Monochrome moods: Shades of light
Since their inception museums have functioned as sites of discovery, offering windows into the past and into far-flung cultures and destinations.
In the present day this has been their undoing, particularly for institutions in Western centres which are haunted by their past collection policies and the narratives woven around them.
How do museums justify retaining their historical collections? What stories can they tell about objects without exposing their inherent bias and perhaps that of the society they serve?
This month the British Museum is hoping to navigate this tricky path with a massive exhibition, South Africa: Art of a Nation.
In his exhibition, Occupy, Marcus Neustetter deals with museology politics in relation to African artefacts and art in a novel and characteristically abstract and playful manner. Drawing from experiences at the Smithsonian National Museum of African art in Washington and the Egyptian museum in Cairo, his voyage of discovery is not centred on the objects or the collections per se but on the unseen qualities surrounding them.
His approach is literal and is depicted in a video work titled Space Journey II, which shows him probing a dark interior with a large neon light. Naturally, all he's able to bring to light (literally) are shadows.
These dark silhouettes become the basis for his art, operating as metaphors for the unseen baggage tied to these objects. They loom as the ghosts of the past that can only come into view from a position of enlightenment (or is it darkness)?
The interplay of light and dark runs throughout and is best given expression through a stunning series of monochromatic ink paintings that play with this juxtaposition visually and ideologically.
SURREAL: An installation shot from the 'Exploration' series
Titled Shadowscape, this series is displayed in the oval room on the first floor of the Circa gallery along with an installation called Exploration, which demonstrates the process of ''discovery" that Neustetter undertakes.
African artefacts are placed in front of floodlights, generating shadows on a screen behind them. The result is morphing, abstract forms which articulate the shifting politics - the rereadings and misreadings of the objects. Neustetter could have left it here - in the past, when he was more concerned with enacting ideas or performances with light, he would have.
Instead he has produced the most extraordinary, hauntingly beautiful, paintings that map these shifting shadows and transform them into landscapes.
These artwork are like maps, charting and inviting viewers into these unseen worlds of discovery that lie beyond objects. Due to the monochromatic palette and the organic, spindly quality of the forms this otherworld is a swampy, dark place - like a forest in a Tim Burton movie.
As such these landscapes are unreal, poetic and allow us to tread dangerous territory without any risk. In other words they invite curiosity and discovery, the qualities that drive Neustetter's art but also our connection to it. An extraordinary show that should not be missed.
- 'Occupy' will show at Circa Gallery until November 12