Stevenson, Cape Town
28.11.2019 – 18.01.2020
If his first two shows at the Stevenson – ‘Fugitive and Ellipsis’ – enshrine the indeterminate, can we declare Moshekwa Langa’s latest show – ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ – as more spatially defined? Perhaps. Perhaps not. This is because one never expects to find any definable markers. Instead we arrive at wreckage, bits and pieces reassembled, disassembled. To suppose a story lies in the mess is vainly pre-emptive. True, the works generate sensation, feelings of connection at the precise point one comes unstuck. This is because there is no guiding compass. The eye is not directed, the whole barely gels. Instead we find ourselves thrust in fields of energy, or thickets, the artist looping, breaking, spinning, vaulting, stuttering his way through a construction which, at its beginning and end, is always under construction.
Langa left South Africa in 1996 to study at the Rijksakademie, a school famous for its classes in painting. His palette, however, proved more promiscuous. He is no painter. Yet the miasmas he creates in ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ invoke Monet’s swirls and tendrils and phosphorescent sparkles. Though wildly different from each other, both communicate the elemental and abstract, transfigurations inside of matter. However, in Langa’s visions of water there is something poisoned. There is a catastrophe at work that makes me think of the Great Barrier Reef, leeched coral. Because, across Langa’s glittering surfaces lies a caul, a glaucous amniotic film, a sickly residue, as though Langa was compelled, in the midst of beauty, by putrescent matter. And it is of course matter which is his province – aqueous, skimmed, bacterial. It is therein that one finds the focus of the artist’s eye, his fixation. He is moved by stuff, the things we throw away, disregard, perceive as useless – dejecta. It is this preoccupation with making things from useless things that defines his oeuvre.
My guess is that Langa cannot accept resolution of any kind, that his bloodwork, his psychic wiring, militates always against composure, stillness, harmony, truth, and the many other beatitudes we assign to works which we suppose consoling and good for us. This is because Langa remains unconsoled and inconsolable. If Monet uses a litany of contrary and conflicting marks to access the fractal or atomic nature of life – its asynchronous harmony – then Langa, though with starkly different media, courts something similar – the body and its inexistence, the thing and its mystery, matter and its nothingness, substance and its exhaustion, story and its fallacy, depth and its depthlessness.
I recall a moment in a hotel room in Johannesburg in the mid-1990s, seated with my feet beneath my haunches, as though at prayer in a mosque. Before me I’d splayed Langa’s crudely beautiful figure made of bubble wrap. To say I was mesmerised by the work’s simple elegance is to simplify the matter. To say that in that moment I had recognised greatness is equally trite, if not simply naïve, for who can know the true significance of anything? Who can dare to declare what a present moment means and what a future holds? And yet, in that instant, on that roughly carpeted floor, I met a profound and strange attractor, abject, ruined, which for me defined the tale of this country and the purpose of its art. Fugitive, elliptical, abstruse, opaque, unyielding, Langa’s art is the inverted perversion of art’s meaningfulness, or truth, or ideological directive. And yet it matters. It is all about matter.As Ralph Waldo Emerson notes in On Nature, ‘The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep’. This is a view Monet shares, and which Langa recognises but is exiled from. He is no ‘naturalist’. Rather, his is a life disunited, polluted, Anthropocene; ours. Yet what connects him to Emerson is his reach. Langa longs for the embrace of love and perception. Like any man – in this case a black man – he does not care to be spoken about behind his back. In Amsterdam – a city celebrated for its liberalism – he noted how uneasy its inhabitants became when they realised that he understood and spoke Dutch. It is not easy to be a freak, an oddity, and even more uneasy when that freak, that oddity, is also an artist whose expression defies reason.
Always the outlier, the outsider artist, celebrated yet abused, revered and misunderstood, Langa, like the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, has chosen to explore the trackless. His spoor – the movements of his art – is blind. While there is certainly a definable set of materials he uses – masking tape the most distinctive – it is their inarticulate articulation that counts. This is because Langa does not speak fluently through his work, he stutters. Langa is far more than the scaffolding bolted to his person. His connection of love and perception is imperfect, and yet, like Emerson’s, his is a devotional life in which deep calls unto deep. Neither faithless nor faithful, Langa straddles an impossibility.
‘I spent my post-matric year reading’, he notes in a conversation with Kabelo Malatsie. ‘I was not reading to understand, because it was not understandable’. Langa is referring to James Joyce’s Ulysses. ‘I was having a lot of fun following this very weird, obtuse, abstract, descriptive and all communicating thing’. He is also speaking about himself. ‘I think that what I enjoyed was how this person lived from a kind of poetic sense to a clear descriptive sense to something more rounded to something more scientific. And I was struggling with what to make of my own work – what is it? Because if it is a text, if it is a description or if it is a plan of something to be done … probably in the end I decided that everything that I was making was what it was; it was neither, it did not need to have parameters’.
The segue from the descriptive to the ‘rounded’ and ‘scientific’ comes unstuck. In the beginning and the end of a work we return to its indefinable middling middle, its immoderate moderation. For what Langa gives us is never the finality of anything. Rather, in his work we find ourselves stuck in a blur, a condition unworkable, unfinished – impossible. While his lesser works err on the side of completion – they feel and look complete, in the manner, say, of a Monet painting of his pond – but even these works implicitly know the impossibility of their yearning. Rather, as his experience of reading Joyce reminds us, it is the failure to understand in the moment of making that counts. His is a ‘weird, obtuse, abstract, descriptive and all-communicating thing’ – everything, and nothing.