WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
17.05 – 30.06.2018
Whatiftheworld have anointed their new premises on Buiten street, in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD, with a solo show by Lungiswa Gqunta. Renovations are still underfoot as I enter the space and confront a fretwork of spanking-silver razor wire across a plum-coloured wall, with large triangular swatches of floral and plain pastel cloth – the remnants of a bed cover perhaps – intersecting the diagonals of barbed steel. Pretty, is the first word that comes to mind, pretty, then harsh. For it is the sadomasochistic play of violence and sweet domesticity which I think Gqunta is exploring, the diagonal wall plan, or graph, a nod to Gilles Deleuze’s celebration of tangential incursions into the horrors which mark the everyday.
While lovely, in a sickening way, this is by no means the best installation, for two technical knockouts await me in the neighbouring rooms. The first is a swirl of repurposed scouring brushes, their wiry hairs replaced with matchsticks, the curled movement of the brushes echoed by a residual sweep of shit-brown stoep polish. The assistant informs me that a copper-coloured metal sheet should occupy the floor. Does it improve the experience? I’m not certain. For what remains is strikingly beautiful. Cy Twombly springs to mind, as does the idiomatic and obsessive-compulsive fixation with the excremental. As for the inspired exchange of bristles for matchsticks? A nod, perhaps, to another compulsion with burning shit.
However, it is not the predictable and morbid fascination with destruction that interests me, but the artist’s ingenious re-imagining of this psycho-pathological culture. Because, of course, violence, or rather violation, is the order of the day: the go-to solution to any perceived wrong-doing and injustice. A violence and violation both all too real and utterly banal; worse, is doomed because it is fundamentally reactionary and nihilistic. For lest we forget, long before the current fixation with ungovernability, James Baldwin summed up the paradox factored into an annihilating culture, stating that ‘The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable’.
Does Gqunta grasp the inherent futility, and inevitability, of the violence perpetrated in the name of justice? If she does, this is not evident, for the artist to her great credit, is not declamatory in her explorations of rage and despair. Rather, her works are consumed by a startlingly chilling detachment, comparatively rare in one so young. Indeed, it is the work of the conceptual artist, Kendell Geers, who immediately surfaces, as I consider the cold mortality that infuses her works. For there is no doubt that her installations are devastatingly and clinically intelligent.
This is most bracingly evident in the third room in which we see a panoramic video work of the artist’s calves and feet, strapped in scouring brushes, swishing back and forth across blackened gravel, reminiscent of a bed of coal. Is it the moment before ignition which this somnolent sway conveys? Is this another incendiary code?
Because of course Gqunta is not showing us the consequence of violence – a fire, a physical violation, an act of desperation, confusion, fear or blind rage – but its sublimation. Her focus is our psychic DNA. And this is most brilliantly resolved in what is doubtless her master-stroke – a square metal bed for two, lit along its rim by a string of cold white bulbs. The bedsprings, echoing the curlicues of scouring brushes, overlaid with a sheet of clear Perspex which houses a thin bilious blue-green film of petrol. The impact of this work is visceral, chilling, and inescapable. The mind races to catch up with the gnash of body and soul as one absorbs what is seen – an intimate staging of a horror.
This is a threefold conceptual work which is not only masterful in its brilliance, but visceral in its impact. And there is no other contemporary South African artist who has better synthesised the grotesquerie of our current socio-economic and cultural moment. It’s the best show I’m likely to see this year.