The Planet’s Wake
Brundyn+, Cape Town
24.07.2014 – 30.08.2014
The cavernous central space of Brundyn+, large enough to hold a small historical manufactory, provides an industrial stage for ‘The Planet’s Wake’, comprising an extraordinary variety of different works by the genius bricoleur Chad Rossouw. Crafted out of many different quasi-ancient and quasi-futuristic materials, these are thought-things that wittily take up a range of inter-texts: part nostalgic reimaginings of popular culture, part critical investigations into the meanings of making and looking at art.
Rossouw’s simultaneously playful and deadly serious ‘wake’ both teases and confronts the viewer’s fancies through a painstakingly constructed layering of alternative space-times that all make reference to well-known historical events and settings. Think Star Wars meets Ancient Rome in Green Market Square. The objects on show masquerade as products of and about these augmented histories, and appear to converge mysteriously in the present exhibition setting according to a logic that only very slowly unfolds through the experience of visual and imaginative scrutiny.
There is no doubt an ironic playfulness at work in this localisation of American and European tropes and sub-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Beneath these more formal and methodological aspects one senses the pre-post industrial heart driving Rossouw’s production, which embodies a deep concern for the devastations of the 20th century, specifically in terms of mankind’s increasingly technological and visual imaginary, so deeply invested in mass media, consumerism, science and war. All the self-consciously paraded ‘traditional’ materials, processes and subjects on show have been effectively filtered and renegotiated by an acute sensibility for the conceptual and historical complexities of photography, typography, design, pop culture and most of all cinema.
Through the deftly faux materiality on show, modernism appears to have betrayed itself. Rossouw’s ‘wake’ mourns and celebrates the fatal and irrevocable interruption of modern progress, as it is imagined as having been severed from but also dragged down by its utopian ideologies. In Rossouw’s send-off, every ‘pure’ minimalist or performative move of the art of ages survives as a picture only, and the world we believe ourselves to be living in lies suffocated under the tinsel of CGI and polyurethane props.
6:18 and 8:11 are good examples of how Rossouw, self-consciously drawing on traditions of the ‘faux’ by way of humorous invitation to the viewer, underhandedly widens the gap between two temporalities: the historical time of events memorialised and the Cartesian time of a mathematical dimension measured. Both of these are continuously created in and through conscious observation, and thereby – no matter how grand the memorial or how sophisticated the measuring process – forever flawed, insufficient, and ultimately, in effect, fake.
The monstrosity of the will to record, to set in stone, to buttress temporal events – the banality of all recording efforts, of reducing complexity via any means (however total the loss of the real) are ‘blown up’ here. As a ‘forever’ of plaques, of data points, pointing back at us, expressive of nothing but our longing to reach outside of ourselves, they exemplify an embodiment of our loss of reality, since they mimic SFX movie-industry look-alikes that have nothing to represent and no film to perform in.
Mention must be made of Matthew Blackman’s fictional text that accompanies the exhibition, available in regular updates on the website www.planetswake.com. In order to write this brief review, I chose not to go and read anything there first, so that I felt free to focus on my first impressions of the material objects exhibited in the gallery space without ‘recognising’ them as belonging to a known narrative framework. In Rossouw’s previous works, he has generally provided opportunities to augment one’s experience through additional text. However with this show, an authoritative weighting or ordering of all these parts is more methodically avoided than before, as Blackman’s text is an ex post facto one that riffs off Roussow’s work rather than attempting to frame it. I made my choice according to my wish to encounter his material work as existing without hope for or hint at a specific plot, since I felt that any ‘external’ or applied story could make them into props instead of pretend props. Without a back-story, they appear curiously real in and of themselves, extra-ordinarily real, and perhaps manage to say more about the privileging of curiously ‘fake’ objects in the realm of ‘art’ than if bolstered by a narrative of sorts. Going online to read Blackman’s texts first and then into the gallery to look at Rossouw’s objects is of course equally recommended. Perhaps an audio-tour would bring the two worlds closer and open opportunities for even more time-bending.
But what would the authoritative voice on the headphones say to us? ‘On a narrow plinth the polyurethane skull of what may have been a hominid or alien, is painted very naturalistically with oil paint. It bears a five Rand coin in its single eye socket, a reference to ancient Roman funerary practice.’ Impossible! Rather the most urgent question on viewing this object becomes: Is the coin fake, too? That is to say: What individual element is fake here? This in turn invokes a Platonic question: From where has the mimetic nature of this fakery come? Thus the material object, more convincingly than any image, throws into question the problematic grammar of our linguistic consciousness: Could there be a real skull for this fake object, since the text accompanying, describing, surrounding it is never just a title?
Somewhat unavoidably, the coin (in our contemporary currency) becomes a key: One cannot see if it is a real coin or not, and the ‘reality’ of a coin is a particularly pernicious problem that occurs regularly in archaeology, for instance, where material presence substantiates historical evidence. The viewer becomes unwittingly entangled in a game of speculation and verification. It is a space that both taxes as well as tunes certain limits of meta-perception: the binary ‘real’ versus ‘fake’ – so apparently useful and indispensible in everyday life – turns out to have only thinly veiled a veritable universe of alternative narratives and shades of black.
Elsewhere in the exhibition the four small formats of The Future I-IV (for me especially ‘The View from the Old Cable Station’) manage to raise many other questions quietly, slowly, one by one. The viewer is led to ask: who records? What kind of motivation ‘fakes’ this record in front of me, for instance why and how exactly is this image hand-drawn in ink onto an old vellum bible page? Why, however, are we offered such a specifically photographic view, a fact that undermines the possibility of ‘believing’ or rather: being convinced by the fakery? Perhaps in being intrigued, entertained, safe in the knowledge that one cannot be convinced, we are at our most vulnerable: believing that our disbelief is not suspended, we are open to many suggestions.
Overall, this show reads as a tensely, barely balanced autology by a compulsively encyclopaedic spirit. The logical fallacies that populate the incommensurable gaps between material, text and context are born on the sleeve of every work. The alchemy of fakery is the lipstick on the collar of these objects that hovers here like the proud mistress of the artist’s anxious labouring. One such example is when intaglio-type prints (that look like deftly stylised and crudely collaged findings from a Google Image search) project Roman ruins and meteor showers onto the shores of the Fair Cape, signed with a loose flourish bottom right with the ‘real’ artists’ signature and ‘our’ (Christian calendar) year.
The thread running through ‘Planet’s Wake’ as a spatial installation is as conceptually calculating as it is also biographically determined. The two are so cunningly entangled that some viewers may feel disheartened at all the layering, mirroring and misdirection of attention going on. The didactic quality to some of the works provides questions around their socio-political dimension – is this the yearning of the post-colonial subject for a mythological ‘Anschluss’ to the old centre? The tragedy of Chad’s ‘Wake’ is certainly less tangible if one takes his ‘Planet’ merely to mean ‘Earth’: the task of determining which ‘Planet’ we are surveying here through all manner of cleverly crafted lenses, levers and complications ultimately becomes an endeavour of feeling, not thought. The meanings of the endless play of signs in the universally quasi-human present are presented in the guise of fantastical and futuristic stylisations as anything but inevitable.