Iziko South African National Gallery
A wall text – white against turquoise – reads: “Strictly speaking, the humans of the age of affluence are surrounded not so much by other human beings, as they are in all previous ages, but by objects … We live by object time: by this I mean that we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession.” The words are by Jean Baudrillard, from his book The Consumer Society, 1988. Prominently placed between two vast inter-leading rooms at the Iziko South African National Gallery, like a sharp and sudden depth charge, Baudrillard’s words compel us to think about why things matter more than people, why it’s easier to deal with people when we turn them into things, why our bodies are the prosthetic extension of things.
There is certainly something spooky about the cult of objects. That they assume a sacred place in affluent societies is the measure of our death-in-life. Deyan Sudjic recounts this horror story in prose as blithe as it is withering in his book The Language of Things. In the stellar show at the ISANG, however, the tone is more concerned and concerning. This is the ‘Third World’ after all, despite hype to the contrary. Affluence belongs to the very few. But things do not. Because consumption is in fact a by-product of waste, and not the other way around, everyone has access to things. Only the artist however can transmogrify them, alter their meaning, twist their affect, interpret them otherwise.
If ‘Matereality’ is as astonishing achievement, it is because of the scale and variety of things pulped, rebooted, made anew. The shimmering innards of tech, the humble and exquisitely functional peg, the torsion and tension of a bra strap or hose, the hollowed lettered bone of a computer key, the earthy grey of rubber, piles of crockery or a tumorous pile of fuzzy nuclear green string, flattened tubes of oil paint or their gloopy aftermath, floral braids of human hair, assemblages built from derangingly dissimilar stuff. It is the making and not only the things sourced that hit one. The dazzling surprise element. The way artists galvanise and electrify things dead, useless, disparaged, ignored.
Since the first readymades and found objects – a twentieth century phenomenon – we have grown accustomed to the undying power of things. But if, as Baudrillard reminds us, ours is ‘object time,’ it is because landfills are everywhere – a part of our bodies, in our crowded and impacted lives. Things are everywhere. We can’t walk along a street without seeing the weather-beaten shred of a flyer nestling in an unkempt drought-stricken bush. A bottle-top, toothpick, copper coin, discarded bucket filled with gunk. Ours, says Rem Koolhaas – the ‘seer of Rotterdam’ – is a JUNKSPACE.
It is inexact to suppose that ‘the more materiality there is, the less humanity there is.’ Existence is the extension of trash. Viscera and waste is us. As Athol Fugard pointed out in his play Boesman and Lena, “The ‘white man’ is so ‘beneukt with us. He can’t get rid of his rubbish. He throws it away; we pick it up. Wear it. Sleep in it. We’re made of it now.” Affluence and poverty are one – along with the neurosis that accompanies the former and desperation that accompanies the latter. If the Iziko show is as brilliant as I believe it is, it is not only because of the individual artist’s innovative reworking of dejecta, but because of the human cycle it records – a cycle in which the inhuman and inanimate play a vital part.
Ours is a ‘material culture.’ A reality grounded in things and their promiscuous occupation of every nook and cranny of our lives. Ours is a life in which the synthetic and organic are inextricably joined. The one bleeds into the other. Their coexistence results in a morphing of being. A Canadian geologist and artist, on a recce to a beach in Hawaii, discovered a morph that sums up our Anthropocene Age – man-made, human-centred – a rock eternally fused with molten waste matter. The name they gave to this bizarre meld of the organic and inorganic they dubbed ‘plastiglomerate’ – the agglomeration of the dead and the living. There is no better word to describe what we have become, what we are. Ours is a material culture that has metastasised.
In the midst of the horror we have become, and the creeping sense of futility in the face of a catastrophe of our own making that it inspires, there remains, weirdly, our unerring ability to make beauty out of mess. Chris Soal, Turiya Magadlela, Dan Halter, Usha Seejarim, Nicholas Hlobo, Francois Knoetze, Carolyn Parton, Liza Grobler, are some of the many artists whose works have been pooled together. The variation is unending. Each and every work delights, irrespective of the mood or tone they may convey. This because we find ourselves in acres of space, coolly columned, elegantly moulded, in which stuff cut apart from their source is allowed to breathe anew. This because there is something peculiarly life-giving about making things – gluing, sticking, wiring, hammering, ramifying.
In the neighbouring flank of ISANG however, a very different story is being told, a story devastatingly connected to a culture built on wastage, in which art can be made from anything, and that is Gabrielle Goliath’s solo show ‘… This song is for …’ for which she won the Standard Bank Young Artist’s Award for 2019. Here the object, preyed upon, exploited and abused, is human, principally though not only female. For what Goliath is telling us is that humans too have become objects – subtracted, reduced, psychically and physically destroyed and murdered. That this heart-breaking solo runs concurrently with the pleasures and darkness one associates with inanimate waste is a devastating reminder of an aberration that runs through the entire cycle of life: the inextricability of the living and the dead. In Goliath’s solo, it is not things that matter, but human bodies, and their life-and-death struggle to continue. In a low-lit purple room, cordoned off with thick black curtains, it is song that accompanies us – reverbed, elegiac – along with stark though sometimes tender accounts in words of the violation barely, if at all, survived.
If rape and abuse is horrifically normative, it is because of our alarming capacity for decadence and depravity. If, today, ‘we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession,’ it is because of our tragic incapacity to distinguish value, let alone arrive at a state of grace. Rather, ours is a heartless, mirthless, cruel time. If a human body can be so cruelly emptied of worth, if human decency is null, it is because ours is an End Time, bereft of care. Insolvent. Amoral.
It is this time in which we must gather up the last shreds of decency we may still possess. A time when we must enshrine goodness and compassion. Because ours need not be a loveless time. It need not be engorged with hate. It can be a time in which we relearn to care for others, for ourselves, for the world that is devouring us. The sacred care and attention we give to things, the miraculous ways in which we transfigure waste, is something which we must all the more urgently direct towards the human, towards our humanity. Failing to do so – if it is not already too late – is catastrophic.