ARTISTS are often viewed as secular prophet figures. This is a somewhat tautological construction — a prophet’s insight need not be divinely inspired, nor should prophecy be understood only as a supernatural exercise in prognostication.
Augury, “predicting” the future, requires reading signs and extrapolating; the best prophets are those who make keen observations about past and present behaviour. Prophets can warn us, critique us, cajole us. But their insights should also be taken with a pinch of salt — often enough they are simply wrong. The idea of the artist-as-prophet is thus a potentially useful one.
But many prophets, the TB Joshuas of this world, are quacks and charlatans. And many, like Nongqawuse, are sincere but misguided or even dangerously deluded. So it is with artists. One of the great fallacies about art is that it should always serve some moral purpose — and, reciprocally, that being an artist or an arts fundi somehow makes you a “better person”.
There are some who, because of the sheer volume of their output, are statistically likely to get it right at least a few times (Nostradamus comes to mind, along with a number of conceptual artists du jour). There are others whose “prophecies” are really just dressed-up common sense — everyday wisdom made to sound or look pretty (Khalil Gibran’s prophet, perhaps,
said to be eyeing new car plant in M
matched with common-or-garden still life and landscape painters).
The prophets who really shake things up, who influence the course of history, tend to be mythologised to the point where they become saintly archetypes. In the process, either the finer details of their lives are fudged so they become bland and inoffensive (Muhammed, peace be upon him, or Leonardo da Vinci) or they are writ large in hagiographies that depict the prophet/artist as miserable misfit.
In the latter category, locust-eating desert dweller John the Baptist is right up there as far as prophets are concerned — and as for artists, well, take your pick. Van Gogh, Munch, Goya, Gaugin, Rothko, Michelangelo … we know the profile all too well. The problem is that the image of the lyrical but maudlin genius slips into the cliché of the creator who is brilliant but eccentric and all-too-often neglected. The artist/prophet, whether unrecognised or notorious, becomes the madman or madwoman shouting unpalatable truths from the margins.
The risk is that such established tropes might soften the impact of an exhibition such as Janet Solomon’s Green Screen (Origins Centre, Wits University, to January 31). This would be a pity, as Solomon has a clear and polemical aim: to bring home to us how much human beings have become “estranged” from “the natural realm”. Moreover, foreseeing “ecological collapse”, she reminds us “we can no longer consider nature as a constant” or providing “safety”.
Green Screen consists of paintings and photographs. The paintings provide glimpses of human and animal figures in precarious situations. While they are described as “postapocalyptic”, the palette employed is not merely dark and sombre. Lucid blues and lambent greens testify to a fecund Earth, and even those works that hint at barren topography still have variegated combinations of cream, beige, yellow and red.
The titles given to these works, however, tend to remove such ambiguity. Some of them are overdetermined and melodramatic: a dead frog is an “Indicator” (presumably of environmental meltdown), a young child is caught in the explosion of “The Widening Gyre” (alluding to WB Yeats’ ominous poem, “The Second Coming”). The paintings are, nonetheless, subtly haunting; they captivate with their visual and textural richness.
The photographs invoke a more immediate, visceral response — shock, a sense of incongruity, macabre fascination — to Solomon’s novel framing of natural history museum exhibits. From the diorama and the slightly spooky domain of taxidermists to the gruesome preservation of human or animal foetuses in glass jars, Solomon shows us “a culture of manipulated appearances” that is analogous to the “green screen” technology of film-making.
By removing the actor from a concrete context and replacing this with a virtual one, the green screen “deterritorialises, delocalises and deracinates”. Museum displays can do the same thing, emphasising the separation of the viewer and the viewed object, and reinscribing the notion that “nature” is distinct from “the human”