‘Rock Dove Song’ is not an exhibition I would normally go to. DAOR Contemporary opened less than a year ago, and Capetonian gallery goers (myself included) have an unspoken prejudice against anywhere outside the usual circuit. DAOR Contemporary is also at the Waterfront which, due to the number of tourists parading overpriced curios and rifle-sized digital cameras, I try to avoid. But I was intrigued by Carol-Anne Gainer’s artist statement. Artist statements normally centre around a symbolic, and often elusive, concept or narrative, but Gainer chose to speak honestly about her battle with a ‘mental health breakdown,’ in which she experienced ‘a full- blown, 24/7 panic attack, for 16 months,’ and ended up heavily-medicated in a ‘psych-ward hospital bed.’
Those who have followed Gainer’s work over the past two decades know she is not one to shy away from the shocking or the dark. ‘Rock Dove Song’ includes works on paper from series as early as 2004. These pieces see Gainer mixing vegetable charcoal dust, ritual powders, and her own urine to create worlds both delicate and abject. Faded drawings of corsets and trophies, dogs and diary entries, speak to a hidden, haunted interiority, while corporeal bursts of red and pink seem to set the body free. The paper warps erotically in places where the artist’s piss splattered. They are explicit, but not without restrain. As Gainer says, ’embodied,’ but not representational.
The new works experiment with medium by crushing psychiatric medicines into the oil, but pharmaceutical art is nothing new (Damien Hirst, Joanna Rajkowska, Marc Quinn, Jo Voysey in Cape Town). The majority comprise Swarm, a few dozen small, square paintings hung haphazardly throughout the gallery. Like Gainer’s works on paper, these paintings incorporate the elemental and organic. From far away, they look like petri dishes, or cross-sections of muscle tissue. Upon closer inspection, there is something uncomfortable about them. The cheap frames make them look a bit too crafty. The unprimed canvas amateurish. The florals a bit juvenile. But then I had to check myself. What if that’s the point? What if the story Gainer is trying to tell us is in moments where the work is unfinished or unrefined?
This got me thinking, how often are we patient with artists when mental health complications affect their practice? I know for a fact that missing a deadline or producing less than promised can cripple an artist’s relationship with a gallery. I also know that collectors will bypass any sign of imperfection, or else use it as an opportunity to ask for a discount. But as viewers, how do we respond when artists talk about suffering? We can swallow the idea of a ‘mad genius’ (Van Gogh, Pollock, Kusama are just a few that come immediately to mind). But rather than humanising the work these artists create, invocations of mental illness often serve to fetishise and mythicise, make the work seem otherworldly. The contemporary African art market loves a trauma narrative. But, I think, that’s because it’s easier to deal with trauma as object, rather than start the long journey towards reparations, reconciliation, and healing. I wonder, how often do we take an artwork as an opportunity to engage meaningfully with an artist’s experience, rather than view it purely for aesthetic, conceptual, or monetary value?
The question I want to ask is, ultimately, how can we be good witnesses to artists? I was taught in university to separate the material from its maker, to disregard the biography and focus on the concept. We could admire or admonish an artist, but we were never encouraged to get personal. What if we did? Start to practice an ethics of viewership based on care instead of critique? Value the producer, not the product? I’m not sure entirely what it would look like, only that it would make western art theorists very unhappy.
Gainer claims ‘Rock Dove Song’ is as much a response to her own story as it is to a ‘global mental health crisis,’ which she attributes to the fact that the earth is in a ‘hospice situation.’ If this is true, and I’m of the opinion that it is, new ways of learning and caring about each other are crucial. In art and otherwise. I know we often fail to witness each other. We miscommunicate and lose touch. We are discomforted by difficult, and sometimes unfixable, situations. We are shy, or tired, or anxious, so we don’t ‘go there,’ don’t reach out. But the more we untether from each other, the moment we lose interest in each other’s intricate and messy inner lives, the more likely we are to come undone.