15.07 - 03.09.2021
From the parking lot, I was ushered through the back, passing through Stevenson’s storage, conservatory and staff offices before I was directed into the gallery. This is where the exhibition begins. I mention this because it destabilised the automated gallery-viewing performance: walk up ramp, greet staff, take pamphlet, look and, sometimes, see. Do it quietly, recognising labour only from the artists selected for this month’s display. Instead, I was presented with not only what was on the walls, but with the walls themselves. In the storeroom, a monochromatic Zander Blom hung lopsided on a narrow wall, sullied by the wayward movement of crates, pencils and dirty hands. Unlike those in the exhibition space, this wall was well-touched.
When viewing the exhibition, I felt I saw holes in the gallery’s walls that were already there, rather than merely focusing on the new ones. I saw a history of works going up and coming down; of holes being patched up and new ones made. This is the way of seeing that ‘My whole body changed into something else,’ co-curated by Sisipho Ngodwana and Sinazo Chiya, beckons. Existence (of being a body in a place, or a hole in a wall) is multiplicate. The exhibition’s title, an extract taken from future-human artist and musician Sun Ra’s account of being catapulted into outer-space, suggests that the ‘whole body’ (or its subject-positioning) must be acknowledged, but then expelled into the imaginary, into ‘something else.’ As Kamyar Bineshtarigh’s installation, An Exhaustive Catalogue of Texts Dealing with the Orient, suggests, being human is exhausting, and for some more than others. Broken glass covered in Arabic script shatters ‘the Orient’ as an idea projected onto a body: a simplification applied and discarded irregularly. It is, therefore, important to see the hand that holds the marker in Bineshtarigh’s assemblage, but it is equally as important to transcend it.
In the case of Moshekwa Langa’s installation, Mogalakwena, the presence of a body is only hinted at. Four paper collages including dozens of eyes are mounted to the wall. As opposed to being met with the confrontational feeling of Zanele Muholi’s EyeMe (2021), a wall of digital eyes included in their retrospective at the Norval Foundation, Langa’s eyes watched over me like elders (those who have come before us), or angels (those who have yet to come). Something about them made me feel small, held, as I bent down to scrutinise Langa’s props. Used books, toys and tchotchkes covered the floor. Woollen yarn, wound onto objects on the periphery, contained Langa’s field map of objects. I imagined what chaos might ensue should a toddler be placed inside this woollen playpen. In this, the installation feels playful, funny and humane. There is an unsettling discrepancy between this scene, ripe with kinesis, and the unmoving eyes that look over it: a middle space where nothing happens. Because nothing happens, this space is politically and geographically liminal.
Before Sun Ra was extrapolated from earth, writes Hua Hsu, ‘[they] freed him from the limits of the human imagination. They instructed him to wait until life on Earth seemed most hopeless; then he could finally speak, imparting to the world the “equations” for transcending human reality.’
These equations are held in Rahima Gambo’s healing instruments, laid on grains of sand; in Steven Cohen’s makeup, pressed to tape and then ripped off; in Helen Sebidi’s fragments of paint that converge to create colours unspeakable; and in Dada Khanyisa’s intricate, almost machine-like, joining of shapes, textures and forms. The exhibition text suggests that ‘dreams develop nooks and crannies and take up space in the physical world.’ This is exactly what Khanyisa’s I just go on dates for new conversations and It was that night we ended up at Berea Court do: make physical the nooks and crannies of dreams. Engaging with these works feels strangely moving, akin to witnessing the slow dispersal of atoms, levitating above humanity and landing on Saturn.
James Elkin writes, in Pictures & Tears: A History of a People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings:
Are pictures really nothing more than spots of beauty on the wall, or (in the case of people in my line of work) index cards for intellectual debates? What does it mean to say that you love paintings (and even spend your life living among them, as professionals do) and still feel so little? If paintings are so important—worth so much, reproduced, cherished, and visited so often—then isn’t it troubling that we can hardly make emotional contact with them?
As an art professional, sadly, I am not often moved. I have only cried once in front of a painting (Monet’s Water Lilies). However, in front of Erkan Özgen’s videos, I felt the mozzarella ball in my throat return.
First, I was confronted with the video Wonderland, in which a young, deaf boy facilitates communication through gestural hand movements and sound effects. His tiny body is translating the violence experienced by war: he enacts bombings, shootings, pain. He is perhaps six or seven years old and fluent in a language that many of the viewers of this film, including myself, may never need to know. To witness this boy, one of the few people the artist has aided in fleeing borders to seek refuge in Turkey, is sobering to say the least. This is not a news article. There is nothing to intellectualise here. There are no, stats, no death count. This is violence beyond language. It is people screaming into a legislative void, lining up to renew asylum permits, having frozen bank accounts, stripped of subject hood and discarded, all in the midst of a pandemic. (We have seen this, too, in South Africa).
Such evil is turned inwards in The Memory of Time. This silent film is the eerie spectre of Wonderland. People in sun-protective hats pose around a now-defunct cannon with glee, as if in the presence of an ancient relic. This is the aftermath for some, and not for others. The tourists stand in stark contrast to the young boy. One imagines these photographs being uploaded onto social media with bomb emojis in the captions, making the erasure of history visible. It is unsettling as all hell. I was moved to tears.
In ‘My whole body changed into something else,’ I was both painfully aware of my body, and yet, hovering above it. This is what art does. This is what the dance of art engagement is—or, what it should be. This is transcendence of self: being so lost for words by the expansiveness of history that your only reaction is, as Elkin says, to cry at ‘nothing but colours’ or, in this case, pixels.