Undoing the undoings of the Johannesburg Art Gallery: For the museum yet to become


Alexander Opper

Research Area:


There is currently still a relative dearth of scholarship on the contemporary African urban condition. In this context I believe there exists an excellent opportunity, using the intersection between art, architecture and urban(ist) disciplines, to pry open new and relevant readings on the emergent dynamics of African cities, and the role of architecture and space within these cities. A deep artistic reading of spatial constructs in the cities of the South, offers the promise of challenging the entrenched neo-liberalist attitude overly defining the North, and the West (threatening to choke possibilities for other models to emerge in the Global South). With this substantial research gap in mind, I have situated my artistic research primarily in, and base it on, both the persistent (post1994) and newer spatial anomalies to be found in the city of Johannesburg.


Over almost a decade I have engaged intensely and consistently in a form of artistic practice which essentially uses architecture against itself. I refer to this mode of working as ‘Undoing Architecture’. It serves as the conceptual framework for my inter-disciplinary practice, and relies on a self-reflexive entanglement of thinking, art-making, curating, teaching and writing.


Architecture, the discipline in which my original tertiary training took place, is implicitly inter-disciplinary. In contradiction to this ostensible dynamism it largely tends to play itself out as an incredibly slow, self-assured and relatively uncritical discipline, generally only poorly suited to deal with the complexities, of particularly urban challenges, of life in the 21st century contemporary condition. In the context of my PhD studies at BIGSAS, which focus on the striated context of the city of Johannesburg, I would plan to interrogate the limits and possibilities of architecture by ‘undoing’ these, using the discipline of art to do so.


Much of my practice has grappled with the expression and translation of line, boundary and territory, within and between Johannesburg’s multiplicities of liminal conditions and uncomfortably unequal adjacencies. I want to use the PhD to critically self-reflect on, and situate my artistic/architectural/teaching practice as a relevant approach towards reading and re-reading selected post-1994 Johannesburg everyday conditions; coupled with the more, or less, consciously spatio-political practices accompanying these conditions.


The productively deforming and transforming moves I am able to achieve via the conceptual framework of ‘Undoing Architecture’ raise critical issues around:


  1. the generally unquestioned conventions which govern a hierarchical disposition of spaces within   buildings;
  2. the power relationships which exist between these spaces and buildings;
  3. and the absolutist often western morphologies of architecture at large.