Clearly the large paned glass windows that rise up from the floor of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing make the front of galleries 182-184 feel like a retail space. Artists who have exhibited here in the past have highlighted this affect, Lucy McKenzie being a prime example. In the current exhibition, South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere (born Capetown, 1984) makes the space perform in a similar fashion with the installation In the Neck of Time.
Through the boutique-like windows and upon entering the space, patrons encounter an arrangement of ceramic shepherd dogs poised upright. A number of them are shattered with pieces strewn on the floor between suitcases filled with earth, green grass and all.
The piece is bound between the glass windows and a grey wall featuring a drawing in chalk of a classic wall-mounted schoolhouse pencil sharpen- er; a wall drawing in chalk on blackboard finish titled When I can’t laugh I can’t write. Though it seems possible to walk amidst the shards and luggage there is no such invitation, which reinforces the feeling that the piece is window dressing for some kind of high-end back-to-school sale display.
We are also greeted with the ambient sound of a warm African melody being sung to a mellow tempo. As the sound grows louder, it becomes clear that this audio is emanating from a pedestaled monitor displaying a grainy video of a standing cigarette burning down to the filter. The video, titled Lefu La Ntate is running at accelerated speed. Themes of memory and time should be apparent by this point if they have not already been so.
Around the bend, sculptures constructed from salvaged materials like tires, crutches, old school desks, and a taxidermy parrot evoke the tired language of Neo-Duchampian assemblage. There is humor and some wordplay but without any of the provocation. This becomes a greater challenge every day that goes by almost a century after the Frenchman attached a bicycle wheel to the seat of a three-legged stool.
It is the salvaged materials that seem to be trying the hardest to perform Lehulere’s vision of ‘deleted scenes’ from South African history which associate curator, Kate Nesin, references in the exhibition guide. The school desks in particular, rich with markings from years of student sitters, evoke lost history through artifact.
In a less obvious but more conceptually complex way is the performance of lost history by the artist himself in Echoes of Our Footsteps: A Reenactment of a Rehearsal. Here, Lehulere documents a performance that took place in the gallery. Displayed on a wall before the makeshift stage are its remnants via video projection. The layers stack up quickly in this documentation of a performance where the artist with actor and artist, Chuma Sopotela, perform scenes from memory of a play Lehulere acted in as a child. Only a few individuals who saw the actual performance in the gallery got to experience it as a performance. What is left for new viewers is a visual remnant flattened by time and the limitations of the documentation.
What is a ‘deleted scenes from history’? Is it something that never happened but possibly should have? If so, Lehulere attempts to rewrite history with To Whom it May Concern. The artist presents three letters written to the Swedish Academy requesting that South African author, Sol Plaatje, be awarded the 1914 Nobel Prize for Literature. Or is a deleted scene something that did happen and has been erased and forgotten like the stories of all the students who carved into those desks?
The idea of depicting such a thing is a compel- ling one. It seems to be what is driving the artist to produce work rather than what one experiences in viewing the work. We are greeted with a promise and left with the desires it stirs in us. Some formal and aesthetic investigations are left as a consolation. Perhaps this is as much as a deleted scene from history can be.
“Kemang Wa Lehulere: In All My Wildest Dreams” was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago October 27, 2016–January 16, 2017
Evan Carter hails from Worcester, Massachusetts. He studied Painting at Mass. College of Art in Boston and is currently an MFA candidate in the Department of Visual Art at the University of Chicago.
Volume 31 no 4 March / April 2017 pp 28 -29