In an unnamed location in the Tanqua Karoo, the soaring temperatures of the day dropping as the earth turns its face further from the sun, a glowing fish swims across a mountain. Totally incongruous in the middle of the desert, the fish, like a whirling figment of the imagination, seems to occupy a fantastical zone between the small river running below the rocky outcrop, and the brilliant sea of stars overhead, as if the two had mingled to produce this shimmering image. As it turns out, however, it is simply a piece of video footage, filmed previously and brought along for the journey, projected at an impressive scale onto the face of the cliff, an experimental intervention carried out by Mischa Fritsch on one of his many journeys into the vast and unpopulated landscape.
In the late 1960s, similar interventions began happening in landscapes of the United States and Europe – Walter de Maria was drawing kilometres-long white chalk lines in a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert; Giuseppe Penone was winding young saplings together in Northern Italy, expecting them to bear the mark of his intervention by continuing to grow entwined; Robert Smithson was building a 460m-long mud and rock jetty off the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah; and Richard Long took a ten mile walk in the countryside of England, designating the action and its documentation a work of art. These works actively dismissed the theoretical and conceptual debates surrounding studio-based artworks that had dominated the decade and marked a sea change in thinking about the scope and potentiality of contemporary art that has continued into the twenty-first century.
Mischa Fritsch’s fish intervention is one of a number of artworks that are set, as it were, in the Tanqua Karoo – one of the most arid regions of South Africa, bordering on the Northern and Western Cape provinces. The works are purely performative, incorporating sculptural objects created in Fritsch’s studio and transported into the wilderness. In this exhibition, the projection of the fish exists alongside two other videos that form the central pieces of the show. In one, a great wheel of feet (constructed out of metal rods and antique wooden cobbler’s lasts) rolls out of a small building and down a hill. Reminiscent of children’s hoop trundling, but without the human driving force, the wheel apparently has developed a will of its own, roaming the desert landscape of its own accord. The other also features lasts, this time on wheels – a pair of disembodied feet rolling freely across the rugged sandy landscape, like two anthropomorphic insects performing a complex choreography in the sand. These works are actions and processes, executed in the wilderness rather than the gallery or studio. As such, they can be understood to a certain extent through the lens of Land art, explained by Ben Tuffnell as a movement broadly “characterised by an immediate and visceral interaction with landscape, nature and the environment…not simply sculpture placed in the landscape but encompass[ing] the landscape in which it is sited, often bringing it within the compass of the work and so rendering it an active component rather than merely a setting.” The artists working within this mode toward the end of the century produced works that, although there may remain traces of some in the landscape, were only accessible by the gallery viewer via documentation of the artwork or performance.
From one perspective, Fritsch falls within this convention in the sense that for a visitor to the gallery, the videos are the only traces of his performances and interventions, there being no mark left in the landscape itself. However, Fritsch breaks with the Land art mode by taking the videos as starting points for whole new works that exist in their own right beyond the context of the original act, rather than simply presenting the footage as pure documentation, the sole access to a dematerialised artwork. In his previous exhibition, Heritage Osmosis, Fritsch’s focus remained pinned to what he has described as ‘the mental and visual diffusion of objects or ideas with distinct history and tradition; a filtering of their essence through [his] own history and tradition, followed by a gradual re-assimilation into a different object or idea.’ In his new work, he has launched off this platform into a process that picks up from the imagined history of the object re-presented, and carries it into the future through the vehicle of travel. The fish, in this context, performs as a flickering transition between the two bodies of work, embodying the idea of the “flow” of intention through material, that which moves the material from purpose to purpose through time, and now also through space.
For each of the video pieces, Fritsch has created a unique housing and display solution, in keeping with a practice that is firmly rooted in the materiality of the objects with which he chooses to work. The miniature digital projectors through which the videos are played are each contained in a freestanding case made from timeworn pieces of material that Fritsch has sourced and collected over years. Each video is projected onto a collapsible screen reminiscent of silver screens of years gone by, also housed within its own wooden box. All new technology is hidden, creating the impression that these are pieces of re-assimilated history, and sculptures within their own right. The works are also specifically designed to be able to travel – they are collapsible and so can be treated like any other piece of luggage, carried to a destination and reassembled on site. In constructing these works in such a way, Fritsch suggests that the works exist along a timeline, that the experiences and environments to which they are exposed are carried with them into the future in much the same way as the traces of the original performances are contained within the works. The idea is reminiscent of fairy tales – children’s toys coming to life at night to live out their dreams, which are also the dreams of their owners. Or, the thought that a sculptor working in ancient granite releases breath (and, thereby, a form of history) that is millions of years old when breaking the stone. The implication of this imaginative potentiality is that, although Fritsch has literally travelled in order to make these works, the spaces to which he has travelled lie within the realm of imagination as much as they do on a map.
Here, Fritsch engages with an adjectival form of the verb “to travel”: “to travel well” or to be successful away from the place of origin. Drawing on the approaches of installation art, Fritsch has presented the works in an experiential and theatrical way. Low light, but not complete darkness, allows the videos to blend into the screens and walls, crossing over each other so that shadows of the projector cases are incorporated into the moving images. Spot lighting serves to accent the sculptural aspects of the projector casings, as well as the other artworks on exhibition that serve as metaphorical extensions of the ideas explored in the central three. The artworks themselves are traces of an original experience (documentation) and the focus-point of on-going experience. Viewers are invited through their immersion in the installation to take their own imaginative trip, into the desert landscapes of Southern Africa, the historical space of the sculptures and potentially uncharted landscapes of their own imaginations.
– Jacqueline Nurse, 2013
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