by Jay Pather and Vaughn Sadie
In this year’s Spier Light Art, artist Hallie Haller has a sign next to her work, with the words:
You are the first technology.
A network of intention and hope that spills out into production and perception.
You. You are the land maker.
In the quick night, this is your chance to make it over.
Take it somewhere good.
Haller’s words epitomise this year’s extensive and robust Spier Light Art Exhibition. Since our democracy South Africa has intermittently offered the world hope and something of a model for human rights. It is an imperfect and flawed model but since Nelson Mandela’s evocative, inspiring inaugural speech in 1994, our country has nevertheless shown itself to be at once despairing and wildly enervating.
Our artists unashamedly combine inspiration, innovation, excellence of form and social conscience. It is what we do well. So while informed by our struggles and sluggish transformation, they bring inspiration and renewed wonder so that we as Haller exhorts above, we play as innovators and land makers in the quick night.
Nowhere is this more potent than in the deceptively wry Flood Light by Abri de Swardt
a sculpture of a collapsed, massive floodlight on the banks of the Eerste River, glitching and glowing both anxiously and mournfully, speaking to the ecological state of the present while signalling our distraction from it. The artist draws from writer Toni Morrison’s reminder that flooding is a misattribution of a natural process, that in flooding, the river is remembering where it used to be.
Naadira Patel and Sarah de Villiers’ Assembling Lines is a magnificent reflection on processes of extraction, production, distribution and trade, in a time when conversations about achieving net-zero carbon emissions are at risk. They do this by inserting into the lush green landscape the rudimentary language of the LED screen, reminiscent of advertising screens, and the ticker tape displays of stock market updates, shifting our gaze to an alternate language of value and ethics, prompting viewers with questions of sustainability practices, and “ethical consumption”. One of four works from previous iterations of Spier Light Art, Marco Chiandetti’s Beacon also uses the site specificity of the farm as counterpoint, to reflect on broader issues of immigration, resilience, and the cultural interplay that defines our interconnected world.
These works will live amongst works that hold up and honour ecological presence: Jenna Burchell's Singing Stones will complement UK based artist Stevie Thompson’s ravishing Mycelium a mesmerising display of colour and light using thousands of thin fibre optic strands to represent the huge network of mycelium often growing right below our feet. Similarly Berco Wilsenach’s Written in the Stars and Kamil Hassim’s impressive Event Horizon immerse the audience in what is understood as vast, unknown spaces that are atmospheric and in constant flux. These enormous presences in our lives are used by the artists productively, to imagine and bathe in the infinite.
Hallie Haller’s work Machine Swim asks us to actively participate in the source of sentience, our own bodies. So when confronted by a machine, how can we use this encounter to affirm our own aliveness and reclaim renewal.
Reclaiming non-binary identities, Goldendean’s VESICA PISCIS draws from a geometric shape that is formed by the intersection of two circles of the same radius, with the centre of each circle on the circumference of the other. This extraordinary, deceptively simple light art work asks us to reflect on how existence is not a binary but rather a spectrum of intersectional experiences within our humanity. The artist evokes Amrou Al-Kadhi poignant question:
If subatomic particles defy constructs all the time, why should we believe in fixed constructs of gender or any kind of reality?
Mthuthuzeli Zimba dragged a shack on wheels from Khayelitsha township all the way to central Cape Town. A video of this pilgrimage forms part of a light installation comprising a relocated shack. The work, Moriti wa Kganya interrogates displacement in both space and body complemented by other profound works around a continuous grapple with land and living presence. Kenneth Shandu’s haunting work, Invisible comprised of intricately made and lit wire-sculptures honours workers who labour unseen and rarely acknowledged. Charles Palms’ work made for the Slave Bell on the farm, The Boogeyman, returns, also working with great care and skill with our contentious history. In Themba Stewart and Qondiswa James sprawling work, Keep the Lights On, they create an impressive array of impressions of homes across a typical South African city. Using wood, tiles, cables and light fixtures, each roof structure represents a different socio-economic typology typically present in the geography of a city. It is ultimately light here that serves as a marker for how bodies are held.
In an inimitable way too, artists use hope and play to work through difficult subject matter. Mhlonishwa Chiliza coming from the rural town of Umzumbe has created a modest yet evocative sculptural light art work which in the face of a litany of lack of delivery is nevertheless an enduring symbol of transformation and new beginnings. Mpho Jacobs’ Let’s Play a cheerful animation of game play, using the format of video games, considers feelings of alienation at not being able to speak Afrikaans in a Stellenbosch educational institution. Comprising a series of short, looping animations that draws one to play but not without difficulty and heartbreaking failure, the work effectively combines play and reflection.
Zurich based artist DD Son's sculptural light art work open/closed (restaurant kids), works to similar effect, critical comment and charm. Using visual cues from pop culture, the science and advertisement industry, Son unpacks the mechanisms of desire and fetishisation in our post-industrial age of branding and personalised marketing. Using video as her medium Rhoda Davids Abel’s Brie of the sing-sing birds also lightly combines startling, wry and playful imagery with themes of gravity – displacement, family, intergenerational legacies and identity.
Ultimately this combination of playfulness with subjects that inspire participation and reflection abounds: Swiss artist Sophie Guyot’s The Meaning of Meaning is an extensive work using traffic lights as its main material. By combining these simple luminous pictograms, she creates new semantic structures supposedly to address an unknown intelligence ‘out in the universe’, and questions how these signs address us. The slowed down soundtrack, using festive music, combined with familiar contemporary ring tones, plunges the installation into a kind of melancholy conducive to reflection. The installation thus reveals light playfulness but a deadly serious intent of the artist’s activity: although it looks around into the space of the beyond, it primarily addresses earthly fears and hopes.
And finally, renowned light artist Alan Alborough’s sculptural work ‘ZZZZ’ plays in with the use of this word in our social media interactions. As the title suggests, the first evocation is one of relaxation and unconsciousness. However, this state of sleep as this witty light art work will evoke is also
A poetic or euphemistic word for death
To be in, or as, in the state of sleep is
To fail to pay attention
The works combine wonder, participation and thought that distinguishes this exhibition of light art as a space for the celebration of a wide range of forms of light that allows for moments of escape and fantasy and moments when we may touch sides with the world outside, lest indeed, we fall completely asleep.