The Erdmann Contemporary and Photographers Gallery is currently showing Barbara Wildenboer’s sixth solo exhibition, titled “Canaries in the Coalmine.” Before visiting the Erdmann Contemporary, I conducted a little research on the artist Barbara Wildenboer. I skipped through a few images of her intricately cut out maps and visceral, organic, floral collages. I felt confident that the exhibition “Canaries in the Coalmine” was to be the work of the flouncy lovechild of South African contemporary artists Lyndi Sales and Gerhard Marx.
Looking closely at Wildenboer’s altered books it becomes apparent that she has inherited a sharp blade rather than Sales’s laser machine. “Las Defensas de las Plantas,” consists of an open mounted “pop-up”/”pop-out” book. Numerous circular designs are cut wholly or partially through the pages, revealing and concealing certain diagrammatic illustrations within the book. At the centre of the book where the pages meet, a half spherical shape is suggested by the tentacular, rootish shapes cut out of book pages, and extends outwardly. The outward extension begins with smallish arms and grows incrementally, expanding further than the book’s parameters. The fragile, organic branches have been hand cut meticulously but not without imperfection. The centric half sphere re-appears in a stop frame video animation titled “There is no place like home”. An open atlas with a centric organic motif and similarly cut out circles transforms and adapts frame by frame with clouds moving in the background. I was reflecting on a conversation I had had recently about stop frame animation for artistic production. I had claimed strongly that it was “so seventies” and then abruptly changed the subject not wanting to elaborate on the statement. Unwittingly, I realised that I had fallen prey to the artwork. The notes I had jotted down in the space to describe the likeness of the central image of the video piece read “wing-lungs flapping, porcupine fruit segment.” Absentmindedly, I was recording my perceptions and participating in the Rorschach test. (I saw lungs because I was thinking of Sales, not because I’m a concerned “social smoker”). The fact that the ambiguous shapes are all symmetrical about the centre presents itself more overtly in the work “Rorschach (100 years after).” The work presents twenty five photographic prints on cotton paper arranged in a grid of five by five. Each image is of a small collage comprised of atlases in various symmetrical, wing-like shapes. As the title suggests, the images are reminiscent of the “ink-blot” psychological testing method. The collages themselves (rather than their images) re-appear in the work “Sacrum Simulacrum,” a series of paper constructions each with a clock mechanism. The installation consists of seven circular box frames, with the largest in the centre and the other six decreasing in size symmetrically outwards (echoing the shape of the Rorschach). The wing shaped collages float upwards or downwards with a skinny, anemone shape attached to a ticking clock mechanism that causes the flimsy branches to rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise. The shadows cast by the interesting layering are accentuated by this subtle movement. The seven round frames of “Sacrum Simulacrum” mirror the seven circular frames of “Burning Bridges, Building Fences”. These depict cloud-scapes with silver thread pinned along the lining of the clouds. The two works together remind me of the equal wonder of the clouds and of the land as seen through the porthole of an airplane window. The circles of the frames are consistent with the circles cut into the altered books. The circles are further present in “Wheel of Misfortune I, II and III”. The photographic prints depict taxidermied hummingbirds in circular formations with their beaks meeting in the centre, tails fanning outwards and museum exhibit tags making up the outer-most of the concentric circles. The prints are mounted in a circular window within their square frames. The hummingbirds appear as unobtrusive etching-type images over the clouds of “Burning Bridges, Burning Fences”. The birds emerge as paper cut outs tangled in silver thread amidst the grassy atlas cut outs that grow from inside two bell-jars in the pieces “Forecast I and II”. The birds are overtly absent in the work “Indemnity”, a paper construction within a bird cage on a tall wooden stand. Wildenboer has produced an exhibition of impressive aesthetic coherence. The atlas pages offer the exhibit an economical colour palette. The recurring circles, hummingbirds and symmetrical Rorschach-like images lend the body of work a satisfying consistency. Found objects such as books and taxidermied hummingbirds are flattened photographically, while other objects such as the bird cage and bell jars are presented (as opposed to represented). Linguistically, an idiomatic thread emerges within a number of the works. Clouds with silver lining and burning bridges make up the body of “Canaries in the Coalmine”.Conceptually, the body of work is apparently about solastalgia, a malaise caused by the inability to derive solace from the present state of one’s home environment. It also incorporates eco-paralysis; feelings of powerlessness; a loss of hope about the future appearing as apathy, complacency or disengagement. The exhibition suggests a preoccupation with a love of the whole, and a collective response to the ecological problems facing us. Wildenboer may have borrowed a few of her old man’s fragmented maps and hand-mimicked some of her mum’s laser tricks, but the result is quite different. Look out for the cheeky juxtaposition of Brett Murray’s “I Love Africa” peeking from above a small staircase next to “Rorschach (100 years after)”. Also, I saw kissing gerbils.Jessa Mary Mockridge is an intern at Art South Africa, and will begin a Masters in Art Writing at Goldsmiths University in London in September this year.