Genesis of the Project
By Adré Marshall
The idea for this imaginative and innovative project was sparked by Bettie CL’s desire to
recreate, in a different space, an opportunity for that free exchange of responses generated by
“pictures at an exhibition” where viewers discuss with others what they see and feel. Under
lockdown, this interaction was impossible, so Bettie invited responses to her pictures to be
submitted online in verbal or pictorial form. These range from immediate “gut feel” reactions
expressed in a few words or sentences, to more carefully crafted poems or essays, or even an
artist’s own pictures, drawings, or creations in a different medium, such as fabric. All these
contribute to the rich tapestry of the work.
The theme The Gift of Walls – Utopia/Dystopia, encapsulates the paradox of life under
lockdown: we are kept safe by protective walls sheltering us (if we are fortunate to live in a
comfortable house or apartment} but simultaneously we are restricted in our everyday activities
in a way many find unreasonably oppressive. On the other hand, being physically restricted can,
ironically, stimulate unbridled creative activity – as we see here.
The evocative pictures in this virtual exhibition feature a great variety of images, shapes,
textures, drawn from both the natural world and world we have constructed. As many of the
pictures demonstrate, the paradox of Utopia/Dystopia is reflected in the natural world. A
destructive fire rages over the mountain, burning trees and other vegetation, but a refreshing
mist swirls over the scene and can resuscitate new life. We see shapes revealed in stone,
scorched skeletons of twisted trees emerging from the mist, dilapidated buildings with roots of
trees growing in the cracks, like probing fingers. Some of the images have evoked multiple
interpretations: images such as the dancer against a white wall; the skull-like stone reminding
us perhaps of the earliest inhabitants of the mountain; the play of light and shadows on various
surfaces; enigmatic faces embedded in a harsh desert environment or superimposed on a tar
road. Responses range from mystification, despondency, and hope, to joy in the sheer aesthetic
appeal of an image.
The sections are entitled “Rooms” rather than chapters, reinforcing the image of the gallery
where exhibitions traditionally are held. And the recurring image of the snake reinforces the
theme of Utopia-Dystopia – the snake, a dual expression of good and evil, beauty and
destruction, often associated with expulsion from Eden, can also represent the creative life force,
healing and transformation.
A few of these pictures were first displayed at the Eclectica gallery. In revisiting these pictures
today, in a time of lockdown and restricted freedom, I find my response differs from that of my
first viewing. The ambience of the time inevitably influences the meaning one finds in a specific
work. Each viewer’s response is conditioned not only by a particular emotional and
psychological make-up but also by the wider context of the society and historical moment in
which we view the work.
These pictures lend themselves to a myriad different interpretations, and exploring them is a
singularly enriching experience. We recall the claim that “Un livre est une machine à penser”
which, loosely translated, means a book (or more generally a work of art), is “a machine to make
you think”; to paraphrase freely, it can be seen as a creative device that inter alia stimulates
imagination, feeling and thought.
Review of book by Art Critic: Mary Corrigall
Observing the dualities of our time
The paradoxical conditions – dystopia and utopia – Bettie Coetzee Lambrecht evokes through the title of this exhibition and the two series of photographs of the natural world have come into sharp focus during the Covid-19 pandemic. For those with the financial means – isolation and social distancing have allowed them to languish safely indoors, in our homes – our places of security. In this way we have been hibernating in the little utopias we have cultivated over time, ballasts against the world outside and the threats it presents. However, the reality of an unseen virus that lies dormant and sometimes inactive in a large percentage of its carriers and victims, is inescapable with daily statistics being issued and news about direct and indirect victims feeding social media and other online platforms at an incessant pace, drawing us into the dystopian worlds that exist beyond the comfort of our homes. It is almost as if we are hibernating in cocoon positioned over a dangerous precipice.
Lambrecht’s photographs are not intended to address or illustrate this paradoxical existence, however, they somehow plug into or are a manifestation of psychosocial situation that has perhaps only now come more sharply into focus. It is a state of affairs that can be traced to the rise of social media and the pending failure or collapse of democracy and capitalism – the utopian ideals that have guided our worlds – and their impact on the natural environment.
These sombre, moody compositions heightened through and made tangible via a monochromatic and highly textural palette situates these natural settings on the fine edge between beauty and danger. This brings to mind this liminal sphere between the illusion of utopia, forever beyond our grasp, and the disillusionment that the failure to achieve this state ushers in. Holding onto one therefore intrinsically evokes its opposite.
Since the industrial revolution and the expansion of urbanization the natural world has been cast as a respite from the social and political constructs that have come to shape civisilation and ‘progress’, promising a sort of prelapsarian return to the bosom of mother nature. As such the natural world has operated as a binary to our urban existence. In Lambrecht’s tenebrous shots of the Cape Town’s natural landscape, which, incidentally is not only in close proximity to the city, but even overshadows it, the natural world isn’t presented as a serene and detached counterpoint to civilization but presents as its inescapable shadow, its twin. Some of the textural qualities and grey tones even evoke buildings, concrete. In this way the natural world presents a mirror to the manmade one and vice-versa. In choosing to photograph a landscape after a brutal fire after it has wrought a destructive path through the vegetation, she is able to capture a quality, sensation, psychic space that implodes not only the natural/urban binary, but the associations connected to it, the other binary coupling; utopia/dystopia. This is achieved by evincing the way in which nature can implode on itself (particularly if humans are involved) yet in the aftermath, renewal always seems possible.
This idea is timeously evoked, given we find ourselves held prison by a virus borne from an abuse of animals, the natural world. We also are in a place where the social, political and economic structures that are responsible for the destruction of it, threatening the extinction of animals and other natural resources and cycles, are imploding or at the very least forced to change. As such while we stand at the precipice of utter disaster, we are similarly able to foresee positive change. We have to hold onto dual realities simultaneously. In these photographs Lambrecht unwittingly provides us a visual language to allow us to conceive of the duality.
24 July 2020