Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Atopia (2003)
mixed media installation view


Atopia (2003)
mixed media installation view


Dean Henning, Rike Sitas
Venus, 2003
Video stills from component of 'Atopia'

'Atopia' at artSPACEdurban
by Storm Janse van Rensburg

Utopia is under siege. It seems that a preoccupation with its philosophies, and 'placeless-ness ' has crept back into contemporary art discourse. Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanjia's ongoing 'Utopia Station', currently underway at its 'first stop', the Venice Biennale, is a prominent interrogation and comment on the notion of the good place that does not exist.

A loose collective of young artists in Durban presented a process-based and collaborative project at the freshly launched artSPACEdurban (aSd) for a period of a week. Working under the thematic banner of atopia, a made-up word with no particular meaning (but with a myriad of associations and referencing utopias and related concepts) Jan-Henri Booyens, Michael Croeser, Katrina Robenhagen, Doung Anwar Jahangeer and Lyndon Daniels set themselves up in a workshop-type scenario to create temporary installations and soundscapes.

One of the creative hurdles set by the project initiator, Jan-Henri Booyens, was to interrogate the 'objectness' of sound, and in a process of creative energy, interrogate the possibilities offered by the physical space they were in, without necessarily illustrating it. Another concern was the notion of internal space (emotive, reactive, receptive) and the idea of the 'in-between' as a physical and social construct. Using found materials from a local waste centre to build these installations, the concept was pushed to its logical conclusion by returning all physical material to the waste centre at the end of the workshop period.

So often process work tends to leave the viewer, who invariably enters into this mélange without any context, slightly baffled and unimpressed. The results do not always measure up to the intentions and, because the end product is not the focus, the experience for the viewer is more often than not disappointing. In this case however, the collective efforts and choices made during the workshop proved to be astute and visually and conceptually satisfying ones. The evening event of the project presented an opportunity to view the process at its 'peak', and the public was also invited to attend the closure, or striking of the event.

The installation in the main space consisted of cardboard tubes stuck together with packaging tape creating something akin to bamboo scaffolding which took shape across the floor and against the ceiling, dominating the space. Inside this skeletal 'deconstruction', speakers were placed with some ephemeral sounds emanating from them. Lit with blue light from underneath, the linear shadows on the ceiling drew attention to every exposed bit of electrical wiring and plumbing, painted pink by a participant to draw attention to unwanted structural components, usually hidden in gallery spaces.

The work was cleverly positioned too. On the opening night one had to step through and over the rickety installation in order to get a drink from the bar, in effect gaining a sense that one was but one piece in a precarious giant pick-up-sticks game. The sense of precariousness was further reinforced by an awareness that with one single misstep the construction might just domino.

In the adjoining space, more cardboard and paper sculptural forms were found, perhaps more predictable than in the main space, as well as various notational wall drawings and sound work. This led to a space where DJ's were stationed. Installed in this room was a TV perched on a chair, where visitors could view sound videos, made by sound artist Dean Henning (aka Captain Asthma) and Rike Sitas. Headphones were strategically provided by Henning to connect the viewer more intimately with the work. Making dense electronic and digital sound with fast beats, the imagery on the four videos was tightly edited and made for compelling viewing. Using fast repetitions of images and sharp cuts and edits I found myself transfixed, in a psychedelic kind of way. Given that neither Henning nor Sitas has claimed any specific place in the visual arts scene in Durban, it was refreshing to see their work and revealing of our tendency to box our practices, especially in smaller centres.

The major disappointment of the evening was the low turnout of visitors. One would hope that this would not discourage initiatives such as this, nor discourage these particularly active and dynamic individuals. We need to find ways of engaging the public in these activities to prevent its practitioners from finding a better place, somewhere else.

October 1 - 5