When Nancy Dantas, liaison officer at Michaelis, invited me to be part of their Speaker Series I readily accepted before even considering the brief in any detail. Further information clarified that I was to talk about a landmark exhibition that I considered to have revolutionised modes of curating, or to be representative of a particular archetype or curatorial moment. As I scoured my mental archive for what that might be, I was determined to not do the obvious and select a District Six Museum-related exhibition. However, after considering a few options, my focus kept returning to the Public Sculpture Project and I had to give in to myself as I recalled what a strong impression it had made on me when I visited it at the time.
The District Six Public Sculpture Project of 1997 was the result of a collaboration between a number of individual artists and organisations of which the District Six Museum was one. Kevin Brand was one of the main movers of this process. I was not involved with the Museum at the time, but visited the site on Heritage Day 1997, and can testify from the perspective of a member of the public, that it was a wonderful experience: rich, evocative, engaging, confusing, challenging and thought-provoking. It has been my pleasure since coming to work at the Museum to engage with the experience in a slightly more analytical way.
This was 1997- two years short of two decades ago: a time when thinking about exhibitions and site curation was much more constrained than it is at present. So when asked to reflect on an exhibition that to my mind was ground-breaking, this immediately sprang to mind.
Having visited this project as a member of the public in 1997, I now view it from the perspective of a Museum is now in its 21st year (it was 3 years old in 1997.) I view it from the perspective of having been part of its practice for more than half of its life, having inherited and been part of growing a grounded methodology of engaging with spaces in inspiring ways. The practice of engaging with the landscape as a site of education, healing, evocation, remembering, creativity and contestation has grown to be at the heart of the Museum’s ever-evolving practice; and the call to engage with the land grows stronger and stronger.
In general, curatorial practices have moved quite a long way from thinking of exhibition spaces as being closed, contained and access controlled (for reasons of security as well as preservation), from climate controlled environments required by works of ‘high’ art. While there is definitely a place for this kind of exhibiting, it is becoming more widely accepted that this is but one way, not the only way of exhibiting.
Here I would like to slip in a vaguely appropriate quote from Tony Bennett in article ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’ as a journal contribution – although he is speaking about a very different time, place and context. He reflects on a time when museums were closed spaces; where access was restricted to those considered to be qualified to enter, and those not deemed suited for the elite activity of viewing exhibits, were denied access. He talks about the ‘fear of the crowd that haunted museum debates for over a century’.
‘It seems unlikely, come the revolution, that it will occur to anyone to storm the British Museum…Yet, in the early days of its history, the fear that it might incite the vengeance of the mob was real enough. In 1780, in the midst of the Gordon Riots, troops were housed in the gardens and building and, in 1848, when the Chartists marched to present the Peoples’ Charter to Parliament, the authorities prepared to defend the museum as vigilantly as if it had been a penitentiary. The museum staff were sworn in as special constables’ fortifications were constructed around the perimeter; a garrison of museum staff, regular troops, and Chelsea pensioners, armed with muskets, pikes, and cutlasses, and with provisions for a three-day siege, occupied the buildings; stones were carried to the roof to be hurled down on the Chartists should they success in breaching the outer defences.’
The image of an armed battalion defending a museum from the masses is an interesting metaphor to work with. It conjured up a dramatic picture in my imagination which led me to thinking about how current museum and exhibitionary practices often continue as exclusionary, bastioned by invisiblearmed battalions from mass engagement. I would like to believe that we are very far from thinking of some people being less qualified than others to engage with exhibitions; although there has been movement, there are still aspects of exhibition visiting which present themselves as exclusive and excluding to many. Our practice needs to catch up with our theories.
So imagine an exhibition that is open not only to the visiting public, but also the unpredictable elements and to opportunistic and self-interested people who see in these site installations potential building materials or potential income from the sale of materials from which the installations have been made. The installation artists really had to be committed to the process, to believe in the value of what they were doing in order to allow their works to disintegrate possibly overnight, possibly over a longer period of time. Artists had to be give up on the desire to want to protect and conserve their work.
The intended ephemerality of the installations was to mirror the fragility of the community’s connection to the land from which they were displaced. One day they were there; the next they were gone. The remnants of the installations were to be the reminders of that uncertainty; their eventual disappearance was to recall the displacement of the community.
In guiding the work, no restrictions were placed on artists except that they needed to be sensitive to the issues around District Six. They were advised to consult extensively: speak to people, engage with the realities of the site, its archive and all its facets. They were cued to expect and even invite engagement with the works- which could mean defacing, dismantling, disagreements alongside the affirmations and appreciations . There was no hierarchy of artists, and there was also no room for disengaged, isolated curators planning works ‘outside of community’. Having recently emerged from a period of struggle typified by solidarity – it might have been an easier notion to promote than it might be now, when exhibitionary and installation work tends to be more individualistic.
The public sculpture worked very cleverly and sensitively with the landscape- its contours and its barrenness. The installations served to enrich and foreground the landscape rather than dominate it.
In ‘The Power of Place’ Dolores Hayden speaks about the power of ‘storytelling with the shape of time’ which emphasises the connectivity between people, spaces, and art (in the case of the Public Sculpture Project):
‘Storytelling with the shapes of time uses the forms of the city, from the curve of an abandoned canal to the sweep of a field of carnations, to connect residents with urban landscape history and foster a stronger sense of belonging. The places of everyday urban life are, by their nature, mundane, ordinary, and constantly reused, and their social and political meanings are often not obvious…. Scale and cost are not the defining elements of a public urban language. Rather, it is shared process leading to shared public meanings that contributes most to an (American) sense of place.’
The decision to permit – even prefer – the works to disintegrate with time and the elements, was also groundbreaking in its time. It must have been hard to quell the urge to protect and nurture, and to conserve the works as a record of the project.
The same impulse is strong in the working methods of the Burning Museum- a Cape Town based art collective which works closely with the ‘ghosts’ of the past in their installations in public spaces. They deliberately challenge silences and excisions, and create works in places fully aware that they might be removed, defaced, tagged, blown away or even scorched by the sun. Purpose is derived from their ephemerality, and the fact that they invite engagements of all kinds from people – from a passing glance to more considered viewing.
The 1997 Festival was intended as the last, large splash on the land before the construction work linked to restitution was to start. The closing date for land claims was 1998, and it was anticipated that building would commence very soon after resulting in a much altered and re-contoured landscape yet again. But, that was not to be. Many delays resulted in the first families only returning in 2004, and even though the third phase has just started, large swathes of land still remain undeveloped.
So, was this an exhibition process made in heaven? I think not! Tony Morphet, one of the commentators of the project writes in the Public Sculpture Project catalogue :
‘Rumours of dissension and disputes among the seventy or so sculptors were reassuring- a dependable sign that there was real energy involved. Some of the donors were said to be cross that their money had found its way into the hands of the ‘wrong’ artists; another good sign of art breaking its way out of the fine meshes of correctness. In fact, the whole thing began to sound distinctly promising.’
He speaks, too, of some of his experiences walking the landscape:
‘Walking began to make a difference. Across the spaces between the structures unusual things began to happen. Usual ones too, of course, like bumping into friends and hearing what they had seen and where they had found them, but the usual ones began with what seemed to be puzzles and mistakes. Were those low shelters at the bottom of the hill part of an installation or were they real squatter shacks? Could they be both? And the pile of rubbish? The kids’ playground looked familiar enough but here was a slide that quite obviously couldn’t work at all- it looked frankly dangerous. What were the pillows doing hoisted up on a pole?
The line between accident and intention has begun to waver a bit.’
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate why I think that this exhibition on the landscape was revolutionary in its time: in its intentions, in its sensitivity to people, the past, the landscape and its future; in its deliberate disconnect from permanent materiality, and its execution of a wonderfully engaging process and event.
I believe this to be an under-recognised and –celebrated event, but one which has lived long and large in the imaginations of those were involved or were there. I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that there is no tangible archive that remains?