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FOTAG Focus Articles

For a number of years the Natal Witness ran articles by FOTAG members. These articles called the FOTAG Focus discussed artworks from the collection on display.

Home > Articles > Fotag Focus > Tenements, Gavin Andersen

Tenements

mixed media

Gavin Andersen (b. 1959)

Fire and Unforgivenesss

by Shirley Gault

Tenements, Gavin AndersenMy dictionary tells me that tenement/s refer to one of several rooms in a building, each rented by one family and held by a tenant/s - the presence of people in such conditions is explicit. This collage is devoid of humans but their past may be speculated upon by the viewer. As the first full frontal encounter between me and the work happened a host of words and phrases filtered through my mind: blackout . . . war . . . forlorn . . . burned out . . .hit by a holocaust . . . imprisonment . . . slum disaster.

Corrugated cardboard provides the texture for the work to which paint is applied and appendages. A rigid grid effect comes from the corrugations. Searingly, scorchingly reminiscent to my senses of stoves and electric chairs. At age five I scalded an arm with boiling kettle water. This felt similarly to the pain on tender flesh endurable, the smell of toasted flesh to a young nose sickening . . . tears, agony and no comfort . . . where were my care takers? But no blame for here was a child with insatiable curiosity.

The interconnected panels on the collage put me in mind of the divisions in a tenement. These range in colour through smudges of white to yellow to brown to eerie, charred blackness. On a panel to the right can be discerned the burned remains of a cockroach and a plant (perhaps the cinders of a kitchen vegetable rack).

Near these is a three-dimensional coil, reduced to carbon but retaining its deathly scorched shape. Is the circle at the bottom of the work with four calcinated projections an incendiarised cooking pot, its legs splayed by the devastation? And was it here in this cauldron that the conflagration began and if so how / why? Six melted, molten, switch-looking forms suggest a cooker of sorts. It is all so dark, so dead, so finished off by ashen white stripes. And the feeling of soot, charcoal and calcine in layers. Are these remnants of the people / the tenants? At age four and a half I'd run from my tenant / mother's apartment, crept under a railway crossing gate and run towards the central electrified rail. The signalman rescued me. Who can hold a child with insatiable curiosity? Once more, no blame.

A "chimney leads one's eye out of the tenements towards the sky". The chimney is black. Was it the vessel which carried the flames and the smoke heavenwards causing the upper strata of life to turn a leaden, dull gold that has fused all that lived there into a matt gold tinfoil without glimpse of sheen or illumination? The gold is a hint of the treasure that once was this palce, these people, these objects, these plants and animals and elements.

Am I experiencing the essence of burn-out as I meet Andersen's abstract creation both consciously and unconsciously? For the very first time that I am able to recall I am aware of a sense of utterly no hope and certainly no resurrection after the pyromaniac tragedy I am ingesting.

Is there some synchronistic link in the fact that I'm writing this up on Easter Friday? Only this time there is only a dead end and no chance of syrupy forgiveness. For what can hold a child spirit that has insatiable curiosity?

Final answer: no more lifesavers (Easter Sunday) - not syrupy forgiveness that leads to repetition, not to blame. But a linking of consciousness with my unconscious with a fine draft of Mephistopheles as celebration - that keeps my insatiable curiosity as alive as yeast in the gingerbread, and as safe.


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Johansson collectionThe Tatham Art Gallery holds an Art Collection that contains significant British and French artworks dating back to the 18th century. Its South-African art collection is focused on, but not exclusive to, the art of KwaZulu-Natal.

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A selection of current and archival articles from the Tatham Art Gallery. These articles provide a historical and contemporary perspective on the Gallery and the visual arts in KwaZulu-Natal.

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