Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pinning down the Intangible: Bronwyn Lace

Detail of Collapse (White Passage Out)

It’s a curious phenomenon that compels dancers to explore conditions that limit the body, writers to gravitate towards articulating states that cannot be verbalised and visual artists towards capturing things that escape the eye. Perhaps this is how artists test the boundaries of their respective disciplines, but it also tends to be the reason they have chosen them as tools of expression; if you are interested in what goes unsaid it seems logical that you would pursue a career in writing.

This theory may explain why the artist Bronwyn Lace is so interested in the invisible; that which the naked eye cannot detect, and, given she is a visual artist, bringing invisible matter into view. In other words, in her pursuit of tracing the invisible, she automatically creates situations where the unseen becomes visible. In a way, the quality she is chasing is transformed through her obsession, into the very thing that interests her the least. It’s a contradiction for sure, but presumably one that holds her attention because she can never be released from it.

This may be why her latest exhibition, Resuscitate, seems partly concerned with not only shedding light on the invisible, but her idiosyncratic mode of arriving at this point – and toying with it. Underscoring Lace’s pursuit of the invisible is her vocabulary of invisibility, which includes her opaque materials; see-through perspex boards, fishing gut and light. A light fitting may be quite tangible, but light itself, particularly in relationship to the fishing gut lines that she characteristically suspends between the perspex boards, is an intangible “material”.

These materials cunningly create the illusion that her pursuit of the invisible doesn’t result in material objects, but ephemeral ones that seemingly don’t exist either. This may allow her to avoid the contradiction her obsession may entail at least superficially because, ultimately, it is the visual substance of her work. However, because the structure to hold the invisible and map it out is the only thing we can see, it becomes the object/subject of her work; in other words, the invisible/visible structure ends up |serving as a substitute for what the naked eye can’t see.

This exhibition presents installations that have been collapsed. The perspex boards are sandwiched together and the fishing gut lines that would have been tautly suspended between them are crumpled into an entangled mass that protrudes from the perspex in the works Collapse (White Passage In) and Collapse (White Passage Out). In the works Collapse (Ascension) and Collapse (Golden Tunnel), Lace enacts the reverse process by “stretching” out the construction so that the fishing gut lines are suspended between the ceiling and the floor of the double volume of the Nirox Gallery.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Connecting the lines: Mamaza

Mamaza's Cover Up pic by John Hogg
The performers are choking on the white fluffy carpet that delineates the stage. This is the price for burying their heads in its dense pile. They immerse themselves in it as they motor their bodies around it, hungry to feed on its smell or texture, until their mouths are full of it and they are forced to spit out the whispy fibres.
The carpet is ever present;  the acrid aroma of synthetic fibres pervades the theatre. It facilitates an imaginative performance space where they can exist anywhere, though at times they can’t get past its physical dimensions, characteristics.

When they are not ensnared by its alluring fluffiness, it’s as if they are revelling in middle-class suburban bliss. Clad in beige chinos, Ionnis Mandafounis, Fabrice Mazliah and May Zarhy (who are collectively known as Mamaza) glide across the fluffy white carpet in their white socks with childlike enthusiasm. You can almost imagine the plush leather lounge suite and glass table that should serve as props. Yet, in Cover Up, the carpet opens up an imaginative space beyond the everyday, allowing the performers to follow their every whim, switching between modes of performance as they stretch the boundaries of this banal, cheesy, retrogressive and affluent setting that this white surface evokes, permits.

At times they are trapped by it, such as when their heads are glued to the surface. At other times, they are upright, stiff and act out choreographed scenes with disco-inspired moves that recall those by John Travolta in the cult disco film Saturday Night Fever. Fluffy carpets are of course über Seventies, so this reference is not a surprise. Their gestures are not as loose or seductive as Travolta’s, they’re rendered stiffly, like a wallflower at a party who wants to fit in, highlighting their awkward form of mimicry.

In stark juxtaposition, they become animalistic – bleating like goats, or emitting guttural screams. Once again it’s the fluffy white carpet that brings goat pelts to mind, giving rise to the association.

Cover Up is a performance-performance in the sense that it is about contrivance and theatrics, playing with them quite self-reflexively. This makes it difficult to initially reconcile this production with Asingleline, the other work they have brought to South Africa. For starters, Asingleline doesn’t take place in a theatre and the conventions attached to a show such a setting are dispensed with; there is no starting time, or an audience per se. Perhaps it is not even a performance. In fact, it probably couldn’t even be thought of as a dance work, which is why this work wasn’t included in the Dance Umbrella. Not that the absence of actual dancing precludes a work from being incorporated into this annual dance event – Robyn Orlin, Steven Cohen and Sello Pesa have often presented works on this platform that didn’t encompass any movements considered “dancerly”.

This is probably why Asingleline is more radical than Cover Up. There are no scenes in this work – the trio, dubbed Mamaza, a European-based dance collective, exist in it as themselves, though as dancers their heightened interest in spatial politics and how to physically and psychologically negotiate them inform the piece.
Making the line outside the Turbine Hall
pic by Masimba Sasa

Zarhy seems like a retiring personality, she is concealed behind sunglasses, a hat and layers of clothing, when I meet them outside the Dance Factory, before we head to the first destination for this, their second day making Asingleline. As the title of the work suggests, it is|centred around making “a single line” through a city, connecting a cultural centre to its economic, business or transport hub. It’s a simple idea, though less easy in practice, for there are buildings in the way of this line and so the work requires entering buildings, moving over structures and furniture in order to put down the temporary red line – a strip of red masking tape that they lift up almost immediately after putting it down.

Ironically, it is not about a “line” or a permanent one, they are more interested in what is required to be able to do so; negotiating with shop owners, house dwellers, security guards, all the gatekeepers to the diverse spaces they must enter in the unknown cities where they make “lines”. Because the line is determined in advance, drawn on a map, their missions are to some degree unknown, though they use locals to help start negotiations in advance – is this a compromise?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Refined Line: Colin Richards

The true image: Veronica, 1996
I don’t write obituaries. It’s hard as a writer to make this choice, because there is always a lot of pressure from a variety of people to do so. I refuse, however, to participate in reducing someone’s life to a superficial journalistic piece relaying their accomplishments or a few anecdotes that are engineered to make me appear humorous, or clever. Whatever you write or how long the piece is, it will always be incomplete. I like to avoid ‘incompleteness’ as often as possible – it’s the worst sensation to haunt a writer, though it is an inevitable working hazard. Colin Richards understood writing. He made art about it. This is perhaps what attracted me to his work. I enjoyed talking to him too. It was a great source of pride to me that he read me frequently and at times enjoyed what I wrote - and told me so. There are many conversations left to be had with his work; here is one, a very incomplete one… 

A Fine Line is not an empty or superficial tribute to the late artist, academic and critic, Colin Richards, who unexpectedly died earlier this year. This may be because it wasn’t conceived as a commemoration of his practice; presented by the Origins Centre, it is associated with Body Knowledge: Medicine and the Humanities in Conversation, a conference hosted by WiSER. Curated by his widow, the renowned artist Penny Siopis, this exhibition traces, to use the title, a refined line from his work as a medical illustrator, to other forms of artistic illustration, to his visual translations of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, to the conceptual games he played as he pursued a fascination for the relationship between texts and images. In so doing the collection exposes (one of) the core concerns that drove his practice, and how it evolved. In other words it captures the heartbeat of his artistic spirit.

It’s easy to see how Richards fell into the illustrative mode; the precision and accuracy of his lines clearly made him an ideal candidate for rendering the interior of the human body into illustrations to accompany medical texts. A collection of some of these works are on display in a glass cabinet; they are unsigned and anonymous but bear the markers of his obsessive eye for detail – and of course, his ability to render impossibly fine lines, though he would push this talent much further when he transitioned to art making.

Another cabinet presents more narrative illustrations for books, demonstrating how Richards began to use his skills in more artistic realms before he became an active artist, where presumably accuracy was no longer necessary and interpretation or translation opened up new possibilities. Central to the exhibition is a display of notebooks and papers that present handwritten notes by Richards, where he meditates on the similarities between words and visuals, debunking the notion that these disciplines occupied antithetical positions. The “cult of immediacy” isn’t particular to the visual arts, he asserts.

“A drawn line can be vulnerable to second thoughts as much as any word or concatenation of words.”
In the same text he goes on to deny the spontaneity thought to be inherent to drawing – “drawing makes a grave of experience”. It’s an idea that resonates with writing, a discipline which similarly can only ever relay lived-reality in retrospect and perhaps through its excavation of it, digs a deeper “grave”.

These musings confirm Richards nuanced understanding of writing, an interest that extended beyond the discipline simply prompting visual expression. For he, too, had a way with words, contributing to books and art historical discourses in which he reversed his gaze, translating or engaging with images via texts. It is a pity that some of this work wasn’t on display, or acknowledged in some way on this show, as it would give a more complete picture of how thoroughly he was immersed in both writing and image production and the relationship between the two.

This fixation might have been rooted in a complex attached to illustration; the belief that it functions as a straight, dispassionate translation of texts or ideas - that it is not art. This would have been further exacerbated by the popularity of conceptualism, where ideas and texts were privileged over technical finesse, and the ability to render such “fine lines” might have been obviated. This might be why Richards argued that local conceptual-driven works evinced an interest in materiality.