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06 march 2006

Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2006 02:07:30 -0800 (PST)
From: "Mario Pissarro
Subject: Mario Pissarro, response to Ed Young
To: social-engagement@googlegroups.com

Beyond irony: a response to Ed Young

Ed, I was surprised that you felt the sting of my criticism of “Bruce Gordon”. Surprised because my piece was, as far as I’m aware, the first “negative’ criticism of a work that was for the most part well received by the local art media as reflected in positive reviews in Art South Africa (written by what you term an “older critic”, by the way!) and Artthrob, and also reflected in your inclusion in books by Emma Bedford and Sophie Perryer, two important gatekeepers in the contemporary art scenario. It is interesting to me that while you take issue with me (and to a lesser extent Zachary Yorke) for daring to go against the adulatory trend, you take for granted the mass of affirmation from the ‘big fish’.

My second point is that work that critiques power by resorting to the same strategies (e.g. using ‘shallowness’ to critique ‘shallowness’) risks being read as complicit in that shallowness, rather than as any substantial critique, or alternative. In my view the latter is particularly critical. Works such as “Do Nothing” can only be interesting (entertaining?) up to a point. At some stage you may find it necessary to “do more than nothing”, i.e. “do something”!

Thirdly, and to get back to Bruce Gordon, my critique was not intended solely at you as the artist, but at what I saw as the incestuous, self-validating ‘community’ that was inadvertently made visible by your work. Apart from yourself as artist, there was Andrew Lamprecht (collaborator/ curator), Suzy Bell (purchaser and donor of said work), Ivor Powell (independent, validating critic) as well as local institutions such as the Michaelis Art School; the Bell Roberts Gallery (a de facto conduit for Michaelis graduates to enter the contemporary art market, courtesy a cosy partnership with Lamprecht the lecturer/ curator); the (desperately trendy) South African National Gallery, and not least Bruce Gordon himself. . I do think its total nonsense to keep referring to Bruce Gordon as a “bar-owner” as if he has the same currency in the art world as your ‘average’ bar-owner. Gordon has been an entrepreneur since at least the 1980s and his projects, whether it was as manager of Amampondo; T-Shirt producer; or bar-owner; have always had some relationship to the art world. His bar targets an art clientele, he is married to one of the most influential people in the art world (which no commentators, as far as I’m aware, appear to think is relevant), and he is in fact, apart from being, courtesy your project, a collected artwork, a collector of art (very white art, it must be said, judging from his regular adverts in Art South Africa). So when I speak of shameless self-promotion I do not only refer to you, but also to Bell (a publicist, in case we forget) and not least Gordon himself. To me “Bruce Gordon” represented a bunch of cronies belching in the shadows of slavery, and the racial dimensions of this were difficult to avoid (and hence the relevance of this work within the context of the article I wrote). I do not, to return to my second point, believe that you exposed this network as a complacent, cliquey community, insensitive to how the staged auction of someone would in all likelihood be perceived by the broader community. Rather I believe that this environment simply provided you a validating frame to indulge your ‘idea’.

I also wish to briefly respond to your complaint that young artists are burdened by ‘older critics’ with wearisome topics such as the historical context. Personally I fail to see how we can ignore our ‘past’ especially when its legacy is writ into our present (and future). I also think that if you want to ditch history from the frame, then you should be consistent and reject it in every form- you , even when it is used to provide an art historical context to validate your work. You can’t have it both ways.

In conclusion, and I say this with sincerity, I am encouraged that you take the art world as subject, and that you do not consider it a neutral zone. I would urge you to rethink some of your methods- irony does have its uses, particularly in repressive environments, but irony also its limitations by failing to articulate viable alternatives to that which is made fun of. I will certainly look out for any new developments in your art.