Installation views: Formats for Transition. RESERVOIR Projects. Photographer: Matt Slater
RESERVOIR presents Formats for Transition, a solo exhibition of new works by Pierre Vermeulen and the second at the newly launched RESERVOIR Projects, 68 Bree Street, Cape Town. The exhibition opened Friday, 17 March 2023, and runs until 21 April 2023.
On the back of Pierre Vermeulen’s studio door is a small mirror and a handwritten note, scribbled with pencil in block letters and fastened to the door with blue masking tape. Exiting, you see your reflection in his 8th floor studio, your face framed by duck egg shells and strange flowers - some made from human hair and others from space blankets - reading, “In die sweet van jou aangesig sal jy jou brood verdien”. Most English versions translates this Genesis passage as something close to the humble citation: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread (until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return).” Depending on your relationship to faith, Hollywood, literature or church, the line is unsettling to various degrees - an affirmation and a threat, a stoic reminder full of untranslatable nuance, summarising the enigmatic and provoking experience of the artist’s metaphysical studio philosophy. What we don’t see, when we walk through this exhibition, is the glass carafe filled with the colourless cloudy liquid that forms the basis of Vermeulen’s practice. The sweat of his brow, collected and decanted to save for later use. We become acquainted only with the traces - evidence of the artist’s body and intervention - alchemically etched into the singing surfaces of the gold-skinned squares. We don’t see the dripping mops of flower strands, the nebulous flock of golden flecks that follow your feet across the studio carpet; or the plumes of powdered pigment, energetically pummelled into the canvas surface, scattering and settling indiscriminately into clothes and hair and lungs. What we do see, without exactly knowing it, is the bed. Specifically, the size of the double bed, 200 x 180 cm, Vermeulen unwavering in its formatting. A visual representation of the uncompromising ritual of returning the body, night after night, to the same format. A placeholder for our constant transition where the shift between wakefulness and sleep takes place, where the vertical body becomes horizontal, where we dream and meditate and the collaborative practice of partnership and love plays out, or in its absence, solitude. By playfully scaling the fixed format to different dimensions, Vermeulen creates placeholders for further domestic devices of transition: 1. A towel (for washing the face or drying the body), 2. a doormat (at the entrance and the exit, for wiping the dust or stepping into the shoes), 3. a placemat (for the nourishment of food, usually in company) or 4. a napkin (at the threshold of the mouth). In his own life, the artist brings an intentional awareness to each of these actions, and just as the debris of the body on these cloth receptacles are remnants of a process, the works in this exhibition exist as artefacts of the practice. At the centre of Formats for Transition is ritualisation - the daily rituals that are not only repetitive, but productive, and ultimately, transformative. Recurring symbols become proxies for philosophical differences. Take - the circle versus the ellipse: To the artist, the circle is Apollonian, structured, sky god, representing order and logic. It epitomises the eternal return, where each life cycle repeats itself exactly and the order of events remains unchanged. The ellipse, in contrast, is Dionysian, relating to the feminine, to ecstasy, and is of the earth. However, the ellipse is still a circle, albeit a fast-moving one. In the dance between these two, Vermeulen finds productive and life-affirming transformation. The eternal return becomes plasticised, changeable by desire, and each reenactment takes on a slightly different character. The ellipse speeds up further in the introduction of the ‘pigment works’, a new series of action paintings on unprimed canvas made by repeatedly striking the surface with a pigment-filled fabric pouch. The gesture of making these paintings is fast and intense, and the decisiveness of the mark-making through space and time is evident. While the action of making is the end-goal, the works also become extensions of the artist’s energy - like the pulse of a heartbeat, or the vibration of atoms. Movement extends into the new ‘orchid sweat prints’, paintings in Vermeulen’s signature technique of using sweat to oxidise imitation gold leaf on linen with orchid sculptures woven from human hair. The orchid, implemented by Vermeulen as a symbol of desire (not as desire from lack but desire as productive) by its very nature has catalysed itself - pushed into motion to advance, or retreat - spiralling, helixing, or infinitely curving. The spiral as a favoured form of nature, simultaneously expanding and contracting, appearing across the ages in ancient cultures. Linguistically, the spiral invokes the Latin spirare - to blow, to emanate, exhale, and figuratively, poetically - to inspire. Throughout the exhibition, an acute awareness of the unfoldings of the body and mind remain as vestiges of Vermeulen’s alchemical processes, reminding us that his work, above all, is rooted in the embodied practices of meditation.