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 This whole scheme of ‘weighing’, being accountable, for the past seems inefficient; the scale is outdated and how can the pages of a book, twigs can’t really ‘account’ for it.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 involved in making maps, charting her hometown of Pretoria.
Van Embden directly deals with this legacy via works such as I’m not my brothers keeper (2017), Opmeting van verdeling (Measurement of subdivision) (2017). In these works she juxtaposes images of maps made by her father with photographs he took of Van Embden and her siblings as children. They are presented on bold-colourful Perspex which operates as the contemporary ‘frame’ or view from which these documents are perceived by the artist or viewer. How do we judge these records now?
Van Embden’s ‘place’ in the present depends on how we read or judge her history. In judging her archive and history herself, first, before the viewer can, perhaps she somehow navigates white guilt. That is if you assume it can be neutralised.
Van Embden confronts the inescapability of the apartheid legacy corporeally too, in reference to ‘blood’, which is dealt with in the work Wit Mens Bloed (White people’s blood) and the Reddish series, where red ink fills square papers. Whiteness is not skin deep; it pervades the entire body. Yet the ‘blood’ of black people is equally red – this point is made via a red page bearing the word “black.” What is it that separates white people from black? Nothing and everything, suggests Van Embden.
She exploits her studio setting to compliment the art. The neon tube scripto visual work that reads “Bloody Valentine”, referring to increase of domestic violence women experience on this ‘romantic’ day, is located above a working sink.
This kind of installation can’t be replicated with such authenticity or gravitas in a conventional gallery space. Nor can the exhibition itself, where the art and her archive are so seamlessly integrated. This is what makes this show so rewarding, unusual and novel, leaving you with a real sense, to borrow from the title, of her place as an artist and person. –
Genius Loci (a sense of place) showed at Studio 3, 3 Wandel Street, Dunkley Square, Gardens. On Monday 15th January at 6.30pm Pippa Skotnes gave a talk on the exhibition.