Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
02.05 – 06.06.2019
I am reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines like me, which poses the question ‘whether a machine can understand the human heart – or whether we are the ones who lack understanding’. Frankly, in today’s world, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. Are we a prosthetic extension of machines, or are machines a prosthetic extension of us? Which is the chicken, which the egg?
On revisiting Gallery Momo, McEwan’s novel assumed centre stage in my frontal cortex, because Maurice Mbikayi’s show seemed to be posing the same question. His iconic raw material, computer keys, was once again everywhere in his installations and sculptures. In fact, it is difficult to separate the event and the object, for the artist’s staging of this question – humankind’s relationship with the machinic – forced one to realise that objecthood (art as object) had become inseparable from art as disconcerting event.
This chicken and egg scenario, in which it becomes impossible to firmly declare which comes first, is potently expressed through pregnancy. Certain figures, discernibly female, are the harbingers and handmaidens of some uncertain and unclear future. Their full bellies girdled with computer keys loom large. However, one wonders what in fact survives in utero: a healthy body? A menacing incubus? For these sculptures, these eventful presences, do not, from my perspective at least, suggest anything wholesome. Rather, that which is being coddled, that which gestates, seems to be grievous and dangerous.
Technology, or rather Mbikayi’s take on it, has consistently been lo-fi, workaday, a matter of repurposing the remaindered or pulped elements of computers. The artist’s method is one that is practical rather than technical, hand-made rather than conceptual. This is not because ideas are secondary to the work, but because ideas operate more effectively as a hidden or implicit freightage. What assumes dominance is the thing in-and-for-itself – in this case, primarily, computer keys. Here, however, the keys have lost their inherited function; they exist purely as the affective components of long defunct machines.
In short, Mbikayi has translated, transferred, and disarticulated their prescribed purpose. Two works, titled Birth Pain I and II, evoke this transfer. For Mbikayi it is the ‘pain’ of the transition from one state to another which is palpably ominous, because it seems that suffering is intrinsic to this altering of a given state. As Antonio Gramsci worryingly declared, ‘The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. It is, I think, this morbidity in the midst of a crisis which is the key to Mbikayi’s solo show.
Measuring tape, mutton cloth balls, computer keys, twine and rope, a retro CD player, bundled books, billiard balls, are some of the seemingly random components which make up the figures we see. A hiker seems en route to nowhere. Black babies – heads sans bodies – stuffed in onesies made from computer keys, haplessly dangle from white walls. A bespectacled squid-like creature spans a wall and floor. A pregnant woman, her head like T.S. Eliot’s hollow man, made of stuffed mutton balls, confronts a machine gun, while floating all about are computer mice. What are we to make of these events, these situations, in which we find ourselves? And why are they unsettling?
The answer, as I’ve suggested at the outset, resides in the fact that the artist traffics in threat and abjection. He, like ourselves, are confronted with a crisis in which morbidity has become symptomatic. Two busts, created with Nicola Holgate, are paper clay and mixed media creations of Mobutu and Lumumba. There are titled Two Rises and Falls. Again, the emphasis is on decline, some implicit collapse. As Karl Marx declared, ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce’. It is, I think, this menacing shift which Mbikayi is registering. If his solo exhibition possesses a message it is one which reveals the interpenetration of tragedy and farce, some catastrophic loss and the macabre reiteration of this loss. For in my view there is nothing truly generative or rewarding in what we are seeing and experiencing. Rather, we find ourselves standing in a graveyard of dead ideas, a zone which, if it possesses any reality, resembles nothing other than a phantom pregnancy.
Ex nihilo nihil fit – Nothing Comes from Nothing – the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides, pronounced. Does this mean that Nothing can come from Nothing? Or that Nothing begets Nothing? Are we in a place that is so arid that it defies promise? Or are we in a place which, no matter how dark, remains generative? The unease which these questions evoke is, I think, central to Mbikayi’s show. Rather like Gramsci’s ‘interregnum’, it is a show that rankles and disturbs one.
In what might be the show’s centrepiece, from which it also derives its title, ‘Coucou Crumble’, we see a series of opened drawers suspended randomly across right-angled white walls. Most are empty, as though ransacked in haste, a few contain nuggets of fake gold. The scene suggests a bureaucratic office, a corridor of power, and, standing stridently before it, we see a pig made of beige computer keys. On its right flank hangs a gaping satchel filled with gold nuggets. On its bloated underside hang teats made of purple computer jacks. Here fertility meets corruption.
‘Pig’ is slang for a piggish character, behaviour, or habits. A creature gluttonous, fat, greedy, selfish, or filthy. It is a disparaging term for an immoral prostitute, or a police officer, and, by extension, a corrupt officer of the court or government official. It is a creature laden with negative epithets. In Mbikayi’s exhibition one cannot ignore these associations. Because, irrespective of how one chooses to assess his solo show, one cannot ignore the artist’s vitriol, anger, frustration, or despair. For what one is given is an event that teeters before an abyss. There is nothing here that is consoling. Rather, we are forced to reckon with a collapse, a ‘crumble’, some bizarre and menacing mash-up of materials and conditions which will not appease us.
After Chinua Achebe, who made this phrase the title of his defining novel of a tragic African condition, we were, and remain, in a zone whose psychic wiring and body-politic is one that is no longer at ease. As for Maurice Mbikayi’s solo show? It is a tragic and farcical account of this morbid and unresolvable condition.