with a rash or pimples, but the almost-65 year old man draws back, with a smile, a dry little laugh. ‘It’s nothing,’ he is saying. ‘It happens all the time.’ By which he infers, though he does not mean to commit, ‘there’s always a next time.’¬†Until of course there isn’t.

So sang froid,¬†at age 65, is helpful: helpful because necessary. Necessary, because you¬†don’t have a washer either, in that place, and you have one guest room, not two. But I’m doing okay, of that I am confident. No apologies there.

Enjoy the pictures.