Barnard Gallery, Cape Town
29.10 – 26.11.2019
On the flight back from London via Addis I read Our Happy Life, a book about ‘Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism’. I was trying to figure out why I could not stomach Olafur Eliasson’s show at the Tate Modern, In Real Life. It was the insistence upon the Real that rang hollow, the claim that what we needed were immersive experiences engineered to ensure our collective calm and joy. The sentiment is just. We need art which reminds us that life matters far more. But it was both Eliasson’s holier-than-thou intention and execution which proved irksome.
In his essay The Happiness Plan, Francesco Garutti pinpointed the problem – that art as a ‘soft science’, in manipulating our wants, can ensure ‘subjective well-being’. A market driven venture, this science – or art as science – is centred on ‘selling experiences as products’. It is this presumption, achieved through mined data, which exposed Eliasson’s exhibition as a gimmicky exercise, worse a lie and an expedient exploitation of our feelings. Eliasson is a product designer first and foremost, and his idea of art is wholly invested in an ‘emotionalised economy’ with its ‘neo-liberal dream’ of ‘self-invention’. The enterprise is delusory, as is the belated fetish of neo-liberalism in what is none other than a globalised fascist economy that ensures our enslavement. For all his good will, Eliasson proved complicit. His show was a funhouse which, for all the pleasure it inspired, felt more like a toxic opiate.
Flash forward to the Barnard Gallery and the collaborative show, ‘A Land I Name Yesterday’, starring Jenna Burchell, Jaco van Schalkwyk, and Wayne Mattthews, a ‘songsmith’, painter, and collagist respectively, who are based in Pretoria and Johannesburg. The linchpin for the show was Van Schalkwyk’s photographs of a swamp in Florida, which he flipped to black and white, then painted. These are not David Hockney’s plein air pictures of trees which, according to Catherine Cusset, are designed to inspire ‘a feeling of religious veneration’. No. This is nature painted darkly. The fecund ooze is inescapable. The scenes, comprising swamp, sky, and jungle, prohibit access. Because we are confronted with a dense thicket, we are denied an ability to orient ourselves. The picturesque is scrapped, the views foreshortened and disorienting. In Despatches, Michael Herr similarly describes the problem a disorienting density generates. He is writing about the jungle in Vietnam and how it screwed with the American soldiers’ ability to target their enemy. They lost the war.
In Van Schalkwyk’s jungle it is this self-same loss that kicks in. We can’t negotiate the dense foliage, fix upon a sky or horizon, thrust as we are into its densely disembodied body and its nether world, a fathomless black deep. ‘There are crocodiles’, his says, alligators, a primal faceless threat. The swamp is a labyrinth that cannot be mapped and domesticated. As for the thicket with its fretwork of gnarled wintry branches and excessively luscious vegetation? It too announces a threat. Electing to paint in black and white, Van Schalkwyk amplified the paintings’ graphic and etched quality. So doing, he produced the perfect foil for Wayne Matthews’ collages of similarly cloying yet flattened thickets. Theirs is an exploration of Eden’s dark side, the threat which stalks paradise. The paper which Matthews uses comes from a book of exquisite German wood-block prints from which the artist cut out all signs of human habitation other than words, in German, which he has flipped on their backs. None of the collages are allowed a framing context. Their interfaces form a jagged affront.
Tactility lies at the forefront of Van Schalkwyk’s paintings and Matthews’ collages. Theirs, respectively, are realms densely layered or thinly veiled. In these works, Nothingness confronts Being. Forms become inconsolable despite their beauty. It is a disorienting density or starkness that matters more, the realisation that nothing can defer the Fall. But these are not nihilistic works. They don’t try, ironically, to remind us of our hopelessness. Instead they arrest the drug of beauty and challenge the calming ability to locate ourselves in their stories. Negative space becomes the new order, the void, or fathomless deep, the only viable place in which to recognise our fallibility. If Nothingness is the central protagonist, it is because we can no longer do without it. We cannot distract ourselves, or delay the inevitable. What we can do is challenge the funhouse of distractions and futile pleasures which a fake immersive experience provides, because hidden inside the glee which an economy of pleasures obsessively brokers lies mania. If Eliasson’s confection is a placebo, then Van Schalkwyk’s paintings and Matthews’ collages are a bitter pill.
But what really sets these cloying yet cool works apart – and they read to me like a fevered chill – are the sounds that accompany them. Here it is the third figure in the trio, Jenna Burchell, who silently yet sure-footedly enters the scene. She has recorded the brainwaves of the artists while at work, the sounds in the head which she calls the artists’ ‘quintessence’, the ‘fifth sense or element’ which, without an electroencephalography ( EEG) or brainwave monitor, churns silently. Burchell has noted a surge in wave forms when Van Scahalkwyk ‘steps towards the painting’, the ‘aleatory’ and shifting pressure an inner sound makes as the painter approaches-engages-withdraws-hovers. The sounds she records are ‘portraits’ of ‘the unknown … of something greater than the physical elements we are comprised of’. It is the void within that compels her, a void captured through EEG which monitors ‘the electrical signals within the brain’. These signals she has ‘translated into song, creating a symphony of higher and lower frequencies that link and cohere with each other through harmonics’. In short, Burchell has given shape and form to the void that inhabits and enfolds us, allowing us to experience ‘the brain of the painting’ or collage, ‘the sitter’s mind’ scored as a 22 soundtrack ‘as it dances consciously and subconsciously through thoughts, memories, and emotions’.
When one dons the headphone one steps into the artists’ secret life, their ‘fifth essence’. The compositions are exquisite, singular, for no two human beings share the exact same wave pattern. If Matthews’ soundtrack is narrow in its range, claustrophobic in its immediacy – the aural aggregate for an artist hunched over his artwork – then Van Schalkwyk’s is marked by fathomless silences that rise and drift across plains, like Lazarus risen from the dead, afoot across an unknowable world which can only be intimated. As for Burchell’s personal song? It is open, fulsome, connected, for it is she who straddles their worlds. In her other contribution to the show she has combined petrified tree stumps – the charcoal we use to make art – with bronze antennae that emit the tree stumps’ secret story of death and dying and rebirth, because while matter has been fired into its final station it sings still.
It is the union of being and matter, deus sive natura, God and Nature, the God that resides in all things, which allows us to understand the greater story that lies buried, like a fundament, within this vainglorious and petty world. For in each of us there is ‘capacitation’, ‘a store of energy’. And it is this store which Burchell, through her own work and her collaboration with Van Schalkwyk and Matthews, has gifted us. I cannot deny the immensity of this gift, the profundity of her undertaking. If you stand before Van Schalkwyk’s painting, On this eve the souls will dream, which has been miked, and run one’s fingers and palm across the picture plane without touching it, a sound emerges as though from another parallel world in which the eye has no place. An aural kind of braille, the tonal score carries varying frequencies depending on where one places one’s hand, telling us what we, otherwise, could never have known – the dance between an idea and its practical extension, a feeling and its material expression.
This is not art which commodifies desire or merchandises an idea through a psychographic manipulation of our wants and needs. it is art that is ancient, primal, which comes from a place before all knowing, the aural equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s famous words from his poem The Hollow Men – Between the idea / And the reality / Between the intention / And the act / Falls the Shadow. It is this hovering-generative-unnameable point, this shadow between Being and Nothingness, substance and the void, that this exhibition brilliantly addresses. It is the radical inverse of another immersive show currently on in London – 24/7: A Wake Up Call for Our Non-Stop World – which deserves our greater attention.
In a world obsessed with things, and the feeble gratifications we derive from them, Burchell, Van Schalkwyk, and Matthews have posed a radical counterpoint. Their group show – the most uniquely inspiring I have encountered in a long while – is a sobering riposte to the flippancy of taste, the paucity of feeling, the failure of love. This is not art as a calculated dopamine rush or Fitbit for the soul. We are far removed from the arid realm of Likes. As Burchell notes, the ‘volatility of ambient air’ can coax a secret and sacred tongue. When technology and sound is used to capture our inner silent gnashing yearning worlds it can be profoundly instructive. Instead of art as a trigger for emotional capital, Burchell, Van Schalkwyk, and Matthews, in combining analogue and tech, have given us art that, for Burchell, allows for a ‘loving space’.