KZNSA Gallery, Durban
18.08.2015 – 06.09.2015
When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines! –Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things
In his 1972 novel, Transparent Things, Nabokov follows in third person the rather grey, unremarkable character Hugh Person, literary editor and accidental murderer as he revisits sites from his past. In a rather extraordinary scene, the narrator writes a three-page description of a single pencil, from the pine forests to the carpenter who abandoned it in Person’s room. As we later realise the narrator is a character in the book, the reliability of his narrative becomes suspect, and what starts as history reverts to something between memory and story.
The remarkable group show seen this year at the KZNSA, ‘Sightings’ curated by Amy Watson, has certain intersections with this novel. Watson’s show is ostensibly about history, in particular the blind spots of history: micro-narratives, obscurities and things forgotten. It unearths some fascinating histories, ships stuck in the Suez Canal during the Six Day War, hidden images from the Troubles in Ireland, the Coelacanth, an obscure book of photographic love scenes in Stellenbosch. Perhaps more importantly, though, the show charts ways in which artists attempt to use art objects to reinvigorate, antagonise and reinterpret history.
Nabokov’s novel suggests three ways that historical objects function: as frames, entirely invisible, yet constraining action; as lenses which refract various histories into a new whole, acting as a hub; and as memorabilia, evoking memory, narrative and nostalgia. When these historical objects are recast as art objects, or become the starting point for an artwork, they shift our focus onto the operation of the objects, or into a sharper critique of the historical narrative or onto the actual physicality of the object (largely absent in this predominantly lens-based show), or a mixture of the above.
Broomberg and Chanarin’s two works KodaColor-X 1968 frame 9 and Kodak Ektachrome 34 1978 frame 4 act to reveal the invisible frames. These two works use the vintage film stock in their titles (though the film is long expired). Until the 1980s, Kodak produced film that during a normal exposure could not render black skin accurately. The film didn’t have sufficient colour range in the dark browns. Legendarily, they only changed this after chocolate and furnishing manufacturers laid sustained complaints. It points to the way that seemingly neutral technologies produce frameworks or scaffoldings for human actions. The two images that Chanarin and Broomberg display, however, are not of skin, but of foliage shot in Gabon. This points to the complex relationship between cameras and Africa and racist colonial power structures. The lack of figures though, suggests that even when the evidence is absent from actual pictures, the film itself bears the weight of its history: that regardless of the image there is an inherent racism in the film. More so, it points to the constraining framework of objects that are invisible but shape our actions.
Bianca Baldi’s Zero Latitude takes a different approach. She presents a single object recorded in a single video shot, a fold-up day bed designed by Louis Vuitton for the Belgian explorer Pierre Savorgan de Brazza for an expedition to Congo. In the video, a pair of men, looking half like auctioneers and half like hotel managers, pack and unpack the suitcase. In his book Entangled, archaeologist Ian Hodder suggests a way of interpreting material objects. Things have a variety of dependencies, between themselves (nail needs a hammer) and with people. These dependencies map out relationships of reliance and enablement that allow an object to exist. Hodder’s approach is flexible in that it allows one to trace the leather from a suitcase (which cows, which tanning techniques, stitching technologies), but simultaneously trace the need for luxury luggage (accumulation of European wealth, steamships, mobility). An object can act as a lens, focusing these strands.
Baldi’s work acts as such a lens, where the single object is entangled with multiple strands from labour and luxury, through to colonialism, the myth of exploration, products and exoticism, and production technologies. It is also linked with De Brazza and the unnamed hands that hauled the luggage. Zero Latitude asks what allows this object to exist. By shifting the context of the object, from perhaps dusty attic to artwork, these entanglements become foregrounded.
However, objects are reluctant witnesses. In both Baldi’s and Broomberg and Chanarin’s works there is a need for the contextualising voice of the artist, the pamphlet, the catalogue, or for a priori knowledge of the objects. There is an interesting interplay between the muteness and volubility of the objects that is mediated by the artist. The frame or the lens is colored by the maker.
Bridget Baker’s The Assemblers #0 opens itself up to this particular interplay, both the reluctance of objects and the artist’s voice. The displayed work is a 16mm film of a woman getting her hand cast. Behind the projector is a hand-sized plaster mould with a fishy imprint in it. The work is fragmentary, and wholly unintelligible.
The exhibition text however, activates the objects. The pamphlet describes the discovery of the Coelacanth near the artist’s home-town, the nationalist myth of the fish’s discovery, and the artist’s interest in B-grade 50s horror films. The film is showing fragments of the process of changing the artist through physical special effects into a Coelacanth monster, a sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon. While I felt there could have been more active explication in the work itself, more clues so to speak, this work plays on a more figurative level that the previous, invoking complex metaphors mired between the personal, the fictive and the historical. It’s an interposition of these three lenses, or a collision of the three hubs, though I would have liked to have seen more of the debris.
In a similar clashing of metaphors Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Ukuguqula iBatyi 3 uses the artist’s own presence and a series of objects. The short video made from a series of stills shows Wa Lehulere digging a hole with a comb until he uncovers a cow skeleton. The title refers to racial reclassification under Apartheid, literally translating to ‘to turn a coat inside out.’ Rather than using historical objects that have deep significance, Wa Lehulere uses everyday objects: a backyard, a comb, a paintbrush, and enacts a kind of banal archaeology, that gains in metaphoric power. There is a constellation of ideas here: personal unearthing, the intersection of the personal and the political, catharsis, the crossing of big and small narratives, but also racial classification using hair, the clashing of scientific narratives and historical narratives. Wa Lehulere’s rhetoric operates in the realm of the associative, but there is a palpable sense of the weight of the past constraining the associations. History rubs up against language and memory, guiding what can and can’t be expressed with objects.
What links the works on this show, besides history and objects, is a sense that the past needs to renarrativised and reinterpreted. The past which is embedded in objects needs to be unpicked and retold in a way that reveals the currents of racism, colonialism and nationalism. And while the grand narratives are easily challenged, scraps adhere in unlikely objects and strange places. Much like Wa Lehulere’s hole there seems to be an urgency to expose what lies beneath.
While this show is not massive, it was well thought out and tightly curated. The curator, Amy Watson, hasn’t been held back by the standard curse of the group show in South Africa: how to fit a commercial gallery’s diverse stable into a coherent whole. The show feels significant disproportionate to its size. What Watson seems to have realised is that when history becomes art, the recontextualisation whether actual or metaphoric cracks open a space for political and social critique.