BRETT MURRAY: Hide
Feb 18 – Mar 27, 2021
Written by Lucienne Bestall
In Brett Murray’s Hide, the artist invites a novel hesitancy into his work. Familiar with the uncertain charge of giving offence, Murray now considers the censorship offence inspires. There is little of the polemic tone that previously characterised his work, few brash jokes and damning declarations. Instead, the artist questions his convictions, appears distrustful of his own moral certitude. With the lasting UMMM… of the text work Doubt (2018), Murray approaches his subject with something like apprehension.
“The punitive gesture of censoring finds its origin in the reaction of being offended,” JM Coetzee writes in his essay Taking Offence (1996). “The strength of being-offended, as a state of mind, lies in not doubting itself; its weakness lies in not being able to afford to doubt itself.” Doubt is then the antidote to the certainty that justifies outrage. Though founded on such certitude, the offence is seldom specific, more I-know-it-when-I-see-it, yet no less intolerable for its indeterminacy. Being-offended is a profoundly unpleasant state of mind – it demands an action that it might be made exterior, might guard the psyche against the object of outrage. Censorship alone offers itself as defence. In taking offence – Coetzee again – “we feel any or all of a miscellany of states of unpleasure, including but not limited to disgust, shame, hurt and anxiety; also a measure of resentment against the one on whom this unpleasure is blamed.” That this measure of resentment can have menacing consequences is well known to the artist. In the story of Murray’s The Spear (2012), giving offence sent him not only to the nation’s courts but to the court of public opinion, which was less given to rigour and reason, less concerned with the ideals of free speech. Indeed, the echo chamber of the internet proved no uncertain foe – the accusations levelled against him as numerous as they were nebulous.
Where political satire has long been Murray’s primary preoccupation, in Hide he turns his attention inward. Poking fun at South Africa’s imperfect transition to democracy has proved more tragic than comic a pastime, a dangerous game with few rewards. There are no easy jokes in the nation’s body politic. The artist withdraws to the intimacy of his home, to the comforts of family life. But the political cannot be kept out. It slips in unwelcomed, leaks from the light of cellphone screens, illuminates the nights of our discontent. White nights; insomniac, unsettled. He cannot sleep, nor does he want to – sleep being “a metaphor for moral paralysis and the atrophy of conscience,” as Lloyd Pollack wrote of Murray’s work. The sleep of reason, we are reminded, produces monsters. Murray’s Hide is populated by many such monsters, by things that go bump in the night. Bats, owls, nagapies, even Koko the Clown, all populate the artist’s nocturnal imaginings. Yet by his wakefulness, the artist resists sleep’s metaphoric import. His stimulant of choice? The burden of consciousness.
For all Murray’s material and conceptual eloquence, Hide is a curiously conflicted body of work. It appears caught between two opposing desires – a longing for quiet complexity and a growing outrage against censoriousness; the wish to be silent and the impulse to join the fray. That the personal and political proves to be inseparable lends the exhibition its lasting pathos. Intimate reflections are broken by inflammatory tweets, images of innocence shot through with red dots. The spectre of violence – both real and symbolic – pervades these collected works.
The sculptures in Hide are an unusual offering from an artist given to loud assertions and more agitprop aesthetics. There is to these works a shared sense of fragility, regardless of their stolid forms. In his material shift towards marble, Murray finds a medium more empathetic than metal. It is softer, he suggests, even kinder – more forgiving and poetically pliable – than bronze. Yet here, both find a childlike expression; the sculptures’ rounded forms evocative of storybook characters and plastic toys. Most appear quietly fearful, some sinister. All are formally seductive and materially elegant. Where earlier sculptures, like The Fundamentalists (2015) and Emperor (2015), were distinctly aggressive in tone, the sculptures in Hide are more veiled in their invocations. Their titles speak to a desire for comfort – Solace, Protect and Us (2018) – and a growing uncertainty. Some are supplications for safety, others portents of coming crises. Such is Boiling Frog (2018), carved from black and red marble with polished precision. With its quiet threat and immoveable form, the work reads as warning. The frog, insensible to its predicament, will soon succumb – slowly, ineluctably.
While the sculptures in Hide have about them a shared ambivalence, the many wall pieces read as unambiguous accusations. With such titles as Instagram Revolutionaries, Snowflakes and Facebook Fundamentalists, the works in the Disney Suicide series (2018) respond to social media’s illiberal tendencies. Murray is not alone in his criticisms. Many have opined, with growing concern, the spreading censoriousness in liberal society. Dissent is increasingly discouraged, opposing views punished. Where blinding moral certainty is upheld, nuance and complexity are silenced. Public shaming offers examples of the retribution measured out to those who cross the capricious line; intolerance abounds, perceived transgressions are punished. Nowhere does this play out more clearly than the internet – where online discourse has been largely reduced to symbolic signalling. Armchair activism, however ineffectual, has become the single claim to moral virtue. Murray demurs:
ONE FANON QUOTE – a marble plaque reads – ONE BIKO POSTER AND THE PUBLIC LOVE OF JAZZ DOES NOT A REVOLUTIONARY MAKE.
If free speech is to be upheld, transgressions are to be tolerated. Contested, debated, but above all allowed to stand. “Freedom of expression,” as Salman Rushdie said, “includes the freedom to insult.” And if not to insult, then to dispute, to challenge the status quo. As such, so-called ‘cancel culture’ only highlights the limits of liberalism. It is the misguided response of real grievances, a protest against the apparent lack of accountability in national and private institutions. But to those who query the means, those who defend free speech, the radical right-wing is held up as counter-example of unregulated freedoms. Either thought and word must be policed, the argument stands, or else devolve into toxicity. Murray, however, is sceptical. His Disney Suicide series offers a dark reflection on the evils of censorship metered out by the offended – where censorship becomes less an external act of suppression than a suicidal gesture of self-silencing. That one among them is titled Me (2018), perhaps reveals something of Murray’s new reticence. It is too an acknowledgement of his own outrage in the face of this censorial impulse. Yet the artist remains critical, watches his reactions with cool detachment. FUCK THE TWITTER NOSTRA he carves into marble, the letters coloured with gold leaf. Even in anger, Murray is meticulous.
It is too easy to indulge the state of being-offended rather than question its effects, to articulate what it is that one finds so morally repugnant. This the artist does to cutting effect, subjecting, Coetzee writes, “these insipient feelings to the scrutiny of sceptical rationality.” Yet as to the offence Murray’s past work has given, one finds no clear explanation, only vague assertions and the evasive claims against him. Here the title Hide – as in conceal, as in skin – proves compelling in its contradiction. To be white in South Africa is to be everywhere conspicuous; to be, as Ivor Powell wrote in his essay on the artist, “inescapably morally suspect.” There are few hiding places here. The country’s history has stained white identity an indelible shade of iniquity. And it is this stain – the colour of our inherited failings – which lends Murray’s work the offence it gives. It is not that the criticisms he offers are untrue, that he more often provokes uncomfortable laughter, but that he is the wrong messenger. TOO MUCH WHITE SPACE, a marble plaque reads, evoking past judgements held against him as both accuser and accused. In answer, the artist absents himself from more direct political satire, if only for the time being; resigns himself to few comments on the current dispensation. Instead, he turns inwards and looks upwards, to the unseen clouds of the internet gathering above us.
The night is long, the Twitter feed longer still. Intolerance and hostility glow darkly from bright screens. But something other than outrage now hangs in the air – something more sneaking and subtle, which cares little for the opinions of people. Murray’s bats have found a new significance, have grown ever more ominous. The artist, having withdrawn into his home, now finds himself confined to it. Foreboding pools like shadows in corners. The monsters, multiplying, draw closer. WHERE ARE THE ADULTS? Murray asks, as a child afraid of the dark. Who will turn on the lights?