What is the relationship of iconoclasm to censorship? I would like to consider the idea of artistic destruction, or erasure, as the performance of a kind of unveiling, and as an act of memory against the authority of the censor. What I am interested in exploring are situations where more than simply erasing, destroying, or displacing meaning, certain acts of iconoclasm add back latent content or repressed meaning into artworks, particularly those held up as cultural monuments. The examples I have chosen for discussion come from the particular history of South African art, though the model I propose may apply to other objects in other places and other eras.

An iconoclastic posture toward earlier art, and to bourgeois culture in general, can be considered a tradition for the modernist artists of the avant gardes. In South Africa, at the end of Apartheid, a number of artists have turned to this modernist tradition as a way to engage critically with monumentally oppressive images from the recent past. This paper looks at several instances of temporary or symbolic defacement of public monuments in South Africa: Wayne Barker's overpainting of landscape scenes by Hendrik Pierneef, a strip-tease at the Voortrekker Monument in Loslyf #1, and Tracey Rose's performance at a police monument in Oudtshoorn. By introducing the art of Wayne Barker, Tracey Rose, and the creators of the first Afrikaans pornography magazine -- I intend to demonstrate the relevance of iconoclasm to counter-memory, in opposition to officially and unofficially sanitized versions of history. In the work of each of these artists, who grew up in South Africa under the Nationalist regime and lived through the transition to democracy, we can read individual attempts to come to terms with the problems of representation, knotted up as they are, in the previous terms of the hegemony of Apartheid. Each of these examples are based upon acts which unsettle older images formerly held in high regard. They perform a detournment, in Guy DeBord's terminology, that is, they make formerly hegemonic images now seem themselves to be unsettling, through acts of clever erasure or intrusive addition. Paradoxically too, each of these acts of violence against art set iconoclasm to work against concrete manifestations of state-sponsored censure from the apartheid period. This was so because the original works of art, the monuments themselves, were built upon a foundation of erasure and repression.

censorship and iconoclasm -- unsettling monuments

John Peffer
2003, used with permission of the author

going commando
image breaking: wayne barker's pierneefs, 1989