blank projects, Cape Town
01.09.2016 – 08.10.2016
We are good at pigeonholing young artists in this country. Sweeping classifications shore up the edges of messy or unpredictable work, I think. They’re a kind of shorthand to make appraisal and description easier but they also perpetuate a selective critical vacuum. This holds most true for those artists whose practices are explicitly embodied, taking root in biography, in lived experience and in identity and the forces that shape it. Maybe that’s because the body is the province of difference, and difference is all too easy to oversimplify and understate.
A case in point is Lloyd Pollak’s review of Igshaan Adams’ 2015 show at blank projects, ‘Parda’, for this publication. Pollak fetishizes Adams’ iconography in a way I’m inclined to call orientalising, although the author’s implication is that the work is aware of, even panders to, some of these same fantasies of Muslim exoticism. And maybe it does, and that’s all well and good, but the words “incense-tainted”, “seraglio” and “harem” still come up in Pollak’s opening paragraph with the rhetorical force of canon fire. In preparation for this piece, I’ve read other texts that interpret Adams in similarly charged, although less romanticised, ways– the artist’s ongoing project is to reconcile his sexuality and his faith, we are told, and his art emerges at the intersection of those two categories of experience. The words “GAY” and “MUSLIM” (I imagine them in all caps) rub up against one another, causing sparks.
Here’s my problem with the uninterrogated application of these labels. They stick to some bodies more than others. However inadvertently, the terms distance ideological monoliths like whiteness, maleness, Christianity and heterosexuality from the mechanics of embodiment. Remember that straight white men aren’t incarnated like the rest of us. They are brains, floating around and thinking important thoughts about the universe and everything in it, effectively inoculated against stereotypes. If we rely solely on the body of the artist to read a work, we don’t just do that work a conceptual disservice. We also reproduce structures of power that are always already in criticism, a practice that is, almost by definition, the translation of experience from one language into another without becoming visible as translator (that’s the late Stuart Morgan talking).
For me the strength of Igshaan Adams’ ‘Oorskot’, his most recent solo exhibition at blank projects, is that it nurtures an ongoing interest in identity without opening itself up to superficial readings as an extension of his body. The work doesn’t epitomise ideals of bodily transcendence, either. Instead, ‘Oorskot’ showcases a deeply formal and process-driven collection of objects that are still unapologetically charged with personal memory and history. These are works of the body but not only the body, and they resist easy classification. It’s a rich and dense show, testifying to the evolution of one of the most interesting artists of my generation.
In ‘Oorskot’ Adams refines the acute sensitivity to surface he demonstrated in ‘Parda’, this time offering up a series of strange (and strangely compelling) new pieces that sit somewhere between textile and sculpture. Instead of privileging flatness as the wall hangings of ‘Parda’ did, these works gather wire, nylon rope and fabric into curtains, columns and cocoons. Rope spools toward the floor in a literal breaking loose from the confines of tapestry, deconstructing the medium’s visual systems. Decorative motifs, some encoded with prayers, are tightly wound into the thread, but these also unravel at the margins of the work. Here and there a single bead on a length of wire tendrils skyward as if it might sprout. The end result is controlled chaos – the closest visual analogy is probably fungus, the kind with sprays of feathery inflorescence. In fact, in works like Ontgroei (to outgrow), Adams’ materials become almost distressingly organic, erupting from the gallery walls in a thicket of green.
There’s something both admirable and horrifying about fungus. It grows where nothing else will take hold, in landfills and on bones, reducing biomatter and stone to substrate in much the same way. It’s an in-between thing with weird appetites. Oorskot, referring to both excess (in the sense of surplus) and remnant (in the sense of corpse), has something fungoid about its semantics. The word’s meanings share a common condition, best described as ‘too much-ness’. Dead flesh and unused matter are grotesque because they exceed us, albeit in different ways. But any surplus is also available for repurposing. It can be reimagined.
The symbiotic relationship between Kyle Morland’s mild steel and Adams’ fabric in Stoflike Oorskot does just this, reimagining its materials through their proximity to one another and making each stranger for it. The title translates as mortal remains, marking this work as the latest expression of Adams’ lasting interest in death and its rituals. I’m thinking specifically of the performance Bismillah here, in which the artist’s body was prepared for burial by his father in accordance with Islamic funereal rites.
Where Bismillah tenderly explored the relationships we leave behind, Stoflike Oorskot concerns itself more with the matter of the corpse. The work dominates the gallery, a tented mass of knotted rope and metal. Dust has accumulated in the weave and the string that tangles around the structure has picked up grime from the concrete floor. Already in a state of partial collapse, Stoflike is transformed by these details into a thing decomposing. Its steel frame becomes skeletal, with the tapestry pulled taut in places like skin that can no longer contain the sinew and bone beneath. What remains is the impression of a body, not the substance.
In a way the whole show traffics in these impressions, with few as resolved as Stoflike’s carcass. For the most part they have the quality of memory about them – forms and thoughts that have grown hazy and come undone. Memory is, I suppose, a remainder of a different sort, much as forgetting is a different sort of death. I was struck by two pieces that articulate real memories: the green abundance of Groen Amara (2016) in blank’s main gallery and the paler Ouma (2016) in the secondary room. In scale and draping each work approximates the human body. Like everything on display they are made mostly of rope and string, although Ouma has the addition of plastic beads, wire hangers and fabric. All the hangers seem to be rusting. Groen Amara makes reference to the brand of health tonic Adams was given by his grandmother, standing in for that brief moment of childhood unpleasantness and a connection to the woman who raised him. It pours down the wall like Old Man’s Beard, its filaments just touching the concrete floor.
Ouma references the woman herself, or at least her figure in Adams’ memory landscape. The palette is genteelly old lady and the work’s trailing appendages evoke skirts. The whole thing is heavy visually and but also physically – it seems dragged down by its own weight, a fact belied by the delicate touch between string and floor at its base. There is a softness to the weave that isn’t replicated elsewhere, but this makes the holes in the fabric all the more ragged and jarring. Remembrance is an imperfect process, and maybe more so when that memory is freighted by feeling.
Adams’ creations animate the mundane things of which they are made – they put surplus to use – and we animate them further by taking the time to map their small points of contact with the gallery space and conceptual contact with each other. For all their resolute quietness these are pieces that demand time, and time is what we have to spare. Tyd en wyl.