Roger Palmer at Michaelis Gallery
by Andrew Lamprecht
As you wind your way through the various chambers of the Michaelis Gallery, noting the single word 'plume' rendered in yellow on the wall as you enter, and then, somewhat alone, one simply framed photograph and then another, your eyes and legs are led into the main space, to a dominating drawing against the far wall. This comprises four yellow faces and a large field of the same yellow below them. As you approach you realise that the field is actually a powder and is indeed the self-same substance used to produce the images. The effect is at once minimal and utterly transfixing. For these images have been made by hurling dry ochre power paint at the wall through a special mask. What lies on the floor is that which refused to adhere to the surface. What remains on the wall is there solely by virtue of a strange attraction to that support. The ephemeralility of it all is breathtaking and as the artist noted, 'to touch means to destroy' - the slightest disturbance will loosen the fragile network of particles and cause a puff of ochre dust to bloom and be drawn by inevitable gravity towards the remains below.
'Plume' consists of a carefully structured installation, prepared especially for the gallery of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, comprising six black and white photographs and the wall drawing described above.
Each photograph's subject in some way evokes the title of the exhibition: In Walvis Bay 2000 we see an aeroplane with a plume of fuel vapour behind it; in Zonnebloem2004 the last embers of a fire with its attendant puffs of smoke; in R355 2005 a cloud of dust produced by a car on that stretch of road; in Janfourieskraal 2005 beplumed ostriches, and so on. But what is one to make of the central focus: the four faces? It turns out that they are the faces of former prime ministers of the Old South Africa: Malan, Botha, Hertzog and Smuts, discovered by the artist in an old school textbook years back. Indeed they have the quality of formulaic pseudo-woodblock prints that seem to have been the thing back then, giving the subject a sort of historical neutrality and gravity appropriate for the school history class.
Here the fact that the same images are rendered with literally no form of permanence perhaps makes a telling political and historical point. In a walkabout the artist pointed out that all the figures had South African airports named after them during the apartheid period and just as those names have been removed, so too the dusty visages are to be vacuumed off the wall and swept away at the close of the exhibition.
It is perhaps significant to note that the image of the aeroplane in Walvis Bay evokes a place that once had the label 'South African' applied to it, but no more. So too Zonnebloem is now called District Six, as it was before the apartheid regime applied the cynical name in Afrikaans of 'Sunflower'. The ostrich industry, once a major money-spinner in its boom days, creating enormous wealth through selling the unique feathers of that bird to all women who called themselves fashionable in Europe and America, is now a shadow of its former self.
The image of passing, through travel, death, history and landscape seems to tie all these elements together. Like Palmer�s 2000 show 'International Waters' (installed at the AVA) the issue of transience and journeying seems to be important here. Palmer is a frequent visitor to South Africa and has had three solo shows in recent memory. In a strange way then, it may be curiously apposite to look at this exhibition as something of a self-portrait through that which is not the self: a trick made familiar by Mannerist Archimboldo.
In all, this seemingly quiet and even spare exhibition is heavily laden with cross-references and contexts that, I hope, will be followed up by future journeys and visits from this remarkable and sophisticated artist.
Opened: March 1
Closed: March 20
Hiddingh campus, Orange Street, Cape Town
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