blank projects, Cape Town
31.08 – 07.10.2017
Sitting ethereally in between a large room of Turiya Magadlela’s signature taut nylons, and another smaller room of painted-over magazine glossies and energetic abstract work by Herman Mbamba, Bronwyn Katz’s arrangement of three wire wall-hangings comes across as somewhat reticent by comparison. Then again, blank’s abundantly airy new gallery space could conceivably render much aloof.
My experience of Bronwyn Katz’s work thus far has been a series of encounters that have felt like a steady thread of contributions toward some larger project. Since her graduate exhibition and throughout her successive works, the assemblages and re-assemblages of recovered beds, bricks, and wire work as incremental additions, which seem not so much aimed at the articulation of an individual’s experience, but rather at something like the expression of a condition. The objects that she gathers and works from are products of industry at its most cost-efficient, mass-producible, and grim. They are evocative of urban lifestyles that arise within states of uncertainty and deprivation, emblematic of the manifold deficiencies in local socio-economic provisions.
Katz makes sure to specify the kinds of domestic leftovers that she uses in her installation work, for example ‘Salvaged wire and mattress lining’ or ‘Salvaged bed springs’. A connection between this show and her last show at blank, Groenpunt (2016), is her curiosity with the form of beds and the resource of ‘salvaged beds’. Unlike the image of the domestic toilet which has, as Sean O’Toole argues, “emerged as a visceral marker of fraying political promises and bureaucratic deferral” in South Africa, the image of the bed is not as explicit in terms of appeals to or criticisms of authority. Rather it seems concerned with a condition in terms of its more nuanced consequences, which play out in the hidden realms of intimacy and privacy.
In previous works, her reductions of ‘bed’ were restricted to the spongey insides, like in Stokkies (2017) or Blommetjies (2016). The latter work formed a part of a group show at blank entitled ‘Figure’. It appears as a blemished inner-sponge from an old mattress, which casually leans up against the gallery wall. The work’s title, which translates to ‘little flowers’, activates the uniform pattern of small circles over the face of the sponge – markings left over from extricated bed springs. And what a poignant title for this soiled, ruined mattress: it manages to imbue the work with an ultimately tragic character, effecting its dual personality as a pitiful ruin but with the life-affirming charm of little flowers.
Katz reduces and reforms her salvaged beds and wires with the utmost delicacy, leaving figures which speak of dissection and restraint. Her process of removal and remaking is the process by which her salvaged materials are transfigured into art installations, but these cannot but evoke the ‘what is no longer here’, the absences which abound from their diminished forms. This kind of muteness or ghostliness marks an interesting resonance with work by Rachel Whiteread. Both artists use a minimalist approach to their process of abstraction, which takes as its subject the conditions of a particular, regional way of living; both artists summon a condition by its ghost stories. And Katz’s decidedly minimalist finish, in all its crispness and precision, recasts these otherwise common or abandoned remnants with a touching dignity.
In this latest show, ‘Grondskryf’, Katz revisits her bed imagery but with far more abstract and graphic forms. Although her works are often understood in terms of ‘markers of memory’ or ‘signifiers of certain locations’, the work in this show – while still concerned with these ideas in a theoretical sense – seems to distance itself from particularly material incarnations regarding memory or location; especially in a comparison to her older work. Each of the three works seem to stand for some more metaphysical response to urban (dis)possession. Koebye Hoerikwaggo implies an abandoned bed as it sags in low spirits from the wall, with only a few of its inner wires left to keep it present. Groei Grond, on the other hand, seems somewhat optimistic, although not to the point where it has detached itself completely from imagery of used-ness and leftover-ness, with what seems like pieces of fraying wool covering part of its wire springs. Of the three, Wasgoed draad is where the artist seems the most in command. Here, Katz’s aesthetic decisions render very graphic and ordered shapes out of old wire and fabric, definitively appropriating the salvaged material, which becomes no longer just its own mouthpiece, but rather more adamantly and visually expressive.
Having worked through the salvaged beds’ ghosts and ghostliness, these most recent iterations come out with an overtly schematic quality to them. The image of the bed is slowly being breached, and the abstract ‘drawings’, as Katz calls them, denote a plan in all its commanding, aloof, and possessive quality. The title of the show, ‘Grondskryf’, can be directly translated to ‘geography’ or ‘to draw on the ground’. And following ‘Grondskryf’, her work at the most recent FNB Joburg Art Fair makes an explicit case for her shape-shifting into a far more diagrammatic and energetic mode; the material’s ghosts become subordinate to the artist’s hand. And perhaps as Whiteread’s reflective bits of habitation found natural extensions as projects in and for the city – like her Holocaust memorial in Vienna, or her sculpture on the plinth in Trafalgar Square – so I imagine Katz’s curiosity with urban living might also find its own use in seizing the city.