Mark Hipper - 'Interim' at João Ferreira
by Hazel Friedman
Lindiwe Sisulu should take a look at 'Interim', Mark Hipper's latest exhibition. The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs is, after all, his most vocal critic. And it was she who threatened to ban an exhibition of Hipper's child nudes at the 1998 Grahamstown festival on the grounds of its indecent content.
She can rest easy with this show. There are no paintings of young boys touching their genitalia, just portraits of children executed in delicate, wispy watercolours and a monumental charcoal drawing of an acrobat suspended precariously on gymnastic rings hanging from God knows where, cryptically entitled The Metaphysics of Architecture. In short, nothing about these works could possibly topple the sensibilities of even the most hysterical of self-styled moral watchdogs.
Ah, but therein lies the rub. As confirmed by anyone who is familiar with Hipper's prodigious talent and probing mind, nothing is what it seems. And one of the many partially fitting keys to this show is the notion of change, disease and, believe or not, hysteria. Hipper's imagery has been inspired by 19th century medical textbooks used to identify mental illness, as well as Vanitas portraits, and references to memento mori ("remember that you must die"). The latter references occur most obliquely in Entropy, a depiction of German artist Hans Holbein's distorted skull which, depending on angle of vision (in more ways than one), resembles anything from a ruptured pod to a ruptured penis. Hipper has pointed out that the English translation of "Holbein" is actually "hollow bone", which makes the skull something of a logo for Holbein and Hipper, signifying their ongoing fascination with impermanence, death and existential decay.
Hipper's Metaphysics of Architecture evokes the magnificent fragility of human aspirations towards excellence - rendered principally through the monuments we construct to civilisation - monuments which we deem invincible. Yet monuments are also mausoleums and, as the events of September 11th confirm, even the most seemingly indestructible of towers to Babel can come crashing down.
Throughout his impressive oeuvre, Hipper has demonstrated a fascination with liminal states, mortality and masks. In this show, his images of children provide disconcerting reminders of all three states. Rendered with exquisite, fine brushstrokes they strike one initially as images of generalised innocence. But on closer examination they become strange portraits of impermanence and displacement. Their eyes see, but do not connect. These are eyes not of carefree childhood but trauma - resembling the unfocused gaze of an autistic child immersed in an inner world to which there is no access.
Which brings us to another central reference point in Hipper's exhibition: Jean-Martin Charcot, the French neurologist famous for his research into hysteria in the 19th century. Charcot developed, through studies of photography and painting, a theory of hysteria based primarily on the act of looking, and formed an important collection and concept of the clinician's art. A precursor of Freud, he developed a theory that the "human body constitutes by right of nature, the place of origin and distribution of disease". His subjects were suffering from many forms of stress, including sexual feelings and traumas, economic fears, religious conflicts, and a conviction (perhaps correct) that they were being exploited. In some cases their distress had been provoked by a mental or physical illness. The hysterical symptoms obscured the underlying emotional conflicts and traumas.
Hipper claims only a surface interest in Charcot. His curiosity extends principally to Charcot's presumptuousness in categorising mental illness based on physical observation. This is suggested in Canny, a portrait based on a photograph taken by Charcot. The title of the work, Hipper explains, derives from Freud's essay on The Uncanny. The image is of a young woman twisting her tongue and squinting in a show of either deliberate, mischievous derangement or genuine, convulsive trauma. In a sense, what Charcot was trying to say through his medical observations is that to treat a disease, one must learn how to recognise it. Yet the art of looking does not always provide the effect of truth and reality that we expect when contemplating the "objective" character of the image. To recoin a cliché, we see only what we are ready to see, what we have been taught to see. We eliminate and ignore everything that is not a part of our prejudice. Yet the imperative remains to read beneath, beyond and between the contoured form.
Which is exactly what we are required to do with Hipper's work. Although each work is self-contained, the separate images certainly interconnect into a tableau of impressive works. Yet despite the tantalising semantic teasers thrown our way, one leaves the show with a sense of precisely that: of having being teased - of the artist tickling concepts without fully fleshing them out. In this sense 'Interim' becomes an exhibition, not of consolidation, but rather of in-betweenness or liminality for Hipper - which he readily admits.
His next project will be to depict planes and other phallic tools of technology that, in the blink of an eye, can be turned into lethal weapons. Again, the themes of impermanence, mortality and memento mori will serve as recurring refrains through his work but in a different guise. Certainly for our erstwhile deputy minister - not to mention anyone else afflicted by hysterical moral fixations - Hipper's next project will provide fertile food for Freudian thought.
Until February 2
João Ferreira Fine Art, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 423 5403 or 082 490 2977
Fax: (021) 423 2136
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat 10am - 2pm