SMITH Studio, Cape Town
22.06 – 22.07.2017
In his perennial text, Resonance and Wonder, Stephen Greenblatt defines the elusive concept of ‘wonder’ as “the power of [a] displayed object to stop a viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” It is difficult to divorce this term from its historical usage to describe the Wunderkammer or wonder/curiosity cabinets of the late Renaissance, in which the experience of wonder was brought on by the immersive, encyclopaedic collection and display within natural history rooms of relics accumulated through colonial conquest. In this context, the ‘arresting’ nature of the objects was inextricably rooted in ideologies of power and possession tied up in the imperialist imagination. In a contemporary context, it is clear that humans have not lost the tendency to negotiate and express our power and place in the world in relationship to ‘others’ through objects and material exploration.
‘Calibrating Wonder’ at SMITH Gallery in Cape Town is such an attempt. Facilitated by Lyall Sprong, it is a collaborative group exhibition that takes as its central theme the idea that material artworks can serve as portals through which change is possible and new possibilities can be accessed. In as much as the exhibition and process leading up to it are a playful investigation of materiality, the individual works – and the curation of the show as a whole – draw sharply into question the role of the viewer and present an ideal in which the self is defined in relation to and in collaboration with others within a shared ecosystem.
Interactive, kinetic, and process-based works throughout the exhibition amplify this positioning of the self as deeply interconnected with ecological, social, and historical others in a contemporary context. This concept is immediately raised by the work of Katleho Kano Shoro entitled BA TENG YourSelves ECHO (2017). The work comprises of two suspended mirrors in wooden frames that may be opened like a book. Through this interactive gesture, the participant views their own reflection multiplied to infinity. The poem that accompanies the piece emphatically reminds the reader: “You are not alone,” “You are plural” and “the presence of others […] travels within you.”
This conceptualisation of the seemingly autonomous ‘self’ as existing in an interconnected, communal, and productive relationship with others is reiterated in Applause (2017) by Lyall Sprong. As in the other interactive works on show, here the usual modes of passive spectatorship are disrupted as the participant is invited to enter into an inverted, suspended cardboard box. Upon entering the box, the alternating sounds of applause and rushing water are activated by sensors. One’s immediate affirmation and containment afforded by the invisible crowd of supporters within the confines of the box are soon ruptured by an awareness of a small onlooker, a tiny bouquet of dried flowers taped to the wall in front of the box. The bundled corpses of small ‘others’ that once were, combined with the alternating sounds of applause and rushing water, further prompt a consideration of the various ‘others,’ both human and otherwise, with which we are connected.
Numerous works on show poetically imply and encourage this act of re-establishing a lost connection with those outside of oneself. Simon Kohler’s dolerite rock gongs in Mother Tone Reflections (2017), Daniella Mooney’s imaginings of fantastical worlds, and Marcelle Sprong’s visualisation of self-renewal and growth in Ho’oponopono (2017), name but a few. Throughout the show, the playful interaction between the viewer/participant and the works, as well as between the works themselves, is light-hearted yet profound in its reframing of the familiar in a way that encourages a deeper consideration of the ecological, historical, social, and cultural systems by which and with which we are connected.