Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace: Unit for Measure

As I pass through the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Joburg, where the art installation Unit for Measure is located, I notice that it is full of unconventional interactive objects that are designed to aid visitors' understanding of the world. On a superficial level, this no different to the goals of Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace's art, which encourages interactivity and imparts a heightened awareness of the material world.

Despite this affinity, their installation is removed from the science displays and is in a barren structure beneath a staircase. It is an uninviting and seemingly dysfunctional space, but it is the ideal environment for Sadie and Lace, who thrive on redefining and unpacking the politics of space.

The title of the exhibition refers to the scientific tools used to furnish us with a precise measurement of the material world. But it is an imprecise and subjective practice. There are an infinite number of ways to survey the world and in this unconventional exhibition, Sadie and Lace offer a number of structures that attempt to explore the visible and invisible dimensions of this makeshift gallery.

There are three installations, a vertical, a horizontal and another, which, consisting of a bright artificial light placed in front of an almost solid square of fishing lines, attempts to read or make visual the light's refractions. These understated visual and conceptual explorations of space are the result of an artistic and ideological exchange that has taken place between Lace and Sadie over the course of the last two years.

Of course, those familiar with their previous works will be able to pick out their individual signatures: Sadie's heightened awareness and manipulation of the lighting and Lace's proclivity for densely packed and ordered art in-stallations. But their individual take on aesthetics and trajectories aren't discordant.

Their latest artworks - Sadie's Situation exhibition at Bank Gallery in Durban and Lace's installation at The Double Body group exhibition - evinced a common interest in the dynamics of space and a penchant for interactive mechanical objects. To a large degree, Unit for Measure extends those preoccupations.

Here, however, their installations are purposively designed to manipulate our interaction with the space, while making us aware of the mechanical strategies that predict and control movement.

On a purely formal level, the installations all consist of lines, vertical or horizontal, fashioned from wire cabling and fishing lines. In a vertical installation, hundreds of fishing lines are grouped en masse in a square and are suspended between the roof and floor of the room. En masse, they have a presence, but the individual threads are delicate and almost invisible. Suspended along some of these lines are colourful artificial flies used in fishing to attract the attention of fish. This installation is exquisite and undeniably alluring, and therefore fulfils much the same function as the colourful artificial fish, because it attracts and traps human attention. Like fish, we respond to base sensory signs.

The installation is intriguing: the densely packed fishing lines fill a block of space, but their almost imperceptible physicality suggests the space is similarly unoccupied. In this way, this installation presents a wonderful interplay between absence and presence, and, apropos the fishing lines, which are used as bait, the tension between beauty and danger, and how those qualities define how we interact with space.

In stark contrast to this delicate artwork is an installation consisting of heavy wire cabling. It is in the juxtaposition of the verticality of the near inivisible installation with this heavy horizontal structure that the disparate manners of exploring and defining space are discreetly unpacked. The horiztonal wire cabling is fed through 60 pulleys that are attached at considered positions around the upper wall of the space, the wire cables criss-cross each other, creating a complex configuration.

Shadows of the cables are cast on to the walls with the aid of strategic lighting, thereby amplifying the density of the structure and engendering a sense that it extends beyond the confines of the room. The arrangement of the cables isn't random: there is a distinct pattern that creates order and makes for an aesthetically pleasing appearance. However, like the delicate vertical installation, one feels caught within a web.

In this way, the artists seem to be suggesting that we become so caught up in measuring space that the very tools that are meant to facilitate this activity actually become a barrier to our experience of the space. The weight and density of the cables and the extent to which they dominate the room are physically and psychologically overwhelming. Offering a reprieve is a winch situated in the centre of the room allows me to adjust the tension of the cables, which are all interconnected. As I turn the wheel, the cables adjust their position. In this industrial setting, with exposed pipes and wires in view, the cables don't look out of place - in fact, they appear to be part of the architecture. Interacting with the cables creates the illusion that the grey oppressive architectural structure in which they are embedded is in some way malleable, open to influence. Of course, in pulling at the cables I only tweak the structure.

As I exit the Sci-Bono Centre, passing groups of children gathered around garish gadgets, I am left with an acute sense of the role science plays in creating the illusion that the invisible can be made visible, and the dialogue between Sadie and Lace's installation and the museum begins to unravel in my mind.

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