Barnard Gallery, Cape Town
20.10.16 – 29.11.16
By the early nineteenth century Japan had effectively been isolated from the world for two hundred years. During that time, only Dutch and Chinese traders had contact with the island nation. Their policy of isolationism ended when, in 1853, American gunships, led by Commodore Perry, burst into Tokyo bay and demanded that Japan trade openly. It was towards the end of that period of insularity that Hokusai made his woodcut, Great Wave off Kanagawa, one of the series 36 views of Mount Fuji.
The woodcut is of a dreamy and exotically stylised seascape. On closer inspection one notices the scale of the wave and a crew of terrified fishermen that have sailed far from land and safety. To this ubiquitous image, Gitte Moller says “lol jk”. Her Hokusai as a Girl, a digitally altered painting, contributes to the impressive and enjoyable spread of ‘Liminal Geographies’, a group show at the Barnard Gallery in Newlands. The polysemic motif of the sea is present in the majority of the works in ‘Liminal Geographies’, and comes to signify among other things, seaside repose, the physical properties of water, melting ice-caps and the destructive capabilities of oceanic storms.
Far from simply presenting something new to jar with the old, Moller’s Hokusai as a Girl contributes to a particular narrative of change, of which the The Great Wave off Kanagawa was also a part in its time. The original ‘Great Wave’ is printed on traditional paper and inked using Japanese-made inks… except for the blue. Hokusai used Berlin blue (also known as Prussian blue) – a synthetic pigment formulated in Germany. This was an act of aesthetic borrowing, of cultural fusion in even the most isolated context. It portended a period of Globalization just as Japan exploded into modernity. In our times Moller can be said to ride a continuation of this wave towards ever more feminist (as well as feminine) representation in the arts. Moller has overhauled and remixed the Great Wave (for one, hers is neon pink). She has also transmogrified Fuji into a volcano issuing fumes of girlish perfume. She has lit a black sky with glowing MS-paint doodles. She has dispensed with the petrified sailors and in their place neon whales are beamed up by 8-bit aliens.
Themes of oceanic storms are palpable in Swain Hoogervorst’s painterly portrayal of the kind of uneasy waters that would irk an experienced seaman, and in Chad Roussouw’s three images of artefacts dredged from the wreck of the CSS Alabama (the song Hier kom die Alibama is about this US Navy ship which stopped at the Cape on two occasions). So convincingly realistic are his 3D rendered images that they precipitated a hushed row (difficult in an echoey gallery) between my partner and I as we each argued that they “MUST BE modified photographs” or were “UNDENIABLY a hyper-realistically paintings”. They are in fact Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI), like the realistic animations of video games or films. Although the surprise of these works relies largely on the lack of exploration into 3D rendering in gallery context they represent skillful and thoughtful pieces in their own right.
But I believe the real reason for the prevalence of oceanic imagery in this exhibition is the way the sea represents that which is liminal. It washes around continents like interstitial fluid sloshing between organs in the body. It is the threshold betwixt and between, breached but never banished. The exhibition derives its title from academic anthropology where the term ‘liminal’ has been in use since 1906. At that time it described the in-between stage of rituals; the moments of transition between, for example, child and adult in a coming-of-age ritual. Recently the term has come to apply more broadly to that which is in-between or at the margins.
Liminality is a useful concept to have plucked from the libraries of anthropological jargon because it indicates an appetite for ambiguity and evidences our growing understanding of the way in which we seek to make discreet that which is continuous. Embracing liminality is the enemy of the taxonomical project. This discretisation of knowledge is embodied in the way our universities are structured into fields. In her series, Making the Wave, Jean Brundrit uses scientific apparatus to digitally map waves as they break on the shoreline. They are displayed as though the wave is seen from above, appearing like foamy clusters of data points and pools of info-graphical dark water, recesses where her instruments have failed. These works function at the intersection of art and science, of aesthetics and usefulness.
‘Liminal Geographies’ makes the point that as we map the marginal, it becomes less marginal. There will forever be liminal spaces, and as we add to our definitions, our false dichotomies become false polychotomies (to clumsily coin a phase). It is the understanding that liminality is a support structure for meaning and culture, and the celebration of fluidity that makes this exhibition so gratifying.