22 . 09 . 16 – 22 . 10 . 16
Ed Young and the Emptiness of Whiteness by Lwandile Fikeni
Grotesque. That’s the first word that comes to mind when one is confronted by Ed Young’s new video work Little (2016). The second word is not even a word, but a giggle, indifferent as it may be. It is to Young’s credit that he is able to solicit all these emotions simultaneously without any apparent contradiction. The last word, when one is finally at the end of one’s morbid enjoyment of the spectacle, is horror. This latter reaction speaks directly to the artist’s quite obvious disdain and contempt for humanity as defined by whiteness – and his impatience with it.
Little, whether taken as an alter ego having a wank in the park or as a mimetic rendition of the interiority of late white capitalist consumerist guilt, it is able to achieve a certain level of self awareness through shame, pity and self loathing. The video becomes much more than an ironic, comical spectacle, but rather a strident critique of the world as it is today – a world shaped by white fears and tears.
To Young’s discredit, however, his oeuvre never seems to transcend the violent, mundane pettinesses of white privilege. That said, Young knows his subject with devastating exactness. With Little, he is able to coagulate white rage into its aesthetic possibility as the tyranny of the universal. White rage as the face, literally, of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, for there is nothing more white than Trump’s contorted visage and his twisted mouth that spews garbage.
This is the same visage and twisted mouth that the perceptive reader might find in the masked faces of the little men in Young’s video. Here, one is never sure whether to call these figures midgets, dwarves, or babies – or whether such considered differentiation really makes a difference, for the allegory of the video is a representation of the interiority of white men as a meaningless carnival of emotion.
Now, bear with me, dear reader, for we shall get to the bottom of it soon enough. The decline of the stature of white men or men who believe themselves to be white, as an exemplary “race” in global culture and in South Africa to be precise, has but fuelled a particulate schism between conservative white supremacy and liberal white supremacy. A telling example is the reception of Donald Trump as a U.S. presidential candidate, compared to the former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Even for the latter, in the contemporary reality, kissing a black baby would not equate to humanity in a white man as such, but would rather affirm something sinister in the kisser: a fact that is evident in the structural organisation of racial privilege in the U.S. and the world over, which cannot be placated by mediated white platitudes.
What Black Lives Matter and South Africa’s Fees Must Fall movements have achieved, is to reveal this innate grotesqueness in the present modalities of society, particularly, in the encounter of the historical selves of those deemed to carry the skin and privilege of the centre and those wallowing and eking out a living in the margins.
The centre, whiteness, the yolk of modernity and the tyranny of civil society, has been revealed to be nothing more than a collective of brutes and barbarians – greedy, filthy and inhumane. Nothing more than a spectacle of scowling, crying babies who are threatened by the tide of history in the 21st century. It is here that one most appreciates Little – the tiny men wrestling in slow motion as if they were being directed by John Woo; little white men in dirty underwear at war with themselves, and, by extension, at war with what they have done to themselves in their quest for power and universality. The entire thing is not so different than what one experiences of conservative and liberal squabbles about the U.S. elections or Fees Must Fall on Twitter. The irony, of course, is that no one really cares anymore about the opinions of whites the world over.
How the turn of century has turned on the crusaders of modernity – reducing their entire existence into a permanently tearful scowl on an inanimate, deformed visage as one perceives in Little – is but a window into the outrageousness of white rage and whiteness as a modern construct.
Let us be precise about the futility of whiteness that Young points us to. Figuratively, the figures (in their baby facemasks and hairy legs are constructed to be some abstraction of white male adults. In the video, you don’t so much as hear a word in the tussle between the little people, but you get faint gestures of a synthesised groan that is almost pre-historic. It’s language in its primitive form, but yet, the setting is 2016 Cape Town and this absurd scuffle is in public, for the public and, at the same time, for its own sake.
One then realises that in this wrestle about nothing, what the entire ordeal has really achieved is to take up one’s time and, consequently, one’s space. In this, then, one sees the machinations of whiteness. Whiteness is, to paraphrase American Noble Prize laureate Toni Morrison on racism, a distraction. And the nearly 5-minute duration of Little is literally that – a distraction. White rage is a rage about nothing, Young seems to say. And to that extent one tends to agree. For in the end, white people will always be white and no matter how much they disagree about the world, foreign policy, war or peace, they are certain of one thing – that at least they are not black and this alone brings them the greatest joy. This moment of revelation, if not celebration, is depicted in Little right at the end, as the two figure skip and hop together through the VOC gardens and into the lily white city of Cape Town.
The spectacle in which the viewer is engrossed in the highly aestheticised video – the slow motion, the slobbering and the scowl of the baby masks, the people in the picture viewing the action while the viewer views the edited and packaged version of the spectacle – gravitates towards an impassioned meaninglessness. A meaninglessness best exemplified by whites in contemporary history and 21st century global art, culture and politics.
Lwandile Fikeni is an essayist, art critic and award winning arts journalist, living and working in South Africa.
SMAC Gallery proudly presents Little, a new 5:25 minute video work by conceptual artist Ed Young. The video recently premiered at the FNB Joburg Art Fair. Little will be showing until 22 October 2016. For more information, please contact the gallery in Cape Town.