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'Subtropicalia' and 'The Street'

Paul Edmunds and Meschac Gaba at STEVENSON in Cape Town

By Fabian Saptouw
01 October - 21 November. 0 Comment(s)

Paul Edmunds
Weft, 2008. Digital video, no sound 4 min 5 sec.

An exuberant flurry of colours, of textures, of decorative objects, of tables with rolls of hand printed paper, greets the viewer entering Benin-born artist Meschac Gaba’s The Street. In Africa, the centre of economic and social activity in the community is on the street, and it is this buzzing arena which provides the source material for Gaba’s work.

Gaba does not present objects found in up-market boutiques, but turns to the materials employed in informal trading. This trade is something integral to the economic structure of Benin (and something with which we are quite familiar in Cape Town as well), so as a viewer one remains perpetually aware of the link these works have with the economy. Closer inspection of the surfaces of the various framed works in the Colours of Cotonou (2007-9) reveal hundreds of small circles cut from Beninese bank notes that almost completely conceal each of the wooden frames. This motif is given extra weight by the recent global financial crisis and the way the perception of a country is coloured by the state of its economy.

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In earlier years, Gaba has made braided sculptures of well-known buildings, to be worn on the head in performance. In his video Car Tresses (2008) people wearing chunky head dresses in the form of vehicles from cars to tanks parade through the streets, coins dangling from the ends of their tresses. In the gallery, the wig sculptures line up on plinths.

A raked wooden stand with dozens of different shades of nail varnish was bought complete from a street manicurist, and Vernissage (a  title which means ‘varnishing’ as well as  referring to an exhibition opening) allowed opening night visitors to have their nails painted.

Drawing on the conventions of the hair braiders, the picture framers, the clothes sellers, Gaba questions and contrasts the economic codes which distinguish Africa from the West, and presents us with work which reflects both.

In contrast to the open-ended exploration of materials in Gaba’s work, Paul Edmunds’ 'Subtropicalia' presents objects that are completely resolved.  The clue to the materials used – and the theme of the whole show – can be found in a short  autobiographical story titled Subtropicalia, written by Edmunds, which reflects his youthful fascination with skateboarding and surfing culture during the 70s and 80s. The particular materials Edmunds presents emanate from these cultures. Neoprene (wet suit material) and polyethylene foam (used in body boards) function as contact points for the human body, but also as barriers and a means to insulate and contain. The works on display in the gallery do not become self-indulgent representations of those elements. Instead, Edmunds presents a skilled engagement with his chosen materials and articulates clear concerns with materiality, repetition and patterning.

Edmunds works from carefully calculated computer drawing to maquette to final sculpture, exercising a very precise aesthetic in his choice of material. The result might be almost ethereal: Ply  (2009) is a large scale hanging sculpture of ice-cream spoon shaped layers of translucent white polypropylene shaped into a  helix with steel clips. Or it might come much closer to the earthy recycled ethic of arte povera: for Sleeve (2009), dozens of used wet suits were cut into triangles and sewn together and suspended to create a hyperbolic parabola under which the viewer must pass to enter the gallery.

Weft (2008) features a video clip of surfers riding waves from Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer (1966) that is mirrored and played together on one screen. The algorithm that Edmunds applied during the production process alternatively speeds up and slows down each clip, which makes the surfers go slightly in and out of sync throughout the video. To my mind this work offers an analogy for Edmund’s production process; in particular the way his employment of materials slip in and out of contact with the use-value they were intended for. The image has a profoundly hypnotic effect, especially when one focuses intensely on that exact moment the surfers sync up, and wipe out. 

The image surface of Slope (2009), Pool (2009) and Trough (2009) offers the same possibility of complete immersion in the visual plane. These three pieces consist of four rectangular layers of paper-like Tyvek stitched together across the top edge. The top layer is white, the others are the primary colours of cyan, magenta and yellow. The artist made the works by tracking the shifts in colour values of digital images, translating that data into various three dimensional shapes and incising these tiny shapes into each successive layer. By hand.

Perhaps this is the closest the viewer will ever be to stepping inside the intensely repetitive process required to craft these images. In these works the visual fields function like a moiré pattern, and the combination of colours shifts in relation to any move the viewer makes.

Edmunds’ laboured process of incising hundreds of geometric shapes onto each layer of  Tyvek is a potentially perverse affront to the inescapable mass-digitization of media in our age. Rather than provide access to the original image he offers the viewer a re-interpretation of that visual information. Through his systematic reworking, and perhaps metaphorical reclaiming of an image, Edmunds authors an intricately designed vision of these materials that operate beyond the boundaries of the source material.

Paul Edmunds’ work is a clearly considered gesture that operates within the confines of a very specific sensibility. His work draws quite heavily on the interplay between algorithms, technical designs, intense labour, repetition and materiality. While this broad group of terms in no way lock down Edmunds’ product, they go some way in indicating the complexities of his processes.

Overall both 'Subtropicalia' and 'The Street' are impressive displays that engage the presence of materials and circumvent their mundane associations. However, it should be noted that they also differ quite drastically, potentially in as many ways as they are similar. Perhaps Edmunds’ Weft (2009) is a useful analogy for the way these shows sit together, how they come together and drift off again.