Art South Africa, Vol 4 Issue 02, Summer 2005
In the Making
Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

By Hazel Friedman

In the making: materials and process provides enough Freudian fodder to fill the therapist's couch. This is evident not only from the works on display. In the accompanying catalogue, the artists' exegeses, some eloquently, others cryptically articulated, provide insight into the imperatives that lodge themselves somewhere between intellect and impulse.

Meticulously curated by Sophie Perryer, this exhibition incorporates a crafty juxtaposition and overlap of abstract, decorative, narrative and conceptual elements. One of the advantages of a curated show is the element of choreography, the license on the part of the curator to exert control, in other words to provide coherence by choosing works that fit under an umbrella idea. But instead of opting for a tightly constructed, clever idea, Perryer has focused on a more pedantic theme. Yet the apparent looseness of the title has resulted in an almost serendipitous discourse between works executed in isolation, and between artists with diverging concerns. And this is the least of its strengths.

At the risk of oversimplifying its layered complexity, one of the most arresting features of this show is that all the works seem intertwined with the dualities of distance and intimacy. The former is conveyed through pristine surfaces, inescapably design elements and sometimes clinically meticulous execution. Intimacy is suggested partly through the symbiotic relationship the artists have developed with their materials. This is evident in the almost compulsive accumulation and transformation of untraditional media into consummate visual displays.

For example, Alan Alborough's WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) inverts the very notion of what is implied by the acronym. He has constructed an apparatus of syringes and chemicals in bottles attached by colour-coded wires. At first sight they resemble diligently constructed DIY explosives. In fact this contraption creates delicate drawings that straddle the divide between representation and abstraction. Alborough's cunning manipulation of the fluorescent lights, one of the recurring hallmarks of his oeuvre, creates ambiguous anthropomorphic silhouettes from the shadows of the bottles. The stains created by blood and rust counter the laboratory-like sophistication of the installation.

The show both upholds and subverts traditional notions of form, function and content. Walter Oltmann's Wire Tapestry literally inverts the soft, submissive and stereotypically female associations of craft through his choice of hard-edged intrusive materials. Less overt in its message is El Anatsui's extraordinarily dexterous Fading Cloth. Crafted to resemble a kente cloth, it is in reality constructed from alcohol beverage caps. It reads both as a form of armour (a chain mail cloak) and as a critique on colonial exploitation and commodity fetishism. It could also be interpreted as a lament for a lost tradition. Equally worthy of mention is Nandipha Mntambo's multisensory Purge, a symbolically charged, cross-cultural exploration of notions of femininity and beauty.

The most personalised work on show is Dineo Bopape's Growing everyday. At first sight it resembles a messy womb, with biographical artefacts painstakingly arranged and covered by a protective skin of paint. The humorous touches rescue the profusion of memorabilia from utter confusion, but he work is nowhere near as cogent as the rest of the exhibits.

It is almost impossible to avoid a psychoanalytic reading of many of these works. The obsessive collector is essentially a private, often isolated figure, who acquires reassurance from the accumulation and ordering of idiosyncratic materials. Psychoanalysts link this ritual to a fear of memory loss or trauma - an escape hatch of the psyche. Baudrillard calls it a "discourse addressed to oneself". This discourse is expressed most vividly in Doreen Southwood's exquisite work, Curtain. Inspired by her grandmother's brocade curtains it resembles an oriental screen. Yet the delicate ethereality of its surface belies the tortuous process involved in individually arranging hundreds of steel washers, held to a metal surface by hundreds of magnets on the rear side. The title of the work suggests the act of revealing or concealing. It becomes an appropriate metaphor for intimacy and distance. It also suggests the need to exert control, to impose order and perfection on a world that is perceived as threateningly out of control.

But reading these works as neurotic rituals would be tantamount to flogging the decomposing "art as therapy" horse. It is the transcendent nature of this show, as a whole, that makes it so alluring. It confirms that, whether the product of madness, folly, faith - or all of the above - the alchemy of art is ultimately in the making of it.