Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Cape Town's resevoir of memory
by Lloyd Pollak

Earlier this year, the adjudication panel of the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) sculpture competition decided unanimously to accept sculptor, Gavin Younge's submission. Younge proposed a single artwork split into two parts - one intended for the Heerengracht entrance to the Centre, and the other for the foyer of the theatre at the other end of the building. Younge recently completed his sculpture, which takes the form of a suspended bi-partite installation. One segment consists of an ensemble of three timeless classical urns and a cigar-shaped vase, while the other comprises the suspended wooden hulls of three different kinds of vessels.

These two components function in conjunction with plasma screens. The latter relay the oral histories of ordinary South African people who describe some key experience, some goal to which they have dedicated themselves, or some valuable insight experience has bestowed upon them. The video forms a microcosm of our society and a catalogue of its many ethnic strands. People drawn from every community - white English-speaking, Afrikaans, Indian, Jewish, Coloured, Black, migrants from Europe, refugees from the rest of Africa and even a distinguished visitor to our shores - grapple to define the meaning of their lives and that of the society they inhabit.

Their testimonies emphasize the major contribution immigrants have made to South African society, and, in the light of this, the vases exemplify the 'melting pot' concept of national identity. By the same token the hulls come to embody notions of flight, diaspora, immigration and emigration. The vases are thus the foundries where the identities of colonists, migrants, slaves, indentured labourers, refugees and the indigenous peoples of this land, have slowly yielded to new allegiances and fresh understandings of the concepts of self and nationhood.

The artist describes Reservoir as "aural sculpture". The vases 'contain' the oral histories, and become "reservoirs of voices". A symbiotic relationship exists between sculpture and soundtrack. The testimonies provide a personal take on the course of events, and reveal how politics impinges upon the individual and his family, work and culture. The vases and hulls shape all this utterance. They uncover the pattern submerged beneath individual experiences, and formulate a generalized, abstract statement about South Africa, its history, character and culture.

Located some distance from each other at opposite ends of the centre, the twinned installations form focal points. They act as visually compulsive eyecatchers emphasizing the principal axis of the building, and clarifying its layout and architecture. Reservoir defines the centre's functions and separates its various parts. It demarcates the 'spine' of the building - a long and stately corridor - from which all the separate auditoria and recreational and restaurant areas branch off either to right or left.

This is the Centre's main thoroughfare, and Reservoir divides it from the theatre, the principal entrance hall and every other amenity. In addition, the installation generates a powerful directional flow. The hulls seem to glide forwards and skim towards the vases. We are swept up in their wake and propelled through the building towards its visual climax - a spectacular observation point above the Heerengracht where all Cape Town lies spread, like a carpet, at our feet.

The dictionary defines the word reservoir as a receptacle for fluids, a tank for storing water or an artificial lake. There is no life without water, and catch phrases such as the "water of life" acknowledge its centrality in human existence. In the Christian tradition, water is associated with the River Jordan, baptism and spiritual enlightenment. Metaphorically the word denotes a reserve or pool: we speak of a reservoir of funds or a reservoir of expertise. One thus assumes that these vessels contain some invisible spiritual quintessence, some bracing distillation of historic experience and collective memory transmitted through the gene pool to foster future generations.

The sculptures in one segment of the installation are executed in the novel medium of basketry woven out of metal ribbons. If the word reservoir implies the judicious preservation of some precious vivifying substance, redemptive and germinal associations too accrete to baskets. In Christian lore the basket is an attribute of Hope, associated with the apostle Paul and the martyr, Dorothea. Moses was found in a basket, and baskets played a role in miraculous events. Baskets preserved the food that fed the five thousand. The manna that succored the Israelites in the wilderness was gathered in baskets, which thus formed part of a divine act of national salvation.

All these rich mosaic associations with Exodus, Passover, the promised land and deliverance from Egyptian captivity cling to Reservoir's woven vases. In this exodic frame of reference, the cigar-shaped vase could allude to the divine pillars of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites out of Egypt.

Baskets too harbour wholly positive associations with procreation, parenthood and nurture. Cribs, cradles and bassinets are traditionally woven from wickerwork. Pets sleep in baskets: birds breed in nests. Huts, fences and palisades are often fashioned from saplings and shoots, and basketry is thus commingled with comforting notions of home, security and comfort. The basket emblematicises wholesome sustenance. Until recently housewives set out marketing basket in hand, and berries, fruits, confectionery and wines are still packed in hampers for presentation purposes. The needlewoman's workbasket holds further associations with home, hearth, mothering and goodly housewifery.

Basketry is the demotic craft par excellence, and consequently it has probably never served as the medium for a grand civic sculptural project such as Reservoir. The artist has replaced the usual elitist sculptural materials of precious marble and bronze with cheap, machine-made, mass-produced, stainless steel 'ribbons', or palette strapping. Thereby he democratizes his creation and endows it with a subversive thrust.

The grand effigies that typify civic sculpture invariably commemorate great statesmen, founding fathers or political icons. Such men are seen as the architects of history and the role of their supporters is ignored. Instead of memorializing the rulers, Reservoir memorializes the ruled, and pays tribute to the grit and integrity of the anonymous mass of people who have striven to ensure our country's survival over centuries of traumatic events. Reservoir is a monument to the stewardship of the people: it honours the popular will and celebrates collective determination to survive and prosper.

Like the fasces carried by Roman lictors, weaving, in which separate strands are plaited together to form a new and far more robust entity, becomes the embodiment of communal strength and unity of purpose. The sculptor subsumes his own artistic personality into this collective whole. Both the weaving technique and the material of stainless steel, impose a neutral generic idiom upon the artist and prohibit stylistic self-expression. From the CTICC, we can clearly survey the civic monuments of yore erected to glorify Vasco da Gama, Jan Van Riebeeck and Maria de la Quellerie. Reservoir holds itself aloof from such company. Not only is it resolutely anti-individualist in stance, but it also formulates an implicit critique of the discredited Eurocentric triumphalism inherent in the ideological bias of this earlier body of sculpture.

A configuration of slabby cubic masses, the CTICC breaks decisively forward on the Heerengracht where a two-storey rectangular glass and metal box supported on columnar shafts projects outwards above ground floor level to dramatically emphasise one of the centre's main entrances. This impressive axial portal gains further consequence from the ramp and the rectangular pond that point the visitor towards the main doors.

One's first glimpse of the vases occurs as one approaches the Heerengracht fa�ade of the CTICC. As we gaze upwards so the mouths of the vases confront us head-on, and the concentric rings of woven metal configure themselves in target patterns. Targets immediately prompt thoughts of firearms: they carry overtones of invasion, war and bloodshed, and these are reinforced by the physical appearance of the vases. The vases are, of course, horizontally placed, and the streamlined design of their tapering and swelling contours creates implications of movement. The slender bases of the vessels look like the noses of aircraft, and the constellation of four forms reminds one of a fleet of planes, a formation of torpedoes, missiles, rockets, submarines or depth charges careening toward one. In this way the vases function as metaphors for all the devastation wrought by colonial oppression and apartheid.

The hulls underpin such allusions and denote some noche oscura, some dark night of the soul inscribed in our history. The carved skiffs obviously refer to the bark in which Charon ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to Hades, and to the sort of revelatory brush with death that the great archetypal heroes of epic and myth - Gilgamesh, Aeneas, Hercules, Orpheus and the Dante and Virgil of the Inferno - underwent during their descents into the underworld. However, although Reservoir alludes to the dark oppressions of the past, it also intimates the righting of past wrongs. The spherical sculptures are celebratory in mien. Buoyant and weightless they hover above us like balloons, banners, Japanese kites and round paper lamps. They seem part of the paraphernalia of thanksgiving.

Once we enter the CTICC, we discover the vases suspended from the ceiling of this metal and glass box, which forms an otherwise vacant double-volume space, a rectangular cubic gallery filling the two upper floors. There the visitor gazes at the silvery woven metal vase forms dangling high above his head where they catch the light and scintillate like prisms, complimenting the reflective surfaces around them, the sheet of water and the metal and glass structure of the CTICC. They are thus perfectly integrated with the architecture, and the lively play of curves set up by their tapering spherical, and cylindrical forms contrasts dramatically with the grid-like rectilinear framework of the centre's fenestration and curtain walls.

This metal and glass box or gallery forms a lofty, shrine-like chamber clearly differentiated from the rest of the convention centre inasmuch as it constitutes a kind of secular chapel. It is not a place of bustle, babble and rush, but a place of hush, a space set apart for commemoration and meditation. The two vessels closest to the observer's eye further hallow this sanctum. These are sober dignified urns which clearly derive from Graeco-Roman precedent. Such imposing classical receptacles are associated with pagan temples, worship and libations, and they thus introduce a sense of solemn ritual and ceremony.

The classical vase was also assimilated into Christian liturgy. The church exploited the urn as a Eucharistic symbol and thus it denotes spiritual sustenance. Urn burial is an ancient Graeco-Roman practice, and to this day, the ashes of the dead are often preserved in cinerary urns. Graeco-Roman vases are staples of cemetery ornament, and in Reservoir they honour the innumerable past generations who helped forge our history. The vases are lain on their sides as if disgorging their invisible contents. They could be scattering the ashes of the dead, or pouring wine in sacrifice to the Gods. Whatever the case may be, the horizontal vases imply some sacred transaction, some covenant between the quick and the dead, the human and the divine.

This gallery forms an elevated observation point akin to the bridge of a ship, or the control tower of an airport. It is intended as a look-out point and accordingly it is designed in an open manner with three glass walls that bring the outside inside, and facilitate enjoyment of the sweeping panoramic views that open up - with such dramatic impact - around one. The observer gazes onto the mountain, the city, the shoreline and docks - all the historic landmarks associated with the discovery and early settlement of the Cape. This area too was the stomping ground of the earliest inhabitants of the peninsula - the Khoi-San hunter-gatherers, 'strandloopers' who foraged a living from the sea. It was also the space where the Europeans first made consistent contact with the indigenes and vice versa. We thus stand at the very nub and crucible of South African history and it is this loaded site that suffuses Reservoir with meaning.

The suspended hulls, which are conceived as a pendant to the vases, seem to confirm the artist's preoccupation with history. Epic notions of heroism, exploration and adventure cling like barnacles to these stripped-down rudimentary craft which appear to have issued from the pages of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Lusiad. They speak of the discovery of the sea route around the Cape; of the transport of generations of immigrants to populate the new found land, of the struggle to wrest a livelihood from the rivers and the sea; of the country's chequered history as it passed from one sea-born, European colonial power to another; and of the flight of all the black refugee Ulysses and Aeneas's who narrate their poignant sagas on the plasma screens.

The juxtaposition of Reservoir's two parts, the hulls and amphorae (which originally served the Greeks and Egyptians as humble storage vessels), suggests ship and cargo, and introduces thoughts of voyaging, maritime trade, imports and exports. Concepts of cargo, ocean and sea routes inhere to the very materials the sculptor employs, for palette packaging straps are normally used to bind and reinforce crates while they are in transit. Younge's vases act as archives of oral history, and, as we have seen, Reservoir, like Exodus and the descents into hell of the great epics of the Western canon, describes a journey. It concerns itself with the crossing of a Red Sea, the passage from darkness to light, the voyage through bondage to freedom.

Because the artist presents his vases lain on their sides, they assert a strong resemblance to the kind of baskets or 'creels' fisher people, including the Khoi-San, used to trap crabs, lobsters, eels and scavenging fish such as skate. Thus the bracketing of hull and basketwork trap also instils notions of the fisherman and his catch, the hunter and his quarry, the slayer and the slain. All such associations are germane to our port city which first developed into a European outpost when it became the Dutch East India Company's victualling station and the site of considerable genocidal violence visited upon the indigenous population.

The archaic design of the hulls and urns insists on the antiquity of the mother city's history, and invests Cape Town with status and dignity as a great maritime centre - a mart and entrepot conveniently situated at the crossroads of the trade routes which link Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Reservoir commemorates the birth of the nation and defines the mother city's raison d'�tre.

In Periclean Athens, the vase was an instrument of democracy. The citizens of the polis cast their votes by dropping pebbles into urns. Younge's installation thus celebrates South Africa's coming of age and the advent of universal suffrage and just government. We are reminded that it was only after the overthrow of the apartheid regime, that the many boycotts applied to South Africa were relaxed, and the country finally took its place amongst the international community. This of course, was a precondition for the establishment of a convention centre, which would have been unthinkable under Nationalist governance. Reservoir commemorates this new found political maturity.

The installation seemingly invites us to interrogate the historic site it occupies. Seen from the Heerengracht, the gleaming vases resemble celestial and terrestrial globes, armillary spheres, astrolabes, telescopes, compasses and theodolites - all the scientific apparati used by astronomers and land surveyors to measure, evaluate and prospect. All these instruments are placed at the visitor's disposal. They act as spurs, prompting him to assess the topography and ponder the historical forces that have shaped it. The installation thus acts as a summons to cerebration. It enjoins us to analyse and evaluate our past. It solicits interpretation and reinterpretation, and in this way, it symbolises the goals of the CTICC, an institution dedicated to intellectual exchange and advance.