MURRAY’S ART MORE TRAGIC THAN COMIC
ASHRAF JAMAL, APRIL 24 2015
THE title of artist Brett Murray’s latest show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town — Again Again — has the whiff of combat fatigue. Repetitive, concussive, numbingly familiar, it’s as if the artist is telling us that life is bog-ridden, repetitive, implicitly futile.
Nietzsche’s spooky notion of the “eternal return” springs to mind. Or as Murray wryly puts it, “much to his own irritation and amusement” he “continues to feel the urge to expose the absurdities of the powerful with biting satire”.
Murray’s mission throughout his long career has been to speak truth to power. This is often forgotten in the light of the absurd and depressing circus that was the “outing” of President Jacob Zuma in his painting The Spear. Without excessively regurgitating the Spear debacle, what it did teach us is that art, because it can be inflammatory, can also inflict a profound wound.
Therein lies the power of Murray’s work. However, to now interpret the artist in-and-through the Spear debacle is to distort what has proved a long and rich career in which art has consistently been deployed as a weapon of struggle. Murray’s core gripe has been against corruption and the betrayal of the democratic vision for change. Scandal, however, was never his objective. Rather, intent, as I understand it, has been to capture in as singularly punchy a way as possible the root of discord or falsity.
By titling his show Again Again, Murray reminds not only that history hurts but that it’s proving to be a stuck record. His “love-hate relationship with SA” is a “familiar” one. It seems that no one can escape this bipolar fascination and disgust. It is this very morbid psychic wiring which defines us; a wiring which Murray’s art exposes. Outrage, however, need not come in the form of a pornographic expose.
To give Murray his just due, we must also begin to value the dimensions of his art which operate beyond a public craving for outrage.
Having defrocked Zuma, or, having exposed the emperor in all his hubris, it seems that for the general public there was very little left to do. However, if his art matters it is also because it is more than the split reaction it generates.
A poster boy for resistance culture, Murray is also its blithe counter — the local celebrant of pop culture. His public sculpture depicting an exotic African figurine parasite by multiple Bart Simpson heads captures the artist’s prevailing interest in matters local, continental and global.
It’s the mix that matters; a mix which allows the artist to be both agent provocateur and fatalistic comic. Therein lies the pathos, and, dare I say it, the depth of the artist’s oeuvre.
In Again Again a series of metal cut-outs is called Somnambulence. Echoing Albie Sachs’s indictment of dogmatists and sleepwalkers, as well as the growing taste for the zomboid and walking dead, Murray reminds us of the need for wakefulness.
Wary of fundamentalists, whom he sculpts as morbidly twinned pack animals; distrustful of deceit, which his conjures as a pig with an abnormally long nose; acutely aware of uncomfortable contexts, which he captures as The little Elephant in the Room, Murray in effect renders the viewer both ironic and vigilant.
In a striking twinned work, Call and Response, Murray reminds us of the constant threat which lies at the core of our society.
Because we live within an oligarchy and not a democracy, we are compelled to censor ourselves. Hence the split screen in which the one panel obsessively and compulsively reads, “I must not make political art”, while the neighbouring panel reads, “You are a corrupt fuck!” By splitting the focus Murray exacerbates the existing societal tension, because for the artist the “state of emergency” is by no means over. Rather, the threat is omnipresent, meaning we are perpetually at risk. And the very fact that Murray and his family received death threats following his painting of Zuma serves only to remind us that our Constitution and the freedom of expression it supports is a mere ruse. It seems that like Murray’s Frankenstein figure we all carry an “uneasy crown”.
In working one’s way through Murray’s gratingly amusing exhibition, one is left with an undeniable taint, a sense of having willingly been sullied, forced into a heightened ethical conscience. Horror, it seems, lurks everywhere; nothing is sacrosanct.
Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz springs to mind and with this brutal protagonist the phrase “the horror, the horror”. For what Murray seems to have captured is the darker side of political commentary. If his artworks “speak” then what they seem to be saying is that satire has become insupportable in an increasingly brutal and brutalised society. Witness the recent xenophobic attacks and murder of a Mozambican man in plain view.
It seems, despite the buzz of Murray’s pop aesthetic, that the artist’s work is far more tragic than comic and that he is far more than merely “irritated” and perversely “amused”.