The 'bench' that played tricks with my mind

26 September 2017 - 08:10
KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN Inside the extraordinary cathedral that is the Zeitz Museum of Art Africa
KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN Inside the extraordinary cathedral that is the Zeitz Museum of Art Africa
Image: Esa Alexander

I don't know anything about modern art. I don't even know if it's still called "modern". Did modernity end in the 1980s, the way to the Future (the one with jetpacks and flying cars) ended in the 1970s? I don't know.

In fact, all I knew, as I walked into the extraordinary cathedral that is the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, was that I should keep my eyes open and my mouth shut.

Which was difficult, given that my mouth wanted to gape open every time I looked up. Imagine a vast termite mound ripped open by a fantastically tasteful and obsessively clean aardvark and you have some sense of the MOCAA's layout.

As for the art, let me simply urge you to go and see it. It feels meaty and superficial and rewarding and frustrating, and something will burrow into your animal brain and make you think pleasing thoughts. But that's all I'll say because I think that, for the most part, the art world is a private guild whose members speak to one another in their own language, and it's a bit rude to gatecrash, demand that they translate everything for your benefit, and then pass judgment on objects they made for one another. Still, I must confess that I found my brain firing on cylinders I didn't know it had.

For example, in one of the first rooms I came across an intriguing installation in the middle of an otherwise empty floor.

It was boxy and made of wood laminate, and, if you approached it from the right angle, it looked like a grey and austere bench.

I stalked it, circling around it one way and then the other. Nothing. I was adrift. And then I glanced up and realised that the "bench" had been placed squarely, almost brazenly, in front of a wall on which hung a large photograph. The penny dropped. This was no lone artwork, standing isolated in a sea of space. Rather, it was the instigator of a conversation. By placing the piece here, a dialogue had been initiated between an imagined consumer of art sitting on the idealised "bench" and the conventionally mounted photograph.

I smiled, delighted by its subversive playfulness. The traditional owners of the gaze - money, art criticism, the patriarchy - were being referenced, but all were simultaneously being deflated, reduced to nothing but a block of grey wood; a passive lump capable of nothing more than supporting the buttocks of weary passers-by.

Nobody else, however, was smiling; and it occurred to me I might have got it entirely wrong. I did another lap around the piece, trying to strip away the last of my preconceptions and to let the object speak directly to me. Perhaps, I conceded, I had projected my own rather frivolous personality onto it.

It hit me like a sledgehammer between the eyes.

Laughter would not save me. Rather, it condemned me further: the fact that I had opted for an easy explanation proved the piece's point. Because this was no display of lightweight wit. Instead, it was a brutal, brilliant satire of the passive nature of art consumption.

By placing the "bench" in the middle of the room, far from the walls, the piece was opening up the yawning void between the artist and the bovine herd that demands a bench to sit on; that refuses to do that work of standing up close and opening its eyes and mind; that demands easy answers to stupid questions and bays for the artist to perform a pantomime of creation.

I tried to protest. "But I'm not sitting!" I pleaded. "I'm walking!" But I knew the truth. I was only circling the piece because I was vain. I didn't want to understand the art: I just wanted to stop feeling stupid. And the piece knew that, and was mocking me. "See the bourgeois little visitor dance around me!" it laughed. "See his desperate search for narrative and the crude aesthetics of decoration! I will make him trudge in circles like the ass he is!"

And then somebody sat on the piece, because it really was just a bench.

Go and see the art. The bench is good, too.