Michael MacGarry is a Johannesburg-based fine artist and filmmaker whose work engages with and explores the ongoing ramifications of imperialism on the African continent. This is evident in his two recent short films, Excuse me, while I disappear. and Flies., both of which have been included in the official selection for the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2015 as part of the Urban Africa programme.
Flies. is set in Pretoria in 1995, and concerns an elderly Afrikaans former-civil servant whom – years after the death of his family in an accident – is the sole inhabitant of a large, derelict downtown apartment complex he once designed. When he accidentally witnesses a political assassination, he is forced into a violent confrontation with modernity, and is killed by his own building.
Excuse me, while I disappear. was shot in Kilamba Kiaxi, a new city built outside Luanda, Angola. The city was built by Chinese construction company CITIC and financed by Hong Kong-based China International Fund. The new city is to be home to more than 210 000 people, and is the single largest investment project by China in Africa. The film’s narrative follows a young municipal worker who lives by night in the old city centre of Luanda and works by day as a groundskeeper at the new city of Kilamba Kiaxi far away.
Michael has shown work extensively both locally and internationally, and was the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Arts in 2010. Flies. is also part of the official selection for fourth annual Jozi Film Festival coming up in February. We were very excited to interview him and find out more about his work.
You’re a practicing fine artist, designer, director and filmmaker. Are there clear definitions between these different creative aspects of your work or do they overlap and influence one another?
There are clear distinctions in so much as each activity has a market, and as such to varying degrees a function. There are also, always a series of people either involved with what I make or who generate an income from that particular activity, which further differentiates each practice. On a base level some activities are more pleasurable than others but the trade-offs in terms of skill-transfer or income to make other things balances it all out, but they tend to cross influence each other all the time.
Do you think in words or pictures?
Images mostly, but for films a combination of the two that become an emotive hybrid, coupled with a constant questioning of the cost implications of ideas. Most of my work is quite binary in its formulation or conceptual structure. Success is when the works transcend their planning and/or defeat their intentions, which is usually a combination of image and text.
Please can you tell us about your transition from purely conceptual to practicing artist? How did this affect your creative outlook and process?
I finished an honours degree in fine art and moved to Ireland where I worked as a designer to afford the MFA tuition fees at the Glasgow School of Art to which I was accepted and could enroll any time I had the cash basically. I didn’t end up going to Glasgow and got really into design for 3 years in Dublin and then in London. I returned to Johannesburg to complete an MFA at WITS and during this time didn’t have the financial capital to realise a lot of the complicated works I wanted to make, so instead I removed the material manufacture of anything and focused instead on the conceptualisation of films, sculptures, shows and installations that after a while was formulated into a dogma I called ‘All Theory. No Practice.’ Whilst initially liberating, like all dogmas it became unstable and counterproductive over time, so I started making the key props from my fictional films as a way of getting back into the material production of artmaking. Those sculptures were well received and I became part of the art world. Now, I make and sell physical, real artworks like any other artist.
How does the tenet “all theory no practice” inform your creative work today?
It doesn’t – see above – it is a legacy concept that I still operationalise but without any meaning.
You’ve been thinking about and making films as part of your fine art practice for many years. What appeals to you about this medium?
Audio-visual is the most powerful medium humans have developed. It allows for a myriad of possibilities – both conceptual and emotive – that nothing else even comes close to.
Can you please tell us how your two new short films, Flies. and Excuse me, while I disappear. continue your ongoing concern with the ramifications of imperialism on the African continent?
Both films use architecture as a physical manifestation of different colonial ideologies, one from the 1970s in Pretoria under Apartheid and the other from Angola today under a quasi-dictatorship. The two social housing projects in my films are monuments to particular forms of thinking, that are relics of a 100-year old European conception of ideal built environments that have largely nothing to do with the climatic, social or economic specifics of the contexts they find themselves in; Sub-Saharan Africa. The word ‘ramifications’ in particular is appropriate to these two projects given its double meaning.
In both of these short films buildings play a silent protagonist role. Please tell us about your interest in architecture.
Architecture as nexus point and/or cipher for interrogating colonial practices is rich territory and as an artist also useful in that it is visual.
Who or what were your stylistic references?
For Excuse me, while I disappear. which was filmed on location at a huge, largely uninhabited new city in Luanda, Angola built by a Chinese company, I wanted to capture the ‘film set quality’ of the place. So the lighting and oblique character of De Chirico’s paintings were a strong influence visually, coupled with the static camera work of Roy Andersson’s films. Thematically the ethnographic cinema of Jean Rouch from the 1960s is also quite present. For the Flies. film, not so much visual references, more the sense of mood in J.G. Ballard’s literary work.
How does your concern with the means of creative production influence and become apparent in your filmmaking?
Only in so much as the making of these little films is complicated, expensive and involves quite a few people – so in conceptualising new projects I am always thinking equally about the fictional world being made but also what that world really costs.
What are you looking at, reading, watching, and listening to at the moment?
Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s Territorial Pissings is great. And I was recently at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and am currently going through all the material from that.
What are you currently working on and what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I am working on a project at the Venice Biennale in May titled The Johannesburg Pavilion featuring performance and film work; two solo shows later in the year and a feature film project titled Show No Pain.
More of Michael’s work: