The second time I went to see 'Visions of Paradise' during the Cape Town Festival's Night Vision, the gallery was prematurely shut albeit for understandable security reasons. Repeated ringing of the bell revealed a silent, dark interior as the only response. An arresting smell wafted past the doorway from an indeterminate source on the road outside. "Maybe that's the artwork," offered some passers-by. But there is fortunately far more to the exhibition than that.
The show finds leading South African and Swiss contemporary artists engaging with notions of paradise. First up is conceptual artist Kendell Geers with his Gates of Hell. In this work, Geers has plastered a wall with broken green glass bottles stuck in cement in an aggressive statement of repulsion. His earlier Self Portrait of a broken Heineken beer bottle comes to mind. The broken bottle was made in response to the insidious idea that anything imported was superior to local fare. Perhaps the road to hell is paved with this sort of thinking and paradise is its opposite?
Far more welcoming in a small room next door is a work by Decosterd & Rahm entitled Paradise Now. A small sleek, device set low to the ground lets escape clouds of vapour, enticing the viewer with a fusion of musk, aloua, rayhan, milk, honey, wine, incense and Judea balm.
Sue Williamson's work, Welcome to the Jet Hotel , is screened halfway up the staircase. The video is the result of being stranded in a foreign hotel when the scheduled flight home was re-routed to New York by the country's president. Angolan artist Fernando Alvim reads the hotel questionnaire in a voice-over as Williamson films her surroundings. The work is a comment on the way language is used to create and direct opinion in popular media. But perhaps it also represents the crux of achieving a paradisical state: responding creatively to adversity.
Half a floor up, another video work around language by Candice Breitz comprises a series of daily scenes portrayed by Japanese actors using a restricted vocabulary of the only 150 words of Japanese that Breitz knew previous to a visit to that country. It makes better viewing second time around when the Japanese words become recognisable and the biting humour more evident.
In a large space next door, several mixed media works compete for attention. Steiner & Lenzlinger's Visions of Paradise comprises batches of different seeds from Mali, each set sitting on a used scrap of paper in a visually eclectic table display.
David West, a successful young South African fashion designer, displays a rotary screen that is used to print fabric. The readymade is a nickel tube with a repeating pattern of stylised palm trees in a comment on tourism's commercial peddling of paradise.
Visually, the most striking work is Swiss designer Hannes Wettstein's installation entitled Endless. He exhibits a head-height ring of perspex-encased holographic foil suspended from the roof, which draws in the viewer through its fascinating images that bend and shift as one draws near. Its transparency and reflective quality trick the eyes while in-built speakers emit a range of sounds from nature - birdcalls and bees swarming. The large circular foil has a hollow interior so the viewer can actually duck underneath and view the artwork from the inside.
Some of the works can be confusing; and they all benefit from the brief descriptions in the accompanying written guide. One common thread weaving the disparate works together draws attention to the close relationship between ideas of paradise and our current situation. We define paradise in contrast to where we are. Calc's photographic documentation now_here: a park for LA (2004), for instance, finds the artists asking the inhabitants of a Spanish village about their desires for change. All speak from their personal reference point in relation to the existing state of the village and their desired changes.
Perhaps paradise is to have what we do not now possess. But as curator Karin Frei points out in the show's catalogue, the desire dissipates as we attain it: "Paradise is destined never to be attained. It remains forever an ideal, serving to lend wings to our flights of fancy and to prevent us from abandoning hope� Things are more beautiful everywhere we are not."
Or the grass is always greener on the other side. While striving towards paradise has energy and direction, attainment of the goal has none. This contradiction has particular resonance for South Africa, ten years after the paradise of democracy arrived.
March 6 - 31
João Ferreira Gallery, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: 021 423 5403 or 082 490 2977
Fax: 021 423 2136
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat 10am - 2pm