'Social Pattern' at the AVA
by Katharine Jacobs
Ivan Vladislavic's short story, The Whites Only Bench, catalogues the dilemma of the staff of an apartheid museum, who, having struggled to find a genuine 'Whites Only Bench', fabricate a fake one, complete with artfully painted scratches and marks of wear and tear. I am reminded of Vladislavic's short story as I walk into 'Social Pattern' at the AVA; the first work I set eyes on in the Long Street gallery: Lynnette Bester's Benchmark, a large-scale woodcut taken from the surface of a bench's planks. Picking up the traces of decades of vandal wood-carvers, and the marks left by their many hundred buttocks, the piece is a palimpsest for the social histories of all South African benches. It is a fitting first piece to welcome one to the Kirsty Cockerill-curated show which, rather like Vladislavic's short story, values these seemingly insignificant marks as signifiers of a grander social pattern.
Kim Lieberman's All Places Visited 1996-7 constitutes a similar palimpsestic relationship to history. Sending envelopes addressed 'Poste Restante' to all of the destinations where she has spent more than one night, the physical dimensions of the artwork are determined by the number of envelopes which, not finding her there any longer, have been returned to sender. The resulting wallpaper of envelopes, though a little solipsistic in its documentation of Lieberman's travels, thus bears the marks of travelling long journeys all over the world. (Visually, Lieberman's piece also ties in pleasingly with Greg Streak's tragicomedic Envelopes for Tears which is adjacent to it, the small envelopes stuck onto Streak's MDF canvas being made of waterproof insulation tape.)
Rowan Smith's Nice People Rewind (2008), which Cape audiences saw last year as part of Smith's solo show at Whatiftheworld/Gallery, is another appropriate choice for this show, the pillar of now-largely obsolete video tapes cataloguing not only the history of domestic technologies, but the history of television shows. Recorded on the tapes' labels are heaps of dated television shows and movies, scored through and over-written with new titles.
The trappings of domesticity make up a large part of the works on show; the rituals and societal order they evoke appropriate to Cockerill's mapping of a social order. In Carol Anne-Gainer's pieces, domestic 'trappings' are suggestive of a somewhat claustrophobic home-life. Vent (2007) is a series of domestic air-vents bound with black satin ribbon so that their small mouths are choked with decoration. The environment they evoke is more reminiscent of a padded cell, than domestic sanctuary. Blue Elly (2007), meanwhile, comprises video footage of a blue plastic elephant being repetitively pounded at a corner of wallpaper. The act of violence and frustration similarly undermines the curlicued-wallpaper mask of middle-class stability.
Paul Edmund's Knurl meanwhile, draws attention to that little-considered household item; the polystyrene mushroom tray. Laboriously incised with diamond shaped patterning, the cheap surface becomes suggestive of the hardwearing metal surfaces that normally bear this texture. Arranged on the wall in formation, the grey polystyrene trays read a little like speakers, which has me wondering if Edmunds is making a connection to the Canadian experimental sound sculptor Alan Bloor, and his noise music project also called 'Knurl'. If the auditory allusion is there, the piece would have made a nice counterpoint to Paul Cooper's Within Earshot (2008) upstairs, an array of polyurethane resin ears affixed to the wall as auditory surveillance.
Another mini-conversation exists between the works of Fabian Saptouw and Fritha Langerman, who are this time adjacent. Saptouw's fragile tissue-paper print, Breathe In Breathe Out (2009) is composed, in Saptouw's signature style, by hand with 'Rockwell 12 pt movable type'. It reads as an analogue retort to Langerman's p1603, column 4, a metal rondo of linked lettering from the artist's Of Symmetries and Oxymorons series, which dealt, in part, with a sense of being besieged by a flood of information in the digital age.
Finally, there is a grouping which deals with flesh and blood. Familial links and distances are suggested in Lieberman's puzzle painted with flesh tones, Six Degrees of Separation (2005), Cobus van Bosch's resin and bone dust Rift (2005), and Greg Streak's delicate vein-y print, A Rush of Blood (2007-8).
Cockerill has managed to pull together a wide range of artists and works for this show; patterns, and the laws which guide their creation, proving to be a sensitive and thought-provoking curatorial ambit. Given the dearth of decently curated group shows of late, Cockerill's effort stands out as one which, rather than detracting from the selected works, has actually managed to add something to their bearing. Indeed, rather like Vladislavic's carefully composed fictions, 'Social Pattern', manages to draw socio-political relevance out of the mundane rituals of daily life.
Opens: March 23
Closes: April 30
35 Church Street, Cape Town
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Images courtesy the AVA and the artists