WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
11.07 – 25.08.2018
No art dealership is better named than WHATIFTHEWORLD. Compacted – emphatic – speculative – iffy, this is a dealership which knows how to be edgy. Its latest iteration – Rowan Smith’s ‘Dead Centre’ – is not only similarly loaded, its profound.
In the spirit of ruthless qualification, ‘Dead Centre’ evokes conflicting insights – the ‘centre’ as a bull’s eye, the centre as voided, null, for Smith’s exhibition intimates and refuses the sanctimony of arrival or resolution. Indeed, one work – On Standby – captures the anxiety implicit in the whole.
Veering upwards along the incline that leads into the gallery, we see a serried row of flags – their title, Trash Nationalism. At the get go then, the mood is rebarbative. Arriving at the base of the incline, before entering the glassed interior, there’s a pleather car chair with a headrest, swallowed up by polystyrene rockery.
The surreal mix of materials and forms, the chair’s ironic nod to repose, announces the artist’s core thrust – to shapeshift our understanding of the known world, and foreground the plasticity of our age. For it is not only nationalism which is trashed here, but our nostalgic and misbegotten longing for essences. Instead, what we get is the inessential and superfluous, the toxic admixture of states and things which sum up the bathos and fakery of our lives. Titled The Visitor, this work echoes our own encounter and engagement – our arrival ‘dead centre’.
Wired magazine introduced me to a term which sums up Smith’s understanding and approach to materials – ‘plastiglomerate’ – the aggregation and compression of starkly dissimilar yet integrally related synthetic and organic elements, for the agglomeration of our plastic world is also the marker for our Anthropocene Age in which humankind announces its vainglorious and default design – to fuck up the world.
This grostesquerie is strikingly in evidence in Smith’s forms and materials. Bees wax and honeycomb meet acrylic resin and acrylic paint, digital print on cotton fabric meets African mahogany. But it is not only the estranging yet all too familiar mix of materials that matter, but the artist’s desire to walk us through our psychic mess.
The very inelegance of the arrangement of objects – Smith is not interested in a beauteous and becalming perspective – snags us as we weave through a series of discrepant yet interlinked objects. Framed in greys, the exhibition then hits us with shimmering plastic-black surfaces, golden brown innards, jewels of shattered glass, and a startlingly smart use of ‘swimming pool blue pigment’ which, weirdly, coat polystyrene logs, and, most startling of all, a series of succulents – Aloe Africana – bolted to the gallery’s achingly white walls.
The African safari appears to be the show’s abiding theme. However, if this is the case, then, after Withnail and I, I had the nauseous sensation of having gone on holiday by mistake. For it is error, misprision, wrong-headedness, fuckery, which, for me at least, creeps to the fore. Forget the West, a wall-work reads. But then, replace it with what? An Africa drained of sunshine, lividly blue, ashen, dead?
Rowan Smith’s titles speak volumes – Truly White, Cultural Deformation, Accidental Geography, Post-Colony-Collapse-Disorder, Noise Complaint. Here, in these attitudes of mind, we find ourselves displaced, at odds, confounded. For what the artist seems to be telling us is that despite the current bluster regarding the reassignment of value, or the frenzied hankering for a sense of place and belonging, we remain cruelly compromised.
This, however, has not resulted in a maudlin show – Smith is not merely shoving misery and confusion down our throats, and he is certainly not presenting himself as an enraged ideologue. On the contrary, he thrusts us into the bilious mix of things. Unerringly off-putting and daring in its ability to rewire the materiality and the idea of art, Smith has given us a withering glimpse into the psychic difficulty of our age.
I was saddened to learn that this stellar exhibition would not be heading for 1:54 in London in September, the premier contemporary African art fair in the northern hemisphere. The chill his work emits would be fitting there, not only, however, because of the works’ cold mortality, but because of its critical wisdom.
Smith is no opportunist, no voyeur, and no flunky. His is an art which cuts to the core of meaning and being. It is because the artist abhors sentiment, because he prefers the austerity that comes with an exacting engagement with psychic and ethical difficulty, that I regard his work as the true currency of our age. I would give my eye teeth to see Rowan Smith celebrated both here and abroad.