REWILDING – IO MAKANDAL
By Ashraf Jamal
‘To contaminate, to keep things intertwined in a transformative mutualism is to be sticky with the trouble on terra, now. How else does one envision these speculative futures, if not to look through and think with the earth, with every non-human thing and being in and on earth to create terra visions.’
What’s in a name? In the case of Io Makandal much that deserves our attention. Given the artist’s concern with the imbalance built into binary systems, be they technological, ecological, social, or political, her first name, Io – pronounced I/O – is a striking moniker. The definitions vary: input/output, industrial/organisational, instead of, in out, interoperability, insertion order, instrument operator (land surveying), idiot operator (as in an I/O error). Makandal delights in the acronym, then tells me that Io also Jupiter’s largest moon, the most volcanically active in our solar system. Makandal keeps all these readings in play, but what most compels the artist is how we absorb the imbalances within perceived order and alter an inherited Western Enlightenment project which has come to define the way we see and experience the world.
Binarity diminishes complexity. For Makandal, we are not the sum of an oppositional or dualistic logic, despite the fact this logic informs all systems today, be it technological, juridical, familial, or socio-political in the broadest sense. That we have become increasingly averse to binary systems – despite their dominance – is evident in the drive towards ‘fluidity’ in the case of gender politics, or ‘rewilding’ in the case of nature conservation. If Makandal sees dualism as a limiting faculty, it is because, after the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, she intuits that systems work because they do not work, that they are designed to suppress greater difficulty, uncertainty, and innovation. Nassim Nicholas Taleb shares this view, noting the importance of ‘uncertainty, randomness, probability, disorder … in a world we don’t understand’.
Io_Makandal, Speculative Fabulation 2020. 141x100cm, Mixed Media on Fabriano
No one can dispute that today we find ourselves confronted with an end game. There is much talk of the moral bankruptcy of systems, received practices and modes of conduct. Ours is the Age of the Anthropocene, a man-made world that is fast destroying the earth’s ecosystem by subjecting it to the arrogance and narcissism of human need. Ours is not a consumer age but a consumptive one in which human gratification is the plus ultra or ‘further beyond’ of a nihilistic drive or built-in death instinct.
Io Makandal is not exercised by this deathly instinct, which for Friedrich Nietzsche is the root of decadence, but with what we must do in the face of its consuming control of our lives and systems. If COVID 19 tells us anything, it is that we are not immune, that a zoonotic infectious disease can leap from animal to animal, non-human to human, and radically arrest all known function. The extremity of this arrest, resulting in a global lockdown, is the most glaring indicator of the vulnerability of all systems, all kingdoms, be they natural or secular, or, more tellingly, their combination. Because no one thing is easily distinguishable from another, life interpenetrative, it follows that we need to be attentive to the co-dependent interoperability of all living organisms. This is the grounding premise of Makandal’s 2020 showing at Everard Read’s Circa Gallery, Terra Visions. Her primary focus is not pathogenic, it is sympoetic. She is not concerned with a viral exchange but an inter-generative one. In her world death does not come after life, it is a vital dimension of living, ‘to engage with the act of the sympoetic processes of living with dying.’
Terra Visions – which follows her 2019 show Life in the Entropics – continues a preoccupation with entropy, the degree of disorder or randomness in systems. If entropy is vital to Makandal’s vision it is because it absorbs difficulty and allows for the inevitability of change – for a constant chaos. If hers is a heretical vision it is because Makandal compels us to rethink dogma and faith, specifically with regard to art. As the critic, Jerry Saltz, wittily remarked, ‘Venice is the perfect place for a phase of art to die. No other city on earth embraces entropy like this magical floating mall’. Saltz’s view has a deeper cogency. The emporia that houses art – an art gallery or art fair, a private home or public thoroughfare – are all, in varying ways, a ‘floating mall’, sites suspended despite the avidity of their placement, which ask us to consider art’s role therein. In Makandal’s case, Circa Gallery located in Africa’s greatest shopping mall, the V&A Waterfront, is a fitting location to examine the interoperability of art in-and-of the world. Unlike Saltz, however, Makandal is not preoccupied by a wry conceit, what interests her is the conversation of the organic and inorganic, natural and secular – art’s function in nature.
Terra Visions is distributed across three platforms on the top floor of Circa, overlooking Africa’s shopping Mecca and the Atlantic Ocean. Sunlight, design’s natural influencer, is shot through opaque sheeting, the rest is electrified. It is the works which toll the exhibition’s primary theme – nature. Four floors are dominated by installations which fuse the organic and inorganic. Rusted metal rods twist out of concrete blocks … ‘weeds’ thrust upward and outward from glass vases … homespun dreamcatchers made of snapped branches and blown glass disks seem frozen in time … two carpets – a runner for a corridor, a broad rectangle for a lounge – are transformed into a ground for growth. The carpets are ‘at various stages of digestion … organisms, bacteria and other critters process and digest the woven fabric of human culture and society’. They are laid out in the sun, rain-drenched, then rolled up and left in a corner to “cure”, before covered with compost. Makandal’s intervention is irregular. What it tells us is that we need to break down, regrow, and rewild the world.
Are Makandal’s weed-latched carpets the rafts which carry the living and the dead? Are they not afloat, suspended between worlds, the one familiar, the other strange? And is it not this estranging of a received norm which is the vital point? If weeds are integral to a world vision as bacterium it is because they are ‘plants out of place’. It is their disjunctive seemingly random placement that is the key to Terra Visions. Literally and conceptually, her works are digestive, organic, bacterial. Her weed-strewn world, intentionally planted and painted, is the marker for generative alterity, they invoke a healthily entropic impermanence. ‘The spaces which weeds occupy form a third landscape’, she says, ‘a generative in-between ground left to mutate and thrive beyond human activity and design’. The term was originated by the philosopher-gardener, Gilles Clament. For Makandal, however, its significance in a South African context is further aggravated. The “wasteland” of District Six, Cape Town’s ground zero and source for the wild flowers-cum-weeds which Makandal displays in glass vases in one of her installations, is the embodiment of this third landscape – site of a destroyed culture, abandoned, rendered inexistent, superfluous, and yet, despite all, an integral present-absence in the city’s psyche.
Across South Africa these spaces – the buffer zones and ‘uitvalgrond’ of apartheid’s separate development project – signal a psychogeography that persists to this day. Makandal’s interaction with these buffer zones – neither here nor there, indeterminate – is implied. Hers is not a prescriptively political take, but an evocation of an interzone that cannot be suppressed. It defines our psychic make-up, the unsaid that plagues us. Its roots lie in the Natives Land Act of 1913, in which 90% of the land was assigned to a white minority, the black majority left dispossessed, unaccommodated, landless. That these interzones remain – vacant lots in a national imaginary, untended, uncared for, aggressively cordoned off from human occupation, activity or cultivation – is, for Makandal, the sign for a profound error. In choosing this third landscape as the terrain, the fieldwork, the artist invites us to reconsider the redemptive promise they afford. It is because these non-spaces are resilient, because they beckon us, allow us to refashion what we think ourselves to be, that they assume an enlivening force in her work. That Makandal has a preoccupation with these interzones is telling. Weed-strewn, they are the core of her re-visioning. Her mulched carpets are the ciphers for this vision. If her installations remind us that weeds emerge inside the home and gallery, break through all our strategies of containment and order, it is because they cannot be suppressed. Weeds are uncontrollable, entropic, resilient. And, of course, weeds are flowers too. In Makandal’s installations they possess an uncanny homeliness and a canny unhomeliness. Weeds disturb us. Their presence in Makandal’s art signals the instability, even impossibility, of any mutual exclusivity. In her world vision everything is contaminated, every element and dimension a part of a greater more enriching weave, which is unsurprising given that for Makandal all things, organic and inorganic, human-hewn or natural, are interwoven, ‘humans are entangled and not separate from nature’.
It was Gilles Deleuze who developed a vision of the world defined by the ‘rhizome’ or weed, he who reminded us that the weed – misunderstood, dismissed, rooted out – allows us to rethink our appropriative relationship to the earth. Weeds ‘deterritorialise’ territory, alter what we expect to see, define as knowable. For Deleuze, the rhizome provides a different ‘image for thought’, while for Makandal they offer a different vision for-and-of art. If weeds are integral to Makandal’s installations it is because they allow us to re-evaluate what we regard as supplementary or irrelevant to the main event – why we look at art, what matters in art. As Deleuze reminds us, ‘underneath all reason lies delirium’. This is because everything is inter-operational, both wheat and chaff matter, it is the tendency to enforce dualism, and thereby sustain inequality – a privative relationality – which dumbs down complexity. Makandal thoroughly recognises this proclivity and refuses it. Instead, after Deleuze, she chooses to ‘bring something incomprehensible into the world’, and, thereby, remind us that ‘delirium and drift’ is vital in the act of creation.
Makandal’s mixed media works on plasterboard, Fabriano, and archival paper – the sellable component of the show, art as commodity – are visual echoes of Deleuzean thought. How so? Because while the works are framed, cordoned off, given shape, whether rectangular or obtuse – some of the framed works resist customary forms – it is what occurs within and across the plane that deserves our attention. The paintings are febrile, animate, unsettling in their seeming stillness. Feral. The degree to which they are centrifugal or centripetal is unclear. Do the works cohere, or do they break away from a perceived consistency? Are they constant or inconstant? Is this uncertainty not the point? Are we not in fact broaching delirium and drift within calm? The colour palette is a softly muted panoply in greens, though other tones appear. One’s first impression is of swathes and flecks of grass, reeds, weeds, a tangled quiet firmament. Growth patterns. Triggers and flights of animate nature. Geometry. Geography. Inscrutable disorder in the midst of order.
In ‘Corsons Inlet’ the American poet, A.R. Ammons, captures the rich and subtle variegation one finds in Makandal’s paintings. While walking along a grassy dune he notes,
I was released from
from the perpendiculars,
straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends
I allow myself eddies of
yield to a direction of significance
like a stream through the geography of my
you can find
in my sayings
swerves of action
like the inlet’s cutting edge:
there are dunes of motion,
organisations of grass …
in nature there are few sharp lines
While there are many astonishing insights in this poem, this extract returns us to Deleuze’s vision of delirium and drift, as they return us to Makandal’s vision and practice. She, like the American poet and French philosopher, is fascinated by all that breaks received boundaries. If the weed is an exemplary figure in her work, it is because it will not be tempered. Ammons’ writes of ‘irregular swamps of reeds’ which cannot be shut out or shut in, of ‘manifold’ events everchanging, ‘transitions … spread out, allowed to occur over a wider range than mental lines can keep’. Deleuze similarly notes that ‘Art, science, philosophy, are neither contemplative, nor communicative. They are creative, that’s all’. If this provocation matters, it is because it supports Makandal’s view that reason, and the dualism it feeds upon, cannot override a greater driving truth that art is irreducible to the forms it assumes. Shapes shift, things alter – perpetually. Art and life thrive inside a riddle, they are riddling.
Makandal’s paintings are Ammons’ grassy dunes. Her sheets of archival paper and Fabriano, like her carpets, are generative surfaces. For her abstraction is not an act of mind alone, it is a felt thought. As I have noted elsewhere, ‘It is abstraction that consumes us; abstraction which obscures the presumed existence of some definable reality. Why? Because the abstract is both the kernel and husk of the real’. It is this realisation which consumes Makandal. For her, abstraction is visceral, it precedes and informs all ventures on behalf of order. Her conviction stems from a sensitivity both to the microbiological – what the eye cannot see, those ‘critters’ processing and digesting the ‘woven fabric’ of humanity – and that which we do see, when we are able to. That she lovingly tends to a compost pile in her back garden supports this view. What interests her is ‘the microsystems of compost’. For her, ‘soil is the immune system of the earth’, its immunity stemming from the ‘healthy diversity in organisms and mineral soil’, without which earth is lifeless – as it is under the heavy hand of mono-crop human-centred agriculture. This reduction of the complexity and diversity of the earth – and the world more generally – amounts to a subtraction not an abstraction.
If Makandal’s paintings matter in this regard, it is because they ask us to relook at what we see and what we value. For her, delirium and drift are microbiological, unseen, yet ever-present – a nurturing bacterium. By foregrounding the hidden within the seen, Makandal realigns the world, while at the same time resisting the false appeasement such a realignment might offer. Her approach, revealingly, is never unsettling. She is never inspired to invoke dread, even when she might be experiencing it. Instead, what she offers us is a visceral, physical, and phenomenological response to the unsettlements and uncertainties we experience. The softness of her touch, the somnolence inside of fervour, the febrility, fertility, writhing dances of vegetal matter she conjures, speak to a missing-eroded-suppressed link in the greater chain of life and being.
I began by reflecting on the artist’s first name Io – I/O – because it cannily mirrors an error in the fabric of human life, that is, the mistaken belief that dualism can save us. Instead, we find that it is precisely dualism, now robbed of its dialectical capacity to synthesise opposing viewpoints, belief systems, cultural practices, modes of conduct, which has worryingly emerged. It is this well-nigh fascist tendency to construct absolute and opposing worlds which Makandal refuses. Her works resist what A.R. Ammons terms the ‘straight lines, blocks, boxes , binds of thought’. They offer images for a different thought in which ‘relational entanglements’ are key. While, like all of us, Makandal is caught in the grip of a global dread, she will not allow herself to succumb. As people grow more righteous, more intolerant and unloving, she chooses tenderness, ‘to live and die kind’. In nature – and art’s relationship with nature – she has discovered a grail, some consolation that, while quiet, is never restful, never final, but infinite. The earth is not dead. We are not dying – or dying only. Plus Ultra – the ‘further beyond’ – is not her goal. Hers is a terra-bound world. She does not long for Jupiter’s distant moon. Rather, for Makandal it is a connectedness to all that we cannot control, ‘ to become sticky with’ or countermand that matters. Her Terra Visions express this generative release – it is her rewilding.
Ashraf Jamal is a Research Associate in the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg. He is the co-author of Art in South Africa: The Future Present and co-editor of Indian Ocean Studies. Jamal is also the author of Love themes for the wilderness, The Shades, Predicaments of culture in South Africa, In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art, and Strange Cargo (forthcoming).