WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
From Google Earth’s giddy vantage point, the rock quarries in Rustenberg (SA) and Karibeb (Namibia) are ruptures in the variegated quilt of the landscape. Seen from the ground they resemble vast unmelting glaciers. Fringes of drillholes form fault lines along which the rock is cleaved into blocks. This pattern of extraction resembles Indian stepwells leading down to huddles of yellow construction vehicles.
Quarries are ancient but look modernist. Out of context, they would be fodder for speculation about extraterrestrial intervention. Stonehenge-level-impressive beacons, glyphs decipherable from space. Perhaps by the same aliens that left Michael Heizer in charge of their construction projects in the Nevada desert.
Michele Mathison’s exhibition, ‘States of Emergence’ at Whatiftheworld, is an artefact of these landscapes and the forces acting upon them. The works Intrusion, Arterial, Kakiebos and Fault Line are fashioned from offcuts of the colossal hunks wrested from the quarry. Often with the addition of wrought steel, another industrial construction material. These works fit easily inside the gallery, yet they are minimal and monolithic.
Intrusion is made up of a vertically sliced Pallisandro Marble wedge. Two edges are left rough and a third, smoothed edge is propped off the ground on hardy planks (no ordinary plinth would support these works). The row of wide slices is intersected by boreholes and skewered with black steel slats. These penetrate the block like a scattering of arrows, implying movement in the most heavily stationary materials. The exposed face of the marble sparkles with a rippling peachy grain. These works can trace their heritage to Carl Andre’s unembellished building blocks and Richard Serra’s shaped steel, and further back still as Mathison exhibits Suprematist ardour for wedges, arcs and trapezoids.
The works come about through a process of assemblage, with little initial conception of their desired look. Instead Mathison hopes to convey a sense of the physical impressiveness of the material, championing its emotive, corporeal characteristics. He does so by emphasizing the formal potential of stone; its weight, colour and coolness to the touch. The combined weight of the works are a hefty 2 tonnes, the soft pastel tone of the Pallisandro has the quality of a fleshy renaissance nude or a bowl of apricot yoghurt and, even in November, they are cool to the touch.
Fault Line shows another set of wedges, this time in granite, that appear like piano hammers resting, instead of on taut strings, on parallel railway lines. They sound an inaudible baritone signalling their sluggish journey towards a yard where they will be dissected and parcelled up. The title alludes to the gurgling and boiling going on beneath our feet, but also hints at the problematization of the commodity trajectory of valued resources – such as granite and marble – out of Southern Africa. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai believes that objects gain value based on their ability to resist possession. These stones resist possession in part through their sheer logistical improbability.
The analogy of ‘alien relics’ is useful to describe these artworks in an anthropological sense as well as an aesthetic one because the origins, post-production and circulation of commodities tend to evade understanding. ‘Peculiarities of knowledge accompany [the] complex, long-distance, intercultural flows of commodities,’ says Appadurai in The Social Life of Things. The intricacies of commodity journeys lead to the formation of discrete bubbles of knowledge. In the artificial vacuums created by this, different ideologies are encouraged to dominate the different stages at which people interact with the commodity. The luxuriant kitchen floor that gleams with the reflection of a real housewife padding down to pour a midnight glass of Evian exists in practically a different universe to the festering subterranean protolith or the man-handled monster Duplo blocks at the site of extraction.
The placement of the marble and granite in a gallery, and thus the removal of the objects from their usual course allows them to take on new symbolic identities and emotional content. Mathison mentions that although the stones exhibited here ‘have their own [separate] trajectories. I am also referencing the black granite that comes from Zimbabwe. My initial interest [in the medium] stemmed from seeing enormous blocks being transported from Zimbabwe to SA and the economic as well spiritual narrative around this.’
These works stand in for the exodus of mineral value from Mathison’s native Zimbabwe. Locally, the mining of ‘Zimbabwe Black’ has been deemed a ‘resource curse’ as rural communities have seen little benefit along with biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and profits going to Italian companies with corrupt mining deals.
A work solely made of steel, Volition is an upturned tunnel of flattened and curved strips. Like the shavings made by a hand plane, these C-shaped parts fit together into a fragmenting tube, the exploded ribcage of a pipeline. The title speaks to the impetus of the creator a lingering reference to the craftsman. In Mathison’s previous work, the labourer is the ‘absent referent’ (to use a term from Carol Adams) restored to the status of a person. He comments on the invisibilization of the worker by making him invisible but for the synecdoche of the dynamic tool. Mathison says of his shift in focus: ‘Although this work doesn’t reference the labour class as overtly – that still moves me’
The anthropological perspective as given through the story of objects is rounded off hopefully, with a series of works titled Kakiebos. A pair of canvasses covered in a rust-coloured filigree bear the impression of actual leaves and three obelisks of African Red, a form of granite extracted in Rustenburg that resembles the trunk of the bleeding tree (also known as kiaat), which oozes macabre red-black sap. Out of the rock grow hardy steel plants. These are the Kakiebosse, resiliently reclaiming the dirt heaps of the quarry and the dry banks around Mathison’s studio. A redemptive statement about nature’s re-encroachment and our own gradual bridging of the knowledge gaps along the commodity trajectory.
With special thanks to Prof Louise Green