October 15, 2008
Brian Eno, one of electronic music's leading lights, famously excoriated computers in a 1995 interview with Wired magazine: "The problem with computers," said Eno, "is that there is not enough Africa in them." Mr. Eno, meet Danielle Roney.
Roney's Genesis Trial: Johannesburg at MOCA GA is a wide-ranging collection of installations that includes video, digital imagery, sound and large-scale sculpture. The exhibit occupies three of the museum's still-new gallery spaces and mines the imagery of the artist's personal engagement with South Africa. While the works may not put Africa in the machine, they certainly let us see how the machine might look from the continent's point of view and vice versa.
"eGoli" comprises a trio of bowed screens hung at imposing and dramatic angles in the museum's largest space. A multimedia tour through fantasy landscapes, "eGoli" digitizes the African veldt and mainlines exurban Johannesburg's dilapidated townships into the central vein of a cyber-enabled future. The sweeping views channel Salvador Dalí's Xbox and Stanley Kubrick's Play-Doh.
Other works, though less obviously computer-based, are equally engaged in our global era's dominant technologies. The simple video installation "Westcliff Hotel" follows a black maid seemingly unaware of being watched as she cleans a hotel room. In the video, a mirror at the end of the bed reflects a pair of legs – presumably the cameraperson's – and the room's floor plan has been laid out in tape on the ground below the projection. Roney, who's white, places both the viewer and herself as the artist into the room with these details, forcing an uneasy post-Apartheid intimacy.
Massive ambition has been Roney's calling card – at least since the inception of her Global Portals project in 2005. Her resource-intensive work often requires production in the extreme, and few facilities in the city can accommodate the physical breadth required to make the work resonate. As the culmination of its Working Artists Project, however, MOCA GA has shown that its investment in Roney was a smart bet.
Like the sprawling, messy megalopolises to which the artist is drawn in her work – São Paolo, Beijing, Johannesburg – Genesis Trial moves freely across media forms via its own crazed logic. You can often count on this kind of cross-disciplinary free-for-all to go embarrassingly wrong. In Roney's hands, however, it's evidence of a maturing artist voraciously curious about her place in art history and the world.