the gallery, Johannesburg
14.09 – 09.11.2019
Rocks – “an exhibition about the same,” curated by Chloë Reid and Matty Roodt at the gallery – a new space at 44 Stanley in Johannesburg – offers little in the way of explanation and much in the way of interpretation; sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes overly earnest.
The artists participating in this opportunity to get their metaphorical rocks off include Dan Halter, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Daniella Mooney, Nina Barnett, Jonah Sack, Thami Jali, Jared Ginsburg and Io Makandal among others.
Their works are crowded together in a space that’s too small and architecturally impeding to give enough justice to a show that offers a variety of new, interesting and occasionally inevitably pretentious ways of looking at one of humanity’s oldest natural friends and sometime enemies – the rock. We owe the simple, ages-old, but imminently malleable rock so much as humans – from tools to weapons, things to climb, places to dig and signs of how fleeting our existence is in the greater scheme of things.
With such a simple and oblique premise it’s not surprising that the exhibition as a whole ends up feeling like a sophisticated art class project at the end of year exhibition at a gifted child extramural program. After all rocks can be used to project most concerns, used to build just about anything and depicted comfortably in any medium.
In the window of the gallery we have Jared Ginsburg – having a laugh with his rudimentary “mini room 2” – a cardboard box turned on its side, roughly presented as room with a scribbled door and window and containing within it…a rock. All very well, light, silly and harmless. However as you cross the threshold of the space things get heavier rather quickly when you look down at Garth Meyer’s scattered collection of bronze dipped rocks on the floor and realise that these are not just pretty pieces of rock presented for aesthetic contemplation but rather symbols of weaponised oppression against queer bodies. A rock lying on the ground is just a rock but when it’s picked up by an angry fundamentalist in a place like Mauritania, Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia or Qatar and used to stone a homosexual to death. Meyer’s rocks present an allegorically simple but suitably poignant reminder of the old testament fire and brimstone rage and lethal attitudes to the other that still exist in far too many places in the modern era.
Likewise Nolan Oswald Dennis’s complicated looking science fair installation produced “in collaboration with fetida earthworms,” offers a deeper interrogation of the purposes to which rocks can be turned. It uses the worms to eat their way through copies of Frantz Fanon’s seminal liberation handbook The Wretched of the Earth and turn the text into “flesh, energy, heat and worm casings (shit) which is soil (along with a parallel community of micro organisms).” The written work, that which we can know through an interaction with the text is slowly transformed back into the unknown world of the earth, which its title references through a very different but quite ingenious type of interaction with its text.
Rocking on, there are the group of works by Daniella Mooney – paintings of mountains and sculptures made of granite and retired climbing rope that offer physical interpretation to the idea of lifting “up what you have off the ground and carrying it with you…” The paintings are depictions of rock formations as markers of place and belonging – they have been there long before us and will continue to be there long after we’re gone and the sculptures offer a rock inspired version of the old traveller’s handkerchief on a stick.
Dan Halter’s video work contemplates the idea of the social contract vs. the realities of nature through the examination of balancing rocks – which occur naturally through time in places like Halter’s native Zimbabwe and rock balancing – that irritating shoo wow Zen-like practice so prevalent on millennial Instagram feeds. Both are slaves to time and natural forces beyond their control – one is inevitable the other is Sisyphean. Matty Roodt’s video piece offers portentous ruminations on the fatigues of late capitalism implied, via the use of subtitles, to be narrated by various rock formations.
Thami Jali’s prints are inspired by the work of the enigmatic Mpumalanga rock painter Nukain Mabuza – a Jackson Hlungwani style character who spent his life creating paintings he saw in his head on rocks at Revolver Creek and inspired a play by Athol Fugard. A life’s work that has intrigued and fascinated but which also reminds us of the rock’s fundamental place in the history of art. Jonah Sack playfully uses his space to create formally experimental compositions that puzzle with ideas of horizontal and vertical. Sitaara Stodel uses five rocks to make cyanotype blueprints – rock, paper, scissors – home, memory, holes.
Nina Barnett makes new rock formations from paper rubbings of rocks from the Vredefort Dome meteor impact site – a rock for and of the ages. Io Makandal puts a projection of a rock from Johannesburg, sent to Melbourne inside a box – does a virtually rolling rock still gather no moss? Sean O’Toole’s story The Magic of Stones provides an elegantly written, longing meditation on a failed Japanese cycling expedition and failure, heartbreak and the wondrous attractions of stones.
It’s all ultimately so very clever or very pointless or very likely to make you feel that you’re navigating increasingly rocky intellectual terrain. It’s also a show that’s filled with enough different approaches to its simple and cheeky premise – some ingenious, some head-scratching, too-obtusely metaphorical and some just annoyingly elementary but all demonstrating a charming willingness to attempt to play this silly rock ‘n roll game.