From the Cape of Good Hope
April 25, 2013 § 1 Comment
I had an astonishing day last Friday, starting at the Cathedral, where South African artist Jane Alexander’s sculptures have taken root. The exhibition, Surveys (From the Cape of Good Hope), organized by The Museum for African Art, comprises photographs and figures,with the photographs depicting the figures in various landscapes. Alexander’s fiberglass figures–creatures–beings–are most often described as human-animal hybrids: eerie, disturbing, eloquent. They’re characters from that realm of half sleep where we dream our thoughts, the ugly social/political realities of the day entwined with the body’s more immediate awareness: I hunger, I lust, I fear, I punish.
After having seen a few art exhibitions at the Cathedral, I don’t know why artists would ever want to show in a gallery or museum. The soaring stone, the granite columns, the old wood, the sun filtering through stained glass, the bays and chapels and altar, the great shout of this immense space—these don’t diminish the power or delicacy of art; they give it a world to expand into.
Alexander’s figures seem particularly at home, so much so that I almost believe that when the show is taken down, a couple of the more agile creatures will slip away and hide in the crypt or attic, to be glimpsed now and then but never captured.
Perhaps I’ve read too many stories where statues, dolls, scarecrows, likenesses in paint or clay come to life, spooky but lovable. Alexander’s art tells different, darker stories. She grew up in South Africa during apartheid and her figures are people stripped of their humanity, clinging to it and losing it, diminished by oppression, just as the oppressors give away their humanity for privilege and profit.
We say humanity as if it’s a good thing. I think ‘animal’ is a good thing, too. These hybrids are not disturbing because they resemble both people and animals—such imagined beings can be any kind of beautiful—they embody the emotions behind such words as “inhuman,” “subhuman,” “brutal,” “monster.” What doesn’t exist in nature, what we have dreamed up and love to visit and embellish, the origin story for the destruction of individuals/peoples that somehow elides mention of money or power: this story is itself monstrous—all id; it is also fertile ground for art.
The animal is a familiar metaphor for our worst aspects (as it is for our innocence and sensuality), but the central idea in Alexander’s work is the process of deformity, and more subtly, the terror of change. The word “transformative” is used a lot these days, in a hopeful manner, but as the Greeks knew, transformation is not always to one’s benefit. A woman can give birth to a Minotaur or be turned into a cow. What we treasure most, and what leads to the greatest despair, is those moments and days when it seems as if nothing is changing.
I saw the exhibition on a beautiful spring afternoon, surrounded by good people (including Jane Alexander, who is gracious and charming, and more interested in talking about what others see in her art than what she ‘intends’), then took a long walk with Lisa and her dog Ellis, punctuated by tea and cake at an outdoor café.
It was a joyous afternoon, and perhaps for that reason, while the exhibition made me think first of human brutality—what goes on in every corner of the world that some of us are lucky enough not to experience or even witness—what persisted was thoughts about personhood: my experience of self, that homey, second presence that tells me I’m me.
Memories of childhood consciousness swam up all evening: delight in my unquantifiable identity, how familiar and strange it was, how much I liked being in this skin and life with my own peculiar perspective. To remember all that so vividly was a gift.
Depression makes the self threadbare. I’ve got sturdier garments now.
Go see the exhibition. It will be up through July 29, 2013.
Metamorphoses: first verses
Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.
I summon the supernatural beings
Who first contrived
In the stuff of life.
You did it for your own amusement.
Descend again, be pleased to reanimate
This revival of those marvels.
Reveal, now, exactly
How they were performed
From the beginning
Up to this moment.
Before sea or land, before even sky
Which contains all,
Nature wore only one mask–
Since called Chaos.
A huge agglomeration of upset.
A bolus of everything–but
As if aborted.
And the total arsenal of entropy
Already at war within it.
No sun showed one thing to another,
Played her phases in heaven,
Spun in empty air on her own magnet,
Basked or roamed on the long beaches.
Land, sea, air, were all there
But not to be trodden, or swum in.
Air was simply darkness.
Everything fluid or vapour, form formless.
Each thing hostile
To every other thing: at every point
Hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless
God, or some such artist as resourceful,
Began to sort it out.
Land here, sky there,
And sea there.
Up there, the heavenly stratosphere.
Down here, the cloudy, the windy.
He gave to each its place,
Independent, gazing about freshly.
Each one a harmonic of the others,
Just like the strings
That would resound, one day, in the dome of the tortoise.
–-Ovid, translated by Ted Hughes.