Zoo: a group exhibition

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Zoo draws reference from Lauren Beukes’ novel, Zoo City, and brings together a group of established and emerging artists whose work relates in theme, manner or medium, to the amorphous and entwined literal and metaphoric understanding of the English word “Zoo”. The show has been curated with much care and consideration by Ann-Marie Tully and Neil Nieuwoudt, resulting in nuanced and interesting dialogue, thematic intonations and narrative threads.

zoo [zuː] n pl zoos

A park-like area where live animals are kept in cages and enclosures, studied, bred, and exhibited to the public. Formal term zoological garden [shortened from zoological gardens (originally applied to those in London)].

A place, activity, or group marked by chaos, strange, or unrestrained behaviour.

The statement accompanying the exhibition lays out the curatorial contextual reference:

This group exhibition extends on the dualism of the word “zoo”, drawing together artworks that respond to urban and wild animals; the “human zoo” of identity, activity and discourse; human interactions with nature and animals; spaces and sites of control, coercion and contravention; urbanity and nature binaries; human and animal dialectics and amalgams; technology/reason and instinct juxtapositions; the historical context of the zoo as a colonial invention and “benign” theme park that instrumentalises the imperial project of control, and display is also of interest.

This is evident in the inverted anthropomorphism in Bevan de Wet’s work, where transferred identities blur and muddle species divides and become a kind of metaphor for larger enquiry. Andrea Rolfes’ paintings explore the mythological resonance of the animal archetype beneath the human surface, whilst animal instinct is personified in the form of hybrid creatures in Rosemarie Marriott’s taxidermy figures, which erode Victorian notions of classification and order, posing the question of whether these really exist at all.

Georgina Gratirix’s painting explores the idea of a ambiguous second skin personified in the thick texture of the canvas’ surface. The layers of paint representing layers of identity – either trying to emerge from the thick primordial goo, or sinking and being smothered into oblivion. Also concerned with the nature of the surface are jessica Webster’s body prints, where the surface of the skin and the surface of the artwork merge. In a different but related permutation of surface, are the delicate lace tapestries of insects on inflated rubber orbs. The smooth texture of the rubber is reminiscent of an insects’ shell, yet this is an illusion, the soft aerated orb is no exoskeleton and offers no protection.

Each work in the exhibition is distinct, yet through the considered curation, an overarching sense of humour emerges; a playfulness, either inherent or subliminal, in almost all of the works. This ranges across choice of media, to subject and tone. Gordon Froud’s cheap plastic swan sculpture literally turns the banal into a crystalline helix; Ed Young’s allusion to an invisible giraffe pokes fun at his own over the top taxidermy installation; Wayne Barker’s stuffed toy references the absurdity inherent in being trapped in a glass box.

This menagerie of artworks invites you to look, peer, stare, gawk, and in the so doing, reflect on the implication of your gaze.

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Zoo is on at the NIROXprojects space at Arts on Main in Johannesburg until the 15 January 2014.

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