Grace of Abstraction: On Mia Thom, Chris Soal, Jennifer Morrison, and Mark Rautenbach

February 8, 2021 - Ashraf Jamal | ARTTHROB

Abstraction is a misnomer that assumes one is dealing with ideas and not things or events. It is all three – mindful, palpable, eventful. If abstraction has been divorced from the Real, this is because we’ve maintained a hoax that existence precedes essence – or vice versa, depending on one’s point of view – when in fact all of life, all art, fudges more commonly than it is parsed. The Real is an ideology, as is Abstraction. If the former now dominates – it has since Plato, who loathed artists – it is because now, most fervently, we ascribe to narrative, story, imputed-expected-received outcomes. Ours is a material age, an age of palpable Ideas, of people as representative of Ideas. It is no accident that we find ourselves avidly and blinkerdly preoccupied with indices such as race-age-gender-sexual persuasion, at the expense of all else that makes up a life. We subtract rather than abstract, shut out and shut in, the better to solidify what differentiates rather than connects us. Balkanised, separatist, we are fast abandoning the synthetic and synergetic power of abstraction.

This morning I met with Mia Thom at Circa in Cape Town to listen to a composition for harp and double bass. An ‘unlikely duet’, the work is as much about the casing which dates back to 1929 as it is about the music miked within it. Music, we’re told, is the most abstract of forms. It is form nonetheless. All art is as incorporeal as music, and as substantive. We choose not to see it that way. Listening to the composition, lasting 12-13 mins, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the exquisite modular shape of the double bass’s case, a sculpture perfectly in situ. All the forms we make are anthropomorphic extensions and mirrors of ourselves. There, in that dark wooden shape was a neck, torso, breast, a taut and constrained vessel, body. The music, says Thom, is ‘a personification of the object’.

‘Modified as functional speakers’ – their openings agape – it was as though the two cases were speaking each to each. The sounds emitted – abrupt, peripatetic, soulfully elongated – formed a tenuous yet tender conversation which, for Thom, ‘expressed the complexity of a relationship between two people’. As the title of the sound installation – Attune – attests, it is about ‘attunement’, with the added plaintive call for atonement. The score is by Mikaila Alyssa Smith, the harpist Jana van der Walt, the bassist Mariechen Meyer.  Their synergetic inspiration, Mia Thom.


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