The title of the latest show at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum in Bloemfontein, curated by the Art Bank of South Africa (ArtBankSA) – Between Meaning and Reality – sums up the uncertainty of the time we live in. The collapse of dialogue, hardening of positions, rise of exaggerated certainty and intolerance, and the destruction of a healthy scepticism, has resulted in a world in which Truth has become relative, Lies a new normal. This condition is by no means novel. As George Orwell, a prophet for our time, noted in his novel, 1984, ‘Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth’. Social Media, and the ‘cognitive dissonance’ it creates, is at the root of the problem. ‘The state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change’, has resulted in a serial absolutism – extreme positions manically susceptible to alteration, given nano-second shifts in view on social media, an all-powerful cynically controlling force. How does this manipulable reality impact the art world?
‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’. This formulation, mis-attributed to Andy Warhol, defines the hunger we feel for recognition, even notoriety – as long as we are seen. The optimalisation of surveillance, to which we are now blithely accustomed, a system to which we have wholly succumbed – allowing it to harvest our data, tastes, values, beliefs, and further manipulate them – explains the aggravated dissonance between meaning and reality. However, notwithstanding this psycho-social global crisis, the curators of Between Meaning and Reality believe that ‘we can still make meaning in our lives and find value in living it’. Individualism, no matter its commodification, prevails as the means to navigate the radical contingency which defines the present-continuous moment, now made memorable by the phrase on everyone’s lips – Everything Everywhere All At Once.
The question remains – how can art enable and focus us, how nurture value? For the curators of the ArtBankSA show, one of the key ways is through Abstraction, a twentieth century art form, which was and remains primarily concerned with the expression and reception of art freed from the inherited tradition of Realism – the belief that the world we see is objectively verifiable. As the abstract sculptor, Constantin Brancusi, declared, ‘What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things … it is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface’. Brancusi is not ruling out the significance of external form, but reminding us that its value lies in its capacity to evoke what lies beyond the objectively quantifiable. Paul Klee concurs, noting that ‘Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal that which is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities’.
If today, a hundred years after Klee made this declaration, we find ourselves needing to reassess our values, tastes, beliefs, it is because we have become acutely aware that they are not quite our own, that we have been overtaken by superficiality, occupied by a force more insidious than over 500 years of colonial occupation, a force with the psychographic capacity to manipulate everything we hold dear – social media. This is why Orwell’s dystopian vision holds true. And, furthermore, this is why abstraction has re-emerged as an antidote to control. As Klee justly noted, in 1915, ‘The more fearful the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract’. The more it resists the dogma and ideology that strives to subjugate us. Abstraction, in other words, is a marker of freedom, or the desire for it. And if this has proved central to the exhibition, Between Meaning and Reality, it is because its curatorial vision is positioned precisely at this crux.
Wool, telephone wire, braided plastic, together with the more conventional mediums of clay and acrylic, signal the diversity of the materials used. As for the artworks – sculpture in the round, bas-reliefs, paintings – they distinctively veer towards worlds that are best intuited, guessed at, never quite known. This is because the artworks on show prefer to enshrine mystery. Natalie de Morney’s work ‘Open’ is precisely and appeal to looseness, a world at once snarled and unsnarled. Amogelang Maepa’s ‘Let the Church Say, Amen’, is a call to prayer. Sbonelo Luthuli’s exquisite vase, which as Lao Tzu would say, is a form shaped from nothingness, beautifully evokes the void without which no form can exist. Sylvester Mqeku, Mellaney Roberts and Dudubloom More’s evocative forms dance between volume and surface, edginess and softness, mood-driven, sensuous, tactile. There are portraits and landscapes too, but they are choreographed in relation to abstract shapes and colour. Lindokuhla Khumalo’s portrait in black, cream, earthy and lime green, is a reminder that the ego is by no means centre-stage, that life is informed by inscrutable hues and shades.
There are many more works on show, spanning the worlds between abstraction and realism. One senses the thrill on the part of the curators, to let their new acquisitions shine. Furthermore, in refusing to take sides, the curators instead ask us to evaluate the positions that we, the viewers, take. There is no doubt, however, that the curatorial team is keenly attuned to the difficulties we live in – That we have become increasingly uneasy. That we are failing to grasp, let alone control, the worlds we inhabit, and which inhabit us. If Klee is correct in stating that ‘The more fearful the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract’, this is because anxiety prompts flight, triggers confusion, exacerbates certainty. It is therefore unsurprising that, today, we find ourselves living between meaning and reality. The pegs we have driven into the ground have come unstuck, the GPS is scrambled, the narrative of our lives, once predictively summed up as comprising a beginning, middle, and end, is now a multiverse in which everything, everywhere, occurs at once.
This realisation is surely changing what we see and how we see the world. It is unsurprising that immersive art is dominant worldwide – we yearn to plunge, to disappear. However, as the curators of Between Meaning and Reality remind us, we are also always pivoting at a threshold, between spaces, always negotiating meaning and meaninglessness, beauty and its desecration, Truth and its abandonment. Thus it is that we find ourselves on a cusp, at a crux.