Light Work - China: In glowing terms

31 May 2016 - 10:05 By Mary Corrigall

There are probably few museum shows inspired by glow sticks. Even more unlikely is an exhibition made from the throwaway plastic tubes. Artist Marcus Neustetter has a habit of confounding the usual logic. Of course, the tubes would only glow for a limited period, so he had to make a plan.Nevertheless the logic that drives him is poetic, aesthetically informed but also politically and socially inclined.In creating sculptures and installations from glow sticks for this show, Into the Light, he is forced to recycle the plastic tubes, embracing that survivalist drive in African expression and existence.This act of transformation is not only an artistic one, where he turns these plastic sticks into Chinese dragons, maps, in evoking these symbols he directs our attention to the origin of glow sticks. They are manufactured and imported from China.Neustetter is interested in the trade and cultural relationships and exchanges that occur in the process of exporting cheap Chinese mass-produced products.This is most obviously addressed in maps he has made from glow sticks and woven string to appear like ancient Chinese maps that trace trade routes between our continent and theirs.In this way he turns these inexpensive materials into seemingly precious historical artefacts, or at least cheap imitations thereof, in a gallery.Under glass they appear priceless.His intention is to reinvest value into disposable objects and in the process highlight what we consider to be valuable and the kind of settings that might enhance this quality.By transforming Chinese-made disposable items into those that people in that country might value, he reverses the trade and power relations tied to cheap Chinese products.He melts the glow sticks into popular Chinese icon s such as a Lucky Frog and a Dragon. He has turned what has become a one-way relationship between producer and consumer into a two-way one.The pseudo Prosperity Dolls, fashioned from the glow sticks and other materials, mimic the African material cultural products that the Wits Art Museum exhibits and collects.Neustetter demonstrates how Africans reappropriate Chinese products, turning these seemingly neutral objects into loaded ones. These acts of cultural transformation are a metaphorical way of reigniting the glow the sticks have lost.The spark for this unusual exhibition undoubtedly came to Neustetter when he was left with masses of dead glow sticks after one of his live performances. When the sticks glow they are quite magical, but when that light dies out, all you are left with is a plastic tube.In this exhibition, Neustetter has cunningly instilled the magic back into these tubes and it will be interesting to discover whether they will find their way back to China.Into the Light shows at the Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg, until June 19..

There’s never been a more important time to support independent media.

From World War 1 to present-day cosmopolitan South Africa and beyond, the Sunday Times has been a pillar in covering the stories that matter to you.

For just R80 you can become a premium member (digital access) and support a publication that has played an important political and social role in South Africa for over a century of Sundays. You can cancel anytime.

Already subscribed? Sign in below.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.