Daphne Prevoo at the Pretoria Art Museum
by Robyn Sassen
In 1971, I was taken to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, at the Majestic Theatre. I wasn't yet three. I remember the palpable sense of 'specialness', which came with the understanding that I must treasure this experience because it wouldn't be repeated. I tell you this personal anecdote in introducing this review of Daphne Prevoo's 'Boundless', simply because my perusal of this work a number of years on gives me the same jolt and sense of awe.
No, I don't put Prevoo on a plinth parallel with the schmaltz, cliche and noise of Joseph, but I do think that she has achieved a very exciting mix of conceptual and aesthetic values that rings true in terms of authenticity, labour-intensiveness, humour and theoretical sophistication, which is rare. The exhibition is a coup for Pretoria Art Museum, and in this critic's opinion, is a 'must see' for 2005, It will be a very hard act to follow.
Conceptual manoeuvres in the dark are one thing: trendy and sophisticated with their own level of one-upmanship, and relating very consciously to the tides of theoretical and behavioural gesture in visual culture. But the presence of the artwork in real space, real time, showing evidence of real labour and real articulated thought, is another. It is much, much more powerful. In 'Boundless', Prevoo provides a sense of magic, humour and poetry that has all its theoretical nuts and bolts in place, but is neither illustrative nor didactic.
Prevoo straddles three continents, living and working in the Netherlands, Swaziland and the UK. Thus she remains literally without boundary. Working in a diversity of media including knitted garments, hair, sewn garments, hand-woven iron cages and domestic chairs, she yields a moving, simple exhibition, comprising just four works.
Don't be fooled by this though: the works are monumental in their manifestation, and while one is a wall text, ostensibly to offer background to her approach, there is a flush interface between the four which holds them together convincingly.
The overwhelming impression left by the work is surreal and not unfrightening. On the furthest wall, directly across from the space's entrance, hangs a red dress. It is not an ordinary dress. Its sleeves are really long, extending emptily across the space.
These arms, or rather, sleeves, are eerie in their emptiness; the dress itself implies and embraces absence, the arms reach out towards an audience. Maybe it's about greed, maybe emptiness. A foreshortened image of a passage, with a figure being able to extend its length is startling. Yes, this might be trivialised into a dress for Elastic Girl from The Incredibles, but this is far too facile an interpretation.
This dress embodies emotional context. It is red. It confronts associations of colour, gesture and distortion. It's the kind of thing one is more comfortable regarding from a distance: it recalled for me the horror of a dress in a cupboard in an old Bette Davis classic, violently cut up with a pair of scissors. The horror of this garment is more real than that of a violated body, the damage inflicted is metaphoric and the distortion of the clothing echoes bodily anguish deeply and inarticulately.
On the left is another garment. Technically, it's a machine-knitted jersey. This, too, has exaggerated sleeves, which extend for a number of metres before they reach the ground, and then trail. They're linked to one another by knitted rungs. A jersey that is a ladder is reminiscent of the dream logic that makes following a rabbit down a hole and landing in a different world, of walking into a wardrobe and squeezing through the stifling furs to find another universe on the other side, quite conceivable.
Thinking of stream-of-consciousness children's literature in grappling for a point of access to these works is not inappropriate: Prevoo cites Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland as central to the development of much of her work. She corroborates her position, commenting,'The familiarity of pieces lures the viewer into a false sense of comfort a world where everything is possible and nothing quite what it seems.'
At the centre of the space is a dramatic construction of chairs with their seats penetrated and a massive ball of hair interconnected and related with a series of bulbous metal cages, like growths along a narrow canal. There are phallic symbols here, the abject is present, and cages are manifest, playing on imprisonment, protection, safety, danger and more. But nothing is as it seems: the cages are open-ended, the phalluses are joined in a chain, and the abjection, implied.
The cages link the two chairs by the hole in their seats. The ball of hair lies immutable, huge, in the center. The chairs become commodes, vessels for waste. Prevoo quotes Kristeva: 'It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity system order'.
The wall text is and isn't a work. It describes the artist's ideas behind these works and others. Some of the texts are written in English, some in Dutch. Some have spelling errors. It is not clear whether it is expected of the viewer to read these texts or examine them visually. In aesthetic shock from the rest of the show, I didn't have the intellectual focus to read them, but looked. They are beautiful in their interrogation of the works' problematics. They are drawn, they are written. Ostensibly to explain, they are clearly there more directly to muse.
This site-specific installation collectively and individually embodies a repellent familiarity. Considering elements of commonplace existence, from clothing to furniture, the works convincingly distort of the commonplace, evoking discomfort, if not horror. These gestures and the potency they embrace, represent a development of Dadaist gestures like Meret Oppenheim's Breakfast in Fur of 1936, or Marcel Duchamp's chocolate making machines. It's erotic and appealing, humorous even, but as it attracts, so it repels.
Closed: 31 January 2005
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