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What we talk about when we talk about love

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what we talk about when we talk about love investigates the complexity of the spheres of love, desire and self-inquiry. Its title, borrowed from a Raymond Carver story, suggests that the search for love extends beyond popular culture’s notion of romantic love, reiterated in movies and songs. The selected works explore the relationship that we have with ourselves, what we like and dislike, what we desire or reject, and why.

In Carver’s story, two couples sit drinking and conversing. Soon, different opinions emerge as to what love is: according to the cardiologist, real love can only be spiritual love; his wife explains the abuses, threats and suicide of her former boyfriend as acts of love. The narrator maintains that love is never an absolute, while his wife of 18 months dwells on the ‘honeymoon feeling’ they still share. They toast to true love, but doubt lingers among the four characters, as they become drunker and, we perceive, increasingly sad. From their conversation, the carnal impulse, day-to-day caring and sentimental love all seem to be manifestations of true love, yet eventually they all pale or mutate. We leave the four in the dark, in silence so deep they can hear their hearts beating. The question expressed in the title is unanswered.

The works on exhibition – many of them made expressly for the exhibition, in media including film, photography, painting, sculpture and performance – will explore some of the layers concealed within the common perception of love, and generate their own questions.

In Francis Alÿs’ Tornado, seen in South Africa for the first time, the artist is filmed attempting to run towards the peaceful eye of the storm. This act is documented in short shots, filmed by Alÿs himself while trying to penetrate the vortices of the tornado, and long open shots filmed from a distance. This dangerous and apparently meaningless task might be seen as the paradox of coming to peace through chaos, a metaphor for the process of passing through the storms of our own projections to reach an inner calm. The Antwerp-born, Mexico City-based Alÿs was the subject of a retrospective, A Story of Deception, which was on view at venues including the Tate Modern, London, in 2010 and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2011. Central to his practice from early on has been the urban stroll, the artist’s wanderings as means to observe and make sense of the rules and standards of society.

Zina Saro-Wiwa (who previously showed her film This is My Africa in the gallery’s FOREX programme) confronts herself with the performance of mourning, bringing the very private act of crying into the public eye in a new video piece. Photographer Pieter Hugo shows portraits of close friends, a meditation on the veracity and failure of the portrait and on the nature of vanity. Anton Kannemeyer explores the idea of raw desire in erotic etchings, while Zanele Muholi engages with the notion of love as activism, using her own body to expose hate crimes against black lesbians.

Glenn Ligon’s Negro Sunshine drawings are named after an expression used by Gertrude Stein in the short novel Melanctha. Much like Stein’s writing, Ligon’s drawings are both accessible and impenetrable: their cyclical structure and obsessive repetitions are a visual litany. The drawings offer a path of reconciliation of opposites. The choice of inclusion or exclusion, of a way out or a way in, is left to the viewer.

In a new figurative sculpture, Claudette Schreuders reflects on the fantasy of love that takes shape in our minds before we actually experience it, as in a fairy tale. Meschac Gaba presents the Marriage Room from his Museum for Contemporary African Art: the installation of objects and memories from the artist’s wedding day represents the institutional and ritual dimension of love. Deborah Poynton exhibits a self-portrait, a painting of a naked figure engulfed in red velvet, suggesting the relationship of the self to an inner world. Viviane Sassen’s photographs of faceless figures depict the other as a blank canvas onto which we can project our own desires. Painted in oils on canvas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s enigmatic subjects seem to own the key to themselves; the fact that they don’t exist casts doubt on the possibility to transcend the dualities of love. Penny Siopis investigates the realm of ideals and how they can become grotesque, adopting one of the symbols of Roman piety and charity as a point of departure for new paintings. Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto shows a new sculpture that suggests the endless oscillation of connected beings between parting and encountering. Other featured artists include Dineo Seshee Bopape, Wim Botha, Igshaan Adams and Simon Gush.

The exhibition opens on Thursday 1 December, from 6 to 8pm.

Curator Federica Angelucci will give a walkabout of the exhibition in support of the Friends of the South African National Gallery on Friday 2 December. Entrance is R20 members and non-members; all are welcome.

Copyright photograph: Pieter Hugo
Yasser Booley, Cape Town, 2011
2011.