Artist finds her place, in her place

First published in The Cape Times

Given how many visitors descend on Cape Town during the silly season the art pickings are surprisingly slim, or at least, superficial. Most commercial spaces opt for what they dub “Summer group shows”, boasting a mish mash of art from the artists in their stable.

As such Gwen Van Embden’s exhibition Genius Loci (a sense of place) is a refreshing prospect. Staged in her attractive Garden’s studio off Dunkley square is an embedded art experience, where art is shown not only in the context in which it has been made, but the setting itself has been exploited as a form of expression.

Fittingly, as the title of her show suggests, she has used the opportunity and the setting, to address ‘her place and context’ not only artistically but as a citizen too. As a white privileged one she finds herself assessing her ‘place’ in society in relation to the legacy of apartheid.

As such her studio is not a venue but the activating frame for her art and a space in which to contemplate her race/place in the wider world. In the vein of self-interrogation, she lays her working life bare, inviting visitors to riffle through her drawers and cabinets, which sit open. Small noteboooks, drawings, spill out of drawers and a cacophony of objects fill a capacious studio alongside conventional artworks, which are framed titled and are for sale. Van Embden has considered the arrangement of each object, treating her studio as a large installation work. She is as much a curator as an artist. An old overhead projector for example is placed on the floor, surrounded by metal trays used for dissecting small animals. Weighing, taking account, is a pervasive theme.

Book Weight (2017) consists of yellowed pages torn from old books, sandwiched between twigs, placed on a disused and rusted scale. This whole scheme of ‘weighing’, being accountable, for the past seems inefficient; the scale is outdated and how can the pages of a book, twigs can’t really ‘account’ for it.

Her anger and frustration with what has perhaps become a pathological relationship with history in relation to an untenable political situation in the present is given expression in an installation consisting of a stack of old books next to neon tube work which reads: “I am not party political but I am pissed off.”

It is worth bearing in mind that when Van Embden embarked on her artistic career (in the 80s) many of her contemporaries, such as Pippa Skotnes, were concerned with confronting archival material and reframing it as a way of dealing with the spectre of apartheid and colonial history. Skotnes will present a talk on Van Embden’s show on January 15.

In a way Van Embden suppressed an artistic compulsion to create new things in favour of this mode, which appeared to be the only viable route out of an immoral quagmire.

‘Curating the archive’ as they call it was perhaps always going to be her fate in a way, given her father was involve