Lyndi Sales at Gallery Momo
by Anthea Buys
For something so innocuously pretty, Lyndi Sales' latest solo exhibition at Gallery Momo in Parkhurst, '1 in 11 000 000 Chances', has turned out to be doubly controversial. Not only does this exhibition address the suffusion of conspiracy theory surrounding the 1987 crash of the South African aeroplane the Helderberg, but it almost had part of its contents recalled by the South African Reserve Bank, who took exception to Sales' manipulation of old bank notes in a number of her works. This bureaucratic intervention is ironically appropriate, since the exhibition addresses, as part of its thematic terrain, the representation of political secrecy and revelation in the archiving of history.
Those familiar with the sumptuousness and whimsy of Sales' earlier works, many of which posses the seductive peculiarity of looking something like a Tim Burton set, may find '1 in 11 000 000 Chances' a little sparse. The exhibition mainly comprises a series of small-scale, delicate laser-cut paper constructions made from playing cards, old bank notes, maps and original newspaper articles documenting the site and the event of the Helderberg accident. A similarly meticulous cut-out motif is applied to a real, bright yellow life-jacket, and the result is eerily evocative of a pair of lungs with a visible bronchial network. These works are understated and do not venture outside a fairly limited chromatic scope - in order to view many of them adequately one has to stand virtually on top of them. In glaring contrast, two large and very bright installations, produced during Sales' visit to the Dieu Donné Paper Mill in New York City in March 2007, are hung all but inconspicuously in the centre front and back of the gallery, like a pair of trifles amidst an otherwise-refined dessert spread.
Sales' interest in the Helderberg disaster is both personal and political, and her focus on this event becomes the site of a tentative negotiation of the private and public ramifications of what was considered a 'national' disaster. The title of the show refers to the statistical (im)probability of death by air-crash. Sales' father was killed in the crash, and her selection of documentary items only from the public domain to construct her archive seems to confound the personal dimension of this process of memorialising, or rather, to suggest a personal confoundedness and silence in the face of vicitmhood of a public disaster. The Helderberg Boeing 747 was a South African aircraft that on November 28, 1987 crashed over the Indian Ocean on a flight scheduled to arrive in Johannesburg from Chiang Kaishek that day ('Flight 259'). All 140 passengers and 19 crew members were killed, and the debris of the aircraft sunk to the ocean floor. The patterns cut from the various paper paraphernalia are reminiscent of coral fronds, this being a fairly explicit allusion to the seabed - although, I'm not certain much coral grows on the abyssal plain.
The South African government at the time was implicated in the crash for having illegally imported a large quantity of flammable chemicals on Flight 259, and it is alleged that the combustion of these chemicals guaranteed the absolute mortality incidence of the crash. The matter of the government's involvement in the accident was raised at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, but the evasiveness of a senior flight crew member while being questioned, as well as an unaccounted-for tape and log book have resulted in the case being still not entirely resolved. Sales' use of old banknotes refers to this contentious hypothesis, and suggests that the mystery surrounding the accident can not be divorced from a commercial transaction. The current South African Reserve Bank, having overlooked the Cape Town exhibition at the Bell-Roberts Gallery, sent a letter to Gallery Momo shortly after the opening, demanding that all works made using banknotes be removed from the show. By having cut into the notes Sales was considered guilty of having defaced government property and the Reserve Bank is entitled to recall original notes under such circumstances. However, their rant seems to have been fairly impotent, since the banknote works remained on show for the duration of the exhibition. Moreover, this extra layer of bureaucratic clouding and controversy couldn't be more appropriate to the content of this exhibition.
Sales specifies that an important theme to emerge in '1 in 11 000 000 Chances' is the interaction of chance and 'destiny'. I question whether the notion of destiny is entirely appropriate in the context of this body of work, since it seems to me more a bewildered testimony to the strangeness and the unaccountability of what actually comes to be, without its being located in any trajectory of predetermination. The playing card cut-outs allude to the role of chance in the plane crash, and to the disintegration of the guarantee of survival even in the instance of extremely favourable odds. The cards also suggest, rather than destiny, the unpredictable coalition of skill and luck involved in gambling, the stakes of which, if we read the Helderberg disaster through this metaphor, can be extremely high.
Many of the works in the show represent the process of archiving as an authenticating and memorialising ritual, and Sales, as far as possible, has used objects and documents originally or closely associated with the Helderberg crash. The yellow life jacket used in How Long Can You Hold Your Breath? was given to her by a safety company associated with South African Airlines, and (bizarrely, without her having disclosed her purposes for the jacket) is dated December 1987, the month after the plane crash. Similarly, the newspaper spread used in 29th November 1987 is the authentic edition published on that date. Over the capillary-like network cut-out of the news spread, Sales has mapped the layout of the debris on the seabed using pins, based on a map made to document the wreckage. There is room here for interesting philosophical development around the representation of a subjective encounter with disaster, which I am not convinced is pursued very thoroughly in this work. However, it would be rather fascist to suggest that Sales' predominantly historical and metonymic representation of the event is inadequate because it doesn't attempt theoretical gymnastics.
The larger installations appear to me to engage the ideas of chance and memorialisation more poetically and in somewhat greater detail, although it was difficult to tell at first (again) whether I was merely distracted by all that coruscating pink and gold. Flight 259 continues Sales' earlier preoccupations with 'the Orient', and China in particular, alluding to the Chinese tradition of flying kites at the memorial service of a deceased loved one. According to this custom, once the kites are airborne their strings are cut, and as they drift away they are believed to carry with them the longing of the mourners. Flight 259 is an assemblage of 20 unique paper kites, one for each year since the Helderberg disaster. From each kite a red string dangles, suggesting that each has been symbolically connected to a process of grieving.
When the show opened at Bell-Roberts in Cape Town, Robert Sloon criticised it rather impatiently (as Robert Sloon does) for lacking a narrative or a 'point of entry'. There is perhaps not a sense of trajectory regulating the exhibition, and the paper cut-out works do stand quite solitarily in relation to each other. However, I find the assumption that it should be otherwise reasonably problematic. I can't understand how the juvenile idea persists that we have to be told a story or see a sign that reads 'Start Here' before we can appreciate an artwork. It seems to me a fairly stock synopsis of a viewing probably sidelined for a glass of wine and some schmoozing.
That said, although I maintain that many of Sales' works for this show are intriguing, and her craftsmanship quite ingenious, after about the fifth coral-shaped playing card I began to be slightly bored. As a friend astutely noted of this show, once you've seen it, you've seen it - the novelty of the filigree five of diamonds wears out, you stop trying to read the disintegrated newspaper article and you half expect Cranks to arrive to collect their giant pink tablecloth. My exit was easy at least: the gallery staff, whom I had the impression were trying to hustle another, well-to-do viewer (and at the same time, hustle me out the door), were less hospitable than I would have liked, and as a consequence I left before the incrementally gathering tedium became enough to provoke a desultory review.
Opens: October 4
Closes: October 27
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