'Contusion' at the UCT Irma Stern Museum
by Amy Miller
The notion of contusion - damage done to tissue beneath the skin without the surface being broken - provides the thematic construct around which three dynamic young artists make their post-Michaelis debut (except for Norman, who was on the ABSA L'Atelier finalist show in 2006, as well as the Sasol New Signatures finalist show earlier this year) at the Irma Stern museum. In this exhibition, Natasha Norman, Suzanne Duncan and Dale Washkansky, in three distinct yet interconnected exhibitions, negotiate the violent underpinning of contemporary society, their work bespeaking both collective and personal shadows of trauma.
The entrance piece at the top of the stairs, Norman's Kids with Guns, a cabinet-cum-jukebox shaped arrangement of lightboxes with resin casts of guns affixed, immediately foregrounds the link between violence and entertainment (a familiar theme somewhat exhausted in the contemporary South African social and artistic milieu). The casts are further enhanced by the plastic toys contained within them. With individual titles such as Trigger Happy and Lucky Strike, Norman makes salient the way in which language, like skin, holds within it an implicit surface tension; a surface which violence (dis)colours, and yet does not penetrate, its meaning deferred onto more explicit signifiers.
Likewise in Dope Show, Norman captures the moments immediately preceding or following violence, refusing its direct representation in favour of its anticipation and aftershocks. A series of television stills from shows broadcast on Freedom Day, Norman alludes to a heritage - as well as a present - wrought by violence, violence often covered over in media spectacle and the contemporary celebration of nationhood (an idea echoed in Washkansky's nationalistic symbolism). In her use of freeze-framed mass-media imagery disturbed and edited from its usual narrative sequence, Norman's work echoes that of both Kendell Geers and, particularly, Candice Breitz, who both use edited clips and digital images to render strange those processes of meaning and consumption perpetuated through largely passive spectatorship. Not only in its title, but also in its sordid, second-hand and grainy texture overlaid with glossy shine, Dope Show likewise suggests the inurement induced and perpetuated by the media's persistent onslaught and aestheticising of violence, challenging the spectator not to be similarly duped.
Norman's most overt, and perhaps least successful piece, Teach Your Children, is a sound installation of toy guns affixed to a perspex target, in which the viewer, triggering the sensor system, becomes the unwitting victim of violence - figured as child's play through the sounds of children's imitative shooting ('Bang'; 'Boom') which culminates in the sound of an actual gunshot and the ejection of an empty shell, followed by an eerie silence. The room as a whole is a somewhat jarring mix of digital, cast, found and hand-drawn media, and the prints of a woman sketched with gun sexually poised as if to penetrate her in I Love You with my Gun introduces a curious new strand - that of violence against women - which doesn't quite work with the media/entertainment cipher of the surrounding works. It is also at times, overwhelmingly rhetorical, juxtaposed as it is with statistics, newspaper extracts and song lyrics that (needlessly) attest to the universality and severity of the experience of violence. Nevertheless, Norman's work succeeds significantly in bringing to the surface of awareness the often unconscious processes by which the traumas of violence are submerged by and become symptomatic of society.
Duncan's work, in contrast to Norman's, is extremely delicate, but no less powerful in its resonance. Woven from her own hair, Duncan's works are a laborious, obsessive working of an abject medium that reflects both a sense of imminent mortality and an attempt to stave off attendant anxiety through the generative potential of the art work. Duncan weaves several items that suggest protective covering (Gauze) and reinforcement (Stockings), their functions poignantly undermined through the use of an essentially fragile medium. Many pieces of weaving have been copper-plated, ostensibly for Safe Keeping (a telling title), a process which, ironically, makes them even more brittle and vulnerable to injury. Extremely tactile in appearance, closer investigation reveals that the frames of the works are open, allowing the astute viewer to engage more directly with the works, resulting in an unsettling corporeal interaction between viewer and artist, subject and abject.
Materially contrasting the ethereality of Duncan's hairpieces is Weighed Down, a burlesqued bronze key set which lies on a plinth in the centre of the room as if its thematic core. Various items of protection and safety (all brass-plated) - brass knuckles, electronic gate openers, alarm buttons, pepper spray and even patriotic key-rings - are ominously sharpened and linked together in a parody of the contents of the urbanite pocket, burdened by constant vigilance. Less successful are the pieces of copper-plated hair rather haphazardly affixed to the wall, trailing off into a peculiar obscurity in comparison with surrounded works which have been carefully framed or mounted. A set of photographs, for example, documents particular moments in Duncan's ritualistic, almost apotropaic process of self-defense, fought both within the psychological interior terrain, and in the aesthetic realm of the gallery space.
The woven hair of Duncan's works creates a visually compelling dialogue with Washkansky's embroidered Citing Syncopation series, the first works in the interleading room. Tapestry recreations of three of South Africa's iconic images - a Pierneef landscape, the Hector Peterson photograph from the student uprisings of 1976 and the barred view from Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island - wrought in almost psychedelic colour, refuse transparency by an insistent return to surface (underscored by the digital photographing and framing of their reverse sides). In restoring and reinforcing the two-dimensional quality of these icons, Washkansky subtly reflects the way in which such images have become visual filters for complex narratives of heritage. In his explicitly decorative work, Washkansky reveals and challenges the way in which the 'elastic façade of presentation' (as stated in the accompanying wall text), particularly the potency of state iconography, serves to disguise personal and collective trauma.
Like Duncan, Washkansky explores the potentialities of abject materiality. Utilising his own urine, faeces, semen, blood and pubic hair, Washkansky attempts to reclaim agency through the insertion of his corporeal self into the decorative façade yet, unfortunately, situates himself simultaneously within a long history of (no longer) avante-garde and self-indulgent student artists experimenting with the shock-value of their own excretory products. In his Untitled Paper series, Washkansky alludes to the experience of trauma and vulnerability of the sexually marginalised self within the patriotic construct of the new South Africa, and, significantly, the discourse of the Rainbow Nation in which 'difference is essentialised at the same time as the power differentials that result are effaced. In the process, ongoing tensions and inequalities are painted over by a colourful palette' (Distiller and Steyn, 2004:1). Actively appropriating this 'colourful palette', Washkansky frames his own photographically manipulated and enhanced body with green and gold laurel wreaths, accessorised by the ciphers of 'South Africanness': springboks, blue cranes, safari animals and, most often, proteas, reflecting the often painful circumscription of self by society's systems of meaning and recognition.
In Keeping Mum, Washkansky presents a nude self both camply exhibited (on red velvet set against a violent sunset) and simultaneously censored, the protea '[seeming] to serve as possible phallic signifier' (Malcomess, 2007). The triptych boldly aestheticises and performs the ongoing tensions of representation and inequality in contemporary South African society, figured once again through the protea - the strangely gender-hybrid flower which is at once attractive and intricate, strong and resilient, both the contested symbol of a national sports team and the floral insignia of a complex nation. Celebrating and exporting its asthetically-pleasing, pluralistic Rainbow Nation identity, Washkansky questions the nation's widespread refusal to engage with the nuances and traumas that lie below the surface, woven into its very fabric.
In their laborious attention to medium and process, Norman, Duncan and Washkansky display a refreshing balance of carefully negotiated concept and technically polished execution. Interrogating the contusion of violence on self and society, the individual exhibitions that comprise the overarching construct each contribute to a significant dialogue that speaks from the heart of contemporary art production, resulting in an overall presentation that is one of the year's most successful offerings from up-and-coming young artists.
Opens: September 26
Closes: October 16
UCT Irma Stern Museum
Cecil Road, Rondebosch, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 685 5686
Hours: Tue - Sat 10 am - 5pm