Making peace with too much ‘stuff’ – Review in the September 2017 edition of Art Africa Magazine


The word “excess” best describes our contemporary life; our consumerist information driven society. Whether you are rich or poor it seems existence and identity is defined by the products you buy, or aspire to own. The internet, digital technology, has further amplified and mirrored this condition, facilitating non-stop consumption of images, ideas and information.

What can an artist do in the face of this excess? Organise it, of course. Make it more palatable and allow it to operate as a metaphor for other states. Or at least this is Barbara Wildenboer’s take in the exhibition, The Invisible Gardener, at Circa Cape Town. She literally evokes this condition of ‘excess’, through the series titled Residue and Excess. They are collaged works consisting of chaotic cacophonies of cut-outs of all kinds of objects and crumpled torn-off pages of texts. You could spend hours studying these works, identifying the ‘pieces’ Wildenboer has drawn together as she has so densely packed the cut-outs they form part of  singular ambiguous masses.  It would be overwhelming to view them had she not consolidated the pieces into a circular arrangement contained by a circular frame. In this way too she references the cyclical nature of consumption, its endless nature but as with almost all the work on the exhibition, alludes to mother nature.

Through the lens of art, popular culture, imagery, information and ephemera, comes to resemble a natural cycle. Wildenboer presents it as a fluid and complex process, though the end product looks resolved, clean and, most importantly organised. Art is thus an organising filter of sorts.

In the Residue and Excess series objects have been drawn into cycles of life and death as they are absorbed into every facet of our existence. They mirror it, compel it, allow us to feel perhaps as if we are in control through an accumulation of stuff. Control is exerted not via a resistance to collecting but through cataloguing principles.

Wildenboer hasn’t tipped a dustbin over and presented its contents, she has carefully ‘curated’ and composed the ‘excess’ – sorted it. She has not set out therefore to expose the ‘excess’ but make sense of it, which is more or less what we all attempt to do in different ways as a means of coping with the overwhelming feeling of chaos, loss of control, it may instill.

In Invisible Gardener Wildenboer she turns the ‘excess’ into objects, rather than allowing it to be a kind of formless and pervasive condition. She does this work from an artist’s perspective in that she turns an excess of information and images into a new object that is disconnected from its origins and perhaps becomes abstracted (in the process). Information, data, becomes art. A number of artists have been embracing this approach. Most recently in this gallery, Liberty Battson comes to mind with her slick representations of algorithms and web-searches.

As the title, the Invisible Gardener, suggests, Wildenboer ‘tames’ and crafts the chaotic information-cum-consumerist media monster via her ordering aesthetic like a gardener would manicure and calm vegetation. This is the role of the artist according to Plato’s notion of the “Craftsman/Demiurge who creates an ordered universe by creating a mathematical order from the pre-existing chaos”, according to Wildenboer’s artist statement. Ordering ‘the chaos’ via a visual format naturally evolves into an aesthetic conclusion, perhaps because beauty allows for a sense of pleasure that alleviates anxiety.

This sense of heightened beauty derived from a calculated form of ordering best manifests in the Exactitude in Science series, in which Wildenboer creates these furry or leafy ‘beings’ (they are more than designs) from found paper materials, perhaps representing all sorts of information about the world. The beings these paper ‘sculptures’ represent are foreign and unfamiliar but are not strange or monstrous due to them being pleasing to eye. They are pretty and intricate – you marvel at their design. They are so perfectly formed and balanced due to appearing as two symmetric halves that have duplicated, like a geometrical fractal design. Via this kind of precision and ordering Wildenboer mimics digital formatting though she works by hand – arriving at a real thing, using paper. The doubling that reoccurs in this series and others affirms the way that information, stuff, keeps duplicating and growing, like cells in the natural world. From this perspective, information becomes an intriguing life-form, derived from principals governing the natural world.

In the face of ‘excess’, a system of ordering kicks in that is not driven by humans but the universe where all chaos is subject to this cycle of turning matter into form.

This drive to make sense of the world is a human one too, that is perhaps best traced through words – which is the basis of Wildenboer’s material in the Human Nature series where she re-enacts the visual ordering of information via books, which she turns into sculptures and images and then back into objects. She does this by cutting up a book, and imposing a Rorschach-test type motif, echoing this impulse to extract information from an image, or using an image to relay information –   as a means of making sense of a chaotic world. As such she expands this drive to order the world through cataloguing and the arrangement of information as a mode that is reversed when trying to decipher human motivation and thought patterns. In other words the image is used to detect an inner state or behaviour in ordering or perceiving the outer world rather than simply digesting and processing information by detaching it from its origins or from the ‘facts’.

It is significant that these paper sculptures (she produces hanging works but they are sculptural) evoke the female anatomy; the genitals and reproductive organs, evoking creation. In this way image-making and the system of ordering the world, the design of our bodies all coalesce into a female-driven character. The female body retains its reproductive function, however, it becomes a metaphor for all forms of creation; from knowledge to art. She collapses the boundaries between fields of science, new-age beliefs, art, and biology.

Wildenboer may be processing and engaging with ‘excess’, however, ultimately she is not preoccupied with critique. This is fortunate to some degree as this would always be at odds with making objects or selling art in a commercial space. She is good at making beautiful things. In her hands ‘excess’ becomes a different sort of stuff, offering what seems to escape us in the real world – a form of transcendence, wonder and maybe some kind of metaphysical escape that pushes us deeper into the natural world rather than keeping us at a distance from it.

Corrigall is a South African-based commentator, consultant and curator.