Michaelis Galleries, Cape Town
23.08 – 21.09.2018
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s latest exhibition, There are Mechanisms in Place, consists of 26 drawings, a twin projection work called Polyhedra and a grand ten channel projection and screen work called Homing Device. As a speculative body of work the exhibition builds gradually and patiently to piece together its narrative.
The minimal A4 sheet on which the exhibition plan and artist statement are mapped tells us about time…it tells us about space… it tells us about myth. These themes excite me because Sunstrum is telling me that this world she is building is less Aesop, Grimm or Euripedes than those worlds of Octavia Butler or NK Jemisin. In this sense the opus belongs to the realm of science fiction.
The large installation, Homing Device, makes use of large flat screen TVs and projectors to beam stop motion animations of Eadward Muybridge’s motion studies. These take on the forms of birds which fly across the type of grids you are likely to see in graph paper school books. Most of the gallery walls are filled with a hand drawn chalk grid which echoes the look and feel of the elements on the screens. Sunstrum’s approach to transmedia storytelling is rounded off by the computerized blips, bleeps and wing flapping sounds reverberating throughout the exhibition space. The soundscape created by Kwelagobe Sekele is the chorus which further freezes the moment framed by the installation.
My first encounter with Pamela’s fondness for birds symbolizing human behaviour was her 2009 work, audax/aviator, where she drew/painted geese as a symbol for ‘communication across landscapes‘. She pushes the metaphor using animals to represent the ‘relationship between animal and human experience’…and even further to frame ‘Migration as a symbol of cycles of time’.
The artist’s representation of time intrigues me, exploring the concept of time by means of animals, landscapes and autobiographical female forms. The humanness/womanness which Phatsimo Sunstrum develops in her ‘yet-to-be-known’ future is one with which mainstream science fiction is still grappling. Although the prevalence of science fiction featuring female heroes in a central role has been on the increase recently (think Wonder Woman, Ghost in the Shell) even these depictions depend on the female sex goddess formula. An example of this would be the way these heroines are introduced on their marketing material. It’s the typical Instagram ‘look at my ass’ shot with the character gazing longingly over her shoulder.
One of the first drawings seen as one comes into the gallery space depicts a self portrait of sorts. The woman poses in a manner which likely parodies the stereotypical sci-fi babe. She looks over her shoulder but this time she does so with a baby on her back. The drawing, though, is not complete. Some of the construction lines used to shape the image of the woman are still visible and since Sunstrum is treading still-fresh ground with a more three-dimensional representation of women in this genre, one can read that this type of character is still under construction in our collective imaginings.
Other drawings also do a good job of linking all the pieces in this show together. Cathedral, with its dome-topped building serves as a still from POLYHEDRA, which in its dystopian steampunk aesthetic features scenes of communication with mirrors across vast spaces. We don’t see people in that animation but we know that the use of mirrors to communicate by reflecting the sun in morse code of sorts must be people sending either a warning or a message of need. What is Sunstrum’s warning? What is need which the unseen characters in her ancient gear-driven technologies are communicating?
POLYHEDRA’s smoking (but not yet erupting) volcanoes hint at the nearing uncontrollable explosion of both political and technological advancements at our doorstep. Artificial intelligence, drone manipulated events, cyber warfare and the mechanisms of policy driven by extremism of all sorts are the previously incredible fictions becoming real. But the type of possibility Pamela Sunstrum presents is not as dark as a Black Mirror future. Amidst all the fear her exhibition supposes the revolutionary possibility of hope. She presents the reminder that at the epicenter of all these crises are the last moments of time we still have to properly use the Homing Device of free will and conscience while we still have it.