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EDINBURGH — South African stock market trader James Gubb made headlines when he produced a novel art form: political protest through trades in Oakbay stock, producing a two-fingered salute to the Gupta family. He was fined R100 000 for his anarchy, with the Financial Services Board not seeing the humour in this market manipulation. Unrepentant, James Gubb has immersed himself in fine art, emerging with a fascinating display. This time he has produced a series of pigs, representing the beneficiaries of the state capture scandal and the corporate opportunists who enriched shareholders at the expense of the nation. The snouts in the trough that feature in this collection range from the Gupta brothers to Investec and controversial media boss Iqbal Survé. BizNews publishes the first of the artist’s philosophical underpinnings to a collection that would surely impress Banksy. – Jackie Cameron
By James Gubb*
These little piggies went to market
Bulls make money,
Bears make money,
Pigs get slaughtered.
The exact origin of this old stock market adage is lost. What is crystal clear however, is its meaning: bulls, when attacking, thrust their horns upward whilst bears swipe downward with their paws, suggesting that upward and downward movements in markets can be capitalised upon. Pigs, through their greed, simply get slaughtered. I have adopted this as an epigraph for my artwork, as the terms of the debate resonate strongly at a base level: greed leads to destruction, not only of the environment in which this occurs, but in the end, of the pig itself.
It is intriguing to observe that, within the context of attempting to artistically portray the dual nature of narrative in the form of hybrid pigs, the structural base of capitalism itself is revealed as deeply affected by the ethical and moral decay of its participants. I acknowledge that ironically, the very existence of the artwork itself is owing to my prior work in the financial world and the subsequent ability in being able to finance it. I embrace the paradox that exists between my dependence on the financial requirements to produce the artwork, and the critique on the operational deficiencies of capitalism that the artwork itself implies. The tableau might also be interpreted as an updated Orwellian, Beckettian analogue of a modern dystopia.
More broadly, as a result of the monumental hole left in spirituality by Darwin, and as a consequence the rapid secularisation of the world, the artist’s role in society as commentator, societal reflector, provocateur, sage or even jester has never been more necessary in contemporary society. With a modern background of universal cheap access to information, the religious high priests of old have experienced less and less power to shape and control society today. As a consequence, the void left by this authoritative bankruptcy demands to be filled. Nature abhors a vacuum.
The artist today differs dramatically from that of even 50 years ago; their role has evolved to become much more actively involved in the issues of the day. It has become vital for the public to appreciate, understand and interact with artworks that inform, interrogate, and initiate dialogue. This is largely a consequence of the fragmentation and diminution of authoritative information sources brought about by the plethora of information channels available as a result of the rapid development of the internet.
The cost of greater freedom and quantity of information is reduced quality
Expressed slightly differently, artists today have had a vital societal role thrust upon them brought about by the very recent democratisation of information and opinion through the internet, and more specifically, social media. Combined with the worldwide phenomenon of fake news, fake videos, fake images, fake everything, and an utterly bewildering array of choice in all its forms, it has become imperative that artists react to this modern day cornucopia and provide a powerful, informed and alternative commentary on the conditions of the day. For, if in this state of bewilderment through the plethora of choices, we become stunned into inaction and inertia, it will inevitably lead to an even more dysfunctional, corrupt society than we have at present in South Africa. Leaders in all areas of society will be prone to taking advantage of an increasingly ill-informed population, by instigating misinformation, and creating biased narratives to suit their agenda. There is no better motivation than for artists to embrace the notion that their work has unique, significant power to influence and instigate material beneficial change.
The image of bespectacled forensic accountants pouring over countless company documents in search of obscure financial misdemeanours hardly strikes a particularly appealing pose for today’s fast moving, low attention-span public. With the presence of the all-pervasive internet, there stands a vast attention grabbing competitor for one’s fifteen seconds of focus. Complex issues and intricate details of a narrative are sacrificed and dumbed down to attract a wider audience. Richard Brodie (1996), the programmer of Microsoft Word, postulates convincingly that stories or memes that have power and sex as their kernel, resonate strongly in the public’s consciousness as a result of our evolutionary makeup. The flip side of this is that complex, awkward stories that are difficult to simplify or code into easy sound bytes (pun intended) are ignored or discarded.
It’s so much easier to flip a channel, click a tab or tap an app.
Lose that thought.
Gee Thomson (2008:19) goes further and suggests that these memes create “a global distortion – one that like gravity in a black hole, (that) warps our perspective, putting an undue emphasis on short-term sensationalism…against more abstract (some would say dated) ideals of depth of experience.” Somewhere on the net there is a grouping of individuals that match seamlessly the wild and marginal ideas of one’s own. And therein lies the problem of our age. What or who should we believe? Opinion trumps fact. Nobody believes anything; narcissism, scepticism and antipathy reign supreme. Why care about things that are difficult to understand when it is so difficult anyway, to discern fact from fiction? It takes a lot of time and effort to
reconcile competing narratives.
The genesis of the work “These Little Piggies Went to Market” lies in my production in March 2017 of an image of a clenched fist with an extended middle finger on the intra-day stock chart of Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed Oakbay Resources, the Gupta family’s financial vehicle. I traded a total of 22 shares electronically between two online accounts that I controlled, which amounted to a total sum of less than R400.
In a subsequent iconoclastic action, the JSE cancelled the trades and through the Financial Services Board issued a R100,000 fine ostensibly for market manipulation, and bringing the JSE’s name into disrepute. In response to this, I made a statement (Gubb, 2017) to the media on the 2 nd of November 2017:
I got fined R100,000 yesterday by the FSB for trading 22 shares at various prices on the now delisted Oakbay, the Gupta Family’s financial vehicle, at the end of March this year, around the days of protest around the country. This was recommended by the JSE after an interrogation on 18 May in Cape Town by the JSE.”
“What I have done is essentially a world first, ie used a financial information medium to create a recognisable image. Conceptual art, Protest Art, Indelible Graffiti, whatever you want to call it, I gave it a go to highlight the ongoing systematic rape of our country by the Gupta family. The fact that the image was that of a clenched fist with the middle finger extended might have offended some, but that was the point. We were asked by Pravin Gordhan to “by all means possible, stand fast in the face of brazen, blatant corruption” which I did in my own way.”
I literally joined the dots
The reality was that I was a soft target, and making an example of me they thought, was an easy win. The ensuing response from an incensed media and the general public went global. (The Economist, 2017., Bloomberg, 2017., Biznews, 2017., Thamm, M. 2017., et al)
Whilst the financial news media were enamoured by the action, the artistic community were reserved in their commentary, and correctly so. The pony had to be trained to show more than a clever trick or two. The role that luck and timing played in the ensuing story has been deeply underestimated. The image of a black swan, representative of the sudden appearance of unforeseen events (Taleb, 2007), loomed large in the subsequent development of a coherent artistic vision. Over the ensuing four months, a multitude of artistic investigations were initiated and explored, including installation, photography, painting, etching and sculpture. I indulged myself.
In the back of my mind I continually reminded myself that these artistic disciplines provided a subjective, creative release from the left sided, logical training that my previous thirty years of existence had demanded; it was healing my mind and body through psychological balancing and the provision of freedom and space to express creatively. Each led to rabbit holes in which rich opportunities lay freely available to both learn, discover and appreciate. Samuel Beckett (1983:140) summed up well my concerns about the quantum of my artistic aptitude and the focus of my artistic endeavours when, in discussing Andre Masson’s art, he commented: “Two old maladies that should no doubt be considered separately: the malady of wanting to know what to do and the malady of wanting to be able to do it.”
I was deeply tempted instead, to blankly revel in the application of luscious oil pastel to canvas, and continue in parallel with Beckett’s observation (1983:141) that Masson “aspires to be rid of the servitude of space, that his eye may frolic among the focusless fields, tumultuous with incessant creation.” But loving doing it doesn’t mean you are good at it. I would have most probably failed, and I imagine Beckett might have added, “whatever that means.”
I finally settled on portraying the current South African financial world by means of a tableau consisting of a pigsty containing several “hybrid” pigs that idiomatically portray a diverse set of companies or entities that I believe have contributed significantly to the current state of malaise in our country. I felt that an attempt at artistic commentary on the financial predicament that South Africa currently faces would be a better use of my time.
Adorno would have both hated and loved my art. Strongly critical of jazz and pop music as a function of the “culture industry”, he believed that the power structures of capitalism manipulated the public into being docile and content and accepting of what was dished up to them on a mass scale (Cook, 1996). I have embraced popular icons as a means to entice initial interest and then used that concentration to bring attention to events that they might not be aware of, in order to empower the public with information and become active in the struggle against corruption. The information is presented in an ambiguous format, mirroring the dilemma we face today in determining what is real and what is fake. He would have hated my
populism, and loved my moral purpose.
The form of the artwork is didactically based and contemporary in nature. It attempts to inform the viewer in a manner that initially engages through a tableau of well recognised forms, in particular, the much maligned pig.
The pig has been used endlessly by humanity as an anthropomorphic foil to their faults and foibles
They are a well suited vehicle for the expression of these ideas. The description of the objects within the tableau are presented in the accompanying catalogue, and offer two competing narratives. The first presents the version that the company or entity wishes the world to see, and the second presents an alternative version that they would prefer the world not to see. The narratives are ostensibly based on facts, and drawn from publicly available documents and articles. There is no Beuysean myth and subterfuge here. The viewer is faced with a dilemma: which narrative should one believe? Which is fact and which is fake? Sometimes it is easy to decipher which is which, and the viewer is informed of a particular complex event in the South African financial world in greater detail than they would otherwise have experienced. But they are more often than not left with a disturbing sense of cognitive dissonance. The competing narratives produce no definitive conclusion; it’s really all to do with the origin or source of the words, rather than the words themselves. Bolder fonts and a larger type face highlight the gist of the narrative for the readers with short attention spans. The objective of the artwork is to initiate an engagement with actual historical events that the public might normally ignore or pass over as a consequence of their complexity. The pigs provide the initial impetus to this engagement. Fake news and spin-doctored facts remain ever present in the background, the scourge of our time. The pigs, as simple as they might initially be seen, take on a completely different character post the reading of the written narratives.
The charming dreamy smile on the pigs have turned into smug self-satisfied grins
Dialectical thinking is the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at an elegant conclusion despite seemingly contradictory information. (Palitz, et.al, 2005) This is the journey the tableau presented hopes to create for the viewer. It is didactical in nature, and intends to inform on a number of levels.
Literal and physical translations of metaphors abound
Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright and philosopher disparages and admonishes in his writings the public’s prime motivation when viewing artist’s works, of being that of pure enjoyment, rather than pursuing the betterment of themselves, and more broadly, the furthering of understanding our world generally (Cohn, 1983). I think that attitude overly harsh and prescriptive, and entertain the idea of coaxing the viewer, by using their natural association to and identification with a farmyard scene, into a meaningful interrogation of a few of the corrupt financial activities prevalent in contemporary South Africa. There has been an embarrassment of choice.
Maurizio Cattelan, despite claiming that his art merely held up a mirror to society without commentary or judgement, delved deeply into the political and financial corruption of Italy in the 1990’s by producing critical works that directly referenced the conditions of the day. (Spector, N. 2011)
He eschewed the title of provocateur, and produced a myriad of enigmatic sculptural forms that use oblique references to current events in order to create awareness of our time.
Strong similarities exist between my “These Little Piggies Went to Market” tableau and in particular Cattelan’s previously titled “Riccardo Cuor di Leone” (Richard the Lionheart), now named “Untitled, 1996”.
In the catalogue for the Maurizio Cattelan: All exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2011, William Smith comments:
“… charting an unstable boundary between seductive kitsch and perversity, an untitled 1996 work comprises two hares with enlarged eyes can seem especially cute and endearing, but Cattelan’s rabbits stare with an alien intensity that suggests genetic modification gone wrong. The rabbits are in fact hybrid creatures, having been fitted with glass eyes for taxidermied lions. The original title’s reference to the medieval crusader Richard the Lionheart points to the way that such cross-species hybrids, while disturbing when taken literally, have long provided metaphors central to human identity.” – (Brinson, Kamin, Smith, Thompson, 2011: 205)
While my work is more overt regarding references to specific events, a strong penchant is shared for literal translations of figurative idioms. They are a key element of the tableau, and are present in abundance in both blatant, as well as covert fashion. Nicolas Biorriaud (2000:40) refers to Cattelan’s prolific use of taxidermied animals to add a dimension to his work that “recounted like a fable, with the clarity of a proverb and a punchline that justifies the meaning […] this purified narrative mode, refined to its simplest expression, is fable itself, the preeminent tool of moralists.”
It is important to concurrently address the issue of the existence of competing alternative narratives instead of simply focussing on telling stories about corrupt financial actions in South Africa. The use of a tableau in which each morphed pig represents a mini corruption story might be considered a sufficiently complex artistic endeavour by itself. But this would miss out on the opportunity to investigate the relationship between messaging in contemporary society and how it can be manipulated to support nefarious ends, and the embodiment of those corrupt activities on the form of hybrid pigs. The action of corruption is made so much easier when it is aided by manipulation of the media through public relations companies (Bell Pottinger), actual ownership of the media channels themselves (Independent Media), or even the creation of artificial entities or “bots” which post vitriolic attacks on social media platforms. This is truly new media gone rogue. The similarity in form of the morphed or hybrid pigs and morphed manipulated news is simply too poetically elegant to be ignored. They resonate perfectly with each other in their manifest fakeness.
If “fakeness” can be construed as “kitsch”, in the sense that the pigs are pretending to be what they are not, then that label or criticism is difficult to refute. Indeed, it is part of the very essence of what is intended to be portrayed, and is embraced conceptually. It is problematical however, to level that same line of logic towards warped false news. It is nonsensical to view information in terms of kitschness. If one defines kitsch as “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality” (“Kitsch”, 2018), then I acknowledge and accept the former part of the
definition, and emphatically refute the latter. The pigs are designed to attract attention at a common, subliminal level of recognition, in order to initiate a didactical conversation.
And they certainly are not of poor quality. Each pig is well considered, and designed down to the finest detail. The fabricators used in the production of the pigs and the pig sty itself are trained professionals…
The congruence between my wherewithal to pay fabricators to produce the pigs, and my prior avoidance of becoming a pig in stock market parlance, is acute.
I chose to realise my creation by enlisting experienced artisans to fulfil that vision. The level of their technical competence far exceeds my own in their specialised fields. Not to use them would mean an enormous effort on my part to assimilate their respective skills over time and incorporate them into my specific body of work. That strikes me as inefficient and unproductive.
It is also limiting with regard to what I can create within a limited time period. With the aid of fabricators, the creation can be more elaborate and developed. The artwork might not necessarily be better, but it certainly allows fuller expression of my vision. The skill set of the artist in this paradigm entails management proficiency; the ability to plan, co-ordinate and control the creation process is essential. I have had considerable experience in this regard, and would be foolish not to utilise this skill set to its fullest. I am in an advantageous position relative to most of my fellow students at Michaelis in having created sufficient wealth over the past 35 years to be able to afford such luxuries as hired fabricators.
I am also at a deep disadvantage in that my formative years were devoted almost entirely to quantitative financial endeavours. My practical artistic side is undeveloped, and I don’t have the time to catch up before the end of the year. So it is logical that I utilise my conceptual and managerial strengths, without compromising on my artistic vision. I am in good company in this regard. Weiwei,
Indiana, Judd, Kelly, the Chapman brothers, Ono, Lichtenstein amongst many others have enlisted fabricators to help pursue their creations. Warhol, Murakami and Koons have done this on an industrial scale. The money paid to fabricators supports a multimillion dollar worldwide industry. Long may it last.
In summary, I have attempted to record the discourse of dissonance, where competing narratives highlight today’s oscillations and prevarications between fact and fiction, spin and deception. It is an emancipatory moment to acknowledge and accept that chapters in this story are yet to be formed, that the static forms displayed in the tableau will inevitably morph and move in their meaning as history envelops and solidifies our present time. That is the power art has over quantitative knowledge. The appreciation of art, unlike championing a cause or fighting for a specific purpose, does not require a set of discrete logical statements for it to exist. Its advantage lies in its ability to convey multiple complex meanings that are embodied in a few simple but purposefully arranged objects.
This is the power art has over quantitative knowledge: Its ability to embody multiple states of existence within a physical form.
Salmon Rushdie said, “One of the extraordinary things about human events is that the unthinkable becomes thinkable.” (Reder, M. 2000). If it motivates a small part of the South African public to start contributing positively to help in investigating and eradicating systemic fraud and corruption.
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