Minnette Vári at Goodman Cape
by Lloyd Pollock
Minnette Vári's new video Rebus is a glowering, convulsive essay in the Romantic sublime. Epic in sweep and scale, and executed in a hectic, flickering chiaroscuro, Rebus conveys the quaking terribilità of cataclysm and apocalypse, and its boom, thunder and flash made the gallery shudder as if in the grip of eruption.
Rebus fills eight screens and one long wall, transforming the space into a spectacular environment seething with febrile pageantry. A cortege of unruly memories, visions and premonitions unfolds before us like newsreel footage from the underworld. All Vári's personal demons and bogies troop by in a weirdly enthralling march-past that snarls into memory with the irremovable tenacity of an implant.
Far from being mere sound and fury signifying nothing, Rebus is cumbrous with import, so crammed with clues, cues, symbols and emblems that its urge to signify almost becomes exorbitant. Vári's wellspring is Dürer's Melencolia, and this engraving transfuses the video with centuries of accumulated meaning.
Dürer conflates two hoary late medieval visual traditions. His splendidly appareled lady equipped with compass and sphere is both a personification of Melancholy, one of the four humors, and Geometry, one of the seven liberal arts. The gloom that prostrates her proceeds from nervous excitability which drives her to the brink of madness, for her alternately soaring and plummeting spirits are a sign of 'furor divinus', the spark of divine inspiration that raises her above all mankind. Melancholy bathes in a nimbus of glory for she is the archetypal Artist, and Vári's theme is the agony of her creation.
Rebus consists of two loops. In the first Vári impersonates Dürer's Melencolia, a sullen, brooding lady attended by a dog and an amorino. Slumped in a crouching pose on a stone slab, she sits surrounded by the impedimenta of the geometer and carpenter's craft: the sphere, scales, hourglass, melting pot and ladder.
Her habitat is a barren, stony fastness, an eerie limbo emptied of humanity. Whilst Melancholy moves in ponderous slow motion, the clouds above her fly by at hectic, breakneck speed, and the clash of pace disrupts our normal sense of time, suggesting she has sat there motionless for aeons.
Everything disorientates. Melancholy is far larger than life size, a beefy, Deutsche Fraulein, who cannot possibly feel chez soi in the exiguous space that Vári allots her. She is filmed so as to lend her the fluid discontinuity of an apparition. Frequent dissolves, in which several Vári's appear superimposed upon each other, are subtly blended with X-ray images, establishing her as an ectoplasmic emanation, a spectral being beyond space and time.
Her actions reiterate ad infinitum, for time appears to be cyclical, eternally repeating itself so that the video is potentially infinite. Melancholiy tinkers ineffectually with her instruments, for her mind wrestles to solve the knottiest of problems, and her intense cerebration reduces her to glum impotence.
The soundtrack confirms her engrossment in mental debate. This symphonic interlarding of musique concrète, song and melodies both ancient and modern, sacred and profane, proves as propulsively energetic as the anvil chorus in Il Trovatore. Vári animates all Melencolia's idle tools, putting them to work hammering, beating and ringing like an enormous forge which is both the crucible of history, and the anvil where art is wrought.
The frenetic metal-smithing echoes Melencolia's fevered internal searching. In her mind a New World is being painfully brought into being, for the soundtrack compends every source of commotion - gales, cyclones, tempests, quakes and the cries of animals and men.
Eight screens record Melancholy's listless misery while the mental events tearing through her psyche splash out onto the gallery wall. She broods on the march of our history. Tumultuous multitudes mill through her mind, and trudge doggedly from servitude to freedom as they troop past the viewer and advance upon the gallery's doors. These scenes of endless exodus consist of archival footage of processions - military, mayoral, academic, religious, commemorative - and protest marches, riots, scenes of refugees on the move and battlefields strewn with corpses. The generic character of the imagery makes this a panoply of our past.
While Dürer's lady remains forever immobile, Vári, heroically casts off her torpor, and rises up to fulfill her artistic duty. Her inability to confront the horrors of an awful history in which she herself is embroiled, reduced her to misery, but suddenly she accesses the moral courage she needs to grapple with the past, rises and walks forward purposefully
This is her supreme moment, and the sole occasion in which she appears on the wall, as well as the eight screens which have hitherto relayed separate images. Vári bridges the schism, and she becomes an agent of unity, healing and reconciliation looming majestically over the furrowed soil of our troubled country, as she holds up a scale and makes her final judgment on our history. Although Vári personifies Melencolia, she is also furnished with many of the attributes of Truth and Justice, and her multiple identities enhance her authority, and make her verdict absolute.
Melencolia is not one but many. She is every human being who sifts through history to isolate the truth, but she is also a metaphor for Vári's art-making, exemplifying how her mind lies fallow for long, dragging stretches which then yield to bursts of furious creation. During the temps mort of block and inactivity she feels she is no longer in her element but trudging through molasses. Some treacly and viscous substance jams her brain, clogs up her imagination, and suffocates her ideas which emerge stillborn.
Vári's breathtaking skills come to the fore in her presentation. Her transparent muslin screens create through-views, so you not only see the visuals on screen, you also dimly glimpse those on the screens behind it. The imagery compacts and becomes as densely layered as a palimpsest. Unlike all the other videos I have seen, Rebus constantly re-configures, rather than repeats itself. What is projected on each of the eight screens, is always cropped differently from what is presented on all the others.
The Melencolia loop is two minutes long, the history loop lasts 90 seconds, and the sound track runs for four minutes, and is not synchronized with the film. Two projectors play alternating loops which differ marginally from each other, and thus, you never experience the same combination of sounds and images twice. The finite and repetitive are eliminated, and the viewer can watch Rebus time and again, and still enjoy an invigorating sense of revelation and discovery.
A sensitivity to political nuance has always underscored Vári's oeuvre. 'We all come from a position in which we are constantly called upon to explain ourselves', she told me. 'How can South Africa do what it does? How can you countenance it? Do you not feel complicit? These accusatory questions sensitized me to our history, and I devoured studies of our past and the biographies of whose who had shaped events. Obsessively I amassed newspaper clippings until eventually my flat-mate and I could not move for them. I realised that it had all become too burdensome, and that I could not face yet another traumatic story.'
Accompanying the projections is Monomotopa, a suite of digitally manipulated ink prints related to the video, but not taken from it, is executed in faded sepia tones suggestive of the fanciful antique maps of yore depicting fabled destinations that no white man had yet seen. Words in outmoded typefaces and blurred lines, redolent of roads or river courses, are combined with photographs of a hazy Johannesburg skyline.
Vári artfully doctors her visual material, situating the city in the distant past, and dissolving it into a chimera. In her hands, the grungy metropolis assumes mythical dimensions, and becomes a Promised Land, an El Dorado of boundless riches, and thus the focus of Europe's conquistatorial instincts.
This notional city is framed within an elaborate baroque cartouche of the sort that often adorns old maps, and frames the four continents, coats of arms and scenes of military and naval conquests. There is a triumphalist dimension to the cartouche which asserts European dominion over the spaces it frames. Its scrolls distance the familiar, and transmute the Highveld into a specimen of titillating exotica, a sample of the distant and far away presented for European delectation and appropriation.
However, Vári's cartouche encloses contested land. Along with the dozing heraldic lion, weaponry and other emblems of Europe's irresistible might, occur figures and devices inassimilable into this scenario. Two heavily armed boers derived from the monument in Church Square, Pretoria, challenge its hegemony as do the armed naked female indigenes clambering over the frame in stealthy, crouching poses.
The cartouche, a defiantly European device, is overlaid with African flora and fauna, Voortekkers, indigenous peoples, baboons, warthogs, birds of ill omen and locusts redolent of plague. The prognosis is far from benign: both Afrikaners and blacks appear prepared to defend their land against each other and alien intruders.
Bristling clusters of rifles and security devices often crown the cartouche, and allude to the embattled condition of our citizenry, and the break-ins, hold-ups, and hijackings that still plague a country cripplingly divided against itself.
While working on Monomotopa, Vári created ink on paper self-portraits. When the work was complete, she photographed the ink images from so close a range that you could see the paper fibres and how far the ink had sunk into the paper. These photographs were uncannily similar to landscapes, and in fact they form the basis of the Monomotopa cycle.
'The self that I felt I knew so intimately became an unknown elsewhere', says Vári whose art posits a binding equation between the individual and the geography he or she inhabits, with the former being understood as a product of the latter. Landscape and history too become one, for the terrain she depicts is scarred by the events enacted upon it.
This enmeshment in time and place supplies the theme of Vári's second video, Fulcrum, in which the naked artist appears imprisoned by the urban and rural scenes that spin round her, buffeting her about like a wave as they morph from Thomas Baines' colonial paintings into photographic vistas of modern Johannesburg. Vári remains at the vortex of these wheeling landmasses and cityscapes and she vainly endeavours to break free of them, and take control of her destiny.
The subject is reprised in ravishingly seductive digital prints that ooze sensuality and opulence, and exploit pixillation to create a gorgeous tapestried effect of verdure. In these richly colored circular images, reminiscent of terrestrial globes, Baines' blasted landscape of smashed tree trunks, pools and distant groves is distributed around the circumference of the tondo format with a circle of sky and cloud at centre. It is like gazing at the firmament from the depths of a well, with the boundless azure relieving our sense of immurement.
The feet of the naked Vári emerge from the branches of a heroic storm-wracked tree. She materializes as abruptly as a genie from a bottle, making a sensationally dramatic and drastically foreshortened appearance as she lunges towards us upside down, twisting vigorously around her own axis in hectic contrapposto.
Composition is vertiginous, for earth whirls around Vári who appears tethered to it, unable to escape, a victim of history struggling to free herself from the past like our country itself. The site appears both halcyon and problematic. A giant question mark hangs over the land and its future. The tree of life that brought Vári forth may well be dead, and her identity is hedged in ambiguities. Is she a martyrised female counterpart to Sisyphus compelled by the gods to endlessly expiate her sins? Or a chthonic deity whose tortured contortions express her native soil's travail?
There is no knowing. Vári poses the perennial questions but her answers are dark and sibylline poetic pronouncements. Her role is to induct us into mysteries and not to dispel them.
Opens: March 8
Closes: April 5
Goodman Gallery Cape
3rd Floor Fairweather House, 176 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Tel: (021) 462 7573
Fax: (021) 462 7579
Hours: Tue - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 4pm