APPRECIATING CONTEMPORARY ART

Jane Alexander: Works (c1982-)

Masterpieces of modern/contemporary art #9

Jakob Zaaiman
5 min readSep 15, 2021

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Jane Alexander artwork.
African Adventure by Jane Alexander, work of 1999–2002, Tate Modern, Bankside, London, England, November 2016 (WikiCommons Creative Commons license)

(The idea behind this series is to let the individual artworks speak directly to us from their own mysterious realm, rather than interpreting and ‘explaining them away’ in conventional terms.)

Jane Alexander is a South African artist (b1959). She works in various media, including sculpture, installations, photography and video.

As often happens with difficult contemporary artworks — and Jane Alexander’s works are a prime example — promoters are keen to play down their essential singularity by relating them to something less threatening and more familiar, and so offer those who might be tempted to dismiss modern art as ‘meaningless garbage’ some insight into a basic art appreciation. Okay — so maybe this kind of domestication and horse-whispering does prevent those with no capacity to be excited by an encounter with the narratively mysterious from being left out in the cold, but for the rest of us it only serves to demean the whole artistic enterprise and turn it into just another avenue of eccentric crafting.

And as if her works couldn’t possibly stand for themselves, some effort has been made to situate them in an African ‘ethnicity’, accompanied by an ‘anti-apartheid’-type mindset. The problem with bleeding heart activism is that it’s always out-of-date long before it’s even current —let’s see how some Banksys look a couple of years from now — though if we take care to bin all this unhelpful interpretative junk we can easily see that Jane Alexander’s works have their own commanding story to tell.

Jane Alexander artwork.
African Adventure by Jane Alexander, work of 1999–2002, Tate Modern, Bankside, London, England, November 2016 (WikiCommons Creative Commons license)

Now it appears from some of the texts (details below) that Alexander herself goes along with all this ‘ethnicity’ and ‘anti-apartheidery’, but as I have argued elsewhere, it’s invariably not a good idea to ask artists to explain their work, as they are sure to make a hash of it. I don’t know what motivated her to explain ‘what inspired her’ in terms of her South African environment, but this kind of one-to-one decoding of an artwork and ‘its meaning’ is completely…

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