WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
11.12.2019 – 01.02.2020
An understated urgency exists between these two words. Danger is coming, or has come and is yet to leave. The words are alert and attentive, but strained. With them in mind it comes as no surprise that the subtext of Ruby Swinney’s second solo show at WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery is the state of entropy within which we’ve trapped the ecosystem. Instead of pacifying our egos purely with nostalgia, Swinney tasked herself with the burden of honesty as well.
The gallery showcases Ruby’s large murals upon wide walls of white. At first glance, there is an idyllic, dreamlike quality in the monochromatic colour frames of Swinney’s works, but there lives an inescapable ghoulishness in the detail that disturbs the eye into concentration. Once focused, the true subtext lifts off of the bottom of the inked pools, to rise to the surface, and lift higher still to the question of what is to follow.
The truth is that the ‘world as we know it’ is something we no longer know, and our dearest memories cannot revive nature to the state after which we’re yearning. Instead of admitting to this, and salvaging what we can, we’ve indulged one another with semantics, sensationalism and social media. “Human behaviour and existence is the predominant force of change in our current geopolitical epoch, the Anthropocene, causing the devastating environmental impacts of mass extinctions; heavily polluted oceans; deforestation; and altered atmospheric conditions, amongst others. And yet, we have seen a surge in climate change denialists rationalising these changes as the natural order.” Lindsey Raymond surmises in the prefacing text.
This hard truth is sharpened with the fine lines of Swinney’s detailing; every leaf, rock, spirit and glass panel are exquisitely executed, creating a mirage of lush excess and serenity upon which we’re allowed to reflect from a safe distance. It is also interesting to note that the depicted spaces take some form of conservation in their design; emphasising the necessary distance not only between the audience and nature, but the subjects within the context as well as they enjoy their cocoons of colour.
The oils run vast and vivid across the walls, like windows into Ruby Swinney’s world, taking the metaphor of the cocoon and allowing it to ripple outward. Each moment is an homage to these human spirits in their natural habitat. Sated, sun-soaked and swimming, these bodies give themselves to water, light and mystery as they forego their identities to stay in the frame of Swinney’s limbo. These faceless subjects trapped inside of these moments begin to take on the lines and texture of their surroundings, drawing them in, along with the audience. The depth of each of Swinney’s chosen colours becomes more and more evident as she challenges them to fill canvasses in their entirety.
“This is the world, which is fuller and more difficult to learn than I have said. You are right to smudge it that way with red and then with orange: the world burns.” This quote presents itself before the first piece, Alien Bloom, 2019 which is coloured with a feverish orange, reiterating Margaret Atwood’s words as they hover below the show’s title. The increasing alienation from our natural worlds, as Lindsey Raymond phrases in her accompanying text, sits at the forefront of Swinney’s consciousness in the creation of this solo show.
Conservatory, 2019, is a multi-framed offering of an expansive, thriving collection of plantlife haunted by passersby, lingering spirits and the very statement of its necessity. Time presents itself as a theme here by commenting on the specific perspective of a human lifetime, and the effects a human life can have on its surroundings. How human perspective shapes its priorities, giving form to the world around it, so it can cater as needed. A reverence for nature could have preempted the creation of a conservatory, had it been a priority. Instead, this reverence had to be monopolised in order for it to be seen as sacred; highlighting the replacement of moral ethics with the façade of capitalist ambitions. It wasn’t enough to savour nature when it was boundless, now we must savour it’s memory as the only remaining offering of its true experience, or it’s true existence. This is our legacy.
Black Pool, 2019, a collection of blue oils on silk gives a more obvious commentary on our current interactions with nature. There’s a smoker, a swimmer, a photographer, and someone who bought a drink – all white, blasé bodies surrounding a deep body of water that seems almost ominous in comparison, though in an honest reflection it is the presence of these bodies that is ominous, while the water lays cold and helpless below, unable to stop visitors from littering, using and photographing it.
Mirror Words, 2019, centers both silk frames and fuschia oils on two people photographing their visit. Here, we see the eyes of the onlookers, but not the photographer, nor the subject of the photograph’s face. It brings into question the very nature of documenting our experiences as the process and presentation has changed significantly in the last five years alone. This notion, held up against the environment that portrays wealth, health, access and symbols of nature creates a societal sphere everyone is scrambling to associate themselves with in lieu of protecting these creations from the reality of our true actions.
Ruby Swinney has taken the nuances of societal conduct and the consequences of social media, marrying it with the inevitable erosion that comes with even the softest, well-meaning human touch and created a body of work that is both beautiful and damning in its reflection back at the audience. As anything created to accommodate a human; be it their misgivings, memories or sustenance, there is a cost. A cost that has been consistently paid by our surroundings, and as such, the very structure of our home planet.
As the natural world grows smaller, and conservations and their likeness become more sacrosanct and commonplace as a result, what will become of human nature as the nature of the world changes yet again? Ruby allows this question to linger and asks you again to Hold Still, until the answer reveals itself.