Charting Dreams

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In Dineo Seshee Bopape’s where/it is (there is a greater fiction) (2012), miscellaneous objects are carefully assembled. Viewers are confronted by light green Astroturf and parquet wooden flooring, streamers of bleached white cotton hanging above plastic potted plants. A gallery display window is masked by colourful newspaper advertisements. These flyers surround a digital inkjet print of a white cube gallery space with a raised platform at its centre. The stage fills the picture, and features a platform also covered in Astroturf and surrounded by white satin fabric trim. On the platform are plastic birds scattered on the green, another pot plant, tissue boxes, and a flat-screen television that displays a cloudy, bluish abstract sky.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, long live the immaterial effect no 55, 2010, mixed-media installation, Mart house gallery, Amsterdam

Inside the physical space, light from outdoors streams in through a wall-sized display window. It filters the white light through the colours of the newspapers and photograph. This view offers a play of translucent light and colour, and a once familiar environment is suddenly reframed. Bopape’s installation art gives us an assemblage of miscellany that somehow balances the chaos of urban South Africa with a somewhat more ambiguous appropriation of social artworks. It also hints at a paradigm change in the way we might come to look at southern African art more broadly: not as a special representation of a place or a culture, but a different kind of artwork fitting for a moment when time has become a function of space. How is it these fictions have led to such conjecture?

Today, artists are increasingly trying to define their role in relation to worldwide dynamics – of globalisation, social change and shifting identities. The situation of contemporary South Africa presents particular challenges to different forms of expression, but the resultant creative responses give insight into pressing issues. In particular, artworks may be especially suited to chart the dreams, desires and frustrations in the post-apartheid era and offer new propositions. My own storyline here focuses on propositions from Bopape.

Drawing from works by Bopape, I would argue that while the workings of visual events may be grounded in the artist’s own particular stream of experience, they can coax the viewer into thinking broadly about the way in which human being is produced as the subject of experience. The artworks achieve this partly through their material references, which evoke a chain of dreams, desires and frustrations that are linked to autonomous will, conceptual elasticity and blackness as aesthetic model.

Alone, the power of any one of these ideas may be intimidating to conservative visual histories. But by consolidating the strengths of these principles the artworks imagine the subject of experience in alternative directions, in places where layers of significance are present, but not yet activated. Such new artistic propositions are exuberant, a term that shows the effective potential of such brash visual phenomena.

What is at stake in this delicate balance between formal rigour and social engagement is a better understanding of how artworks impact the cultural and political struggles by people of Africa throughout the world. The insertion of blackness, visual perception and Africanity into ongoing global visual discourse is a way of questioning its presence (and absence) in both society and established pictorial tradition.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, the eclipse will not be visible to the naked eye, video f for flowers, 2010, SD digital video, 1 min, sound. Image © the artist and courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Conjunctions, Misalignments, Constructions

Bopape was born in 1981 in Polokwane. She graduated with a BTech from the Durban Institute of Technology, did a residency at De Ateliers in Amsterdam and completed a MFA at Columbia University in New York. Many of Bopape’s assemblages and installation works are conceived for a specific interior, for a temporary period, and they are distinguished from more conventional sculptures or discrete objects because they are physically imposing within the space. Installation art invites the viewer to literally enter the work of art, and appeals not only to a sense of sight, but also to hearing or touch. These works seem to facilitate contingent ideas, communicate ideas in process and open spaces for experimental and provisional thought.

Bopape’s fictions, as they concern contemporary South African art, offer the frame as the central issue of form and content. If the theme of framing escaped notice initially, it may be underlined by the appearance of the actual object – a picture frame is central to this tableau. It sits on the floor, leaning against the window, awaiting content. Potted plants are scattered across the space; ephemeral sculptures of tin foil, hangers and feathers are suspended above the floor; streamers of cotton hang across the ceiling; a disco ball reflects the white light filtering in from the outside; white incandescent gallery lighting and yellow halogen work lights beam in tandem. A television on the floor, screen side up, flickers as it displays a feathered form. Housed in a raw wood cargo crate, the box boasts stencilled text that reads: ‘SA Nat Art/Gallery/Fragile’.

This demanding work requires the viewer’s active engagement, even when it is viewed by means of photographic documentation. In theory, such work can be conceived within the terms of virtually any style, and Bopape prioritises this ambiguity when she comments: ‘it really looks like there is nothing, and i guess a major part of the ‘work’ is nothing … how is the work even visible? where is the work? what is the work? [sic]’1 The artist goes on to describe where/it is (there is a greater fiction) as an awkward attempt ‘to account for what is there … documenting the work which i showed at the stevenson gallery in joburg recently – was such a task … the problem of how to document … [sic]’2 Rather than an attempt to resolve the difficulties of presentation and documentation, the artwork heightens a viewer’s awareness to what and how objects are situated in space. It also makes provision for responses once the body is enveloped in that concoction and thereby insists on the literal presence of the viewer.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, the eclipse will not be visible to the naked eye, 2010, installation showing digital videos (feelin cosmic, 2008, 1 min 34 sec, sound; f for flowers, 2010, 1 min, sound; grass green/sky blue, 2008, 6 min 52 sec, sound; god dear [part 1], 2009, 4 min 15 sec, sound), digital drawings (lightjet prints on metallic paper, dimensions various), sculptures (queen of necklace sketch II [in 3 parts], 2010, mixed media, dimensions various; something special, 2010, bricks and aluminium foil, 32 x 49 x 22cm), wall collage (alter, 2010, mixed media, 240 x 428 x 26cm), painting (ke tsa diphoofolo tsa go hlasela pelo, 2010, acrylic on board, 90 x 180cm). Image © the artist and courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

The constructions overflow with allusions to things and spaces beyond the gallery, and are effusive in their display. Relationships between people, places and things are a key feature of the installation, which functions by presupposing the presence of a viewer whose other senses are heightened by their sense of vision. At the same time, the mode emphasises the viewer’s perceptual experience rather than a theme or material.

Theories about perceptual experience open onto contested, complicated debates beyond the scope of this essay, but such questions – about the nature of sensation, expression, emotions, and intentionality – are at issue in Bopape’s work.3 The installations plunge the viewer into excessive, activated and transitory situations, producing new narratives and heightening perceptual awareness. The result is a viewer able to sense, imagine and participate in meaning-making.

Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa Volume 11 Issue 4, on shelves now OR buy our digital edition here

Raél Jero Salley
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ART SOUTH AFRICA V11.4