To Hold Time
Nina Liebenberg Opening Speech

A botanist, a pianist and an entomologist walk into a gallery.

On encountering a canvas depicting a moth, the entomologist immediately identifies it as Pontia Helice, feeling relief that the moment of its capture, by paint on canvass, appears to be one in which any source of artificial light was absent. The lighthouses situated right next to it, could have potentially caused a problem if they weren’t so submerged and subdued by mist. The moth however, appears to be happily mid-flight, the rustle of its wings almost audible, and echoed by the multitude of pages in books being turned throughout the gallery. Nevertheless, the entomologist spends a few moments pondering the ongoing mystery of why moths circle artificial lights to their own detriment. He revisits the most popular hypothesis –  that moths use celestial light sources to aid in their navigation and that, by maintaining a constant angular relationship to the moon and the stars, this enables them to fly in a straight line. Artificial lights hamper this relationship, setting up a point of reference too close which warps the moth’s sense of direction, and causes it to turn too sharply towards the light source. Again and again. Closer and closer. Until.

Whilst the entomologist is pondering the moth, the moon and the stars, the botanist has found her way around the gallery without using celestial navigation. She has noticed that there are quite a few beacons of orientation dotted throughout, which she could use: bodies leaning into the wind, flags flapping, hands pointing. For the botanist, though, the world and her orientation in it, is dictated by leaves and roots and stems and bark and many shades of green – and of that, the gallery is filled aplenty – from felled trees, windblown trees, highway trees, trees on islands, trees en route to the garbage dump, trees as letters, trees as books, trees as musical instruments…

The pianist at this particular point in time is thinking about sonatas – in particular, how its basic musical structure echoes what we term in travel as the ‘roundtrip’: home (a), away (b), and back (a’). A sonata always starts off in the home key in which it establishes its general theme, after which it departs. In the second section, the development, the theme endures a variety of musical adventures as it passes through a wide range of different keys – which is the musical expression of different locations. After undergoing all the adventures in these various locations, the theme returns to be repeated in the home key just as it started, never again to leave, yet never again to be quite the same.

A visit to a gallery showing Katherine’s work is sonata-like: we‘ve all folded a letter into an envelope, paged through a book, opened a box of eggs, hung our washing up to dry – yet, when we return home, none of these activities will somehow be the same again. Exhibitions are sonatas, especially Katherine’s.

I will leave the entomologist, the botanist and the pianist for the time being. It is far too hard to think of a punchline for this piece that was intended to start off as a joke. There is, after all, enough humour in her work, without me forcing a punchline. Take the flapping hand submerged in a downpour of cement, reminiscent of the roadrunner and Wile. E. Coyote cartoons? Or the giant granny stomping absent-mindedly and Godzilla-like across a traffic jam. And, probably my favourite, the two sheep in the field taking their cue from the musical conductor – and chewing faster!

Instead of a punchline, I want to rather journey back in time – about three-hundred years – to a period before the system for classifying the natural world was formulated. A time when expeditions to various continents and remote islands provided an endless supply of new and strange animals and plants to study. In a world devoid of a system for classifying these creatures, it was up to each individual to name and describe – a process which could easily generate forty-three different names and descriptions for the common fir tree, or seventy-eight for something we today would call a Pontia Helice moth. Chaotic and redundant in many ways, it was also an idiosyncratic process that spoke of an individual’s wonder-filled encounter with the world around him or her.

All this changed when the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist Carl Linnaeus formulated the Systema Naturae (1735), which standardised and slotted the natural world into a hierarchy of three broad groups -  animals, plants, and minerals - dividing each of these into classes, then orders, then genera, and lastly, into species. After its construction, every new discovery was subsequently fitted into a position which stipulated its general characteristics, and which determined its overall importance. During the three hundred years following the formulation of the Systema Naturae, Darwin would draw on it when writing The Origin of Species (1859), whilst key political figures would in turn, use Social Darwinism to justify colonial exploitation, political conservatism, imperialism, and racism, during the 19th and 20th centuries.

So, what’s in a name? A name captures and ties down. It says: ‘This is what you are looking at’ and confines it to ‘This is what you are seeing’. The moment we name, we stop describing. In infancy, we know no names. Every ‘thing’ in the world is first experienced before it is named – and once named, we somehow stop seeing it, lulled into a false sense of familiarity. Lucky for us though, exhibitions are sonatas (remember?). They take us on journeys away from home and the familiar, during which we realise that there are many ways of living that has never been named or tried.

In one of the cabinets situated in the gallery visited by the botanist, pianist and entomologist, there is a single sheet of paper on which Katherine has constructed three simple, yet remarkably profound words. It says: A name. Nevermind.

Practicing what she preaches, the names allocated to many of the works on the walls reinforce this. Pertaining to single images, they refer to dual possibilities, or the moment between two seemingly opposing actions, when the identity of each is called into question: Fold, Unfold; Opening, Closing; Hang On, Let Go; Within, Without; Up and Down. These names cause the images to flutter (like the wings of a Pontia Helice moth, the entomologist muses) and sway like leaves in a gentle breeze (the botanist observes), reverberating through the air like vibrato (the pianist leaning in, listening closely) – illuminating the route between fixed positions.

We all walk into galleries on a regular basis - and we do so as entomologists, botanists, pianists, doctors, mothers, lawyers, teachers, and fellow artists. If we are lucky enough to walk into one showing Katherine’s work, we’ll encounter an array of images that will evoke in us a varied array of responses, shifting our angle of orientation to the world around us. These images serve as aids to look past the artificial sources of light, those frames which we use to name and capture things and people, and which causes us to do harm to ourselves and others – and they show us that by blurring our eyes and dimming the lights, we can better train our eyes on the moon and the stars.