OPEN 24 HRS, Cape Town
‘Sans’ – the title of the group exhibition at OPEN 24 HRS, curated by Morné Visage – suggests something which has been excluded, which remains without. And yet, in our rapaciously acquisitive culture, it seems that there is nothing which we can do without. Despite the ascetic fad devoted to decluttering one’s life – a symptomatic reaction to overcrowding – I prefer to stick with Bjarke Ingels’s jeremiad – YES IS MORE.
Sans, as I understand it, always supposes its inverse – that which has been included, that which lies within. There is nothing cool, these days, about being an outlier roaming about in a black turtle neck with a copy of Camus’ novella The Outsider in hand. On the contrary, the rage that defines us has everything to do with inclusion. What we desire far more than austerity is bespoke clutter, or, a consciously curated brace of fetishes. In this regard, it is unsurprising that the current exhibition in a business foyer – a place of continuous flow, an artery that connects separate cells – should contain some of the most desirable artefacts of our contemporary age – Athi-Patra Ruga, Georgina Gratrix, Igshaan Adams, Thania Petersen, Stephane Conradie, to name a few.
These artists, or their artworks, have very little to do with the gallery’s claim ‘That there should be nothing hierarchical about art… that appreciation is not the preserve of the privileged few’. Despite the claim that OPEN 24 HRS is an ‘unfiltered’ space, it is none other than a space that has been thoroughly filtered and curated. There is of course nothing wrong with this alliance. It is the paradox that is perplexing – the fantasy of non-alignment and exclusion, and its contrary, the craven need for inclusion.
Harrington street is the archetypal designer hub in what was once District Six. With its wine dispensary – where I purchased a bottle of Naked Wines – and its food depot, Nude Foods – where one can purchase pulses sans plastic packaging – it seems that nudity, or some form of purgation, has become a defining ethos and sensibility. But then, for those who know their art history, the nude is not quite the naked. Rather the nude, which one associates with a famous painting by Titian radically challenged by Manet in his riposte, Olympia, in which the central figure, a prostitute, coyly fondles her dark pubis. In other words, no ideal, today, is unsullied, no fantasy of exclusion not also an urgent expression of a desire to belong to a rarefied domain of privilege. We live between prurience and perversion. Manet’s Olympia exemplifies this rub.
Herein lies the double-speak that is OPEN 24 HRS, herein the conundrum that is ‘Sans’. The works are elegantly displayed. Some are rather beautiful. But barring the paintings by Steven Cohen, Minette Vari, and Georgina Gratrix, it seems that the controlling focus is directed to a thread count, for the works which define this exhibition are largely, in one way or another, woven. Fabric – be it cloth, steel, or polymer – is the defining medium that informs the works by Asemahle Ntlonti, Athi-Patra Ruga, Carola Friess, Igshaan Adams, Isabella Chydenius, Pierre Fouche, and Thania Petersen. Fabric is of course the quintessential medium today, splicing design and art, utility and inutility. It is a medium, rendered bespoke by El Anatsui, which compellingly reminds us of just how integral art has become to our everyday domestic lives. Art has become a curtain, a throw, a languorous extension of our effete lives.
Inside of these domestic shrines, textiles have assumed a curious malevolence. Petersen’s 2018 work, Musallah, challenges the creeping black pall of Wahabism, an extremist cult that seeks to rout out the spangled wonder and joy of Islam. Isabella Chydenius’s 2019 work, Walking Home, with its sublimely parsed threads intercut with signage which variously reads, fear-demand-NO!-kissingandlickingsounds, and more – evokes quite another threat that lurks in the innards of an unpoliced city. Pierre Fouché’s exquisitely made scrim, which reads like an etching – made in 2012 and titled Your Young Voice (Portrait of Ivan Katzen)– daringly resolves a traditional aesthetic with a homespun energy. Asemhale Ntlonti’s 2018 work, Intlazane, conjures a sail whose yellow glow is pock-marked with black smudges. Ntlonti is the artist behind the giant matchsticks, and this work is equally incendiary. But it was Carola Friess’s 2018 work, Do You Wanna Try? with its glittering frame of barbed steel and densely textured greens, reds, yellow, and hessian brown, which I found most riveting, for here, in the interface of jagged steel with which we protect the facades of our homes and the sumptuous materials with which we bedeck their innards, I found the perfect splice of that which resides without and within.
Our lives are vulnerable, caught in a precarious fold. This is an understanding that is made blisteringly clear by Petersen and Friess. And perhaps this vulnerability can be better understood by considering the thread count – the number of horizontal and vertical threads per square inch which makes up a given fabric. The flimsiest would be Chydenius’s, in which the intersection of thread is punctured by gaping holes – the vacuum-as-threat that stalks all our lives. The unspoken law in the world of fabric is as follows: The denser the thread count the softer the sheet. The greater the intersection of horizontal and vertical weaves the more likely a fabric will wear well.
It is at this intersection that ‘Sans’ resides. In showing us works both hard and soft, threadbare and – potentially – comforting, it reveals the inescapable fact that the desire to protect and swaddle ourselves, and the impertinence of this desire, given the violence all about, one cannot wholly exist in one position at the expense of another. We are both within and without. The decisions we make, regarding what we revere or renounce, is utterly dependent upon an inscrutable and gnawing uncertainty. For despite the elegance of the arrangement of these works in a foyer available to the seeing eye 24hrs a day, its innermost desire is cleaved and wounded. Here privilege confronts its nemesis. Here a softening density abuts the threadbare.
As I quit Harrington Street, passing NY Bagels and Kamili Coffee with its crowded interior and overflowing pavement, I find myself drawn to artisanal loaves and sustainable salmon marching lockstep into youthful bearded mouths. In that moment I could not but honour the youthful optimism as brilliant as that sunny Saturday morn in Cape Town’s CBD. Perhaps because it so starkly contrasted my personal gloom which I found mirrored in the starkly threaded works by Petersen, Chydenius, and Friess. I wondered whether anyone there had spared a thought for the art housed nearby.
Crossing Harrington Street in pursuit of a chocolate cheesecake for my daughter at Charlies Bakery, I reappraised the jovial crowd gathered all about for their breakfast special – R35 – before lifting my gaze to track the towering left flank of The Harrington whose bespoke foyer I’d exited. Predictably it was painted a deep dark charcoal. But it was the billboard it sported that struck me most forcefully. An H&M ad of a beautiful young woman with a sunny afro posing in a sunny field of flowers, scored with the telling words – CONSCIOUS COLLECTION.