Consolation and its (dis)contents
by Michael Herbst
‘Console’, ably curated by Dina Zoƶ Belluigi and Zach Taljaard, offered ample evidence of the diverse and often complex interpretations that can result when artists are invited to use a simple departure point as the basis for artworks, in this case Consol glass jars. Though likely suspects were to be found in the gallery - the noun console, referring to a type of table or an instrument panel; the verb to console, referring to the giving of sympathy - most of the works were highly idiosyncratic in nature with few of the artists settling for a literal response to their source object.

This variety in subject matter was also apparent at the level of medium: photographs flank paintings, sculptures in various materials rest on plinths or are bracketed to the wall, videos introduce moving images into the otherwise static space. There was even an acoustic work: Toni Olivier’s impressive Consonous.

The precise manner in which Olivier manufactures her music, which ranges from the ambient to the expressive, is beyond my capacity to recount, but I can disclose that the entire piece originated in sounds sampled from her manipulations of a Consol jar and its metal lid. These were then synthesised on computer by means of a programme whose modus operandi she likens to the act of drawing. Her work, as it permeated both rooms of the gallery, was a unifying element, yet it also brought a quality of synaesthesia to the exhibition that suitably foregrounded its hybridised character.

Sharing the first room with Olivier’s work was the hilarious yet also poignant Play Dead, a video piece by Brent Meistre. The video, which was carefully framed and timed, focused on the fascinating interaction between a hand and a dog ‘ a hand that does not give, but plays dead, thereby interpolating the dog into a strange scenario in which it does not know how to behave. It dutifully attempts to make the hand receptive, nudging it, rubbing it and nibbling it, but in the end seems to conclude that the hand - that of its master, no doubt, but now divorced and alien - is lifeless.

Only after the dog admits defeat and leaves the frame does the hand become animated: in all its disturbing fleshiness it mimes a dog, signifies a dog - the dog of children’s shadow plays. In the process it widens the gulf between master and pet to the point where the idea of communication seems to be reduced in its essence to an impossibility. Yet this reduction is not bleak: it shares the carnivalesque spirit of free play one finds in the deconstructive discourse of Jacques Derrida, revelling in the certainty of the missed encounter.

It was a wise curatorial move to situate Gerhard Schoeman’s Subsumed Consolation and Maureen de Jager’s Disconsolate so near to Meistre’s work. The fragile cage in Schoeman’s piece spoke of enclosures that also truncate contact, though here what is evoked by the tiny red jersey trapped within are childhood memories that have become inaccessible except through the act of representation. In de Jager’s work the enclosure was less emphatic, but again there is a residue within, in this case a self-consciously rendered and inscribed ruin that seems almost enshrined, a ritualistic relic that is dually beyond restitution and also the very promise of restitution.

Attempted restitution was at the core of Tanya Poole’s video Consolation, in which Juanita Finestone, in a well-acted cameo that reads as a curious mix of consolation and confession, ostensibly uses words to lure her co-conversant - the viewer, by default of being in the chair pushed close to the screen ‘ out of his or her grief over the loss of a loved one. All the expected platitudes are tendered - none more rind-thin than “She had a good innings” ‘ and all the necessary inflections are introduced into the voice and facial expressions.

Finestone’s concluding words are the ones that reveal the failure of this act of consolation: “I’ve baked you a nice quiche”. What one has again is the fragment, the unsatisfactory object, the food-poultice offered by a desperate mother to her omnipotently distraught son. In the opposite corner of the room fragmentation again pips wholeness in Niki Winward Cross’s Lachrymae Antiqae, a chandelier that weeps both human tears and strings of broken Consol glass.

One of the strongest works on the exhibition, Zach Taljaard’s Initiation Ritual: Our Little Secret in many ways sums up the almost elegiac tone of the pieces mentioned. In his piece a bed of curious and oddly disquieting dimensions is painstakingly recreated in crysta cal, a material that, when polished, has the seductive smoothness and coolness of marble.

The oversized pillow is deeply indented and the blanket rumpled, tracing in matter and memory the missing object of love. In its place are rust-stains, which are destined to increase with the passage of time as the rust interacts with the crysta cal. In this they hint at the ever-spreading stain of signification, Lacan’s automaton, beyond which the Real remains in the always-unreachable realm before the kiss.

In contrast to Taljaard’s unenclosed, eerily vulnerable cot were works that used the concept of bottling more directly, for example, John Hodgkiss’s Voyages of Recovery, dual panels of manipulated digital images of ships and cargo in-a-bottle, and also Celia de Villiers’ Memory Jars, an exhibit of phallic-shaped containers in which one found an assortment of salvaged souvenirs set in wax: hair samples, torn photographs, sentimental trinkets, pieces of fabric. These bear witness to that common anal need to retain one’s own droppings which is more usually sublimated by means of photo albums and shell, stamp, coin, book, even toy soldier, collections.

The fetishes stood like spice bottles on a rack - or, more accurately, like fruit preserves in a larder ‘ holding to themselves, denying fracture even as the objects in close proximity to them declared themselves as partial, reconstituted, convulsed, pressed into shape by little more than the surrounding space, the will of the artist, and the look of the viewer.

A catalogue containing images of the exhibited works, as well as texts submitted by the exhibitors accompanied ‘Console’. Both the exhibition and the catalogue were well worth viewing and offered an opportunity to interrogate the concerns that occupy many artists and writers in contemporary South Africa.

June 27 - July 5
Carinus Art Centre
Beaufort Street, Grahamstown

Michael Herbst is a lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University.