Arts and Culture 2007-2015

06Jun

Column: The Brother Breaks the Bullion

First appeared
Thursday, 06 June 2013

 

The Brother Moves On is an exercise in transience. The very name of this difficult-to-define collective – part underground band, part arts ensemble – expresses the principle that its members aren’t expected to stick around for too long.

Most of what they do happens in fragments. Although they have produced two albums and are technically on a “Quantum Leap” tour, which will see them performing at venues across southern Africa, there is a deliberately provisional quality to their brand. The music itself seems to be in a perpetual mode of jazz-style improvisation; listening to their recorded tracks, you feel the risky ephemerality of live performance.

It’s only appropriate, then, that their latest venture is based at GoetheonMain, the Goethe Institute’s “multidisciplinary project space” in the Arts on Main complex – described as a “platform to independently develop experimental art projects”. Arts on Main, of course, forms part of a much broader experiment: the Maboneng Precinct, which is (depending on who you ask) either the most successful urban regeneration project yet undertaken in Johannesburg or the opportunistic gentrification of an industrial-chic “ghetto”. Perhaps it is both. Maboneng, too, is a continual work-in-progress.

Already, however, it is an important arts hub. Galleries, artists and fashion designers have offices or studios there, while a busy calendar of events draws well-heeled semi-bohemian crowds on a regular basis. Sometimes, the work on display or the work being performed pokes fun at precisely this audience – a subversive impulse that is partly what drives The Brother Moves On.

Their new “show” is both an installation (on display at GoetheonMain until 20th June) and a couple of gigs (the next one is on 13th June). Dubbed The Brother Breaks the Bullion, it is based on a typically obscure parable: “Once upon a time, there was this vault filled with gold bullion. The townsfolk accused the vault minders of filling their gold bullions with tungsten instead of gold and masquerading these as real ...”

Visitors should not expect any conclusion to this mini-narrative, nor any further explanation than the claim that this is a “theatrical interrogation into the value we put into things, places and spaces”. A camera hangs from the ceiling. A suitcase of aeronautical-themed newspaper clippings, postcards, books and papers lies open on the floor.

We are led into a temporary room framed by gold drapery. The same gold material covers the floor. There is a gold chair under a gold lampshade, facing a gold TV that buzzes nonsensically. It this is the vault, it has been abandoned by its previous occupant, just as the other items were abandoned by their owners. We guess that some terrible event has taken place.

Perhaps the fabled gold crisis brought about some form of apocalypse. Standing amidst the gilded wreckage I find myself recalling a misguided attempt, a few years ago, to stage a futuristic South African musical based on a similar premise: Streets of Gold. Despite a foot-tapping score by Jon Savage and Jane Breetzke, some funky video projections and plenty of money from AngloGold Ashanti to make product-endorsing jewellery for the costumes, the production was a flop.

It wasn’t just that it starred Amor Vittone as a tap-dancing evil seductress, or that it gave Tumisho Masha a chance to prove he couldn’t sing. The problem was that Streets of Gold took itself too seriously. There is no risk of that happening with The Brother Moves On. Witness the large hole in the gold drapery, exposing a patch of plaster on which is scrawled: THERE WAS A MIRROR HERE. IT BROKE.

While there is an implicit resistance to “meaning-making” in this haphazard jokiness, I can’t help but feel that there is something telling in the new arrangement. The mirror now lies in shards on the floor next to the empty chair; the gallery assistant informs me that it broke during the last performance. Indeed, the whole installation has the air of a hangover after hedonism – scraps of meaning are all that we have.

Is this an allegory of the post-capitalist world to come, the end of the era of commodities and consumerism? Or the South African economy after the collapse of the mining sector? The Brothers have moved on; we’ll never know. 

 

  

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