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A Time of Light

In creating a stamp sheet celebrating 2015 as the International Year of Light, multimedia artist Marcus Neustetter brings an extended series of works into a cohesive whole, and marks a ‘fresh ending’.

‘Johannesburg based artist, cultural activist and producer, Marcus Neustetter, reflects critically and playfully on his context through his art and collaborative projects… Mostly process driven, his production of art at the intersection of art, science and technology has led him to work in a multi-disciplinary approach from conventional drawings to permanent and temporary site specific installations, mobile and virtual interventions and socially engaged projects internationally,’ details his personal website.

‘Just by moving dust away, you’re looking back in time; and by looking at the stars you’re looking back in time. We’re always living in this moment of the past – there’s only this thin sliver of now that we’re exploring. I’m interested in that,’ says Neustetter. And so, during a residency at Nirox, the artist became fascinatedby the archaeological cave them as portals, a threshold between these two pasts: a metaphor for the ‘thin slither of now’.

Neustetter’s preoccupation with such portals is also an interest in ‘shedding light’: whether following his ‘vertical gaze’ underground or into deep space, ‘light is the thing that gives us access to these dark spaces,’ he says.

Playing with light – using glowsticks, lasers, projections or fibre optic lamps, you name it – has been a recurring thread in Neustetter’s works over the years. As such, when the South African Post Office commissioned him to create a sheet of stamps celebrating 2015 as the International Year of Light, it offered the artist an opportunity to draw several strands of work together into a cohesive whole. In addition, the National Science and Technology forum and the Department of Science and Technology funded the further creation of work with communities across the country – to ‘activate communities’ – and the net result is a collection in which people tell their own stories in light, capturing a moment in time and place. The works are all site-specific, place and context likewise shaping the ‘portal’ that we look through, the bias with which we view the world.

Experimenting with light encourages uninhibited, playful activity from Neustetter’s many collaborators: ‘I leave it open, I say to people, “the studio is the city, the tools are the glowsticks and the brooms, so do whatever you like: let’s just try and create a journey with it.”’ In the safe anonymity of darkness, people feel free to try all kinds of things. At a light sweep in Port Elizabeth, where Neustetter and his assistants swept thousands of glowsticks from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU) Bird Street campus, down the newly upgraded Donkin Reserve election queue pathway to Vuyisile Mini Square, one woman threw herself into the mass of glowsticks and rolled down the hill. Others sketched luminous images into the night, threw lights in the air and photographed them. ‘Everyone just participated, and it was fun,’ recalls Neustetter.

Fun is an important aspect of his work. ‘Even play has serious undertones… playing with certain subjects, for example, means that you’re commenting in one form or another, even if you’re not doing it consciously,’ he says. ‘It’s not just a question of escapism. I think it’s a matter of dealing with reality… One of the people that took part in this light sweep turned around and said to me afterwards, “I’ve actually never seen PE like this. It got me really thinking about the fear that I have for the darkness, the fear that I’ve got for the city at night. You’ve given me a different perspective on it.” Now, she thought about that afterwards – while she was playing, she was in heaven.’

While each of the images captures all the beauty and visceral thrill of light, it also tells a tale. In the Karoo township of Amandelboom, several youths create the unknown, yet imagined form of the almond trees – long since dead – for which the area is named. In the midst of the Vredefort Dome, site of an ancient meteor collision, students taking part in Space School SA spend their nights recreating phenomena seen through a remote telescope: they build both ‘nebula and a landing strip for the aliens, of course,’ recalls Neustetter.

Ten Sutherland youths fashion a ‘Big Bang’ by swinging long rope lights, while a woman who wants to be at the centre of the universe sits amidst galaxies created for her by children of the Karoo. A glow stick sweep through Cape Town ends in light drawings of the destroyed houses of District Six. In Plettenberg Bay, the Beacon Isle Hotel is lit with a giant fish, alluding to the story of a fisherman whose grandfather used to fish there when it was still a whaling station – ‘he told me the story of the ocean called Susie, and he gave me a fish,’ recalls Neustetter. ‘A lot of it was about the mystery of the ocean and the unknown, what’s out there, navigating by stars…’

Another image shows the overgrown woods of Hogsback transformed into a fairy tale forest of fibre optic lamps during a conference on optical fibre.

On a NMMU research farm in Kabucha, just outside Addo Elephant park, Neustetter had two students metaphorically represent their projects – one looking into the flammable qualities of different plants, the other investigating the freezing points of levels on the mountains – by drawing in the dark with fire and blue light respectively. Homage to research, and the bounty of nature in the valley, home to five biomes.

A number of the images hail from Sutherland, where for several years Neustetter has collaborated with artist Bronwyn Lace on the Sutherland Reflections project, using artistic interventions to connect the observatory with its surrounding community. ‘For example, we started to fly kites to get kids to look up, to make the connection to the observatory,’ he says.

‘A lot of money gets pumped into the observatory, yet people are living in poverty, fear and hopelessness- and this in the dark because light pollution there is an issue. Through art and science collaboration, we’ve been able to change some of those perceptions, celebrating darkness and silence as a quality. Evoking the history of the place, to talk about the inhabitants’ heritage and cultural background, and their identification with the dismissed Khoi San history, which many people there come from’.

Similarly, in Fraserburg, Neustetter, Lace and a group of youths addressed the ‘gap’ between the paleontological history associated with the area’s pre-dinosaur footprints, and the arrival of white culture featured in the local museum. ‘Coloured history is totally ignored, there’s this gap… And so some of the questions we were asking was how can you capture some of that content, how do you speak about it – because a lot of it is hidden. It’s hidden in the dances, the music they play…’ In the resulting photograph, the children have drawn a dinosaur spoor, within which they appear as blurs of light – ‘filling that next step, to a certain extent, before we get to the white history museum’, says Neustetter. ‘They decided to do Riel Dance (the dance-descendant of the old Khoi and San fireside rituals) inside this spoor. They’re wearing these light elements, so that as they’re dancing these elements are moving, and what you’re seeing there, is them.’

Neustetter has been playing with light for seven or eight years; the release of the stamp sheet and associated exhibition mark ‘fresh endings’, he says. ‘I’m bringing this process to a close… I feel it’s necessary because I’ve got a lot of parallel things running.’

One of these new journeys is the processing of the materials used to create light works, usually light toys and gadgets bought cheaply at Chinese outlets. Neustetter’s seemingly temporary light activities have permanent bi-products in the form of waste such as thousands of dead glow-sticks, broken LEDs, plastic casings and packaging materials. From this ‘trail of waste’, he is creating artworks to send back to China, thereby critiquing our ‘complex relationship with yet another colonial power in Africa’, with ourselves as the consumerist trash collectors of the world powers. The work also reflects on the artist’s confrontations with light ownership and personal empowerment in a post-apartheid South Africa.

From November Neustetter will spend two months on a fellowship with the Smithsonian in Washington, exploring the collections of the Air and Space museum and the African Art Museum. He plans to research ‘how artists and scientists, artisans, have tried to depict the imaginary, be it through the Dogon masks linking to the spirit world, or astronauts in space, dreaming about what’s beyond,’ he says.

‘But you know what’s going to happen – I’m going to see five new things and say that’s it: scrap that research, I’m going in another direction.’

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