“A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world. A vacant white room with lights is still a submission to the neutral. … The function of the warden-curator is to separate art from the rest of society. Next comes integration. Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by society. All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise.”
- Robert Smithson, “Cultural Confinement” (1972)
On November 5, 1999, twenty-three year old South African artist Robin Rhode walked into his birth nation’s National Gallery to perform a work called Leak for an evening of live pieces and complimentary Péche Royale cocktails, designed, according to the show’s press release, to “draw a non-gallery audience into the sometimes staid gallery spaces for a dazzling art manifestation and party.” As his segment began, he walked up to a blank, white wall in the space and started drawing a urinal with charcoal, signing “R. Moet” along the edge of his outline [Figure 1]. After completing the quick sketch, he unzipped the fly of his pants and began urinating on the drawing. Within a few moments the performance was over.
Viewing the piece in art historical terms, Rhode’s reference points are clear, simultaneously channeling Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain and David Hammons’ Pissed Off, in which the artist urinated on the base of Richard Serra’s monumental T.W.U. in downtown Manhattan in 1981. Rhode’s decision to draw Duchamp’s urinal is deeply ironic, a position only enhanced by his use of Hammons, for, as with the former’s work (and, in a sense, the latter’s), the components of his performance are literally readymade, ideas plucked wholesale from an art historical timeline, combined and constructed before the eyes of an audience.
Leak, however, amounts to more than a simple recycling of the aesthetic and philosophical games of the historical avant-garde and its most recent practitioners, a fact that may have been clearer to those non-specialist members of the audience supposedly lured to the art gallery in the promise of a Friday night party. Moving beyond a strictly formal and historical analysis to more tangential (though not unrelated) issues, one is forced to make sense of the site, the parameters, and the documentation of the action, the precise facts that separate the work from its inspirations.
Rhode’s decisions to scrawl “R. Moet” in place of Duchamp’s infamous pseudonym “R. Mutt” seems to be the most immediately curious aspect of the piece. Translating the term into Afrikaans, the language utilized and endorsed by South Africa’s apartheid regime, it is an act of shifting which draws out the multiple meanings of “mutt”, alluding to South Africa’s troubled history of racism. While Rhode’s urination could be read as antimodern repudiation of the high art pretension many feel was inaugurated and advanced by Duchamp in the first half of the twentieth century and furthered by Hammons, it seems just as much (and perhaps more) an attack on the historical legacy and societal impact of the apartheid regime.
Urinating on this iconic symbol of modern Western culture, critic Paul Schmelzer has argued, is roughly congruent to “the male act of marking territory” and “sends a clear message to the art world: the museum, like the claimed turf of the graffiti writer, is ours.” In other words, the action amounts to more than an attempt to destroy or desecrate the sacred, bourgeois, normalizing space of the museum, it attempts to capture and control it.
The term R. Moet signifies in even another sense, as well, no doubt reminding many views of the Moët & Chandon champagne brand. South Africa is the world’s seventh largest wine producer (though its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita ranks dangerously low at seventy-fourth in the world) and has an extremely troubled history with alcohol that dates back centuries as it was common practice for colonial winemakers – beginning with the Dutch, who first planted grape vines around the start of the seventeenth century – to employ workers in exchange for bottles of wine. The system continues to affect the society, which has one of the highest rates of alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome of any nation in the world. Indeed, one recent study suggested that as many as seventy percent of all hospital visits for both accidents and health issues in South Africa may be alcohol related.
For those patrons visiting the South African National Gallery that night – many of the youngest generation that may not be deeply aware of the long history of exploitation within the wine industry – it may help to jog their memory. In these twin senses – in his attack not only on the confines of the institutional space but also in his reference to South African society, his action is reminiscent of another great critic of South African oppression, Polish artist Krystof Wodiczko, who famously projected a gigantic swastika onto the pediment of London’s South Africa House in Trafalgar Square in 1985.
Like Wodiczko, much of Rhodes work (at least from the late 1990s and early 2000s) is intimately bound with its site. In 2000’s Getaway, for example, he staged, through drawing and performance, an escape from the former Slave Lodge of the Dutch East India Company (Figure 2). In 2000, in another audacious piece, he installed a chalk bench on the edge of South Africa’s House of Parliament and waited to be carted off to jail for vandalism. Rhode has chosen the location for Leak with similar care. The South African National Gallery was opened in 1930, seven years following the passage of the Native Urban Areas Act, which was designed to severely limit and regulate the mobility of South African blacks. Not surprisingly, the work of this (majority) portion of the population was denied entrance to the society’s cultural forum. Even today, the web site for the National Gallery boasts:
The permanent collection contains particularly fine examples of British art and many leading artists of the early 20th century are represented, including members of the New English Art Club and those of the Bloomsbury Group.
While the museum has made a concerted effort since the start of the 1990s and the collapse of the Afrikaner regime (and the apartheid it enforced) to collect more contemporary South African art, the process of acquiring work ignored over the past fifty years, like the larger, ongoing mission of healing the nation’s longstanding racial strife, has just begun.
Defacing the walls of the gallery, first with charcoal, then with urine, Rhodes suggests that these projects to correct and reevaluate may be futile – or worse - pointless. The fellow artists of his generation, who grew up in the final days of apartheid, are content working and displaying outside the traditional confines of the art system. In fact, they can thrive beyond its walls, as Leak, in fact, has done.
Nearly five years following his performance at the South African National Gallery, Rhode again unveiled Leak, this time at the Home Gallery in Prague, Czechoslovakia as part of a larger piece entitled Things You Don’t Know 2. After again urinating on his own détourned Duchamp, he proceeded to draw a series of cars stuck in a traffic jam on the wall and attempted to push them forward, eventually conceding that they were stuck, giving up, and concluding the performance. This time, it’s important to note, the urinal, upright on the wall, remained unsigned, lacking Rhode’s earlier play on the notorious R. Mutt. Its political specificity muted, Leak could suddenly operate in any space, arriving to assault the sensibilities of any given institutional structure before being sanitized and covered with a fresh coat of white paint. At the same time, though, there remains a distinctly political element in his work. Performing the piece in European galleries, he reverses the flow of economic colonialism begun by Europe over three centuries earlier, literally importing his piece (and bodily functions) into their space of cultural reflection. He reconfigures the space as a site of desecration. Invited into the gallery as a temporary guest – the latest form of exotica: the young, urban, African artist – he simultaneously claims it as his own.
Leak, then, operates as something of a transitional piece in his oeuvre, bridging his shift from largely political work performed and documented strictly in situ to his more recent work that has more immediately addressed issues of subcultural aesthetics and (attempted to explore and reject their) their cooption within spectacular culture. Politics is present throughout but recedes in the wake of other issues.
Rhode’s work is regularly discussed within a discursive framework concerned with subcultural practices and codes. Critics note his penchant for images of skateboarding and street basketball, and his use of graffiti, describing him alternately as a “b-boy”, a “hip-hopper”, a “street artist”, or a member of any number of other supposed categories of people that inhabit urban zones in the twenty-first century, tags that run the spectrum from curiously inaccurate to poignantly incorrect. Indeed, when granted a faithful reading, Rhode’s formal decisions lack the telltale codes so intimately associated with subculture. Using Rosalind Krauss’s classic examples of subcultural activities as a guide – “[g]rafitti artists … recoding the balloonlike lettering of Disney comics into giganticesque and magic writing of their names”, say, or the “archaic and brutalized comic styles” of “1970s comic book aficionados” – his work is positively straightforward, mainstream, egalitarian.
Unlike so many other performance artists, for example Joseph Beuys, Rhodes leaves no relics of his performances. When they are documented at all, it is through videos or photographs, sometimes produced only by members of the audience. In recent years, with his shift to actions that deemphasize location, foregrounding autonomous action, he has begun more carefully recording his work, even going so far as to produce sets of photographs and stop-motion videos produced from them. Grasping hold of the camera and positioning it to capture himself, he regains control of the apparatus that has for so long been associated with categorization, classification, and capture. Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography that:
To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.
Rhode’s photographic self-portraits and time-lapse works of others fight to reject Sontag’s thesis. The actors engage in pure, free play. Far from “seeing them as they never see themselves,” the viewer is forced to confront exactly the image that the subject chooses to present, often one of unrestrained pleasure beyond the remote possibility of symbolic possession.
In the end, the chalk is always erased, the performance concluded, the work effectively brought to a close. In these pieces photographed on the streets of Cape Town and elsewhere (the location is never certain), one is left only with photographs and videos, a mass proliferation of images. The work itself, however, has vanished. In this sense, then, Rhode’s series of images function as non-sites that, according to Robert Smithson, “function as a map that tells you where the fringes are.” These non-sites, raw documentation of a performance that has occurred point outwards, not only to the site of a work of art but the space it inhabits: the streets, not the gallery. Indeed, the firm boundaries of the commercial space are underlined in these photographs, making the viewer eminently aware that, standing within a gallery, she is separated from the scene depicted. As Smithson notes, “It’s rare that anybody will visit these fringes.” Authenticity will escape even the most astute collector.
Abandoning the political clarity that characterized his earliest work, Rhode initiates a markedly more subversive project. Creating performances that depend not on site but solely on action, rendering only traces of his uncommodifiable works available in fully choreographed photographs and videos, he assembles a series of images that point elsewhere, to someplace ostensibly more real. Paradoxically, these images also point nowhere; their signifieds have been destroyed. They become commercial products, advertisements for artworks that have already been superceded.
It is particularly fitting, then, that, in looking for a way to market its new skateboard shoes, a subcultural field that it has found uniquely difficult to penetrate, that the Nike Corporation decided to purloin Rhode’s entire aesthetic (Figures 3 and 4). But even in this age of remarkably sophisticated advertising, Nike misses the point, taking his brilliant (and beautiful) formal innovations as a system of subcultural communication, reconfiguring it to sell shoes. Rhode’s art almost always ends with a smile from subject and viewer, a shared moment of connection whether inside or outside of the gallery. In place of Rhode’s pure joy, Nike inserts only a smirk on the face of the skateboarder, who, after completing the jump that blurs together the horizontal with the vertical, eliding them in a single video act, emerges standing up straight, facing the camera. “That was easy,” he seems to say, ready to venture off and discover the next art young artist to discover, explore, and finally exploit.
Over the past five years Rhode has become something of a wunderkind in the art world, signing up with Perry Rubenstein in Chelsea, showing alongside some of today’s best (or at least hippest) contemporary artists, and being purchased by and ushered into some of the best art collections in the United States and around the world. As is often the case for many artists who found their way through the medium of institutional critique, Rhode’s commercial success has engendered criticism from some corners. New York Times critic Roberta Smith, for example, writes,
“Mr. Rhode’s deft do-it-yourself art uses the barest means to comment on the joys and perils of urban poverty. A problem is that its very lightness and modesty seem undermined by the expensive equipment used for its presentation, starting with the sleek screens and the posh white walls on which they hang.”
This is too bizarre an opinion to leave unchallenged. First, it begs the question: what exactly are the joys of urban poverty? If any are present in the Rhode’s work – if they do exist – it is certainly difficult to find them. His work, after all, is not documentary; it is quite the opposite. Using the sites of urban poverty – the walls of abandoned factories, dilapidated streets, and playgrounds – he constructs works of pure fantasy and, in a minor sense, escape. Joy is experienced through self-actualization.
Secondarily (and perhaps more legitimately), Ms. Smith raises the classic question of all contemporary avant-garde art that would seek to situate itself within a postmodernism of resistance. In breaking away from the site-based (and largely undocumented) performance work of his early careers, passing through the rupture for which Leak typifies, Rhode inevitably enters the realm of commerce. Patrons can purchase his work and, with his newfound fame, Nike can become aware of him and steal his aesthetic judgment. In some sense, Ms. Smith seems to be leveling the most basic criticism: the artist is embracing commodification and turning his or her back on an art of social change.
I would argue the exact opposite. If there is any great lesson of twentieth century radicalism, it is that all such utopian movements inevitably fail. “[T]he Enlightenment-triumph of Conceptual Art – its transformation of audiences and distribution, its abolition of object status and commodity form – would most of all only be shortlived,” Benjamin Buchloh has famously observed of the movement that seems most closely linked to Rhode’s earliest work. Some level of commercialism is necessary to survive as an artist in Western culture, and it is ridiculous to believe that the artist should somehow live outside the boundaries of capitalism.
Attempting to historicize the break from modernity, Raymond Williams once wrote, “The isolated, estranged images of alienation and loss,” the foundation of modernity and so much political art, “… have become the easy iconography of commercials.” In other words, modernity (no matter which one chooses to isolate and define) inevitably plays over into consumerism and commerce. In order to break away from this tension, Williams called for “… the creation of a modern future in which community may be imagined again,” a reality that Rhode’s work seems to actively attempt to create.
Viewing 2005’s Stone Flag (Figure 5), for example, a work from a series of decidedly non-political (at least explicitly) pieces, it would be tempting to read a flag of surrender à la Smith. On the contrary, he seems to be wielding the flag like a weapon. In his newest work – of which Stone Flag is an example – Rhode constructs an image world that can no longer be defined (and confined) by identity politics (or politics of any kind). Wearing all white, Rhode becomes a blank space onto which the viewer can graft her own identity, rehearsing her own self-realization through art – and action. Every site, he seems to argue – revising the earlier specificity with which he treated space – is a potential site of resistance.