16 September - 21 October 2023
Whatiftheworld is pleased to present Civilian, a solo exhibition of new works by Michele Mathison.
When confronted with an abstract sculptural form in our visually dominant culture, both the untrained and the veteran art viewer’s first conscious thought might be – what is it of, can I recognise something? However, without realising, through the sculpture lending us its aura, we might also subconsciously notice its haptic sensibility, its materiality, its weight – and our first instinct is usually to reach out, to touch.
What would happen?
Will my finger come away dusty, or will the oils on my skin stay behind instead? Can I slip my hand into the fissures where the stone was cored away, will it get stuck? If I push with all my might, will it shift, or even topple? How loud would it be, in contrast to its stoic stillness now – as loud as the steel yard, the studio, with spinning blades and rattling chains, flying sparks and flaming torches? At least in the beginning – replaced, later, with swishing sandpaper and measured, gentle, “One, two, three, lift.”s.
This enmeshment of the body in Mathison’s work is not accidental. In previous exhibitions such as Harvest, Manual and Uproot, the artist produced iconic works that made use of found objects and universal symbols, maintaining a certain ocular dominance stemming from an interest in creating a striking visual image – a natural inclination stemming from coming of age during the advertising culture and emerging technologies of the 90s. Where Mathison previously portrayed the representational forms of tools used to mine, carve and cut, his current use of materials – Paarl granite, terracotta, sandstone and steel – are inflicted upon. In these totemic ‘bodies’, the artist wrests with hardware not made for the finer arts, treating it with reverence anyways – seeing beauty in the pile of bricks, the stack of square tube, the streetlamp speckle of galvanised zinc. To borrow from Pallasmaa’s critique of contemporary architecture, where his previous style of imagery felt hurried by the eye of the camera, the artist’s latest works, instead invite the eyes of the skin.*
As Mathison is putting the final touches to the last six months’ worth of work, a building in downtown Johannesburg goes up in flames. While the smoke signals have been rising from Joburg’s CBD for nearly two decades, this balefire was bright enough to catch the attention of international news outlets, and the finger pointing starts all over again. Meanwhile, the cost of corruption and mismanagement is paid in the seventy six lives of civilians. This only weeks after taxi strikes in the Western Cape of South Africa throttled supply chains, closed down business, and most importantly, prevented hundreds of thousands from travelling to work and school, or even to buy food. Real lives affected by the negligence of infrastructure, the negotiations and brazen theft by politicians and gangsters.
In a time of tense geopolitics, anthropocentric anxiety, global economic strain, neo-fascism, and political epithets that turn pejorative before your very eyes – Mathison chooses to portray the anonymity of the civilian, the body on which the consequences of decisions made in the upper echelons of these governing powers play out. Not in contrast, his practice is deeply personal, even psychosomatic. If one defining role of the artist is to perform a temperature check of their time, Michele feels the suffering of humanity in his core – able to express it only by acting out onto forces that resist him, that cut back at the sculptor, that stings the eyes and dries out the skin and burns holes in his clothes.
Through his titles, the artist gives context to the formal strength of his material exploration. Works such as Waiting in vain (2023), a tall granite totem with a jagged centre line and a flourish of copper patina steel pipes, makes direct reference to the rampant cable theft across South Africa, cutting off public trains and electrical supply alike. Similarly, Off Grid (2023), a large-scale slanted steel sculpture, speaks not only to the necessity of privatising infrastructure in the face of indefinite power cuts, but also highlights the privilege of being able to afford the luxury of ‘going off grid’. Resembling the rock formations of many Western Cape mountain ranges yet finished in an industrial galvanised zinc, the work embodies the paradox of failed service delivery and access, hinting towards the hundreds of thousands of semigrations to Cape Town over the last three years in hope of better jobs, infrastructure and lifestyle.
At other times, the naming of a work is more psychological and open to multiple interpretations. A glazed terracotta sculpture consisting of stacked and sliced clay bricks, aptly titled Cut to the quick (2023), evokes a sense of having endured and endured, damaged and precarious but still standing. Pleasure seeker (2023), a crumpled steel bouquet with a blow torched patina, seems off the cuff to celebrate the hedonistic, yet addresses its shadow implication of dangerous dopamine numbing in the face of fear and fatigue.
Entering the exhibition, the works are visible all at once in the main gallery space, turning the room itself into a sculptural piece and engaging the muscle of the viewer to walk cautiously around jutting angles and sharp edges. The tension between Mathison’s conscious intentions and unconscious drives opens up the emotional participation of the viewer:
“For thousands of years, through every hardship, humans have followed the impulse of stacking stones and carving talismans, of building not only for function and ritual, but for the sake of making something beautiful, something lasting, and the energy of that material and those stones seeps into your bones by mere proximity. There is every potential to galvanise ourselves as South Africans – as Africans – to preserve dignity, to find solutions, to design for civilian use, to build. Despite the legacy of apartheid infrastructure, despite the broken system of corrupt tender awards and furrowed-away funds, there is a richness that remains worthy of celebrating.”
Despite the chaos and destruction that underpin them, these totemic ruins represent an aching hopefulness, simply by the gesture of their construction. If Mathison’s last solo exhibition, Over and Over, represented a gathering of strangers and the first major departure to figurative abstraction in Mathison’s repertoire, Civilian is a reunion of past characters, bearing the cracks and ravages of time: Bleached to the bone, cut to the quick. Twisted and bent, but not broken.
* The invention of perspectival representation made the eye the centre of the perceptual world as well as the concept of the self. There is no doubt that our technological culture has ordered and separated the senses even more distinctly. Vision and hearing are now the privileged social sense, whereas the other three are considered archaic sensory remnants with a merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture. Only sensations such as the olfactory enjoyment of a meal, the fragrance of flowers and response to temperature are allowed to draw collective awareness in our ocularcentric and obsessively hygienic code of culture. Pallasmaa, J. (2005) ‘The Eyes of the Skin’. West Sussex, England: John Wiley and Sons ltd.