Ghost ship, ahoy!


MAYHEM at sea: Luan Nel’s installation in his Poseidon Adventure. Photograph by Luan Nel.

LANDSCAPE IS A difficult genre. It’s earned its reputation in colonialist lingo about lands conquered and possessed, but the land is there beneath our feet and remains contested and loved, the site of bloodshed and that of sanctuary. Cape Town-based painter Luan Nel takes on these harsh and angry issues with a developed quietude which will seduce you as you enter the gallery space, to look and to think and then to rethink political rhetoric and then to look again at beautifully rendered images of land.

There are a number of elements which come together in the different aspects of this exhibition which is at once a painting show, an installation and a comment on social media – if you read the essay on the gallery’s website. It’s also simultaneously about land and sea and conquest.

So, as you enter the space, you encounter the paintings. And in looking at these eight square formatted, quiet yet profound works, you understand several things. Nel captures the essence of early morning coastal mist which enables you to taste it in your lungs and your heart. They’re paintings which make you think of the work of German Romantic landscapist, Caspar David Friedrich or his British counterpart, JMW Turner. These are contemplations of all the things that happen around the fact of the landscape: the atmosphere, the light.

But then, you regroup your senses and understand how paint applied to canvas teeters between being representational and abstract. And as you gaze into the work Vague Signal, for instance, where civilisation’s morning lights twinkle amidst the thick cold morning air, you remember what it feels like to be lost, away from home, cold and possibly dispossessed.

An air of maudlin embraces you as you move on to the rest of the show. The video in the exhibition features a pirate ship in the tradition sense. It feels a little arbitrary as a video installation as it sways hither and yon, its hand-drawn skulls on the sails grinning ominously. But it sets the tone for the final element in this exhibition, the one that feels most eponymous in the light of the exhibition’s title.

In the far space of the gallery is an installation involving flags and flagpoles, sails and sense of event that is broken. It’s a defining moment of this exhibition which gives a sense of feeling ship-wrecked and at sea, and one which you walk around contemplating the staged vagaries of seafarers in years gone by.  And while you may look at it from afar and think: ‘Ha! This is like play-play forts that children construct with lounge furniture!’, look deeper. Walk around the thing. Remember what the flags stand for. Look at the flow of the sail fabric and think of rough seas.

This reconstructed ‘ship’ in this exhibition is like the denouement in a recent exhibition by Nandipha Mntambo, the element that is the pivot of the show, the one you cannot miss. But it’s a quirky engagement with the exhibition’s stated values. After you’ve looked at this ghost ship back and front and from side to side, you return to those paintings and shiver in front of them, again. You’re seeing them through different eyes.

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