Colonising the night sky

2015-01-05 14:18

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Beyond the random hipster shapes that it presents to the world, basic pedestrian geometry that seems to announce some sort of land claim, or perhaps a signal to some imagined illuminati alien ship, the SunStar itself is so bereft of meaning, I had to look at it a little deeper.

Inquiry 1: Location

The SunStar is positioned on Signal Hill. Its PR website makes great stock of the fact that this is in full view of Table Mountain; a World Heritage Site. It does not make much of the fact that it is in a national reserve and sits on protected indigenous renosterveld.

But the artist, Christopher Swift, was diligent in obtaining permission from the City of Cape Town, SANParks, the department of public works and Robben Island. In his proposal document, Swift and architect Bridget O’Donoghue acknowledge that the SunStar will sit on renosterveld.

According to Carlo Petersen in the Cape Times, SANParks has said that patch of renosterveld is actually not protected because it is public works land, rented by the city.

Possible meanings: Swift is drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of definitions and borders, and indeed documentation. And raises the questions: What does protected mean? Who can say where indigenous becomes alien? Why is a public art policy even necessary?

Inquiry 2, part 1: Fencing

The SunStar is clad in fencing rescued from Robben Island. On the Robben Island Art Company Trust website, we are told: “A significant element of Swift’s exhibition was his use of the Robben Island fencing, which had for so many years held Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale, Jacob Zuma, Walter Sisulu and many others captive.”

Further to this, the trust offers for sale, in a Tretchikovian business move, jewellery crafted from the fence by Charmaine Taylor. Swift is her partner in the trust.

A significant part of the meaning of the fence is that it was the actual structure that held Mandela et al captive.

I asked Swift what documentary proof he had that the fence was there in 1982 – the year Mandela left the island. He had none. I suggested to him, by email, that the burden of proof was on him to substantiate his claims of authenticity. His answer: “Is it, Roger?”

After making inquiries with Robben Island staff, it became clear that there was no hard evidence of the date of installation.

The fence itself is double galvanised and epoxy coated. This means it could have been installed up to 50 years ago. And as Swift says: “I have every reason to believe it was and neither has anyone refuted this.”

But during my back and forth with Robben Island staffers, this interesting item popped up from Karen Lloyd: “The most recent fence that was replaced was the netball and tennis court fence in the village. It could have been in 2009.”

That was the year Swift appropriated the fence. But this isn’t proof that the fence is the actual fence from the tennis courts.

Nor is the picture of the skip loaded with fencing on the trust’s website – with the prison fencing clearly still erected in the background, nor is the calculation made for me by an architect that goes some way to showing that 2?000m2 of fencing is just enough to surround two tennis courts and two netball courts, but not an entire prison complex.

It is possible that Swift is calling into question the nature of artistic statements. Both his Spier and Michaelis prize-winning works, as well as the SunStar, operate on the meaning of the fence being that which held Mandela et al captive, but what if the fence was there just to stop the guards’ tennis balls from getting lost in the scrub?

Inquiry 2, part 2: Heritage

Senior researcher at the Robben Island Museum, Nolubabalo Tongo, told me: “Everything found on the island as from 1997 when the museum was opened to the public has cultural significance – including the fence in question. Every object, building, fauna or flora contributes to the outstanding universal value.”

Possible meaning: Swift is examining the random notion of heritage, and how the attaching of meaning to random objects can result in objects worthy of plunder. Should his fencing run out, Swift can turn to bronzing dassies.

Inquiry 3: Sacred geometry

The Robben Island Trust’s site says: “The symbol draws from the rich history that forms the contextual layering of Signal Hill.”

Possible meaning: Swift is an excellent bullshit artist.

Inquiry 4: Return to meaning

The solar-powered light bulbs on the SunStar, which have a 50-year lifespan, will be donated through a nongovernmental organisation to households in Khayelitsha. The SunStar, to my knowledge, is not visible from there, except perhaps as a tiny, tiny dot.

From the trust’s website: “By incredible serendipity, the LEDs needed to create this work of art were ordered from Lemnis Africa, who have a range titled Pharox™.”

Conflation: The free stuff Swift got for his public art project will be given, second-hand, to citizens who cannot afford to travel to see it.

Possible meaning: Swift is making a grand statement about how corporate culture makes PR mileage out of negligible and patronising gestures to the poor without their permission or without representing them as anything other than a faceless group.

Swift is obviously against this kind of thing. He will be meeting every household to personally deliver and install the lights. The press will not be present.

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