The universe in a grain of sand
by Robyn Sassen
When one first enters the space, an alarming sense of starkness confronts one. There were no works on the walls in the area at the bottom of the stairs at Art on Paper, where Stephen Inggs' 'Residuum' was held. Indeed, this sense of starkness is echoed throughout the show; just 10 large scale gelatin silver emulsion prints were on show here.
But don't get me wrong - starkness is one thing, bareness another. The scale and visual strength of the images individually and collectively filled the space with resound, not different from how a ponderous, magnificent, contemporary symphony would. Yet, these hand-pulled photographic prints are not poetic or beautiful in the traditional sense. They are powerful and magnificent in terms of their reflection on pragmatic tools and objects and the values and ideologies they embody. Rather than simple records of relatively everyday things, these works are testimonies to a whole culture, be they a rusted tricycle, a set of dividers over a map or a protea.
William Blake said that the universe is reflected in a grain of sand, and a similar ethos pervades this exhibition, relating the residual soul of an object to its image, yet there is something more. It is partly the size of the works that make them so poignant as images of objects representative of an era, and consequently a set of values.
The exhibition title speaks of that which is left behind. It's a residue of ideological values and history, which renders these 10 object essays on social dynamics, context, still life and portraiture. They're essays which one reads with one's solar plexus, and they speak quite clearly of the fun that Inggs had in creating these quiet monuments to a bygone era.
Looking at these things, from the map behind the dividers, to the colonialist text, entitled 'Journeys and Researches', comparisons with William Kentridge's map drawings and his affinity toward objects of mechanical use from the past, as well as Willem Boshoff's recent comment on shovels and their hand wrought origins are unavoidable.
Inggs is doing something different, in honouring these objects. They are not a part of a narrative, neither are they transmogrified creatures of fantasy and myth. They are themselves, holding a residue of the love that their owner had for them. Anecdote, for this reason, informs that image, up to a point:
The initial inspiration for 'Residuum' came indirectly from a story about a partially blind man living in Stanford who used to work on the roof of his house under the supervision of his wife standing below. One weekend after the man had died, Inggs bought some of his tools at a garage sale held by the man's wife.
The lovingly repaired quality of the tools gave them an aesthetic presence that went beyond mere pragmatism and stimulated him to photograph them as subject matter. Whilst this particular story is certainly not evident in any reading of the work, the idea of a broad narrative structure was developed in the collective body of images around issues of transience, the burden of history and questions of origin and prior ownership.
'Residuum' is Inggs' third exhibition of this nature, at Art on Paper. It follows 'Sensum' and 'Continuum', and represents a taxonomy of objects specific to South Africa and a specific headspace and time-based set of values.
Closed: October 28