Julia Rosa Clark’s aptly titled ‘Two Works’ exhibition at Whatiftheworld Gallery provides an unusual and stimulating visual experience of alternative media rich with conceptual agenda. Situated on a humming street corner of lower Woodstock, Whatiftheworld provides an opportunity for visitors to escape from the sensory deluge that flows through the area. Skirting the border of reality and the ethereal, the white-walled gallery presents an immaculate, spacious site for removed contemplation. Thomas McEvilley (1986: 8) once related this manner of exhibition to the ritual space of ancient tombs, whereby traces of the outside world were eliminated so that the eternal presence may be protected from the procession of time. An “ancient umbilicus”, he called it, referring to a mythological chamber that was believed to connect heaven and earth.
Falling and Flying, one of the exhibition’s two installations, involves a sacrilegious battle between this holy white cube and an all-consuming solar system of worldly iconography. While the ceiling of the installation demands a sort of Michelangelo reverence, this is no church. Far from an angelic fresco, the installation confronts the viewer with a collage of human experience. Working with an array of media that includes cut-out images, paint, fabric and found objects, the deliverance to be found here is through the material microcosm that Clark has created of the world at present. As alluded to in the work’s title, the installation absorbs the gallery space in such a way that one feels suspended in it, becoming an omniscient witness to all the bits of information that construct our universe.
At first the work appears as a chaotic collision of random images and symbols, however it becomes clear that there is a categorical organisation at play which allows one to gravitate between the types of natural, social and cultural knowledge they represent. There is something to be said for the way in which Clark juxtaposes different (and often completely unrelated) references so as to create subtle, unexpected narratives. In this way, the viewer is compelled to perform a closer reading of the artist’s visual scripture in order to find meaning in the world, so-to-speak. Amongst a cluster of attractive diamond cut-outs and hand-drawn banknotes surfaces images of raw meat and an upside-down clipping with the phrase “The carving up of Africa”, immediately making apparent the way we construct knowledge by establishing relationships between concepts.
With regard to her previous works, the artist has written (2004:19) that the process of collecting plays an important role in her art and she explores how a selection of objects may be used to reconstruct a subjective view of the world and, in doing so, create a new understanding of it. In this way, Falling and Flying is also reminiscent of a Renaissance Wunderkammer (a room dedicated to a collector’s found objects and curiosities) whereby the viewer is welcomed into Clark’s personal repertoire of signifiers and invited to conjure their own understanding of the world. A similarity rings true here to an early work of Penny Siopis, Sacrifices (1998), an installation that was made up of a historically-vast selection of found objects which the artist categorised according to colour, subverting ideological methods of archives and knowledge systems that many institutions provide as truth (Atkinson, 2004: 76). Of the installation, Brenda Atkinson (2004: 75) wrote “By re-placing displaced objects in new constellations, by recreating their context and content anew, the artist spins a different universe of association, weaving the public and the intimate into provocative juxtaposition.” The same may be said for Clark’s installation; while the intention here is not to make claims between the two artists’ work but rather to recognise how the use of installation is providing an interesting means for artists to interrogate historical narratives and the role that taxonomy plays in those narratives and creating knowledge.
The method employed in Clark’s work is equally vital to its concept which, as she explains in the exhibition catalogue, she relates to the age-old practice of soothsaying, whereby a diviner uses improvised rituals to reveal meaning in the present. Imagining Clark as the proverbial cleromancer, the improvised ritual here is the artwork itself as it was created it in-situ shortly before the opening of the exhibition without any pre-meditation, thereby incorporating spontaneity into the viewer’s process of meaning-making. The same approach was used for the second of Clark’s installations on exhibition, entitled Tone Poem. This work, by contrast, is housed in a small, secluded room featuring a media hybrid of fine-netting and digital video projection. Lit with various hues that change with the progression of the projection, the space is gradually saturated with a vibrant red which, when combined with the soft, organic edges of fabric, warms the viewer into an atmosphere of intimacy and gestation.
This predicates a sort of genesis which the viewer is privy to in the installation. The digital projection of seemingly random shapes and symbols begin to resemble the fundamental phases of cellular biology. With this, it’s apparent that the installation is interrogating a more scientific mode of rationality and understanding when compared to the free-form nature of the previous installation. Even with video content that is more uniform and structured, Tone Poem still manages to hint towards the spontaneity inherent to the combinations and multiplications fundamental to the development of all living matter. This is followed by nonsensical sequences of words, as seen in the work’s title, which are symbolic of the erratic ordering processes that take place between a sign and signified in search of meaning, showing the birth of a knowledge system established spontaneously through trial and error. It is here that Clark’s theme resurfaces, illustrating how random acts form part of our process of understanding the world and each other.
While the themes of creating alternative knowledge systems and exploring divination in meaning-making are not new to Clark’s work, ‘Two Works’ sees the artist pushing the boundaries of her practice in many ways. Falling and Flying, although staying true to Clark’s style of hybrid collage, is not as self-contained as many of her previous works, taking the installation into an unprecedented territory that seems appropriate for its conceptual defiance against pre-established ways of knowing. This effect is added to by the dynamic created between the work and the exhibition space, where the institutional idealism of the white cube is being challenged by chaos and distraction. The same may be said for Tone Poem and how it comments on the spontaneity that is often unaccounted for in rigid, institutionalized systems of knowledge. Its exploration of digital material also breaks away from the scope of the artist’s usual style and medium, emphasizing the pushing of traditional boundaries. The exhibition, as a product of Clark’s act of divination, strikes a balance between raising important questions without prescribing any answers to the viewer, leaving them compelled to read their own interpretation of a world filled with chaos and obscurity.
Atkinson, B. 2004. The Ocean in a Bottle: Penny Siopis and the Slippage of History. In: Smith, K. ed. Penny Siopis. Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery Editions.
Clark, J. R. 2004. Classroom Facilities: A Body of Creative Work Exploring Representations of Knowledge Through Schematic Means. Cape Town: University of Cape Town.
Clark, J. R. 2015. Two Works. Exhibition catalogue. 16 July 2015- 16 August 2015. Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.
McEvilley, T. 1986. In O’Doherty, B: Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. San Francisco: The Lapis Press.