Kirsty Cockerill is the director of the AVA. She writes in response to a recent threat of legal action against artist Richard Mason for a work on a solo show at the AVA.
Recently a representative of Pam Golding Properties (Pty) Ltd requested in writing, with the threat of legal action pending, that Richard Mason remove the artwork Hated Communities, or, more accurately, a detail from the installation Carbonage light on exhibition at the AVA gallery.
When Mason complied and removed the above mentioned detail replacing it with a copy of the letter, he responded in a way that reflects the guerrilla style aesthetic evident in his installation Carbonage light. The exchanging of this ‘offensive’ detail/artwork with the letter was not motivated by the fear of legal prosecution, but rather as a conceptual tool that would again highlight the exchange of rhetoric that punctuates our daily experience. This rhetoric, inherent with contradictions, and often manifesting as a brand, is what Mason would have us question.
Corporate fundamentalism seems to takes its cue from religious fundamentalism. The branding associated with the content is held as sacrosanct. Yet paradoxically it is clear that branding, an emphatically visual language, will lend itself to appropriation and deconstruction by visual artists. Big money’s (or in this case, Big Property’s) suggestion that any aspect of visual culture is ‘out of bounds’ clearly encroaches on artistic freedom, and places property’s rights above those of the artist. When corporations, religions, governments and individuals respond with offence to the deconstruction of power, branding and visual rhetoric, they reveal a superficial understanding of the language they peddle, and an unfortunate lack of humour.
Mason’s Hated Communities takes the form of a light box, reminiscent of the neon lights used by companies to advertise their products to the public at night. The image on the light box references the Pam Golding logo with the phrase ‘hated communities’, a word play on ‘gated communities’, printed below the image of a gate. With this work Mason brings our attention to the many controversial aspects of the gated community phenomenon: unfair privilege, skewed access to services and amenities, and the palpable envy of those who find themselves on the wrong sides of the gates of these contemporary idylls.
Ellen Hollemans, in her article Private security: A disturbing peace of mind published in the Mail and Guardian online (5/05/05), quotes Lindsay Bremner, a former chair of architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, who believes there is more to the townhouse phenomenon than fear of crime. Bremner says ‘one needs to examine the agents whose livelihoods now depend on the perpetuation of this form of development, and they are many, from security companies to property developers of gated communities. They key into people’s fears and insecurities about living in a changing world.’ Bremner continues, ‘It is more than fear. Fear has been colonised by the real-estate and insurance industries, so that inside such developments, property values are higher and insurance premiums are lower… This is not peculiar to South Africa, but [is] the pattern around the world. Informal settlements and gated communities are the fastest-growing forms of urban development across the world today’.
Pam Golding Properties declared that their objection to the artwork was based on their right to protect their brand’s trademark and wrongful use thereof. Yet what is obviously more dangerous to the company than the trademark infringement are the sentiments so well articulate by Mason’s work. The AVA gallery states a clear position on the issue of censorship and artistic freedom and will not remove the image from their website. We have shown support for Mason’s artistic freedom by encouraging him to respond to the objection in a way most befitting the conceptual language he utilises. Mason has since donated the artwork Hated Communities to the AVA.
( see previous post for image of Hated Communities)