Writing Art History Since 2002

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DIRT Contemporary | Cape Town

11 Official Languages, 2005, clear blown-glass, installation viewWinner of this year’s Klein Karoo Arts Festival (KKNK) Kanna Award for best visual artist, Elmarie Costandius recently extended her concerns with language and communication in a follow-up solo show, titled 11 Official Languages.The exhibition consists of 11 clear blown-glass speech bubbles, 10 suspended from the ceiling of the gallery space, and one resting on the windowsill. As one moves to view them, the pieces swing gently in the breeze, threatening to collide, yet somehow just missing one another. Communication here is presented as a cautious interplay between bodies that don’t quite connect; bodies that have the potential to shatter were they to come into contact.Despite their delicacy these works inhabit the space with an extraordinary command. Each transparent bubble, intended to represent one of South Africa’s official languages, is empty and has a small opening at the tail end. Each represents a fragile space for meaning to form and dissolve. There is no indication when viewing the works which bubble represents what specific language, which seems to suggest that aside from the defining structure of each, they are essentially filled with the same thing: the air we breath, the words we speak. While South Africa’s different languages pose a challenge to our understanding of each other, 11 Official Languages suggests that there is as much connecting us as there is drawing us apart.Costandius’ work originates from an interest in the complex relationship between language and expression. Language as a medium through which we communicate can be as confusing as it is clarifying. It “is nothing more than a code system, similar to musical notes or a string of DNA,” says Costandius, “… a combination of letters organised in a certain way to make words and sentences.” Although grounded in her own difficulties with communication, Costandius has broadened her vision to encompass the obstacles of meaningful engagement in a multicultural society. The inherent qualities of glass, particularly its fragility, transparency and ephemerality, become a striking metaphor in this context. How do we maintain ‘transparency’, how do we make ourselves ‘clear’?It was fascinating to note the viewers’ reaction to the work on the opening night. Exhibition openings are usually noisy affairs, yet the crowd remained strangely hushed. Weighing their words in the absence of others perhaps.

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