In recent years, the term vulnerability has been popularised by social researcher Brene Brown, through her 2010 TedX talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. Brown suggests that vulnerability is, in fact, the antidote to shame and fear, where ‘in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be fully seen’, what the researcher further describes as ‘calling deep on our courage and embracing what is difficult and uncomfortable.’
Curated by Josh Ginsburg and staged at the A4 Arts Foundation exhibition space in District Six, ‘Risk’ is a show about vulnerability and possibility. The show brings together thirteen artworks with an unlikely combination of artists from diverse geographies, practices and schools of thought. The exhibition succeeds in flattening art historical hierarchies that are often upheld by group exhibitions that tend to prioritise chronological organization or organization by medium. In this exhibition, the contemporary sits right beside the modern while the supposed polarities between the Global North and Global South are pulled to pieces.
Entering the exhibition space requires a walk through Igshaan Adams’ site-specific installation (As yet Untitled, 2019) – a moveable fabric suspended from the ceiling. This act of walking through the curtain or tearing through the veil signifies a passage of sorts. We’re crossing the Rubicon towards an immersive and transformative experience, one that will require vulnerability and inspire scores of possibility. Once inside, we are greeted by Meshac Gaba’s Détresse (2017) a car lights sculpture whose menacing red-orange glow is accompanied by the clicking sound of the lights turning on and off. On the far right is a panel of eight polaroid transfers of Bernie Searle’s naked body covered in flour. The artist can be seen undertaking various tasks in each panel (kneeling, gathering flour, kneading flour etc). In this tiny room with these three artists, an interesting conversation between found object, image and material emerges. The triangulation has a performative effect that pulls the spectator into the spectacle.
Meanwhile, a mysterious sound can be heard from the other room. This howling sound cannot be placed immediately, it sounds like a combination of water gushing back and forth and an animal wailing in anguish. Later this is accompanied by the sound of bullets, an elephant crying in pain, birds chirping, a foreign language. We later find out that this domineering soundscape is the soundtrack to John Akomfrah’s film Four Nocturnes, a three-screen video installation which the artist presented at the 58th Venice Biennale earlier this year. The film forms part of a trilogy of films (including Vertigo Sea (2015) and Purple (2017)) that explore the relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and our own destruction. This fifty-minute long film demands that you slow down, that you linger and take it all in. It is overwhelming in scope and very uncomfortable to sit through.
Light and sound are the two elements holding the show together—the soundtrack to Four Nocturnes engulfs the entire exhibition and at the same time, the walls are painted black with lighting at very specific interstices to deliver just the right effect at the right moment.
At various points in the exhibition, we are confronted with different types of animals, perhaps a challenge to our anthropocentric obsession. In Mircea Cantor’s Aquila Non Capit Muscas (2018) which can be loosely translated the eagle does not catch flies, an eagle is recorded flying towards a drone. It is determined, focused, sharp… covering an extraordinary amount of ground, it snatches the drone. The surveillant becomes the surveilled and the object of capture becomes the captured.
The show can be experienced through multiple diagonal matrices where at any point in the exhibition, at least two art objects are diagonal to each other (non-diagonal paths are empty) and are in conversation with each other. Ernest Mancoba’s Composition (1940) is across Gimberg Nerf’s Escape to Robben Island (2008), a conversation about geometry, splinters and rupture. Geers’ Twilight of the Idols (2005) is across Sithole’s Mother and Child (1970), soft-edged sacred figures in space, having a conversation about uncertain heritage. Adams’ site-specific installation is across Searle’s Still (2001), the two are speaking to each other about identity and memory.
Vulnerability and possibility intertwine to form an essential spine upon which we build narrative and understand not just the artworks in the show but the practices of the artists – whether it is Pieter Hugo documenting marginalised people and fraught landscapes, Bernie Searle using her body as a subject to interrogate race, gender, language and history or Carrie Mae Weems questioning the consequences of power, the artists are invested in damage, in restoration, openness, connection, in the difficult and the uncomfortable.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which we see vulnerability performed in this exhibition is with Ulay and Abramović’s four-minute performance; Rest Energy (1980). Ulay holds an arrow the weight of the artist’s body pointing at Abramović’s heart while small microphones record the sound of their hearts beating. As time passes, endurance, risk, rest and energy are tangled up in weird intimacy and anticipation. The heart races and a single moment feels like a lifetime.
‘Risk’ is a robust exhibition full of bold and dramatic curatorial decisions. It has the potential to move the viewer into consciousness but it also runs the risk of collapsing on itself because of the many different parts that require attention and energy from the viewer.