Distinguishing the bull from the bullshit
By Sean O’Toole
It could be a sympathetic portrait, although saying this I can’t be sure. I’m also not so sure what the sympathetically rendered subject at the centre of Brett Murray’s steel cutout work is. It could be a gorilla, or a chimpanzee, maybe even a gibbon, so ape it will have to be. This generic ape portrait, framed by a lavish growth of Rococo finery, crystallises in a single image the workings of this essay: lots of frilly adornment with some confusion about the ambiguous subject at the centre. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I hadn’t planned to say this so soon. As it is, while composing this essay, mostly in the shower, sometimes on my bicycle, I kept reassuring myself that it would be a good idea to mention a book I read a few years ago, Kafka on the Shore. It doesn’t feature any apes, sadly, only a speaking cat.
I won’t bore you with the details of Haruki Murakami’s fantastical book, which is notionally set in contemporary Japan, mostly on the island of Shikoku. I will though mention some of the characters. Kafka on the Shore is centrally about prophecy and memory, although Murakami cloaks these abstract ideas, which seem pertinent to Murray’s exhibition, in human form. Representing the former is a young adolescent runaway, Kafka Tamura – yes, he is named after that famous German-Czech writer whose most compelling fictions involve characters apparently depressed because of their inability to get laid. Then there is Nakata, a visionary old simpleton who is able to converse with cats; he may, or may not, have murdered Kafka’s father, a famous sculptor, this at the goading of Johnny Walker, a well-known brand emissary in a top hat who makes a brief cameo in the novel.
There is one particular scene in Murakami’s book that strikes me as relevant. It involves Hoshino, a baseball loving truck driver who offers Nakata a lift to Shikoku; Hoshino is having a conversation with Colonel Sanders, an embodied likeness of that global icon for southern fried chicken.
“Tell me something.”
“Are you really Colonel Sanders?”
Colonel Sanders cleared his throat. “Not really. I’m just taking on his appearance for a time.”
“That’s what I thought,” Hoshino said. “So what are you really?”
“I don’t have a name.”
“How do you get along without one?”
“No problem. Basically I don’t have a name or shape.”
“So you’re kind of like a fart.”
The conversation pushes on, Hoshino prodding and poking at his spirit world interlocutor as he attempts to discover his real identity. Hoshino’s incredulity, which you could liken to our own disbelief when confronted with Brett Murray’s pantheon, or rather bestiary, of familiar gods – Homer Simpson (with an afro), the Pink Panther (brandishing a Zulu shield), Marie Antoinette (in blackface) Mr and Mrs Entitled (rendered as a crest) – eventually prompts Colonel Sanders to clarify himself.
“I’m a very pragmatic being,” he offers. “A neutral object, as it were, and all I care about is consummating the function I’ve been given to perform.”
I read Kafka on the Shore while on a cycling trip through rural Japan, quite serendipitously while in Takamatsu, a provincial city that is the setting for much of the book. Aside from an abundance of sanuki udon shops, a regional noodle delicacy, Takamatsu also has loads of junk food outlets, many of them American, KFC included. Intrigued by the proposition that Colonel Sanders could be a character in a fantastical fiction, I set off one evening on my bicycle to find him.
It didn’t take long before I found him. Predictably, the Colonel was standing outside an outlet, hustling passersby. I went up and said hi. As much as I wanted it to happen, the avuncular old man, or at least one of the many millions of fibreglass likenesses of him, offered me nothing. (In Murakami’s novel, he states: “It’s like I told you, I’m neither a god nor a Buddha, nor a human being. I’m something else again – a concept.”) Nothing. Still, after a fascinated few minutes staring at the Colonel, I didn’t feel the least bit disappointed. Hiking my leg over the bicycle, I returned to my hotel, smiling.
Brett Murray’s work makes me smile too. If I told you why, it would most likely not make you do the same thing, smile. (Critics, even though many think it their duty, are not meant to explain the punch line.) Which presents a central difficulty. If Murray’s rib tickling jibes and teasing political satire have a self-evident quality, what, reasonably, is there left for me to say? Not much, it’s true, so I’ll be concise, in a manner of speaking.
For a long time now, Murray has misappropriated and retooled (for his own ends) the beaming icons of global capitalist culture, attaching to them a distinctively vernacular gloss. Aside from those already mentioned – Homer Simpson and the Pink Panther – Murray has also fiddled with Colonel Sanders, Richie Rich, Homer’s son Bart Simpson, Casper the Friendly Ghost and that home-grown oddity, the Orosman. As in Murakami’s novel, he denudes these signifiers of their received function, making them say, do and mean things entirely alien to our apprehension of their being. Admittedly, I struggled with this for a while; it was symptomatic of a larger struggle.
What are the limits of the imagination? For many years, decades in fact, I was very literal in my answer to this question, placing over-much faith in chrome-plated newness and fatherless originality as the defining hallmarks of imagination. In other words, the imaginative act was ahistorical. My point here is this. While long familiar with all that jive around the readymade and its centrality to the modern canon, what I missed – and I mean really missed – was the fact that in art, fiction, poetry, music, whatever, all creativity is, perforce, historical. Perhaps a gentler way of phrasing this is to say that creativity, that often purposeless search for form, involves a purpose-driven conversation with many protagonists, amongst them close friends, imagined rivals, old teachers, the famous men and women we read about in magazines, even the dead ones whose lives are celebrated in books. It also, unavoidably, includes a restless conversation with the self.
The open-ended character of Murray’s ongoing conversation with himself is obvious and manifests itself in the many familiar tropes in his new exhibition, both formal and thematic. I want to spotlight his habit of using cartoon characters, human archetypes and, especially, animals to quantify human folly. I’ll start with a pedestrian observation, a listing of all the animal types that have appeared in Murray’s art: mouse, crocodile, French poodle, gorilla, tortoise, sausage dog, pig, nagapie (or lesser bushbaby), rhino, steenbok, kudu, adder and gemsbok. When I read this list to the artist, he sighed. “Clearly I should open up a shop near the Kruger Park.” Clearly.
It is an obvious fact that animals have long sponsored a fecund tradition, one that in literature encompasses everyone from Aesop to T.O. Honnibol, as well as in art, where the lineage is equally bizarre, extending from medieval monks to Jeff Koons. “Animals have only their silence left with which to confront us,” offers J.M. Coetzee’s fictional alter ego, Elizabeth Costello, in his treatise The Lives of Animals. I won’t dispute the clarity of this insight, although maybe Red Peter, Kafka’s talking Gold Coast ape from 1917, put it best when during his earnest report to the academy on his ability to mimic humans, he offers: “It was so easy to imitate these people.”
So easy in fact that sometimes Murray, the jester on the sidelines, doesn’t even need to use animal stand-ins to drive his point home. Animals and cartoon figures aside, his make-believe artistic universe is populated by a host of familiar human archetypes: a president (a very necessary personage, you’ll agree), artist (ditto), policemen (also very necessary, especially given the insecure social geography of his imaginary republic), minister (the long nose is telling), bureaucrat (so you can apply for licenses and stuff), dandy (in a powdered wig), even a citizen, a bubble head who can’t make up his mind (sometimes he wears long pants, other times short pants, sometimes just his underpants).
Relooking the entirety of these creatures, which encompass everything from an exulted nagapie to an artist in a nappy, a ripped Captain America (with Catholic inclinations) to a poodle with human aspirations, it struck me that Murray’s universe of imaginary beings and hapless moegoes deserves to be quantified. Otherwise put, it would seem that the artist has unwittingly illustrated a long overdue South African bestiary. A brief digression might help fully explain this statement.
As Christianity began its slow, unrelenting takeover of Europe, a Greek scholar, likely based in Alexandria, compiled a book of stories about animal lore that distilled Indian, Hebrew and Egyptian sources, also the teachings of various classical philosophers, amongst them Aristotle and Pliny. Known as The Physiologus, this feted book collects stories about fictional beasts and living animals, also birds, even stones; the allegorical nature of the stories was meant to elucidate Christian dogma. Many versions of The Physiologus were produced in middle ages, classical sources slavishly copied and productively improved by medieval monks and scribes.
The importance of The Physiologus, as a prototype of allegorical storytelling involving animals, was long ago credibly explained by classical scholar Richard Gottheil, in 1899: “The little that monkish writers and their readers knew of zoology, in Europe as well as the Coptic and Abyssinian Christian communities of Africa, and the Syriac church of western Asia, hardly went beyond what this book taught. Even Arabic writers accepted in good faith the stories of the habits and peculiarities of certain animals which are to be found in The Physiologus.”
The point of this olden day stuff is not without relevance to Murray, whose habit of working with pre-existing character types, animals and commercial icons I’ve already elaborated on. According to Michael Arnott and Iain Beavan, the current keepers of the famous Aberdeen bestiary, sources for illustrations in medieval bestiaries were largely derived from lost classical originals, the illustrations often also adapted to reflect contemporary fashion. While I doubt Murray likes to think of himself as a monkish copier, there is an obvious parallel between the flagellators of old and the Woodstock-based artist. Take Africa (2000), Murray’s famous public sculpture in Cape Town’s St George’s Mall: the artist updates the post-apartheid vogue for African décor by presenting Bart Simpson as the yellow acne erupting from the beneath the surface of the sculpted African totem figure. Murray’s big-eyed nagapie evidences a more recent example of his habit of re-encoding use of sacred forms, in this instance the crest of Louis XIV, the munificent Sun King.
While the habit of telling human stories through animal figures is still commonplace in our literature and art, bestiaries are not. In 1897, French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec commenced work on one of the few modern bestiaries, Jules Renard’s book Histoires Naturelles (1899). Perhaps the most famous modern bestiary is the Book of Imaginary Beings (1957). Written by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, it contains 120 descriptions of mythical creatures from folklore and literature. I particularly love his descriptions of the animals dreamed by Kafka (“A kangaroo-like animal with a flat, human-like face and a very long tail”), C.S. Lewis (“An animal that sits upon its haunches like a dog, but appears more like a horse. Its toes are camel-like, and, unable to produce its own milk, it raises its young by weaning them on the milk of other animals”) and Edgar Allen Poe (“A small, flat animal with pure white fur and bright red claws and teeth”).
Reading these, I was prompted to construct my own description, which in honour of Borges and in deference to the artist, I have named “An Animal Dreamed by Murray”. Here goes: “Poodle-like, but obese, this dog has no fur, merely a naked skin that gleams like polished bronze. Its ears are the shape of tears, while its tail resembles an antique doorknob. It has the feet of an elephant, but no toes. From its rear, it could easily be confused for one of the three little pigs hiding behind a burka – a predicament any white businessman in a Dashiki would appreciate.” Murray’s work invites this sort of idle game playing. (Art that solely relies on serious thought for appreciation, select at random almost anything from the conceptual genre, inevitably belittles its viewer, never mind the headaches.)
Let me end with a bit of factual nonsense. Two years ago, shortly after the festive season, the SPCA got into a public spat with Tony Yengeni, who like Robert Mugabe, Jacob Zuma, possibly Pieter Marais, Marthinus van Schalkwyk and Carl Niehaus, definitely not Tony Leon and Julius Malema, is also an African. Yengeni had recently been released from prison after serving four months of a four-year sentence for fraud; while visiting his parent’s at their home in Guguletu he slaughtered a bull as part of a cleansing ritual. Nee vok, gasped the SPCA, prompting labour minister Membathisi Mdladlana to assert, “I want to assure our detractors that we will continue to practise our traditions and follow our culture.”
The bull, and indeed its many-sided defenders, is the McGuffin in this story. What’s really at stake, as Murray demonstrates in his exhibition, is continuity and change, ideology and dogma. To phrase this differently, in a time of poodle power and crocodile tears, as distinct from those other times when unfriendly Caspers and groot korkodils roamed the landscape, it is not the bull that matters but the bullshit.
Sean O’Toole is editor of Art South Africa and author of the collection of short stories, The Marquis of Mooikloof