Curators’ Statement: Spier Light Art 2023

spier light art

Since the inception of Spier Light Art in 2018, light has been deployed as a medium to deepen, enliven and enhance the artworks, while artists have probed a range of subjects in intricate ways. Particularly of late, the pandemic and other precarities have led to the creation of introspective and conceptual works, drawing from atmospheres of reflection and reset as several global and national trials assailed our society.

This year, these challenges have not disappeared – with Eskom and loadshedding providing brutal irony to curating a project about light, and adding to the challenges of what it takes to live in this contemporary world. However, in this 2023 collection, artists play with and lean into form more deeply, exploring the materiality of light itself and its manifestations. This shifts this sprawling outdoor exhibition into an experiential adventure of the many possibilities that light may be moulded into, from placeholder and marker to a thing of wonder in and of itself.  So while themes hold gravitas and centre this collection of work, light is deployed in myriad evocative ways, inviting an experience of forms and, in some instances, leading us to reflect on the pressing issues of our time.

There is a sense of entering a beguiling wonderland of light art, with Georgia Munik’s Orpheus providing a captivating beacon within the exhibition; a brilliant, intricate neon sculpture marking a literal and metaphoric edge between darkness and light. Swiss artist Sofie Guyot’s Infinity draws our attention to the vastness of an evening landscape. Made from LED lights, it provides a reminder of the persistent and triumphant human imagination in the midst of pessimism. In the same vein, Christina Fortune and Queezy’s seductive and fabulous Corset Intransit – a lit sculpted corset hung aloft a body of water – is a victorious homage to the human spirit in its unabashed, triumphant queerness.

A complex and striking sculpture of light, Rendering by Claire Manicom and Graham Webber invites the viewer to interact with a camera that detects and reflects their silhouette on a massive matrix of light, mirroring their every move, a seed for the algorithm that plays out across the sculptural structure. Playfulness around subject – in this case transience and afterlife – through compelling form is a strong feature of this year’s work. In a similar register, formal concerns and aesthetics are deployed with precision in Serge Alain Nitegeka’s video work, Black Subjects. Here though, gently kinetic human figures, complemented by the pristine grounds of the wine farm, draw us poetically into dark pasts.

Leading focus to our constantly perishing environment, a perennial theme of Spier Light Art, Adelle Van Zyl’s Rainforest Machine prototype 2 is a fantastical lo-fi simulation that repurposes second-hand, everyday equipment, using nostalgia to elicit acute feelings around deforestation and climate challenges. Kenneth Shandu tightens this focus in his light sculpture installation, The Trap, which hones in on our perverse overconsumption as humans. Christine Dixie’s haunting triptych of work, Ghostprints for the Infanta-Echoes, is set against a horizon of hills and valleys that surround the Spier farm. The work reflects on the human endeavour to move the body overseas and across skies, subtly revealing how technologies have paradoxically helped and exploited all sentient beings. It is progress littered with sacrifices and scarification on land and sea.

Using light, image and sound, four works layer our understandings of coloniality through richly contemporary evocations over time, linking past, present and future. Martina Skupin’s sharp and concise neon work switches between the word ‘Afrikaans’ in its regular script to its Arabic script, commenting on its blended and impure origins as well as the language’s marked prevalence in a range of communities beyond race. Thania Petersen’s lush and tactile video work, Baqa, sees the artist entirely embalmed by various layers of cloth representing different Sufi orders, commenting on the brutal invisibilising of rich and honourable traditions.

Judith Westerveld’s expansive work, Message from Mukalap, is built around a unique sound recording of a man named Mukalap speaking in the now extinct Khoe language! ora. The message was recorded around 1936 in South Africa and, in 1938, played at the Third International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Ghent, Belgium. Westerveld writes: “In his message, he calls on a European audience to, just for once, listen to his beautiful language, and to listen to him, and send a message in return.” There is no evidence of Mukalap ever receiving a response from the Congress. In this work, speaking in Dutch, English and Afrikaans, as well as fragments of !ora, Westerveld attempts a response. Tseliso Monaheng’s mesmerising sonic abstract, dense with imagery and layered soundscapes, explores migration, playing with the familiar and the unfamiliar, with suggestion and invective.

Curating light artworks in an open environment, together with the challenges of weather, ecological and material sustainability, means we are mindful of the range of viewers that traverse the farm’s various spaces. Outside the confines of a sacrosanct and controlled white cube gallery, the open spaces provide challenges for viewing since the audiences are largely unpredictable, comprising everyone from the curious toddler to the viewer searching for more than visual stimulation, seeking light art that intrigues and informs.

There is also something unique and special about light art exhibited with a sense of site specificity – finding the right environment on the Spier grounds to hold the work. This year’s artists certainly helped us find these balances. Many of the works assailed us with the detail and complexities in form and construction, inspiring curiosity and eliciting play for play’s sake, while going beyond into spaces for reflection and conjecture.

And then there are the owls. Many of them. Eyes glowing and watching from several trees. Serai Dowling and Ralph Borland’s endearing Zizi (Shona for owl) is a collection of 40  life-size Scops owls – one of the world’s smallest owl species. Simple handmade electronics light up the invisible, and expert use of wire creates form out of formlessness. They are delightful and grim reminders at the same time. The artists write, “Delight is the cornerstone of human resilience in the face of remarkable daily onslaught.” This combination of qualities certainly runs through the 2023 Spier Light Art.

Coming out of these last few years, we are indeed grateful to have arrived here.

Jay Pather and Vaughn Sadie