The Repeated Flagging of a Symbol
Anton Karstel at SMAC ART GALLERY CAPE TOWNBy Chad Rossouw
28 June - 11 July. 0 Comment(s)
Anton Karstel’s ‘Youth Day’, currently showing at SMAC Cape Town, is an exercise in pigheaded painterly persistence that is at once bewildering and intriguing. Based on 58 seconds of footage shot by his father in 1966, the 120-plus paintings form a ‘film-strip’ that wrap around the gallery, each artwork almost identical to the next. The film itself plays in one corner, with all the strange artefacts, stutters and colour blooms of old footage transferred from an analogue to digital medium. It depicts a Republic Day celebration - an important public holiday within the apartheid state. In the background a group of white-clad youths perform synchronized exercises. And although the resolution of the film doesn’t allow for a close examination, what pervades the scene is the form of a kitsch national-socialist ideal. Their unity of movement and matching outfits suggest a robotic or eugenic world of harmonious supremacy. In the foreground of this display, centered in the middle of the screen, is a flapping symbol of this unity: the old national flag.
This flag, cropped in and blown up, becomes the subject of Karstel’s paintings. Each painting, rendered in muted tones, is a single frame from the film, which at a distance (an elevation hard to achieve in the smaller Cape Town SMAC), merges into a frozen animation; a frame-by-frame replay of each lashing flap of the flag. This symbol of nationalism and apartheid is what Karstel slows down, breaks up into constituent parts, and literally and obsessively analyses. This fine splitting is evocative of the infamous Abraham Zapruder film, purportedly the most analysed clip in film history, which captured the Kennedy assassination. Karstel acts much like the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination, and the countless conspiracy buffs to split the film into its constituent parts, each frame measured, zoomed and timed. The idea is that through this shattering into pieces one will somehow get to see the truth and break through the impenetrable surface of the image.
However, through the breaking down of the illusion of continuous motion, the frame-by-frame examination removes information. You can measure and quantify individual frames, but the absent time between the frames is apparent. Magnification is also useless. Images are mute and bound by their resolution: the more you analyse beyond this bounding box the more abstract they become. The image refuses to resolve itself. Noise and artefacts become significant in themselves. Pixels and grain no longer delineate form, they become forms. The illusion of filmic unity stutters, blurs and
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flickers under an incisive gaze. Kennedy dies again and again, but the reasons behind the assassination remain just as obscure. Similarly the broken down Republic Day film implies an abortive attempt at interpretation. You can get closer and slower, but what the father ‘saw’ and thought is ultimately absent.
When stepping closer to Karstel’s paintings things change. Each frame is an individual painting. Executed in a deep splashy impasto, the medium of paint is emphasized. This isn’t a cinematographic analysis. It’s a painterly translation. The dead grey of the TV screen is approximated by a sickening yellowish purple, only half mixed in areas and flecked with dribbles of red and green. The violent brushstrokes would normally read as expressive, but the same action repeated over 120 canvasses becomes mechanical, a painterly equivalent of visual noise. In fact, there seems to be a trebling of this noise in the works: analogue video noise, translated into digital noise, translated into painterly noise. Each medium occludes information by the artefacts of their own media-ness. The repeated translations cannot pierce the noise: they merely act to emphasise it. The image becomes increasingly abstract to the point where individual paintings are wholly abstract and become removed from the original context.
There is a strange action at work in these paintings. An object (the flag), which has a symbolic relevance, becomes increasingly abstracted. A symbol normally has a smooth relationship to its meaning, a one to one correlation. But in Karstel’s work, the more the image is broken down, the more abstract it gets. And the more intermittently the paintings resemble their source, the closer they become to being allegories. Allegory, in this sense, is when moments of intersection can be interpreted between two things, when one text is read through another, but the ultimate unity found in symbols is continuously deferred. It is an open-ended comparison. As Walter Benjamin poetically put it, ‘allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things’. Karstel’s work leaves us feeling caught somewhere between nostalgia and an acute awareness of human hubris. And, like most ruins, their ultimate meaning is absent, merely suggested by half-forms and broken structures.