The Trauma of Conceptualism for South African Art

By Sey, James Alexander | Critical Arts, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Trauma of Conceptualism for South African Art


Sey, James Alexander, Critical Arts


Abstract

In this article I argue that the history of South African art after apartheid depends on a conceptual armature that privileges a certain relationship, or intimacy, with the experience of othering, because of the long history of apartheid and colonialism to which the country was subjected. I discuss the ways in which these histories and epistemological terms resonate with and change the particular history of contemporary South African art. In particular, I present a case for a re-viewing of recent South African art history, in the context of the idea that much of the meaning and impact of conceptual art has been supplanted by the impact and function of terrorism in contemporary society, which affected South Africa directly in the last years of apartheid. I argue for a general case of terrorism replacing the normal function of conceptualism in art--that of aesthetic destabilisation or defamiliarisation. Further, I posit that in the case of South African art this is complicated by the country's position as a postcolony, and therefore it is in an agonistic relationship to perceived imperialist versions of art history. In particular, I question the idea of a contemporary South African postcolonial subjectivity, framed in terms of both an opposition to its position of otherness vis-a-vis the Western arthistorical paradigm, and in terms of its position as part of the mythology of a newly created nation-state.

My argument proceeds from a general definition of the function of the experience of trauma in modernity, if modernity is seen as a constant negotiation between the shock of the new (trauma), and the organisation and regulation endemic to industrial urban societies. Trauma is considered as a constituent condition of modernity, in that much contemporary experience is either literally traumatic, in the sense of being psychically shocking or physically violatory; or symbolically traumatic, through the senses being overloaded with largely representational input. This key element of trauma is analysed in the context of the changing response of art to its influence, especially after the institution of the so-called 'conceptual turn' of the early 20th century, in the predominantly European avant-garde art movements such as Surrealism, Futurism and Dada, before the argument turns to its main contention--that trauma itself, in the form of terror, has replaced the aesthetic function of conceptual art, and that such a function, of aesthetic defamiliarisation and cultural destabilisation, needs to be re-thought in terms of its function in the postcolonial art-historical discourse of post-apartheid South Africa.

Keywords: art, avant-garde, conceptualism, contingency, Otherness, post-apartheid, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, terrorism, trauma

Introduction

In this article, I pose a primary argument that the history of South African art after apartheid depends on a conceptual armature which privileges a certain relationship, or intimacy, with the experience of othering, because of the long history of apartheid and colonialism to which the country was subject. I discuss ways in which these histories and epistemological terms resonate with and change the specific history of contemporary South African art. In particular, I propose a case for a re-viewing of recent South African art history in the context of the idea that much of the meaning and impact of conceptual art has been supplanted by the impact and function of terrorism in contemporary society, which of course affected South Africa directly in the last years of apartheid. I thus posit a general case for terrorism replacing the normal function of conceptualism in art--that of aesthetic destabilisation or defamiliarisation. In the case of South African art this is complicated by the country's position as a postcolony, which puts South African art in an agonistic relationship to perceived imperialist versions of art history. In particular, I question the idea of a contemporary South African postcolonial subjectivity, framed in terms of both an opposition to its position of otherness vis-a-vis the Western art-historical paradigm, and in terms of its position as part of the mythology of a newly created nation-state. …

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