blank projects, Cape Town
09.02 – 16.03.2019
It is always rewarding when an art dealer’s uncompromising temperament is reflected in the artists he-she-they choose to showcase. Jonathan Garnham, the broker behind blank projects, is a case in point. That blank projects won the Focus Prize at Frieze London in 2018 for ‘young galleries’ worldwide reinforces Garnham’s uncompromising vision. Unconcerned with the prevailing fixation on documentation and protest in South African art, or its cache as a leading purveyor of the ‘contemporary’ in ‘African art’, blank – as the name attests – is a dealership that refuses any expedient categorisation. After Jacques Derrida, it is a dealership, or rather, a project which operates under erasure, and, therefore, remains skeptical at every turn of enshrining the nominal – the named, bagged and tagged – the better to sustain the intrinsic undecidability of meaning, feeling, or affect.
blank project’s latest solo show, which features the work of Bronwyn Katz, underscores this prevailing desire to undo and qualify the dull certainties we typically affix to African art. The only aspect of the initiative that is typical are the rooms which house the work: white, blank, towering, capacious. On entering this arctic zone, I was reminded of Jean-Yves Leloup’s phrase – the ‘metropolitan chapel’, for the site, or zone, which quite literally empties the mind, allows one, in the moment it purges the din we all carry, to nakedly encounter the art we are confronted with.
In this case the art is by Katz. Visual and aural, Katz’s works ask us to acknowledge a continuum of the senses. The central installation and wall works speak. As to what the meanings of this speech in fact are is unclear, for we are encountering an as-yet-unknown and unknowable language, the diction, perhaps, of the unconscious. Katz dubs the soundscape ‘the phonetics of an imagined creole language’, which means that we are in the midst of sounds which are hybrid and heterogeneous – the evocation of multivalent meaning, the sensation of inferred possibility. Denis Villeneuve’s film, Arrival, sprang to mind, for like Katz’s soundscape, it asks us to suspend prejudice and presumption and hold fast to the possibility of as yet inchoate meanings.
Another trigger was Leloup’s study, Digital Magma, which addresses ‘an aether of intangible properties, a mist that enshrouds and disintegrates established structures with no regard for their traditions and values’. Something to this effect motivates, or rather impels, Katz. The sum of four selected click consonants, the language she creates is derived from ‘Khoekhoe and other Southern African languages’, and, therefore, addresses the silenced yet aggravated history of genocide. Katz, however, is not yearning for the restoration of a disappeared culture but scripting the trace of that disappearance. Her exhibition, perhaps, can be interpreted as the archaeology of an absence.
Hers, however, is not an exercise in cerebrality. On the contrary, it is the visceral impact of the show which is its greater strength. Hers is a visual and aural constructed language ‘readable through touch, sound and sight’. On entering her realm, we inhabit a sensorium. Corrugated zinc, iron ore, wire, string, steel wool. The materials are commonplace, yet they are also rarefied. This is because Katz has distilled and redacted their conventional function, and, in the doing, produced a novel complex of matter and feeling. Her works made of wire and string are achingly beautiful, a drizzling-shimmering-billowing lattice. Her wallworks made of corrugation and steel rods evoke the detrivores of the Namib desert, creatures with an uncanny capacity for survival. Her bristling pylons made of steel wool are alien postindustrial succulents.
At once ancient and modern – the hieroglyphs for a time eternal – Katz’s sculptures emerge faceless, inscrutable, derangingly incidental. For this is art that refuses statement, an art, rather, that asks us to inhabit their sonorous difficulty. The sublime is a throwaway buzzword for what Katz has created, but, nevertheless, the term possesses traction here, not only because it challenges the seductiveness of volume, or depth, but because it asks us to reflect upon that which beauty fails to countenance – the effervescence of substance and sound.
Katz’s participation in A Silent Line, Lives Here at Palais de Tokyo, Road to the Unconscious, Peres Projects Berlin, and Not A Single Story at the Nirox Foundation in Johannesburg, attest to the artist’s abiding interest in an intangible-yet-palpable human condition. It is fitting, therefore, that she has chosen to align herself domestically with blank projects with whom she has, to date, engaged in three solo shows. Always austere and exacting, yet sensuously compelling, Katz’s approach – comparatively rare in the South African context – is one which embodies what Friedrich Nietzsche termed the ‘physiological thought’. By involving the mouth, tongue and hands, by reminding us of the inextricability of these organs, Katz has returned us to what we have dangerously ignored: what it means to be human in the crudest and most visceral sense. Therein lies her gift, therein her riposte to a banalised world reduced to colour, gender, or sex. This is because the artist – like the dealership which supports her – is focused on a more probing journey, one which reminds us of the toxicity of statement art, of minds-hearts-souls deformed by pain, ideas stunted by the zeal of certainty. Which is why, all the more, we need dealers like Garnham, artists like Katz.