Transient University of Cape Town Michaelis Graduate Show 2013 Review by Anna Stielau
The Michaelis Graduate Show 2013 is more than just a comprehensive group art exhibition. Yes, it does operate primarily as a forum to profile the creative accomplishments of final year students, but more than that, the show stands as a tribute to all the work that has led the 45-strong class of 2013 to this point. Embedded within it is a history so easily belied by the polished product: the four years of preparatory training, the rigorous critical feedback from staff members and peers, the in-depth practical research, the sleepless nights. And over and above the Grad show's significance as the climax of a BAFA undergraduate degree, it?s a cotillion of sorts; a coming out show that marks the students? entry into the art world beyond the inst itution.
With that in mind, critically dissecting the 2013 Grad show seems like an impossible task. Spread across thirty different spaces on UCT's Hiddingh campus, this vast exhibition presents a wide range of conceptually and aesthetically diverse works. It takes hours to navigate as a visitor. An attempt to review the whole show in the broad brushstrokes of this text, then, would be a crass oversimplification. Instead I've going to try and unravel a few loose threads from the tangled skein of this exhibition, by picking up on works and thematic engagements that struck me personally.
I can't help but segue into a body of work that deals with inconceivable vastness: Tess Metcalf?s show "And yet?it moves". Metcalf has the entire second floor of the Michaelis Gallery to herself, and her prolific output warrants the additional space. The show takes its name from a Galileo quote allegedly delivered upon signing a recantation of heliocentric Copernican theory in order to reassert the church?s claim that the Earth was the static centre of the universe. Using this historical moment- the friction between religion and science- as a point of departure, Metcalf has devoted her fourth-year work to a gently wondering engagement with space exploration and observation.
Aptly, her show is not limited by medium. A collection of brass telescopes sits comfortably beside detailed drawings of asteroids; text pieces detailing fluke weather events are accompanied by pieces utilising only ink, glass and light. The end result is seductive, and informed by an unaffected sense of the artist's own illimitable curiosity. Metcalf acknowledges this in her artist's statement: "the journey of discovery on which I have embarked?[has] provided me with a cathartic experience in which I attempted to understand my own position and importance- or lack thereof- within a vast world."
Pascale Desfontaines work is also informed by a broad-based fascination with discovery, in her case born out of an interest in the history of flight as a "passage of travel between the states of being here and there". Her Altitude lithographs of flying machines, specifically documenting their use for violent ends, have a delicacy that stands in stark contrast to their brutal subject matter. Her odd air balloon objects, suspended en masse in the Michaelis building stairwell, are equally elusive and surreal.
Flight is, in fact, a leitmotif of the show at large, appearing again in the works of (as choice examples) Rudi le Hane and Gareth Morris-Davies. It's interesting that, although the students weren?t required to adhere to an overarching theme, there are these moments of commonality. In part, this is a product of the curatorial efforts of Josephine Higgins and Justin Brett, and the nuanced relationships they?ve forged between individual bodies of work. I?d also like to think, though, that this is a consequence of individual students working in close quarters with a likeminded group of young artists, sharing materials, lectures, exhibition spaces and parties. Cross-pollination seems an inevitable side-effect and, if anything, adds another dimension to reading the show in its entirety. It unites very different bodies of work by reminding one of the human presences within them, like a glimpse behind the scenes.
Another idea that reappears with curious consistency is the significance of historical narrative, and its political, social and personal repercussions. The winner of the prestigious Michaelis prize, Mawande Ka Zenzile, uses his show The Center Ring as a platform to critically interrogate the relationship between Africa and the West. A relationship defined by the joint imperatives of expansion and exploitation, he argues that its legacy still shapes African lived experience. By laying claim to the re-inscription of his own history, Mawande defiantly turns colonial stereotypes on their heads; a gesture perhaps best encapsulate in his portrait of Queen Elizabeth in cow dung. He holds no punches.
Amie Soudien's Special Collection offers a different take on the manner in which history impacts upon our experience of the present. The tenuous space between remembrance and forgetting is foregrounded, as Soudien examines how people of colour - in particular, her own family - were historically erased within South Africa?s bureaucratic system. She reinserts her heritage into the archive, not so much in an attmept to seek validation from the viewer as to lay claim to a documented space that is uniquely her own.
Perhaps because the Grad show exhibits so many moments of explicit or implicit conceptual overlap, the students who go against the grain are made all the more interesting. There is nothing else quite like Antonia Cronje?s human|animal. Cronje's framing text quotes an extract from Baker?s The Postmodern Animal to describe her show as, "the scourge of anthropomorphism, anthropocentricism, and all other tendencies to reduce difference to sameness, the impure to the pure, the inhuman to the human, and the strange to the meaningful." I'd argue that her practice is, when read in the context of the larger exhibition, somewhat contradictory to this. Its difference- its sheer quirkiness-is its most powerful defining characteristic, sure, but the line between the strange and the meaningful is far more readily permeable than suggested by Baker.
Cronje produced a series of fabric 'animal suits' to scale. Each is untitled but for its parenthesised species- horse, tiger, frog, mouse, zebra- and the decision not to anchor the work with a more rigid text leaves it open to interpretation. The costumes are designed to be played with, to have their animal forms invaded by human limbs, but their makeup also limits the extent of this play. One can activate part of the object but not the whole, or operate the smaller creatures like awkward puppets that never come fully to life. There?s something deeply charming but oddly uncomfortable about the experience. Rather than offer itself up to a concrete reading, Cronje locates her work in ambiguous in-betweens : in-between human and animal, in-between casual play and self-conscious manoeuvring, half humorous and half sad.
The graduating Michaelis students of 2013, too, are in a transient state. With their BAFA degrees behind them, the future is coming into view on the horizon. As such, this exhibition is equal parts punctuation point and ellipsis. Where to from here? What's on the other end of that ellipsis? I look forward to finding out.
Anna Stielau is an arts writer who recently won Gold in the Reviews category at the inaugural National Arts Festival/BASA Arts Journalism Awards 2013