Fabric of reality

2008-03-01 00:00

Cape Town-based artist Paul Edmunds produces delicate, often large-scale structures that in their use of repetitive patterns replicate the construction of the natural world, using — and often re-using — synthetic materials. One of his earliest works took five years to produce, a large ball consisting of tens of thousands of strips pulled from plastic lids that he collected off the streets of Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town and wrapped around a wire core. He started collecting the plastic strip in 1994, took a two-year break in 1996, and finished in 1999.

That’s a helluva lot of process for a single object that is 35 centimetres in diameter. The work is, appropriately enough, called kernel. And it’s doubly appropriate, since it remains a conceptual kernel in Edmund’s body of work — in its use of synthetic materials to replicate an organic world, as well as echoing the patterns and labour-intensive construction of his later work.

It’s easy to see that work as the world beneath the real world. But while we tend to think of reality in political or social terms, it is precisely those things that are not inherently “real”. “My work”, says Edmunds, “is not particularly socially or politically engaged. I think I’m more interested in the stuff that happens before that. You’re a biological being before you’re a political and social being.”

Although, at the same time, the biological patterns that can be reduced from plant structures or cancer cells are also applicable to social structures and even financial systems. When I mention James Glick’s book Chaos to Paul Edmunds, he says he’s read it, but at the same time doesn’t want to profess too great an understanding of it. Yet anyone who’s read much about chaos or pattern theory will find it difficult to separate those concepts from the work on show in Edmunds’s show Aggregate, which opened at the Bank Gallery on Thursday night.

Edmunds’s body of work over the last seven years is detailed in the catalogue for the exhibition (which includes many pieces not on show). It chronicles an artistic arc that is singular in its consistency and vision. I ask him if he was always certain of his trajectory.

“When you’re younger,” he says, “you don’t have that much self awareness. You proceed where the impulse sends you. As you grow you get a clearer idea of things.”

Grown, but not fully grown — that would be dead — there is still “some blundering”. But he generally has the confidence now to know whether something is going to take a workable form, even if he’s not exactly sure of that form. But while this relationship between intention and production is something that is endemic to art production, with Edmunds’s work it sits gently, almost physically, at the conceptual centre, as very simple premises unfurl into delicate and elegant complexity.

Clearly, the more he produces these simple/complex objects, the clearer an idea he will have of the final work. But, like scientists and engineers, he has to push the intuited impulse into an executed state to see if it will work. He uses the analogy of long distance runners, whose bodies know that they can go fast, and they end up performing at a certain level. “As you create more and more things, you get a clearer idea that things will work out”.

I ask him about the African influence on his work, which exists partly in terms of the recycling of media in his earlier work, partly in the media itself — which is often similar to that used by local craftspeople — and also in the geometries of the work.

“Certainly, that was of major concern 16 years ago when I started making works like that. It’s no longer my central motivation , but it’s something that I drag along with me and can’t avoid.” While his work has a sparseness and clarity to it that might sit happily at home in North European galleries, Edmunds says that at the same time he can’t deny how much he’s always liked Zulu work, and how he has been influenced by artists who were dominant in the early nineties such as Andries Botha and Walter Oltmann.

In the catalogue for the show, Edmunds deals with notions of representation versus abstraction. “People often refer to my work as abstract. And I’m aware of that. But for me it’s often some kind of representation.” It’s easy to understand why people might see the work as abstract, since, on the surface of things, it’s not recognisable in the sense that objects are recognisable. But if Edmunds’s work is abstract, it is abstract not in its meaning (which is the essence of abstract art) but in the sense that a human skeleton is an abstraction of a human being. There is a curious paradox at the heart of Edmunds’s work, a paradox that might be entirely illusory but is also very real. Edmunds doesn’t operate on the level of grandiosity, though. His work is quiet, understated. In the catalogue for his show, Edmunds writes with clarity about his work and the production of it. But Edmunds doesn’t really need to say anything. His works speak for themselves to those who can hear them. And instead of grand narratives and analyses, they are very much about visual listening.

•Aggregate by Paul Edmunds runs at the Bank Gallery in Florida Road, Durban, until March 27.

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