Solvitur ambulando … it is solved by walking. The phrase came to me via my late wife. It has stayed with me as certain things do. A death leaves far more in its wake than we are prepared for.
8am May 1. I am strolling through observatory, Cape Town. I see dogs and joggers. A small boy, whooping, hisses past me on a sleek slime-green bicycle. I am on a mission to find cigarettes that cost too much, in more ways than one. As is their wont, thoughts hiss through me, a blurring purring whir of bicycle wheels through a street in the head.
Beds. My editor has presented me with a challenge: Think of something that connects artists. I think of beds. Four to be precise. Four beds. Four artists. But before going there, reflecting on what they do with beds, I find myself recalling a journey home along Victoria Street. I had been to see Moshekwa Langa’s show at Stevenson. Walking back to Observatory, it was the mess inside of Langa’s paintings that stuck. Scenes of oceans covered in an unpleasant mucus. Turning milk. They are not really paintings. The media is as mixed as the sentiment. Decayed. Filthy. Wrong.
Dwelling on paintings that no longer work – unable to atone for our sins, make us feel good, or chaperone us through our agonies – I find myself caught in a sandstorm. Through stinging grit, I see a building being demolished, dust and sand flying wildly in the wind. Its stomach has been gutted, only a right-angled wall remains through which I see a heap of rubble, then another cut out against a clear blue sky – Devil’s Peak.
The sign on the remaining wall reads BEDS 4 U, accompanied by the face of a smiling blond woman. She, I presume, is intended to reassure potential buyers. Why I cannot say, beds are homely while she seems too sparky, a player. Whatever she was selling has been rudely interrupted. The idea of home comforts, our longing for them, snagged in a great pile of rubble, a reminder, despite noise to the contrary, that homes are not consoling. With a huff and a puff all our dreams will come to naught. If we still possess them, dreams, that is.
In Andrew Tshabangu’s photograph of a bed, hanging on my wall, light pools. Along its length a thin deep shadow cuts through the pool of light. There is a poster of Beyoncé beside the shimmering window that will not ease the vision of a cut, knife-like, splitting what should be bound, whole, a place of rest.
In another photograph, by Ashley Walters, the bed is once again bathed in light. There is no discord in that bed, it is broad and as wholesome as a loaf of warm bread. The unsettlement lies elsewhere, atop a buxom honey-coloured cupboard. There we see three suitcases with their clamps ajar. They contain family photographs, Walters informed me. Traces of lives lived, memories of the dead. Dead people. Dead times. It is the suitcases, their clasps unsnapped, that judders the balm.
Tshabangu and Walters’s photographs are documents. Silvery slivers. The beds that occupy their centre are restorative objects, even though, from my perspective, they are not quite. Neither photograph carries the riposte I found in a demolished building, now vaporised, that bore a futile call – BEDS 4 U. But what that scene of destruction told me then – which tolls now – is what I have always known and seen before in works by Lungiswa Gqunta and Bronwyn Katz. Their beds are not illumined by consoling sunshine. They are cold, brittle, gutted, noisome, hopeless, useless.
We see a metal bedframe, its parameter spot-lit, its coiled base sheathed in Perspex. While the lightbulbs carry a cold wattage, the colours it generates are iridescent purples, blues, greens. This because the Perspex is doused with petrol. This is a bed, a place of sanctity – inflammable, on fire. There is no peace here, not even the illusion of it. Instead, we are thrust into a space of violence – domestic, gendered, familial. Gqunta gives us the underside, literally, of what the comforts of home are supposed to be. She has tossed aside the mattress of foam that allows us to imagine ourselves reposed between heaven and hell. Mattresses sooth, a coiled steel cage doused with petrol does not.
Katz, who like Gqunta belongs to the group iQhiya, is not as graphically harsh. She is not pushing a psychological or political point. Her beds are also stripped down to their exhausted core, the foam reduced to disks, the coils unsprung, the bed, or what is left of it, the sum of its dysfunctional elements – not a bed at all, but its deranged trace. They are strung to walls where useless objects we call art commonly reside.
Unlike the iterations of Tshabangu, Walters, or Gqunta, Katz’s bed, stripped bare, gutted, ripped apart, left dangling, is a thing without a meaning. Not a thing at all. Nothing. She has not only exhausted the possibility of rest, or sleep, she is telling us that the world has long quit its resolve, even its unquiet is a thing of the past. Hers is not Goya’s take: ‘The Sleep of Reasons Brings Forth Monsters.’ In her world, unlike Gqunta’s, there is no sleep, and no monsters. Nullity is all.
I thought I would only write of four beds, but there is another. This last, by the photographer Johno Mellish, features no framing support. There is only a bulky mattress. We are in what looks like a passageway-cum-room, an interzone, a valve, that pumps life into what we call a home. The photograph is peopled. We see two young men, the one standing beside a mop, the other seated on the floor, his back against the mattress propped against a wall. If Tshabangu and Walters’s mattresses are comfortingly lathered with duvets and covers and light, this one is a thick naked slab. As is the case in all Mellish’s photographs, this one, after Walter Benjamin’s reading of Eugène Atget, suggests the scene of a crime.
Something has happened or is about to happen. We will never know. The moment is suspended in time. Unlike Walters’s image with its murmuring suitcases, Tshabangu’s with its vertical scar of shadow, or Gqunta’s petrol fuelled hell, or Katz’s vacuum – for Katz it is futile to abhor a vacuum, there’s nothing else – Mellish places us where I think most of us are – in transit, not knowing what happened prior, or what is about to occur.
Nothing is solved by walking, or resting, or thinking, or feeling. David Hume: ‘To hate, to love, to think, to feel, to see; all this is nothing but to perceive.’