In between, in contrast, in perpetuum

'in perpetuum', a visual arts installation created by the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art, Beth Diane Armstrong. (Photo: Megan Kelly/Cue Media).

Polished and gleaming steel poles blend together, grounded on the floor but reaching out into space, into infinity….

in perpetuum is an exhibition that is as vast as it is grounded. The Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for 2017, Beth Diane Armstrong, invites viewers into a sculptural display of steel structures which explore the infinite and the intimate, the transient and the still.

Some of the sculptures loom dauntingly, while smaller ones weave intricately back into themselves. Parts of a whole, or wholes in themselves, the structures come together to a form a powerful exhibition that is as intellectually dense as it is playful and open-ended. It challenges one’s experience of space.

‘In perpetuum’ means to be ongoing and never-ending. “A lot of the thematics in the show come down to the principle that everything is infinite. An object sitting in a space can continue to grow, it can exist beyond the space,” says exhibition curator, Emma van der Merwe.

“The sculptures themselves may be a fragment of a bigger part,” explains Armstrong. Thick steel poles are welded together to form the sculptures, some of which stand two to three metres high. Two of these are located outside of the 1820 Settlers’ National Monument, where they intentionally reflect, and also encompass, the greens, greys, and contours of the environment in which they are placed.

As a viewer comes closer to a sculpture, they become a part of it. Armstrong, who graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from Rhodes University in 2010, is well-known for her grand works. But the exhibition inside of the Monument also features small-scale sculptures, such as a steel bonsai-like tree and a rhizome sprawling wires that Armstrong has threaded together.

The sculptures simultaneously meld together and contrast with each other in the space. According to Armstrong, the monumental works could be seen as simple-building blocks like molecules, while the tree is small but deeply complex.

“I’m interested in the relationship between density and looseness,” says Armstrong, “[This influences] the way that I move through the world, on an [emotional, intellectual, and visual] level.”

Chaos and containment are also juxtaposed. While the tree is ordered and structured, grounded in roots that branch out, the rhizome grows infinitely in many directions. Armstrong, whose work is strongly grounded in mathematics, says that here the human need for meaning and order is contrasted with unknown infinity. The sculptures are also accompanied by a video featuring floating bokeh and line work, the dynamism of which contrasts with the grounded sculptures. The shadows of the sculptures also decorate the walls and floors, mimicking Armstrong’s dark line drawings which cover a portion of the gallery wall.

Both Armstrong and van der Merwe encourage viewers to see the exhibition when it is relatively quiet, and to change their perspectives of the sculptures often. As you move around, the sculptures form new arrangements and shadows, which contribute to the transient theme.

“The metaphor that permeates through the show is that this body of work is this artist’s means of contextualising her existence,” says van der Merwe. “But I do feel that one can experience the show as a means of contextualising one’s self. [The work] does not prescribe how you should feel, rather it gives you the opportunity to feel.”

But do not feel intimated by the dense cerebral grounding of the works. “Stop intellectualising,” says Armstrong, “Just come and feel something.”

in perpetuum can be viewed at the Monument Gallery and Outdoor Amphitheatre every day from 9am to 6pm.  

By Sam van Heerden