Phet­shane chal­lenges views of life as just a game of num­bers

Business Day - - LIFE - ● Sim­pli­fied Com­plex­ity is at Lizamore & As­so­ciates, Park­wood, un­til Oc­to­ber 27.

Tito Mboweni is back in gov­ern­ment, and the mar­kets like it. The rand gained 30c against the dol­lar, but I doubt Mboweni would want a change in the ex­change rate en­graved on his tomb­stone.

Nei­ther pun­ters nor econ­o­mists seem to think much of his ad­vo­cacy for a state bank and a sovereign wealth fund. Un­der his watch the rand will no doubt fluc­tu­ate as it has done be­fore. Will he be ex­pected to shoul­der the blame?

The eas­i­est in­di­ca­tors of a cabi­net min­is­ter’s per­for­mance are quan­ti­ta­tive; the sta­tis­tics of lives saved or im­proved, jobs cre­ated and money sen­si­bly spent can be used as ei­ther an in­dict­ment or a vin­di­ca­tion.

But how do you weigh up Nhlanhla Nene’s ad­mis­sion of Gupta trans­gres­sions against the tril­lions of rand he pro­tected from nu­clear deal­ers? There are times, it seems, when we think “be­ing in the right” can be un­der­stood as good deeds — or good re­sults — out­weigh­ing bad. And there are times when we make judg­ments about pub­lic fig­ures with­out us­ing these math­e­mat­i­cal moral scales.

Dur­ing the worst of the Ja­cob Zuma years, Thabo Mbeki nos­tal­gia re­sulted in some se­lec­tive for­get­ting. This was in­evitable. It was not pos­si­ble to balance, say, GDP growth un­der Trevor Manuel as fi­nance min­is­ter with the num­ber of Aids-re­lated deaths un­der Manto Tsha­bal­ala-Msi­mang as health min­is­ter.

If one can­not describe politi­cians’ fail­ures and suc­cesses purely in nu­mer­i­cal terms, the same is true of pri­vate cit­i­zens. Each of us, we like to think, is more than a sum of parts; we can­not be ex­plained by equa­tions and for­mu­lae. Yet “num­bers pro­vide a nar­ra­tive of who we are; our age, the amount of money we have or the sib­lings in our fam­ily ... num­bers be­come a re­flec­tion of one’s iden­tity and place in so­ci­ety”.

These are the words used to in­tro­duce Zo­lile Phet­shane’s Sim­pli­fied Com­plex­ity at Lizamore & As­so­ciates in Park­wood. The ti­tle of the ex­hi­bi­tion is am­bigu­ous. Are we to un­der­stand it as ironic, a recog­ni­tion that the com­plex­ity of be­ing hu­man is ir­re­duc­ible and can’t be “sim­pli­fied” through nu­mer­i­cal anal­y­sis? Or is it af­firm­ing that, in­deed, life just makes more sense if we put it all in num­bers?

In Phet­shane’s paint­ings, the num­bers sprin­kled across the can­vas can jar with the rest of the im­age or they can seem to emerge nat­u­rally from it. Num­bers, you might say, prom­ise but fail to make ad­e­quate sense in or of the im­pres­sion­is­tic and fluid land­scapes, sub­jects and set­tings he con­veys.

Math­e­mat­ics is im­plicit to vis­ual art on a two-di­men­sional sur­face. Da Vinci, Bot­ti­celli and Michelan­gelo mas­ter­pieces demon­strate the fa­mous “golden ra­tio”, and tra­di­tional ap­proaches to com­po­si­tion em­pha­sise pro­por­tion and cal­cu­la­tion. Ab­stract modernist and post­mod­ernist works de­pend on the ge­ome­tries of shape and pat­tern.

Phet­shane’s num­bers are both more ex­plicit and less eas­ily ex­plained. He shifts from ab­strac­tion to some­thing closer to re­al­ism in his de­pic­tion of fa­mil­iar ob­jects: a colan­der, an awk­wardly hung bird­cage, a spoked wheel, a plug­point, a ta­ble. The ap­pli­ca­tion of postage stamps and small pho­to­graphs adds a mul­ti­me­dia in­tru­sion of the con­crete world.

The con­nec­tion of the num­bers to these vary­ing modes of rep­re­sen­ta­tion is un­clear at times, but per­haps this is view­ing the paint­ings too lit­er­ally. In­stead, there are other ways of iden­ti­fy­ing math­e­mat­i­cal mark­ers.

In the Life Cy­cle dip­tych dozens of butterflies dot the pic­ture as if in­di­cat­ing co­or­di­nates plot­ted along in­vis­i­ble axes. In the Ron­de­bult se­ries, par­al­lel tree trunks match the stripes of a bar­code: a re­cur­ring mo­tif in his work, and a sym­bol of data en­cap­su­lat­ing mean­ing — or of com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion. In­stead of re­duc­ing com­plex­ity, these qui­etly chal­leng­ing paint­ings ex­press com­plex per­cep­tions of a world that can­not be fully un­der­stood through num­bers.

CHRIS THUR­MAN /Sup­plied

Gripes over stripes: Bar­codes are a re­cur­ring mo­tif in Zo­lile Phet­shane's work, sig­ni­fy­ing a paint­ing as a com­mod­ity.

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