Goodman Gallery Cape
21 April - 19 May 2012
For installation views and detail images of works on this exhibition,
Minnette Vári’s new body of multimedia work on show at the Goodman Gallery is built around the concept of the uncanny return – of repressed sexualities, identities, returns to earth from beyond it, and returns from beyond death itself, in a new cycle of work that features vibrant departures into relatively unfamiliar media for the artist.
Building on a recent showing of drawings that explored ancient depictions of pre-pagan female deities around the world, Vári depicts the goddess ‘Baubo’ as a narrative presence pulling the strands of the show together, weaving weirdly in and out of various landscapes, situations, objects and interactions.
Dating from at least the 5th Century BC. Baubo became one of the first "sacred fools" and her image of a jesting, sexually liberated, wise woman has informed the identities and practices of many subsequent cults of worship. Baubo has been celebrated as a positive force of female sexuality and the healing power of laughter, which is why the series of drawings featuring the figure is named ‘apotrope’: a ritual or object to ward off bad luck.
One origin story of the Baubo has it exposing its genitals to provoke the laughter of the inappropriate response, as she causes the goddess Demeter to stop mourning her daughter Persephone and to laugh instead. The unbidden nakedness that attracts immediately the unavoidable gaze is, in short, an uncanny response, the same uncanniness revealed when one cannot explain what is funny in the joke, one can only laugh.
The Baubo figures certainly immediately strike one as absurd, the absurdity of a violated body. Their legs lead one’s gaze upwards, to the decorous suggestion of a vulva, indistinguishable from a slight cleft in – a chin? And then up to a face. Much larger than the legs it sits atop, the face is variously screaming, laughing, in repose... but where is the middle? A closer look changes the feeling of absurdity to one of unease at this absent middle. Physically impossible, it demands an explanation, a palliative analysis.
What schema of interpretation, then, can we map onto these uncanny figures? While there are legs akimbo and the available, public pudenda of the id-fuelled sexualised jester here, yet these genitals are demure, melding into the superego of the emotive face, the rational and feeling mind which laughs, shouts or rests in repose. The absent middle here, then, could be that of the ego, the slave to three masters. It is the ego’s function to introduce time to experience, to instil the presence of a narrative, of social organisation. In these figures narrative is delicately but unyieldingly subverted, in the profound way that art can make possible. Here, the unconscious agencies have taken over the asylum in the form of mysterious and uncanny bodies par excellence. It is not precisely what Deleuze and Guattari had in mind, but these bodies-without-organs tell us about the irruption of that freedom of existence that lies within us all, and which we sometimes call the unconscious.
Vári’s masterstroke is to make this goddess/jester the viewer’s tour guide through this irruption of the uncanny return, and our guide through the exhibition.
The show comprises a variety of work, most connected to or featuring the Baubo. ‘The Life of Baubo (Apotrope series)’ introduces the figure to the audience, and is extended in a series of storyboard drawings placing the goddess in different and strange environments and landscapes.
There are thematically important large studies of the Baubo playing in front of a Victorian mirror, a period motif that will itself re-emerge in the work. Here the goddess acts out a mysterious and almost childlike othering, a staging of Lacan’s famous ‘mirror phase’; as if recognising herself as a creature with her own identity for the first time.
The show also features a series of seven jewel-like three-dimensional objects, the ‘Charm Series’, another reference to the Baubo’s reputed apotropaic magic; 'that which turns away harm'. Each is based on a piece of space debris (parts of satellites, rocket booster gear etc.). The reference to the number seven is to seven days of the week, where each day corresponds to a heavenly body and its related metal, gods & goddesses; eg. Wednesday = Mercury (Mercredi) = Wodin/Mercurius/Hermes. This collaboration with designer goldsmith Cronjé Grobbelaar also evokes alchemical principles of change, transformation and return.
The last two sets of works are in a more familiar medium for the artist – video. The first is a video work in 7 channels, featuring an extended panorama within which the Baubo acts out a 'creation myth' of sorts. This time the goddess interacts with characters and objects in an ever-evolving landscape, including well-known megalithic and other South African landmarks, and actual items of 'space junk' that have fallen back to earth.
Lastly, the show features a video projection based on Victorian/Edwardian memorial photography. In this narrative, figures wake from their deathly slumber (or take turns to be the 'dead one'). They are ‘revenants’, returning from the dead. While referencing how technology would be applied in the search of the paranormal, and the world of spiritualism in the late 19th Century in its visual lexicon of double exposures, images of ectoplasm etc., it is also set against the backdrop of the Johannesburg of the Randlords era. In making this work, Vári was hosted by the landmark mansion of Northwards, a Herbert Baker home built in 1904. The historical frame gestures to going into the belly of the earth, like Persephone whose mother Demeter was cheered up by Baubo, and returning with precious goods – referencing both mining and the creative process. A series of photographs will accompany this video work.
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Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
21 January - 13 February 2010
Minnette Vári presents a range of new work in her latest solo show at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. Titled Parallax (from the Greek for ‘change’ or ‘alternation’) the exhibition meditates on the question of mutability, particularly the changing nature of perceptions of women, and the shifts in perception and attitudes brought about by aging and by changes in intergenerational position.
In 1999, Vári produced a hard-hitting and highly successful video piece entitled ‘Oracle’, based on Francisco de Goya’s famous painting ‘Saturn Devouring his Children’. Vári’s sensibility shows an affinity with Goya’s visceral treatment of supernatural subject matter that allegorises socio-political realities.
A new series of anamorphic images on paper, which can be viewed straight on, but assume a different perspective when viewed from side on, references Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’, a collection of obscure moral parables on the follies of humankind. Vári’s images can be read as sinister landscapes, which she has populated with ‘decoys’ that relate to more contemporary conflicts and moral dilemmas, such as ecological disaster and xenophobic violence.
A particular focus of the exhibition is a meditation on the way history and myth consider the different ages of woman. From temptresses to hideous crones and imbecilic innocents, they are often viciously, but just as often tenderly, portrayed. The triadic figure of the Fates, appearing in many different guises in different cultures, weaves its way through this exhibition in diverse forms and media. The eldest of the three, the death-dealing Crone called Atropos, gives her name to the Death’s Head moth, around which superstitious lore abounds. This compelling motif moves through the video work on the show, drawing out a personal recollection for the artist through her entomologist grandfather.
The genus of the moth, Acherontia, draws its name in turn from the mythological river Acheron that souls must cross into the underworld. There is also an actual river Acheron in north-western Greece, and this play between mythical and real landscapes is a further theme of the exhibition.
Vári has had a long-term interest in the idea of fantastical and allegorical places and creatures, and in this show presents virtual and impossible scenes featuring real cartographic material. Prominent in these constructions are various star maps showing the seasonal migration of constellations such as that featuring Sirius, the Dog Star, which symbolizes a bridge between higher and lower consciousness. All these interwoven themes were developed during extensive research periods that Vári recently spent in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.
An established international artist, Vári’s new body of work elicits both careful intellection and an intuitive, visceral appreciation. In demonstrating the artist’s enormous talent and technical skill across different media, the show works on many levels. It is both historically-informed and highly contemporary, intellectually rigorous yet emotionally charged. As her work matures and diversifies, it maintains her reputation as one of South Africa’s foremost contemporary artists.
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Vári’s last solo exhibition in Cape Town, hosted by Goodman Gallery Cape in 2008, included two new video works and new works on paper. In The Falls, a digital print series, the colonial landscapes of Thomas Baines are incorporated into a disconcerting synthesis of cartography and mythological portraiture.
The large, double-screen video installation, entitled Rebus, presents a dynamic visual and aural exploration of the phenomenon of renaissance. Drawing on Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia, the artist investigates how rebirth figures as an integral aspect of cultural, scientific, spiritual and even political histories, reflecting on how meanings are constructed through times of profound transition.
Fulcrum is a single-screen video work that presents a great self-perambulatory force, potentially productive but livid with menace, tearing through undiscovered landscapes. It could be seen as a vast apparatus or even an entire city, which has rolled up all of its constituent parts into a giant centrifugal disk that goes on an exploratory rampage. Simultaneously, within its ever-shifting bounds, Fulcrum is like a womb, spinning ideas – ancient and new – into incalculably evolving possibilities.
Vári has had a solo museum exhibition in Lucerne, Switzerland (2004), participated in several international group shows, made a second appearance on the Venice Biennale (2007) and is one of only two South Africans included in the 5th Seoul International Media Art Biennale in 2008.
Also in 2008, Minnette Vári was one of five South African artists (along with Marlene Dumas, Kendell Geers, Berni Searle and Sue Williamson) invited to curate an exhibition of young South African artists. Conceived by curator Lorenzo Fusi, the exhibition was hosted by the Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena, Italy from February to May 2008. Artists included Bridget Baker, Zander Blom, Ismail Farouk, Frances Goodman, Moshekwa Langa, Mikhael Subotzky, Johan Thom, Nontsikelelo Veleko and James Webb.
Minnette Vári is represented by Goodman Gallery. Her works may be found in MUKHA (Museum van Heedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp) Belgium; The Museum of Art, Luzern, Switzerland; Rand Merchant Bank, London; Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, Luanda, Angola; Iziko South African National Gallery and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, amongst others.
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Minnette Vári will present a new body of work at the Goodman Gallery in February 2007. It will be the first new work the artist has shown in two years.
The exhibition comprises work in three media. On show will be two new video pieces, the medium in which the artist has garnered her considerable international reputation. There will also be work in two new photoseries, a form which the artist used with great success in 2004’s ‘Riverrun’ series. Finally, a series of more introspective and personal drawings will be on show.
Most of the work is drawn together conceptually by Vári’s pursuit in recent years of the building of an imaginary and allegorical cartography. In previous video work, in particular the highly regarded ‘The Calling’ and most recently the video work composed from the still images of ‘Riverrun’, Vári has imagined mutating urban landscapes, imbued with the foreboding and compellingly melancholy weight of their own histories.
In the new exhibition the artist draws not only on the cityscape, but on a wider notion of a mapping of imagined locations, a series of cartographical fantasies which allegorise both our sense of belonging to a place, and our unconscious unease with the meanings that places bring with them. For Vári, such unease manifests itself in the forms common to much earlier ideas about knowledge in the world, in mythologies, magics, and religious beliefs. In this imagining, places are peopled by otherworldly beings, or are shrunk or grown to uncanny dimensions. There is a consorting between animals and humans, and a constant interplay between the ancient and fantastical and the hypermodern and technological.
Along with the thematics of place and the political and aesthetic allegories of human/animal and human/machine, there is a lyrical, playful strain running through the new work which draws on classical satire and even comic imagery. Finally, the new series of drawings, while referring to some of these same themes, expresses a much more candid, yet still assured vision. In these works Vári seems to be emerging from the darkness of some of her previous work into a wider palette of exciting new directions for one of South Africa’s most consistently brilliant contemporary artists.