Clare Sarembock and Natasha Norman at Bell-Roberts
by Mari MacFarlane
Clare Sarembock and Natasha Norman are currently both holding solo exhibitions at the Bell-Roberts. Although, in Cape Town, it seems to have become quite a widespread trend for artists to exhibit 'solo' exhibitions within the same gallery space - this nonetheless often has the effect of creating an unanticipated dialogue between the different artist's exhibitions. Each exhibition creates discourse in its own right, but then a third dialogue springs up between the individual artist's shows - sometimes creating unexpected, but welcome and interesting points of departure. However, there are also those, just as frequent, occasions when the shows may not sit so comfortably together, leaving one exhibition dominated, disregarded or misinterpreted because of the flow of meanings that emerge from the exhibitions' proximity. At the Bell-Roberts Sarembock and Norman's individual shows have the effect of creating an awareness of the diverse expressive qualities of the photographic medium.
Sarembock delves into her childhood album, hauls out photographs that she then re-photographs, and enlarges signficantly (1000 x 1500 mm). This gives the new works a grainy texture, which successfully adds to the nostalgia and sentimentality of the images. Nostalgia is an emotion always underpinned by a sense of loss and pain. It is the loss of a past that can never be relived or recreated. The pain of this loss seems to be the inevitable associated emotion so often tied to good memories. However although there may have been a sense of nostalgia for the artist who used personal photographs from her own (lost) childhood, this element of memory, the nostalgia, is not conveyed in any real sense to the viewer.
Sarembock has re-photographed the images and in the process - as any photographer does - she has chosen what to edit out and include in these new works. However, this is not immediately evident, the loss of the original image and the loss of childhood are both themes that seem to have been touched on, but are then not obvious. Perhaps if the editing had not been so subtle or the artist had chosen to use more anonymous images, if the viewer was not aware of the fact that many of the images may have been of Sarembock as a child - perhaps then a more generalised loss of childhood could have been explored.
The images blown up to their more vast proportions seem to emphasize the grainy nature of the old pictures giving them a more tangible quality - perhaps this was one of the reasons Sarembock chose to accompany each photograph with the tactile sentences created from Braille lettering. Within each well framed picture, these Braille sentences have been embossed onto the Hahnemuhle paper. The grainy cell-like quality of the picture becomes echoed in the cells of the Braille text.
The reasoning behind this use of Braille appears to be the idea of using the alternative, textual language as a metaphor for fading memories. A brief introduction for the exhibition, which is published on the Bell-Roberts website, goes on to say that 'blind people don't see imagery - they hold imagery in their mind'. However, it is through this highly problematic appropriation of another's language that the exhibition starts to creep into dangerous territory. Sarembock uses Braille, an essential language or tool by which blind individuals are able to connect and gain access to knowledge many of the sighted may take for granted - and (being an individual who can see) uses it as a metaphor.
Sarembock's appropriation of this primary means through which blind people can make sense of the world and her use of it simplistically to stand in for a creative idea, seems to have the effect of trivialising and disregarding the nature of a disability. The importance of this tactile language and the way in which it has been created in an effort to minimize the difficulties inevitably encountered by blind individuals seems to be overlooked by the artist who uses it in an attempt to expand or emphasize her idea of memory. The idea that 'blind people do not see imagery' seems to be a definitive simplification of a state of being that I, as a sighted person, would not feel comfortable addressing.
Viewers are given a key at the entrance of the exhibition which enables any individual with enough time and patience to read the text embossed next to the images - those who can see have the choice to read what is written, those who cannot see do not have this choice - they cannot choose to see the photographs accompanying the text with which they are familiar. Living in a society that is constantly bombarded and more and more dependent on visual stimuli, the appropriation of a language that makes this visual world more accessible to the blind becomes a difficult task, particularly for the sighted artist. Sarembock, in her work, appears to engage with an idea - memory - but then appropriates freely and, in my opinion, problematically in order to display her idea.
From the room that holds Sarembock's exhibition the gallery flows into a final space that shows the bright images by Norman. Although both use photographs in their exhibitions, this is where the much of the similarity between the two exhibitions comes to an end. Sarembock re-photographs childhood images while Norman uses found images from contemporary culture.
Norman's exhibition comes in two parts: there are the works that deal directly with collaged images from contemporary popular culture, showing iconic celebrities, high fashion, electronic paraphernalia and more - and then these are aranged like re-enactments of Renaissance paintings. The Renaissance paintings seem to be at odds with the works that show images from contemporary culture. However, they could in fact be understood to be the precursors to the current capitalist ideals and what has become romanticised in capitalist society. The images are linked by the contemporary dress and gesture found in the Renaissance recreations and the pastiche of current iconic signs found in the collages.
The sheer number of signs and symbols included in each of Norman's collaged works seems to relate to the confusion and overwhelming bombardment by imagery on an individual in contemporary society. Norman tries to comment on the superficial nature of morality and the emotions that are used by the media in an effort to entice the consumer. She seems to be engaging with the use of profound ideals associated with themes of sex, love, good, evil and death - which are blatantly used as commercial mechanisms to strike a chord in the viewer/buyer. However, because the artist herself then uses the same signs and signifiers, her work becomes more of an emulation, rather than a commentary on the use of these ideas in consumer culture. The dense layering of different textual references in Norman's works does leave much of the project open to the viewer's interpretation.
An analysis of Sarembock and Norman's exhibitions, because of their proximity, is interesting. Norman's exhibition space can only be entered after walking past Sarembock's large unavoidable images. The brightness, the sheer number of images crammed into one frame and the contemporary subject matter of Norman's images seem even more brash after the quieter, more muted tones of Sarembock's works. The sentimentality of Sarembock's art stands out more sharply against the immediacy, the exceptionally contemporary nature of Norman's pieces.
Although both artists use photography, the different ways in which the medium can express a variety of outcomes becomes evident. Norman's collages and reproduced Renaissance works could be viewed as ironic and playful re-appropriations of existing cultural signs and signifiers, while Sarembock uses the medium in a way that highlights the layers that are created when a moment is captured in a static tangible form. Because of the problems inherent in Sarembock's use of Braille and the, at times, overwhelming burst of information confronting viewers in Norman's works - it thus becomes the dialogue that bounces between the two exhibitions that is interesting. Both artists engage with the same medium, yet the outcome in each case is entirely unique. The way that one show highlights and emphasizes the expressive qualities of the other comes to enlighten and engage viewers in a way that possibly was not intended, but is nonetheless interesting.
Opens: October 17
Closes: November 10
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