BUBBLEGUMCLUB: 'Profound experiences of art at ISANG'

Published 28 November 2022 in Insights


'Profound experiences of art at Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG)'

By Nkgopoleng Moloi


Published 10 November 2022

The protagonist in Ben Lerner’s novel ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ (2011) is obsessed with what he calls “profound experiences of art” — how other people seem to so easily “break into tears” as a result of being moved by things of utmost beauty. I found myself wondering about the impact of art as I stood in front of some very old and some new artworks that form part of the exhibition 'Breaking Down the Walls. Breaking Down the Walls — 150 years of Art Collecting at Iziko' is an extensive  visual showcase at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. With over 500 artworks on display, the exhibition includes some of the most important works in the history of artmaking.

I was especially surprised by the effect that three orange squares nestled inside each other could have on a person. I’m talking about Josef Albers’ colour serigraph 'DR-a' from 1968, which is a thing of utmost beauty. Then I remembered or rather began to understand, that part of the effect that Albers was having on me is in fact constructed. All of the labour invested in inserting Albers into the canon — declaring him as interesting and worthwhile — was showing up as real emotion. I remembered that my deep enjoyment or profound experience of Albers is not happening outside of history. It happens alongside it and inside it.

A series of traceable and untraceable events have culminated to this moment, a moment of me believing this work to be a masterpiece. This is a cynical view of practices of collection and display but don’t get me wrong I remain insanely in love with that work. I’m not at all suggesting that my experience of perfectly rendered geometric shapes as deeply moving is false, I am merely reminding myself that a certain kind of investment in the work produces and reproduces interest. This is what collecting is about, or at least in part.

What really excites me about exhibitions of such massive scale is less about the curators’ prowess — the exhibition is curated by Andrew Lamprecht, with a reference group that includes Amohelang Mohajane, Barboro Martinez-Ruiz, Bettina Malcomess, Ciraj Rassool, Ernestine White-Mifetu and Tony Gum — or the experience of the show as a coherent whole. Rather, I’m interested in the small moments of resonance and confusion that occur throughout the exhibition. As you meander through the display certain artworks speak to you, demanding your time and attention. Sometimes it is the sheer excitement of recognition; there is Helen Sebidi and her contorted figures, David Koloane’s peculiar use of colour, Shilakoe’s ‘The Widow’, Kandinsky, Manana, Athi-Patra Ruga! It feels good to identify previous encounters of knowledge in different contexts. So on the one hand there is the pleasure of recognition but alongside it are moments of pure intrigue. This was the case with Usha Seejarim’s ‘Sequence City’ (2002), which I had never seen before. Plastic bread bag tags are sown onto a delicate and ornamented blue fabric with red thread. The result is a stunning tapestry of the city space. The fine blue of the skies and the interesting use of material gestures to the tensions held within a city – beautiful, energetic, inspiring but also cold.