'Singing the Real' at Iziko South African National Gallery
by Bettina Malcomess
It is somewhat strange to review a show that does not speak to you. This confirms a popular truism that circulates in art critics' inner circles: 'If you've missed the opening, you've missed the exhibition'. Having been at an art history conference in Johannesburg, I had missed the opening. Arriving at the South African National Gallery I found that despite the much appreciated co-operation from SANG staff, who were kind enough to provide me with books on the artists, and even a copy of the director's speech, this show remains something of a blank.
The exhibition, which features a group of artists working in Ireland, or of Irish descent, is the brainchild of Irish curator, Patrick Murphy. Murphy's aim is to establish the beginnings of cultural exchange between South Africa and Ireland, eventually leading to a show of South African art in Ireland. Instead of thematising the show around national identity, however, Murphy directed the show towards a specific theme: art that in some way deals with science. Hence, the choice of works such as Cecily Brennan's from Hero's Engine, a video loop of a water filled flask spinning over a Bunsen burner, and Grace Weir's 14 minute Bending Space-Time in the Basement, a scientific experiment also featuring Bunsen burners and a silver, mercurial looking substance. Weir's other shorter projection, Dust Defying Gravity consists of a single interior tracking shot that leads us down a staircase, across a living room to a desk laden with physics books, finally to reveal particles of dust floating in the air. The simplicity of the video, and its attention to interior architectural space instantly made this my favourite work on the show.
The exhibition begins with Nick Miller's paintings that subvert the pastoral landscape with presence of the man-made: a truck wreck and electricity lines 'frame' the countryside of Ireland. Opposite this is Martin Healy's series of images of a falcon, entitled, The Sleep of Reason I-VI. Leading out of this first room is Dorothy Cross' Jellyfish Lake, a video projection showing a woman with long flowing red hair in jellyfish-filled water. A pet hate (no offence to jellyfish intended here) of mine is the association of the feminine with water imagery. I have always felt that lurking behind this are fixed ideas of domestic feminine labour: water-carrying, child-bearing, seed-growing. Overall, such juxtapositions of nature, whether the wild or the picturesque, failed for me to engage with the theme on more than a literal level.
What I had found with the other works selected is that they failed to hold my attention beyond their relationship to a scientific theme. In the room devoted, at least elementally, to states liquid and gaseous, Dorothy Cross' portrait and video of a Micronesian New Ireland fisherman and a shark caller respectively, are works that, despite their ironic take on the anthropological genre, remain somewhat inaccessible to me. Yet I'd found works like John Gerrard's digital rendition of a smoke tree and Susan Tiger's series of drawings capturing rainfall made from 'water-soluble' graphite pencil and 'rainwater' too obvious.
I did however enjoy Barrie Cooke's paintings of algae and sewage. Here the language of the painting is foregrounded in Cooke's playing painterly abstraction off the microscopic exactness of the biological cross-section. Finally, the work of perhaps the most relevance to South Africa, the docu-portrait style photographs of the Dunnes strikers, who for two years refused to work in support of the sanctions against South Africa in 1984, remains somewhat unattached to the theme. This, along with the strangely patriotic choice of green paint for the background, felt tacked on to the rest of the show.
While I feel that this show makes for the beginning of an exciting cultural exchange, I was ambivalent about its content. The title of the show draws, perhaps a little misleadingly, on the lyrical Romantic Irish tradition, both in art and song. Whilst a noble attempt to displace national identity with a scientific theme, many of the works do not go beyond this and the result is a show disturbingly akin to an unscored musical sheet.
Opens: July 19
Closes: September 30
Iziko South African National Gallery
Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 467 4660
Hours: Tue - Sun 10am - 5pm