POOL, Green Point Park
14.12 - 14.01.2024
When entering POOL, a project space currently located in Green Point Park, one is greeted by the smell of herbs and linen. The common themes of Zayaan Khan’s A Practice in Light and Death are made clear from the beginning – the processes and products of preservation. The show is part of a larger series of exhibitions staged by POOL in collaboration with Field Station, a pilot initiative enabling collaborative transdisciplinary arts-based programming at Green Point Park until June 2024. Khan’s work is the second iteration, following an exhibition by Jeremy Bolen and Nina Barnett, Between the Ballast and the Pine, exploring South Africa’s history through its environment, such as Cape Town’s ancient pine trees and the clouds of dust produced by Johannesburg’s mines.
Khan uses food and its preservation to explore ideas around history, land, knowledge systems, and creation as she believes that it is an interlocal point at which these ideas meet. She references the colonial erasure of indigenous systems and cosmologies which wiped out knowledge relating to all facets of life, including food. Khan has adapted the use of glass jars for pickling to reconnect with traditional food-making practices and as a form of resistance against Western ideologies that leave little room for indigenous expressions of culture in contemporary society. Through the use of modern tools such as glass jars, while keeping her practice rooted in her ancestral knowledge, she challenges the notion that to make way for modernity tradition must be left behind. This theme of exploring the complexities of our relationship to history and the environment is echoed in the multitude of jars containing preserved fruits and vegetables located on a windowsill in the front room of the exhibition space.
In addition, an array of items, from insects preserved in resin to petri dish culture swabs, is laid out on a large table. The display is reminiscent of one that may be found in a natural history museum, yet it explores the muted histories of people that are so often left out of the historical record. Khan is thus rewriting indigenous people, practices, and culture into South African history through this work.
A series of cyanotype prints on paper depicting the outlines of jellyfish carcasses, insects suspended in resin (similar to those seen on the table), and other such dead organisms can be seen hanging against the back wall of the space. By suspending these creatures in space, Khan has given them new life and new meaning. She explores the passage of time and our connection to it through an installation of a large pile of salt heaped on one side of the gallery. Bags are provided and visitors are encouraged to take some salt home with them or simply touch it in situ. “Salt is a core tool of my work”, states Khan in an interview. “For preserving, for cleaning, for pressing succulent plants. It is a timekeeper and a time slower, and in fact so ancient that whenever I use it, I am reminded about how close we are to deep time”. Through interacting with this work, the viewer is directly linked to an object that represents many millennia passed.
Long sheets, dappled by sunlight filtered through the trees outside, are draped over three descending wires creating a kind of “tent” for the visitor to enter. The sheets are patterned in traces of cyanotype shapes resembling life forms such as coral, seashells, and the skulls of small birds and other animals. The work reminds one of home, of playing amongst the sheets left out to dry on the garden washing line as a child, or of the makeshift tents created with friends at sleepovers. When one explores the work closely, a small hammock filled with dried rose petals lies at its core. The hammock is only large enough for a baby to lie in, but in the place of a child lies dead and decaying flowers, giving the work an eerie quality. The petals also spill out onto the floor beneath, mimicking the wilted flowers left at a small grave by grieving relatives. Khan’s work often explores themes of heritage and ancestry as well as how people cope with the grief of losing a loved one, particularly a family member. Although the linen installation is sombre, it does not paint death as a monstrous creature to be feared. Rather, it could be interpreted as representing the care people show for their deceased — the gentle wrapping of the body in a burial shroud. This gives the work a kind of melancholic beauty.
In the farthermost room of the gallery, there is a video projection of fruit flies falling into a jar filled with red wine. They float haphazardly, their translucent wings steeped in the sanguine liquid. Considering the relatively short lifespan of a fruit fly the work is in stark contrast to the deep time explored through the salt installation — instead highlighting the briefness of life. In the background Khan’s voice can be heard discussing fruit flies and their role in her work, which sounds poetic as she reads rhythmically, her voice gentle yet enunciated. At one point Khan states, “Perhaps the [flies] arrive at the door of death and fermentation is a veil to the other side of life”. Fruit flies often play an important role in the fermentation process through the transfer of microorganisms. This work alludes to the juxtaposition of life and death, how through the death of one organism another can be born.
Despite the solemn nature of many of the works, the show is comforting in that it works to assuage the inherent fear of death that we all experience at one point or another. We are shown that death does not mean the end of everything, as one can live on in the memory of loved ones, or as a site for new life to be created in the form of microorganisms. We are left feeling introspective, as we are forced to examine our own ideas, fears, and anxieties around death, be that our own death or that of those we are closest to. Khan’s work challenges the abjection of death and how Western culture in particular has instilled in us a deep fear of it, even though it is a natural and inevitable part of life. At its core, the exhibition demonstrates the transience of time, as what may be a lifetime for a fruit fly may be nothing more than a fleeting moment for humans.