Paradise is closing down
For over a year now independent Swiss curator Karin Frei has been a presence in the South African art scene. When she came out here for her first research trip, I was immensely impressed with the diligence in which she sifted through the local gamut of artists, attending every opening going, networking and liasing.
After her and her charming family left our shores I heard all sorts of rumours that Visions of Paradise would not happen; that her original chosen venue had been demolished; that she had bad relations with some key players. Of course these were only rumours so I was filled with joy when I saw her in Cape Town only a few weeks before the opening of the exhibition and she told me that it was "full steam ahead" and gave me an invitation.
It was with a light step that I tripped up the stairs to the Jo�o Ferreira on the Saturday afternoon of the opening. The first work that greeted me as I took the familiar turn into the main downstairs gallery was by Kendell Geers, entitled The Gates of Hell. Geers had sealed of the entrance with a concrete wall encrusted with shards of broken bottles. "Nice one," I thought, choosing to ignore the uneven levels in the concrete surface and the patchy greys that indicated that the concrete was still drying.
Just round the corner from this, in a small alcove, stood, or rather hung, D�costerd & Rahm's Paradise Now, Vol2. Descending from the ceiling, I saw a beautiful white pendulous container from whence ethereally lit vapour was slowly emerging. An exquisite but unidentifiable scent permeated the air. For the artists this was the work: a carefully researched fragrance that incorporated the scents that Islamic and Christian belief indicate will be present in paradise: a melding of musk, rayham, milk, honey and many other perfumes.
Invigorated by the fragrances of heaven I made my way further up the stairs, towards the new gallery. On a bench at the top of the staircase sat two moribund-looking visitors staring ahead of them. When I looked in the direction of their gaze all I could see was a tiny television set being flooded with light from the skylight above, a soft burble emitting from the monitor, the sound being more confused by some other audio source emitting from behind a curtain nearby.
One of the visitors was the artist of this piece, Welcome to Jet Hotel, Sue Williamson. A simple enquiry indicated that Williamson did not have it in her conceptual vision for the viewer to be puzzled by the image being obscured by extraneous light and muffled by other ambient sounds. It also struck me to be a most peculiar place to situate a work by this artist. I was beginning to wonder just what sort of paradise I was letting myself into.
Behind the curtain I saw Candice Breitz's From AIWA to ZEN, a video projection that showed a group of Japanese people, one dressed in a rabbit suit, taking part in something that looked akin to a tea ceremony or formal meal. They were all speaking Japanese. As I watched I heard some familiar words; then it became apparent what the artist had done: she had constructed a ceremony and script from her own vocabulary of Japanese: brand names, labels, foods, and the like.
From this one moved into the main exhibition space, containing a host of works by various artists whom I shall not go into in any great detail about. For here ends my tale of my first encounter with the exhibition.
It became clear that Karin Frei has selected several very interesting works by (in the case of the South African cohort at least) some of the artists who are well known overseas. The exception is David West, who is, of course, one of the very best known and most successful up-and-coming South African fashion designers and one with a strong relation to the visual arts.
West chose to install one of his rotary screens, used in the production of printed fabric as a sort of "found object". The screen clearly showed rows and rows of palm trees. A clear link between labour and paradise, industrialisation and the idyllic, but as a substantial artwork in this context, less than convincing to me. Others, I know, have raved about this piece so I will give the benefit of the doubt to David and Frei and assume I am missing something. I certainly have no doubt about West's talent as a designer.
The Swiss cohorts are well represented in the main space. David West is the sole South African present. How all these works related to each other and what exactly they had to do with paradise was somewhat confusing to me. Hannes Wettstein's Endless is a very beautiful piece. It comprised a hollow double ring of transparent plastic suspended at eye level. It creates wonderful opalescent reflections at different angles of view.
The area directly in front of one's gaze shows that the double ring is filled with images, test tubes bearing scent, and other elements. It is possible to climb under the ring and appreciate it from inside. The sense of enclosedness and the feeling of being surrounded by ethereal sound, scent and image-laden vistas is undoubtedly redolent of the sense of paradise.
Another work in this room with some merit is Steiner & Lenzlinger's Vision of Paradise. This consists of a table of seeds which were collected on a trip to Mali. Buried in the seemingly carefully ordered matrix of parcels of different kinds of seeds were two that had been covered in gold: a find that elated and brought the theme to mind.
Beyond this there was a work by c a l c that showed development in a small Spanish village; a lightbox (unfortunately not one of the nonflickering ones) with a transparency of two men in white suits declaring their love for us in a dismal-looking landscape by COM&COM; and a print by Lutz & Guggisburg entitled Greetings from Pleasure Hill. Apparently for this last-mentioned duo trash is inspiring. Their work certainly wasn't inspiring for me, although the link ton trash was clear.
In all the exhibition left me confused and not a little disappointed. Taken one by one the works on display were for the most part fairly interesting. One or two may even be exceptional. As a group they seem to be in strange, unpredictable conflict, not at all reminiscent of any vision of paradise that I know of.
This was illustrated palpably by the way that Williamson's work was made to suffer (what a word in the context of paradise!) in the harsh glare of the stairwell, being elided by another artist's work. As an act of curatorship I have serious reservations about this sort of decision. The problem was partially sorted out later, it should be noted. Almost none of the artists were present to hang their works: I doubt that Geers would have been satisfied with the manner his work was presented.
To my mind this exhibition, through the very process of the curator's very fixed focus on the theme of paradise has lost focus. As a whole we are presented with something of a jumble of mismatched pieces that don't (in most cases) make much sense in relation to each other (an obvious exception, however, would be the first two works mentioned on the lower level).
On a more positive note the catalogue is absolutely wonderful. Produced with three different covers, and filled with ancillary texts, inserts in Braille, and many contexualising pictures and a useful essays by the curator, Tracy Murinik and others, this undoubtedly is the highlight of the process at this stage.
Frei sees this catalogue as an enrichment of the show and I would go further to state that given that it will be the remembrance of the exhibition after it has come down, I think that this is by far a greater evocation of the paradisiacal than the exhibition in its current form.
Visions of Paradise will go on to travel to France and Switzerland, and possibly other venues in due course. I believe that Karin Frei was let down by an artist who inexplicably pulled out at the last moment and she must be given credit for persevering through this project under extremely difficult circumstances. Pro Helvetia, who have done so much to raise the cultural stakes in South Africa in recent years, must have provided enormous support to the project.
While I feel I am grateful to Karin Frei for bringing this work to Cape Town, and giving us access to artists whom we would never see on these shores otherwise, I am nevertheless more than a little disappointed by the exhibition. In vision it was wonderful: in execution far from the paradise I expected.
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