SUPER / NATURAL
The text below is a condensed version of ‘A Strange Gaze: SUPER/NATURAL Unveiled’, a catalogue essay written by Miranthe Staden Garbett for Barbara Wildenboer’s (un)lucky 13ᵗʰ solo exhibition that was hosted by Everard Read in Cape Town in November 2020.
It is a game, an enigma for those who want to know. It is not to be understood and known—Mirra Alfassa
Meet SUPER/NATURAL. Born on 12 November 2020 at 6pm, in Cape Town, South Africa, under a sky of momentous planetary convergences. This moment of birth makes SUPER/NATURAL a Scorpio with a Libra moon. Her nature is otherworldly; her slightly spooky, bristling energy is magnetic. Wild at heart, but not crude, she could easily seduce you. She’ll transfix your gaze with her beauty. In the end, this miraculous entity intends to transform you. But not before she challenges you. You will be tested with an uncomfortable choice, intrigued by games, puzzled with maps, perplexed with contradictions. Her intricate complexities have been dissected and reconfigured with precision, according to the artist’s inner vision. Her delicate frame can barely contain the perfect storm that is at her core. Her pristine and polished veneer belies the chaos from which she emerges now, suspended in time, before the gaze of perfect strangers. I know all of this because I am not an impartial bystander at this birth.
I am the wordsmith; the scribe recruited to witness, interpret and record the story of SUPER/NATURAL for posterity. I was in the background when the artist was in the throes of assembling her many bits and quarks, as she was forged Frankenstein-like from discarded parts into Art. I noted the twists and turns of their mutual evolution; an elegant whirlwind, but a whirlwind nonetheless. I saw how the artist both surrendered to, and drove the process, via a laser-beam stream of consciousness. I heard tell of the veritable army of collaborators on board; the many midwives assisting to bring the artist’s vision into being.
A force of nature, Wildenboer draws many into her spiral of creativity. She fits the description of a new breed of movers and shakers, called ‘glue people’, whose systemic view and natural empathy pulls synergistic teams together and challenges all involved by stretching their boundaries. In the build-up to this, her 13th solo exhibition, I gleaned a behind-the-scenes cast and crew of Little Prince-like characters and scenarios: a grieving daughter—the artist herself—alchemist/horologist/time-traveller/mapmaker, all rolled into one; a good father—whose blessings the daughter seeks, a man of scientific bent and the artist’s erstwhile biggest fan; then there’s the elusive Vedic astrologer appointed to confer a disarming charm and dignity upon the ceremony; the silversmith friend who turned a solid silver ring into numinous string, hardware into software; a threshold from one world to another, some stairways to heaven and up/down spiralling snakes…ascensions, descensions, and counter-revolutions; a daydreaming astronomer, conspicuously absent but for projections; constellations; clouds with silver linings; apparitions; a glimpse of hidden twins; some deadly sins; the wood of a kiaat tree; and a rather mysterious orchid, in lieu of the Little Prince’s Rose.
On this quest, the artist took her usual hands-on approach, slashing through centuries of literature, shredding through stacks of printed media and ephemera, coaxing out compositions, layers of correspondences and threads of meaning. SUPER/NATURAL is the artist’s exploration of the contentious territory between what is seen and not seen, known and unknown. Both involve levels of nature. The supernatural also operates on ‘natural’ laws—it’s just that they are obscure and hidden from our normal gaze. It is in this invisible plasma, this liminal space, between solid rock and the hard place of fixed mathematical laws, that the supernatural bobs and weaves, nimbly evading detection, like a ninja shadow.
Because she is often not what she appears to be, this text serves as a guide to reveal and suggest SUPER/NATURAL’s more obscure aspects to a stranger’s gaze. To be sure, supernatural has always been strange. An old French word with Latin roots, strange means ‘coming from the outside’ and implies something that is from elsewhere, foreign, unfamiliar, estranged, separated, not properly belonging, ‘Other’. Synonyms include curious, bizarre, weird and, funnily enough, the name Barbara. The artist’s own name means strange and otherworldly. Weird, isn’t it? In the same vein, the new science of quantum reality looks weird from where we stand. And while our scientific understanding of the supernatural is still evolving, in her current incarnation, SUPER/NATURAL is quantum. A walking talking contradiction. As quantum particles have the uncanny ability to appear in two places at once and influence each other half a universe apart, SUPER/NATURAL defies linear logic and proposes instead that we ponder on a paradox. With the flick of that forward slash, a gauntlet is thrown before us.
The forward slash is a recurring ‘motif ’ in Wildenboer’s world. She uses this double-edged (s)word play to cleave two wor(l)ds together and apart: the ‘natural’ one, which presents itself ostensibly to our biological senses, and the ‘super’ world above it, which does not. The name SUPER/NATURAL is an ‘altered’ word that toggles with these entities, in a tango that takes two; showing us that a fight can be a celebration. Known/Noum. Karma/Kama. Two sides of the same coin. The question is: to flip or to conjoin? The forward slash fortunately provides options to play with, and can either signal a connection or a conflict between two things. Here it indicates both. And as a slash punctuates, binds and strikes the world of words, so does a cleaving device splice/slice worlds, through the very fabric of matter. Once again, this glue person’s medium is her message. Her other weapon of choice—a knife, a blade, scissors, keys, a slash, a stroke of luck. Like the slash, the verb to cleave has two very different meanings. Splitting something apart with a sharp instrument or the opposite—clinging, adhering firmly, sticking to something like glue. Etymologically, a cleave originally referred to an instrument for opening locks. From old spear, the words ‘keie’ and ‘ki’ refer to a tool to cleave or split with. A cleft is also a dent. A scar. A hollow. A gap. So, as you take that step across the threshold dividing the ordinary world from SUPER/NATURAL, mind the gap.
I see SUPER/NATURAL as a precisely timed dance, a tango with chance, tightly calibrated chaos. Objects, imbued with scientific and sentimental import, are singled out for our consideration and the artist’s special attention. We leave familiar linear time and space behind as we depart from the first threshold, marked by seven Quanta clocks. These circular hand-cut maps have clock mechanisms that spin clockwise and anticlockwise simultaneously. The twist mimics how quanta dance. Likewise, the maps, reconfigured according to the alchemist’s secret recipe, no longer match up with any known territory. Their scrambled co-ordinates dismantle our bearings. In their altered states, they are now maps of nowhere familiar. Instead, like Alice’s rabbit hole, or Dorothy’s tornado, they present a portal to a stranger realm.
In myth and story, as explained by Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, at the threshold between worlds, appointed guardians and monsters will try to stop you from starting your quest into the unknown. Scare tactics and intimidations are arranged to test the initiate’s courage and readiness for the journey beyond their comfort zone. Once you have passed through the Quanta portal, you will be faced with another doorway. This one has a conspicuously looming ladder propped up against it, and is mischievously titled Touch Wood. The ladder is easy enough to walk under. However, to pass through you’ll need to conquer or ignore/suppress/deny/dismiss any niggling superstitions. At this point, you may —or may not —experience some cognitive dissonance.
This ‘booby trapped’ entrance is a nod to Dada, referenced throughout by the artist’s choice of material (found objects) and method (chance/intuition). It also invokes a prankster-style Fluxus intervention, designed to create an awkward or unpredictable experience, making you, the viewer, more aware that at this point you are exiting the ordinary world. The silver cord was once a ring. Now you’ll find it strung from rung to rung, along the centre of the ladder. This sliver of moonlight might pull your eyes up the ladder as you hasten past it. Or you may choose to linger longer under it. Those with serious reservations can avoid it altogether, though this will mean having to make a detour to use a back entrance. Either way, a choice must be made. SUPER/NATURAL is here to remind us that each choice determines a different destiny.
This imposing ladder reminds us that our choices are usually underpinned by a belief system. At this second threshold, we are invited to ponder the quirks of our own belief systems in relation to the ‘quarkiness’ of the SUPER/NATURAL experience. She playfully demonstrates a variety of ways in which humans have felt compelled to understand, interpret, measure, control, capture, depict, fix and plunder her mysterious domains. Wildenboer has curated some choice examples of the tools humans have used to do this handiwork. We find numerous assisted ready-mades gathered here, found objects that the artist has altered. Familiar maps, books, texts, scientific devices, contraptions and occult apparatus have been appropriated, recycled, refurbished and repurposed according to the artist’s vision.
Once you have passed under the ladder you will be faced with divergent paths. Whichever direction you are pulled in, try not to end up back at square one. Will you veer to the left first? Where the secrets of Psyche nestle and the hanging gardens of Babel beckon us to play games of chance and solve visual riddles. Or will the safety of objects, of cold hard facts and instruments pull you toward the right? The artist’s trademark altered books function as narrative clues or subtitles accompanying the other works, referring to subject matter ranging from the history of X-rays, camera obscura, astronomy, physics and the science of life. Follow the clues.
To the right you’ll find evidence of the intrepid scientist and bold pioneer. New modes of seeing exploded around the turn of the 19th century. The mirror visions of the camera obscura soon grabbed hold of the collective imagination. Wildenboer marks this moment out in time with a book entitled camera obscura that she turned into one. That moment when images were first alchemised in a dark box, when apparitions set the stage for a second world, a second life; the mass hallucination that is the sea us goldfish now swim in. What started with the photograph has evolved into the internet of things, an omnipresent hyper-reality, where simulated entities and CGI avatars, like Lil Miquela and her crew of hyper-animated influencers, pout and frolic, increasingly indistinguishable from real humans.
The camera was not the only new kid on the block. Many more tools and devices, clocks, machines and lenses were invented by scientists—those wacky Victorian gentlemen with their imperial ambitions—who popularised practical tools that would exponentially extend the limits of our human vision. On display are a telescope and an altered book about X-ray photography. Square-shaped books implode into the Radiolarian-like forms typical of 19th century illustrations, exemplified by Ernst Haeckel, the evolutionary scientist/artist whose microscopic visions sparked the Art Nouveau style. Their swirls are mirrored to the left where the Kirlian whirlwinds of Moksha Patam and Psyche flutter and unfurl.
The story of Phantasmagoria is best told by the artist in her own words. “My father was a man of science. A year and a half ago, I arrived home to find that a small white orchid in a pot had been delivered to my front door. It had a card that read ‘Sorry for your loss’. Nothing else. I asked around in my block of flats if anyone could possibly be the rightful recipient of the plant. It didn’t seem to be meant for anyone so I decided to keep it until someone claimed it. A week later my father had an unexpected stroke and a few days after that he passed away. It was as if the orchid had managed to find its way to me through some weird glitch in the timeline. A few months passed and I came across an old copy of Hildebrand’s Camera Obscura at a local market. This was a later copy, but the first edition was printed in 1839 (the same year Louis Daguerre revealed the secrets of making the daguerreotype to the world). I decided to convert the book into a pinhole camera and attempt to photograph the mysteriously gifted orchid in line with 19th century spirit photography” (Wildenboer, 2020).
The outcome of this process is two complementary pieces, Phantasmagoria and Camera Obscura, a conversation between ghosts. While this piece is more personal, it is typical of Wildenboer’s endeavour to make a bridge with art. This one to reach across the chasm that separates ancestors from descendants, past from present.
Wildenboer, renowned as a collage artist, would be easy to cast as the one who cuts. But she does something else that is entirely surprising. Out of her severing, shredding and splitting, this artful butcher literally spins the very ‘thread’ with which she will recreate another world. Out of the so-called junk and miscellany, she mystically and masterfully transmutes base material into a cornucopia of art, upcycling one man’s waste into another’s gold. She leaves traces of the original source by keeping the titles on the books and in each artwork’s name. But the rest she destroys, dismantles, unravels and rethreads, spinning, sticking and coiling entire new worlds into being, out of the tatters of the old. Her revived libraries mark out a space where different ideologies and paradigms float around in peaceful symbiosis, a place where our shared wonder can triumph over the divisions and diversions of belligerent belief.
Thus, she succeeds in miraculously fusing the entire process into her art practice, a self-sufficient, self-contained system of creation. In an act of biomimicry, she mirrors the benevolent natural systems around us, in which rot turns to sprout and the oxygen we breathe is nothing other than the excrement of trees. As such, she becomes a conduit for synchronistic unfoldings. In creating SUPER/NATURAL, the artist is also recreating and reconfiguring herself, while broadly exploring themes of ideology, belief, superstition, predestination, intuition and ancestry. We are invited to gaze at this strangeness and consider the ways in which our own beliefs determine what is possible to know and experience.