Monday, January 28, 2013

Framing the City: Rodan Kane Hart, Faith 47 & Dala and understanding urbanity

Rodan Kane Hart's Exploded Kaleidescope

Urbanisation typically “denotes a thickening of fields”, writes Abdumaliq Simone, a London-based sociologist, referring to this layered mishmash of diverse elements, the complex groups of bodies, landscapes, objects and technologies, that define cities. It’s such a convoluted reality that individuals and institutions are unable to form a sustained interaction with elements, or actors in the city, or such has been the prevailing thinking, says Simone. The more “thick” a field is, he proposes, the more definitions and classifications it attracts, causing the city to “turn into an object like a language”.

It’s all about creating legible representations of space. Viewing them as purely functional, serving the needs of particular identities, lifestyles and properties has been one approach to grasping these thick social fields.
Yet, Simone proposes engaging with the city outside of these languages, definitions and approaches; it’s in the gaps between elements. In particular, he is interested in how people determine and change the nature of the spaces, constantly improvising in order to survive. This is the approach he embraces when he tries to come to terms with the underlying patterns of Joburg’s inner-city.

“Coming to terms” with Joburg’s inner-city has become somewhat of a fetish activity. Sociologists, architects, photographers, writers and artists are fixated with untangling some of the threads that define the thickening social fields of downtown Joburg. It is the very “thickness” itself that seems to prove the attraction.

Peculiarly enough, the gallery setting has become one of the main places where these (visual) explorations of South Africa’s urban life are being displayed. These spaces are almost antithetical to this concern: they appear like non-spaces. With their white walls and clinical interiors, they exist outside of the urban framework, are detached from its dynamics.
“The history of gallery spaces is completely suppressed,” observes Rodan Kane Hart, when I visit him at the Nirox gallery at Arts on Main before he is due to open Structures, his first solo exhibition. Hart isn’t referring to Nirox but galleries in general.

A set of double doors opening out onto the street roots this gallery in the urban landscape, though there is a clear separation between this pristine, vacant space and the seemingly chaotic, cluttered world outside.
Ideally, and perhaps eventually, Hart’s bold black steel sculptures will be displayed in public
spaces. Conceptually, this is his end-goal, though the allure of commercial success might shift the young twenty-something artist on another course.

His sculptures are largely simplistic forms; black painted steel rods configured into squares, triangles and more complex structures such as Exploded Kaleidoscope, an enlarged yet truncated section of a kaleidoscope on wheels. They are conceived as frames through which to view the city, though their design is derived from architectural motifs Hart identified, through photographs, drawings and observations of both Joburg – where he grew up – and Cape Town, where he now resides. They are mostly – except for Exploded Kaleidoscope – reduced forms that wouldn’t conceivably interfere too much with an urban vista, though in making space a visible unit open to distortion they might conceivably draw the viewer’s attention to the dynamics of space – the “thickness” of relations attached to it.

Inside a gallery they don’t function as a lens through which to view the world but function as independent forms – there is nothing else to see in the gallery. Subsequently, the sculptures’ relationship to architecture is emphasised and they function as a shorthand of the essential character of South Africa’s major urban metropolises. It’s an unseen quality. As the title of the show suggests, the sleek black lines that define his sculptures are the structures, existing beneath the structures. They are the framework, though Hart has in mind that they are optical frames too. From this point of view, architecture isn’t just the bricks and mortar of the city, the substance, but becomes the lens through which urban life, cities, are experienced.
Hart's Shape-Shapes

His fixation with optics is most obviously visualised in Exploded Kaleidoscope. The elaborate details – the interior of the circular structure is lined with raised mirror panels – serve as a distraction, turning the gaze inward.   Without a subject, it’s function as an optical device is nullified. This idea echoes in other works such as Structured Twist,  conjoined triangles and Shape-Shapes, made of contorted square shapes. The lines of both the structures don’t terminate, they are caught in a never-ending loop so that the work folds into itself. In this way, the design doesn't guide the viewer’s gaze outside of the work.

Not that one is left wanting; these structures are indeed very seductive forms. Hart may have unearthed the underlying patterns of our urban landscape, but he has maintained tight control of the process, has aestheticised it. It’s this level of control that perhaps explains the very rational, harmonious and picturesque quality of Hart’s works; they are beautiful and arranged. In other words they are quite self-consciously structured.

The palimpsest of the “thickened social fields” of the city has been neutralised, superficially suspended, as is the case with the gallery itself. The sculptures are like designer items. They appear visually and ideologically resolved. So there seems to be a disjuncture between the final products and their origin. They are pure surface objects, being advanced as having links to an underlying reality. In this way Hart assumes to have his cake and eat it.

However, his work adds a refreshing twist to representations of urban space. For starters, he isn’t interested in specifics. Hart intends to free the viewer up from being locked into actual spaces. In line with this desire to be liberated from ingrained narratives, he plays with the architectural phrases he has isolated.
His sculptures generate optical illusions – the solid steel rods appear to bend and move, depending from which vantage point you observe them – suggesting flexibility and pliability. Hart is playing with architectural forms. In the Emerging Illusionistic Bend, a slatted architectural phrase grows in scale as if it is being stretched like an elastic.

So, while he identifies a fundamental underlying urban form or pattern that seems unchangeable,  he aims to warp, distort and play with it, exposing its malleability. Hart may privilege looking, by setting up the structures to facilitate it, but he directs our attention to the distorted frames through which urbanity is viewed. It’s not about what you see but how you look.

Faith 47's Heritage
As a graffiti artist interested in leaving fleeting work on city walls, the white cube is also not the ideal setting for Cape Town-based Faith 47’s work. She’s an embedded-artist; her work may reflect on the urban context but it doesn’t exist outside the “thickening field”. When this kind of work is shown in the white cube it is assigned different values and loses its relevance – and soul. Certainly, this is what occurred to many of the works on display at the now-defunct Afronova gallery in Braamfontein during the City of Gold, Urban Arts Festival last year. The graffiti artists who participated were delighted they were considered artists, but many acknowledged that their work was anaesthetised in the white cube.

In Fragments of a Burnt History at David Krut, Faith 47 attempts to circumvent this by colonising an entire wall of the small Parkwood gallery with one giant installation consisting of found, disused objects that range from signboards, chairs, a broken tea pot, candles, boxes filled with illustrations and corrugated iron. It’s an attempt to transplant  “the street” into the gallery. This diverse collection could be read as an attempt to recreate the “thickening fields” that denote urbanisation though, of course, this is an impossibility because the field isn’t simply mapped through visual signs that can be moved elsewhere.

A conversion occurs to objects when they enter the gallery context that makes it impossible to reconstruct the street context here. In anticipation of this, Faith 47 frames objects that wouldn’t ordinarily be viewed as art objects; words scratched into wood, a torn advert. She has created some of these works, others look untouched by the artist. Her handiwork is so subtle, so fitting in a way, that you are never sure what kind, if any, intervention has been made to objects. She is a curator as much as she is an artist. Yet her representation of an urban reality is united by a binding aesthetic; these are degraded objects that hail from another era, derived from this “burnt history” referred to in the title of the show. Vorster’s image appears on an old stamp in the work They say Blood is heavier than Water, that is true?

Heritage presents layers of torn posters. The words “murder”, “rape” and “kill” are visible, though they have been damaged. Presumably, the frequency with which they have appeared has ensured their continued visibility. This is a damaged world where new pains have been written over the old ones. This is driven home in Awaiting, dated files with the names of cities, where presumably requests, applications of some kind, were stored. Along the bottom are recent hand drawings of men and women seated that Faith 47 has added. These “waiting” subjects are a recurring motif that feature in large painted works on brown paper.

The subjects are anonymous, they are the ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape; waiting on corners in parks – the unemployed, the destitute, the desperate. These are more conventional artworks but, completed on brown paper, Faith 47 she retains the ephemeral nature of her work.

She is interested in other kinds of throwaway objects, useless unattractive things in circulation. They are her canvases. Some framed objects have no value, it’s as if the frame itself no longer has any meaning. She scratches base comments about migration onto a worthless framed painting of a ship. As with Hart’s exhibition the nature of the frame is an underlying concern.

This approach, using existing canvases and leaving a mark on them, mirrors the mode of graffiti art making. Existing markings left on the objects are vital to her production. A lion motif is spray-painted onto a blackboard that once kept track of production in a factory. It’s an ironic twist; inserting this symbol of power into a context where individuals were subject to control. Driving this appropriation of dated items and inserting new comments or symbols is Faith 47’s way of overwriting the past, while ensuring it remains visible.

Time has elapsed; these objects are undeniably relics, however, they continue to carry some power, haunt her “waiting” subjects, who are paralysed by history. They are nothing like the ideal subjects of Simone’s study, who adapt urban spaces. They occupy public space as a way of asserting their presence though they cannot claim ownership of it.
A pedestrian corridor is given form at Interface 2012 at
Goethe -on-Main

Doung Anwar Jahangeer, founder of Dala, a creative collective that uses art and architecture to bring about social change in eThekwini, is interested in the people on the street determining urban design that suits them rather than adapting to it, as per Simone’s model. This is the underlying motive behind Interface 2012, a series of works instigated by five artists along a well-trodden pedestrian route through Cato Manor (Umkhumbane) to Durban’s Warrick Triangle. It’s an experiential project which, like Simone’s approach, is engineered to identify “gaps where time in our spatial composition is suspended”. By this they refer to walking, the habitual pedestrian routes that a community has established over time and the narratives associated with landmarks along it. These patterns will eventually feed into the urban design along this route. Like Faith 47, Jahangeer must also grapple with translating street activity and performances into the Goethe on Main gallery at Arts on Main.

The display in the gallery isn’t straight documentation; screens along one wall flash close-ups of pavements, and other paths along this route. It’s a jumble of sensory images; grass, rocks, concrete, all summoning the diverse range of elements that define this “thickened field”. Paths through the city are overlooked.
It is impossible to get any concrete sense of the performances in this project; the screens parade loose fragments. A cardboard installation that resembles a long-tailed dragon hangs in the middle of the gallery, illustrating the paths along the pedestrian corridor. In this way, the intangible act of walking is given form, can be traced, though it only plots one fragile line through an urban jungle. - published in The Sunday Independent, January 27, 2013. 

Interface 2012 will show at Goethe on Main in Joburg until February 10. Fragments of a Burnt 
History will show at David Krut, Joburg until February 9.

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