22.10.2015 – 30.10.2015
It is a traumatic time when thousands of asylum-seekers diasporically gather on the shores of Europe, many of whom are swathed in the same glittery space blankets as the subjects of Nicole Weniger’s photographs. The news footage from around the Mediterranean shows shivering families of predominantly Syrian, Middle Eastern, Islamic refugees wrapped in luminescent gold and silver emergency blankets. Weniger’s photographs taken on the South African coast bear the most disconcerting similarity to these surreal images.
This is a visual coincidence that the artist regards with dismay. She recalls a barrage of emails from friends asking if she had seen the images on the news and comments that she hadn’t wanted her art to be such an eerily accurate presentiment about the displacement of thousands. But this is exactly the kind of social issue that Weniger’s art tackles. Her oeuvre has consistently dealt with themes of Islamophobia and displacement. ‘Memento Mori’ takes this conversation to the side streets in Woodstock.
The exhibition is the culmination of a month-long residency with the gallery at Space Between and is unified by the idea that human presence is a more complex concept than simply a person occupying space. It seemed to be comprised of three subsections, each an Ozymandias-like monument to our relationship to our surrounds.
The first is a series of photographs of landscapes being investigated by clusters of youths, whose identities are hidden by golden burkas. Like a team of scientists or aliens – or even tourists, they examine the landscape. The recurring motif of the iridescent space blanket becomes reassuring as the viewer feels slowly initiated into the group of golden burka-ed explorers.
In other images the space blankets stand in for the explorers. Absence shows a flag flapping and glittering in a foggy fynbos wilderness. The image is reminiscent of flags planted proudly to mark a triumph of human endeavour, but the festive flag seems abandoned and lonely. It is a beacon to other wanderers in the hope that they exist to see it.
In another corner of the show there is a pair of photographs of Weniger using a selfie-stick in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. These are titled Narcissus after the Greek Mythological hunter who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and drowns. Poking fun at her own contrived wallflower expression is just one way in which the exhibition shows a sensitive kind of self-deprecating humour.
Adjacent to Narcissus two selfie-stick maquettes are suspended in perpetual vanity, supported by plaster of Paris-soaked cloths. They appear to be photographing nothingness – the implication being that the presence of technology that has been created to facilitate a human desire is as much a representation of that desire – a kind of conceptual negative-space that outlines the human user. These works feel conscientiously self-reflexive and speak to the narrative of absence and presence.
A third component at the centre of the space includes sculptures of volcanoes that are intended to reveal tensions that bubble under the surface. One such structure rises from the gallery floor and vomits a pitch black Rorschach shape that Weniger hopes will reveal something going on ‘beneath’ in viewers. Whether it’s the burka, the crust of the earth or through some technological augmentation Weniger takes an element of humanity, displaces, distorts and decontextualizes it so that its human-ness is a disembodied remnant.