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Being in and of one’s time | Navigating ‘Time’s Labyrinth’ at ICTAF

By Sean O’Toole

We are hostages to time, strange times, times that encompass many possibilities and unfold in many directions. How to make time in these times when there is no time. No time to look, really look, and thereby see. No time to read, only time to flick and browse. Exhibitions close, the tiny miracles they announce frequently unseen. New books acquire the patina of old age, their words awaiting readers. Time used to march on, also gallop and run, but now it flies. Adulthood, it seems, involves reconciling oneself with the fact that there is never enough time. Of course, none of this is news. Making sense of time’s mercurial flows is the stuff of literary and philosophical ambition.

Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2023
Lunga Ntila, Ready, 2021
Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2023
Athenkosi Kwinana, Ndijonge II, 2021

Art history too is stocked with images of time. Portraying time is of less interest to me as a curator than being in and of one’s time. The ten artists selected to present work in SOLO at the 2023 Investec Cape Town Art Fair are of their time. The work of Maja Behrmann, Simphiwe Buthelezi, Hugh Byrne, Jeanne Gaigher, Athenkosi Kwinana, Gerhard Marx, Johno Mellish, Lunga Ntila, Joachim Schönfeldt and Charity Vilakazi offer ten vantages on our present time, its aspirations and worries, as well as the materials available to express it. The artists work in a diverse range of media, including painting, drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, assemblage and textile – or, more often than not, a glorious admixture of these notionally discrete media.

Charity Vilakazi, Ingoma yokutshala izimbali, 2022

When I was asked to develop a proposal for SOLO, I rummaged through my library. It is a refuge, a place of familiar names and unread strangers. Time, no time. I went to John Berger, a committed thinker and luminous art critic whose work remains a touchstone, even after his death in 2017. “The problem of time is a problem of choice,” wrote Berger in a 1979 essay on painting and time. Rather than focus on painting, my call for proposals for SOLO asked galleries and artists to think about the relationship between photography and drawing. My thinking was guided by something Berger asks in his posthumous book What Times Is It? (2019): “Isn’t drawing the polar opposite of a photo? The latter stops time, arrests it; whereas a drawing flows with it. Could we think of drawings as eddies on the surface of the stream of time?”

Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2023
Gerhard Marx, One and three spaces, 2022

An unanswered question always retains its vitality. Emboldened by Berger’s speculation, conversations were initiated, proposals haggled over and a final selection made. There is still an echo of my motivating impulse to foreground drawing and photography in many of the SOLO bodies of work. But, and this is important to register, time’s gently abrasive force changed the shape of that motivating idea. Differently put, the straight line I hoped to trace between drawing and photography forked, and forked again. My obsession with the linear arc of time’s arrow led me, inadvertently, to time’s labyrinth, a place of continually forking paths, as writer Jorge Luis Borges proposed. In its habit of repeatedly forking, writes philosopher Gilles Deleuze, time passes through many “incompossible presents”.

Johno Mellish, Static, 2021

The encounter with multitude, as happens at an art fair, can be overwhelming. Rather than propose order and continuity in the ten projects, I want to suggest something far less ambitious, albeit time consuming. Look. Do as John Berger suggested in the recent long ago, look – “at everything which overflows the outline, the contour, the category, the name of what it is”. Look.

Find out more about the 2023 Investec Cape Town Art Fair here.

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