Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
Thinking about architecture is always a curious exercise for me, because the experience of architecture is simultaneously physical and experiential – we know stuff about architecture through our bodies – but also textual and discursive – architectural form are signs that can be unpacked. The stated aim of ‘Soft Architectures’ is an exploration of the disciplinary power of architecture, how it controls movement and structures surveillance, how it reinforces race and segregation, and of course, subversion of this power. Certainly, the exhibition is packed with monumental minimalist forms, monochrome structures and institutional aesthetics, that point to this query.
Naama Tsabar’s Closer, for instance, is a monolithic white structure, a wall essentially, pierced by microphones on one side, and with access holes to sets of hidden guitar strings on the other (See a different performance of the work here). This reflects on the wall as a limiting, containing presence, poetically pierced by a woman’s body making music. Jeremy Wafer’s work shows the structure of industrial and commercial architecture, abstracted to simple forms. Billboard is the silhouette of a billboard, showing the struts and surface that hold up these intrusive symbols of car capitalism. The mural is painted in oxide, rust basically, hinting to the possibility of ruin and decay contrasting the austerity of the form.
But there seems to be another query at play across the exhibition, which is architectural only in the sense of being a tension between the physical and the textual. The query seems to ask how meaning adheres to things, or how material, form and narrative are related.
Kapwani Kiwanga’s works seem to explore this relationship in multiple ways. In the Glow series of sculptures, black stone is carved into abstract, geometric but human-sized forms, fitted with a light panel, softly glowing. They have a monumental solidity, and an imposing black mysterious shininess, reminiscent of a scifi Big Dumb Object, or better yet, an artefact from NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy of novels. A Google search reveals that the sculptures are based on a 18th century piece of legislation in New York called A Law for Regulating Negro and Indian Slaves in the Night Time, which declared that brown people must carry a lantern at night. This an interesting effect: the key narrative of the work is entirely external to the work, not even hinted at in the titles. This is outsourcing of interpretation, which leaves the work surprisingly minimal and blank. But attaching narrative to the work post fact, allows a different, richer reading of the work. The text is then swallowed up by the material. The black stone becomes the dark of night, or the surface of skin, while the light becomes not an illuminating glow but a serveilling glare. The abstraction of the sculptures begins to make sense too, how bodies are de-indivualised by law.
Another series of Kiwanga’s operates quite similarly, though the works are not quite as gnomic. Green Book (1961) is a series of text works, each named for a state in the US, comprising addresses in slightly oddly aligned blocks and columns. The typeface itself is beautiful, a monoline slab-serif speaking of crisp modernity, but with a quirky lowercase ‘a’ that hints at a little bit of 60s wildness (the font is Memphis, for any other nerds out there). The alignment of text suggests a hidden structure and an underlying deeper logic. It may be more common knowledge for other audiences, but a Google search reveals Green Book to be referring to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a traveller’s guide to places and services friendly to African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Kiwanga’s version removes all contextual information, leaving only addresses. The emptiness allowing a sense of isolation contrasted with clustered havens, while also being reminiscent of the white spaces of maps. Here be dragons.Again, the form and material of the work acts as a node, that hooks into a larger narrative, which guides us back through the work.
In sharp contrast to this idea is Archivo(Archive) by Mateo Lopéz. The work is installed in a side room of the Goodman, and at first glance consists of modular steel shelves. The effect is so mundane, that I thought the gallery had left a storeroom open. A closer look reveals the shelves to be built of manila cardboard and split pins.There is a sly humour here, with the interplay between dissemblance and resemblance, but it also reveals a different way of thinking about the form/material/narrative equation. Narrative is reduced to an absence of information, leaving us only with form and material. The suggestion then is that how we store and retrieve information, shapes what narratives can be told, like water in a container. While this is an insight that has been sloshing around post colonial studies for some time, the interplay between this work and that of Kiwanga’s was illuminating.
Often these summer group shows can be a mixed bag unable to live up to overblown press statements. I found the opposite here: a carefully considered, sensitively curated show, that added up to more than the sum of its parts.