Peter Machen
6 minute read
26 Jan 2008

T of the world

Peter Machen

South Africa may be in the grip of blackouts, but with their latest show Florida Road’s the Bank Gallery continues to shine. PETER MACHEN went to have a look.

Conceived months before power cuts and rolling blackouts became a much-resented part of our daily lives, the contents of Light Show at the Bank Gallery achieves an extraordinary sense of topicality. The various pieces and the canvas of issues and possibility that they explore are pointedly contemporary in their concerns. Echoing the large-scale projection of a television constantly being switched off from the gallery’s previous show by Matthew Coombes, the show groups many of the psychological concerns of a country and a planet that is leaning on the cliff-edge of an unsustainable future.

Curated by gallery owners Henrietta Hamilton and Robert Fraser, with Vaughn Sadie as guest curator, the Light Show is an example of the ascendant talent that the gallery will be showing during 2008. Although it also needs to be said that, as a sampler, the show is extremely white in its choice of artists, a comment that would be remiss of me to omit. This is my only criticism of a gallery that has, in its very short existence, been doing sterling work. And I need also to acknowledge the gallery’s ongoing educational initiative, which brings a broad spectrum of schoolchildren into the gallery.

The first thing that you see when you enter the gallery is Siemon Allen’s appropriated work The Birds, which reconstructs the Hitchcock classic, in the process building endless layers of allusion. Constructed from recycled strands of a 16-mm film copy of Hitchcock’s 1962 classic thriller of the same name, Allen has woven the reels into a flat canvas, scaling the work with mathematical precision so that the finished work contains the entire film and occupies a similar scale to the projected work. The fluid reflectiveness of the film itself means that the image is never really still, achieving an almost liquid effect.

Like many of the works on display, The Birds, even while asking complex questions about form and narratives, carries within it a simple longing for the real, the analogue, the patently physical.

In British artist Simon Jacque’s work Storm, a series of electric storms is shown on five small LCD screens that interrupt the darkness. The storms are unmistakably Durban thunderstorms, despite the fact that they were shot on low-resolution cellphone cameras. And there is no sound, no thunder, only the lightining. But the capture speed and resolution of the tiny cameras can in no way cope with the speed, complexity and fury of a thunderstorm. The camera compensates for its failures by manufacturing pixels according to predefined algorithms, which, no matter how carefully designed, retain an element of the arbitrary or the random.

This technological disaggregation is also an element of Jeremy Wafer’s haunting Clouding Over. While every cloud might, in the perfect world, have a silver lining, in Wafer’s work, it hums and dances ever so slightly, as the digital compression process struggles to render distinct edges. Beginning with a blue sky interrupted by a dark cloud, the cloud gradually takes over during the course of 10 minutes.

Vaughn Sadie’s Pleasure of Feeling In Control overwhelms with a strange visual silence. A bank of plug points and phone-line sockets is projected from the wall, looking more like a painting than a projection. Despite the fact that I had actually looked at the projector, I still thought that it was a video piece. I mentioned this to the artist, who was unsurprised, saying that part of the work is about how we tend to reduce things and block things out due to the presence of other frameworks. The work deals with the banality of every day life and our complacent relationship to a reality that is contingent on technologies that are not guaranteed.

The only non-light-based piece on display, other than Allen’s The Birds, comes courtesy of the underrated genius of Bronwen Vaughan-Evans. Her piece Vaughn Light anchors the show. On a long thin canvas, a street light is almost buried in the greyness that dominates the panel. A pair of feet extend into the top of the image. Vaughan-Evans uses white gesso layered on top of black gesso. Her medium is lightness and darkness, the images “excavate” from the darkness, by sanding away at the black gesso to reveal an image underneath. The artist references the fact that gesso was used in religious icon painting during the renaissance and views her medium as creating haloed surfaces. As she unearths her past she also investigates and deconstructs the tradition of western painting.

Greg Streak’s piece, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid, consists of a cross constructed out of energy-saving light bulbs. Bathed in this crucifixion light, I could not help thinking of religious art and, specifically, Aldous Huxley’s musings in his essay Heaven and Hell, which explores the relationships between light and religiosity. Streak’s piece gains resonance when you realise that it correlates to a statue of Christ on the cross across the road from the gallery, at the Catholic Church in Florida Road. While the gallery is accessible to the public, the church is less so, surrounded by security fencing. Streak’s piece seems to be reaching out to the constrained Christ on another side of reality.

The Huxley reference above isn’t entirely gratuitous. His distopian Brave New World could perhaps find a place in the context of the Light Show. While inside the gallery I experienced a gentle throbbing of illumination, several hours later, I am left with a nagging, vaguely apocalyptic feeling. What will we all do when the lights go out?

Conceptual sound and light artist James Webb might just have the answer. But you’d have to decode it from the Morse code message that is embedded in the gallery, a partially visible artwork with no signage or signifiers. The show’s curators have chosen not to label the work with titles and artists for this show. Instead, all information is in the catalogue, giving the works autonomy from their creators during the viewing experience. And if you didn’t go to the opening, you will have missed his other work, a performance of The World Will Listen — the four-minute-and-33-seconds blackout that pays tribute to avant-garde master John Cage.

Many of the questions that arise from Light Show might seem banal, even obvious. But behind our physical construction of the world, they are probes that move deep into the darkness of our contemporary psychologies and psychoses.

Note: Light Show also includes a work by Steven Hobbes, A Point in Space. At the time of writing, it had not been installed.

• Light Show is at the Bank Gallery, Florida Road, Durban.