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20Mar

HALF ART: Pascual Tarazona and the Cape Town fires

First appeared
Friday, 13 March 2015

 

Pascual Tarazona has undertaken a curious artistic experiment. In order to conjure an appropriate painterly response to the music of Beethoven, and to the astonishing fact that the composer was deaf when he wrote his final symphonies, Tarazona blindfolded himself – painting by sound, with Beethoven playing in his ears, rather than by sight. The result is a series of canvases that are, as the title of his exhibition at the UJ Gallery has it, Images of Sound.

A restricted palette of blacks, whites and greys produces in most of the works a “greyscale” sombreness. Paradoxically, however, these images seem to be by turns heavy and brooding, then light and ethereal. This is arguably a visual “echo” of the shifting moods of Beethoven’s late compositions.

Curators Nel Erasmus and Gordon Froud have used the gallery space to good effect; visitors progressing down its lengthy corridor will be struck by the contrast between the darker monochromatic paintings and the riot of colour that catches one’s eye on the far wall. This is the “Adagio” series, seventeen works on paper hanging as if in a staggered collage, with splashes of bold colouring including deep reds, bright yellows and vivid oranges.

The contrast is indeed so stark that it calls to mind the iconography of the fires that recently blazed across the mountain slopes of Cape Town: a flurry of dramatic night-time photographs of the flames, followed by ashen images of the aftermath. These were equally spectacular but for different reasons. A fire roaring golden against a mountain silhouette is awesome in the full sense of that word – we remain grimly, eagerly fascinated by natural forces that threaten to overwhelm us. The evidence of this destruction is compelling in its scope but also invokes the sensation of it-could-have-been-worse – aerial shots of highways through barren landscapes, some buildings razed to rubble, tracts of fynbos turned to dust.

Except, of course, as various botanists were quick to point out, the celebrated diversity of the Western Cape’s flora and fauna depends on cycles of fire and re-growth. So we face a conundrum: fires are necessary, and if there were no humans around, they would burn themselves out, animals would escape and return, and with the first winter rain would begin the process of turning charred earth to fertile abundance. But humans just happen to have built a city around the mountain. Things get complicated.

The fires have once again brought Cape Town’s human dilemma to the fore. It would be churlish not to admire the volunteerism and, to use an overworn phrase, “community spirit” demonstrated by Capetonians during the fire-fighting. There were donations aplenty, strangers helped one another, neighbours held night vigils while unsure if they would have to evacuate their houses. The firefighters themselves received accolades and a heroic status almost matching the reverence in which residents of New York City held their Fire Department in the days following 9/11.

And yet, and yet ... cautiously critical voices have started to emerge. Why, these voices ask, do we not see the same generosity when shack fires gut informal settlements, or Cape storms flood townships, leaving hundreds homeless? Was there an element of self-congratulation in the frenzy of social media updates about who was doing what and where to help? Is there an emptiness in the rhetoric praising firefighters when, it turns out, their shoddy pay is exploitative – and when many black and coloured firefighters live in conditions of poverty even as they risk their lives to protect the property of the white and the rich?

Some of Cape Town’s denizens might complain that such questions are cynical, opportunistic, insensitive or simply conform to the fashion for condemning the city’s race and class politics (which has, admittedly, become something of a national pastime). Certainly, it seems callous not to acknowledge that there have been fire-related deaths, that heritage sites have been damaged and that lives have been turned upside-down. Suffering is absolute and not relative – you don’t experience loss or grief any less because you are economically privileged. But consider this: when Pascual Tarazona pulled off his blindfold, he could see again. For most of those temporarily affected by the fires, it’s back to life as usual.

 

   

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