Robin Rhode Takes Hollywood


In New York, the South African artist of the moment is William Kentridge but in Los Angeles it is Robin Rhode, a younger but equally agile artist. Like his countryman, Rhode’s art is deeply connected to his South African heritage, and often uses similar visual methods such as performative drawing and draw-and-erase animation. However, as a man of mixed heritage, and, having come of age after the end of apartheid, Rhode has a different experience of the country’s political and social climate.

The exhibition Robin Rhode, in the Contemporary Project room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), features six recent works in a variety of media, and gives equal weight to the playful and critical aspects of Rhode’s work. Although pieces like Juggla (2007), a set of 20 digital pigment prints, features an anonymous black man dressed in tattered clothing of a minstrel. I subverts as it highlights the joyful elements of street performance the various meanings of men occupying public spaces.

In an interview, Rhode said that the biggest difference between his generation and the one before is that “the post-apartheid kids have a bigger playground.” And LACMA inhabits the birthplace and the playground Rhodes’ cinematic techniques—where many types like the minstrel, grew and ossified in celluloid.

Rhode was born in Cape Town in 1976 and moved to Johannesburg at a young age. He studied art in Johannesburg at the Witwatersrand Technikon from 1995 to 1998, and then film at the South African School of Film, Television and Dramatic Art until 2000. The end of apartheid in 1994 resulted in, as Rhode describes, “a basic need for creating art as a political act in reclaiming space, to repositioning identity beyond a global periphery.” His earliest works were public performance pieces, often without an audience, staged on the streets of Johannesburg. In 1998, Rhode began documenting these works, which he calls “performative drawings” by taking still photographs that he would later compile into halting video animations that had the texture of flip books. In 2002, after moving to Berlin, Rhode shifted his practice from the urban streets into the contained space of his studio. This allowed for, as he describes, “a distance, an increased desire to take a more analytical position in the formation of ideas outside of the politically and socially charged environment of South Africa.”

The exhibition at LACMA includes works made in the last three years in Berlin, and focuses on the mechanics of opticality and questions of identity, often featuring the obscured doppelgänger of the artist, his face hidden by props like his favored top hat, as is the case in Pan’s Opticon (2008), a series of 15 digital pigment prints. In the work, a man is claustrophobically hedged into a corner, drawing circles on the wall in front of him with an architect’s compass fixed to his head and extending from his eye. The piece references Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the late Eighteenth-Century circular prison that imagined a single optical vantage point as the source of bodily control over a set of inmates. The subject of Rhode’s piece, however, could also be the “Pan” of the title, a deity who symbolizes fertility and whose eye takes on an erotic gaze. Rhode says that he attempts to “grapple with the idea of cinematic modernity by engaging with the essentials of voyeurism.” At the exhibition, as at the cinema, the viewers become the voyeurs of a narrative shaped by Rhode, who then trips up the eye’s dominance over the scene. In Kite (2008), a reproduction of the artist’s hands “holds” strings that lead up to the ceiling of the gallery, to a kite-shaped projection that encloses a film of the tops of trees moving past, which was shot in New Orleans in 2008. Just as the gaze is set to wander by the joyful sensation of looking up at trees on a sunny day from a moving car, the projection speeds up, and the trees blur, transformed into a deluge, trapping the viewer in the mediated memory of the floods of Hurricane Katrina.

The small scope of the exhibition at LACMA leaves the viewer wanting to know more about Robin Rhode, which is fortuitous being that he is curently on a world tour of sorts. Next up, Rhode will present a follow-up to “Pictures of an Exhibition,” his visual performance to the musical accompaniment of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes that premiered at Lincoln Center in 2009, for which he also designed the set. The new piece, “Pictures Reframed,” will premiere at the Abu Dhabi Classical Musical Festival at the end of March 2010.