02 August 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

An untamed wilderness

Visiting the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (especially considering the gorgeous early spring weather in Cape Town) is always worth-while. And if you’re interested in Art, Kirstenbosch is hosting and exhibition, titled ‘Untamed’, which opened in July 2010 and will run for a year and a half, until the end of summer 2012.

The central question of the exhibition is what happens to us when we disconnect from the natural world and its sounds, smells, sights and textures?

It’s a subject that I am fascinated by - but in the context of a developing world - not one that is easy to interrogate.

The opening lines of a poem by Ian McCullum are central to the exhibition: “Sculpted from ancient rocks and stream / there’s a dream in me … untamed. / Unnamed, it comes alive in my silence / and in the unframed manner of my waiting. / Awake, aware … it is there, coiled / in the folding of my arms, in the holding / of my breath and in the deep / wakefulness of my sleep.”

Powerful ideas and, ideas that I intuitively relate to. I understand the restorative potential wilderness areas and, the perspective it never fails to provide on who and what I am.

The exhibition space itself is centred around the Enrico Daffonchio-designed temporary pavilion, a curvilinear space that houses seven sculptures by Dylan Lewis, with the poetry of Ian McCallum engraved on the walls.

But as much as I support the ideas about humans and the wilderness that underpin the exhibition, I have seen many naïve, reductionist projects that romanticise the relationship between humans and nature. The question for me is whether ‘Untamed’ does the same?

There are times when I think that the overtly masculine forms created by Lewis and the elite ideals of McCullum and Daffonchio come close to the discourse of the Romantics. There are uncomfortable echoes of the constructed relationship between man (specifically) and nature that have been used to great effect by repressive regimes, not least in South Africa during aparthied.

Are there also echoes of Nietzshe’s understanding of nature as an ordering principle? And Heidegger’s interpretation that Modernity is nothing more than the sustained and growing ignorance of Being? Perhaps.

But as much as I respond to the power of the sculpture, McCullum’s searing words and the labyrinth-like space they inhabit, I cannot ignore the stubborn, manicured reminders around me that speak of the position of priviledge that informs this view of wilderness as sacred, to the exclusion of much else. This view, perpetuated in popular conservation discourse, is as exclusive and alienating as it is compelling.

And therein lies the power of the project for me. There is no doubt in my mind as to the skill of the artists, manifest in their work but, more than this, they open up a space to interrogate the ways in which we think, talk and make decisions about wilderness areas. The exhibition reveals some of the implicit power relations at work in this discourse in the way that only art can.

I do believe we need to conserve and enhance the earth’s resource base, protect the atmosphere and reorient the development of technology to make a world at risk less risky for us to live in. But I also believe that we need to start talking about it new ways, precisely because it is so easy to forget, that to some degree, the function of wilderness is to provide a temporary antidote to modern civilization - with wilderness as an integral part of modern standard of living, predicated on a person’s primary needs - for work, food, shelter and clothing - being taken care of. How does that position wilderness in a developing country? And in relation to ourselves as ethical beings?

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