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February 2007

Exhibition: Lost light: fugitive images from deep space
Artist: Karel Nel

Standard Bank Gallery

12 April - 26 May 2007

An intriguing and absorbing exhibition, Lost Light is on at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg from 12 April - 26 May 2007.

Much of Karel Nel’s most recent work has been informed by vast, faint emanations from deep space, transient images of light, infrared, radio or x-ray that left their source millions of years ago. Telescopes capture these emanations as they approach Earth, which become forever lost to our gaze once they pass the planet.

Nel’s involvement with astronomy as subject matter for his art began after his 2002 Status of Dust exhibition in New York, when he was approached by Nick Scoville, an eminent astronomer, to join a team of thirty of the world’s top astronomers as their resident artist for the Cosmos Project. The purpose of this ambitious project is to map two square degrees of the universe.

Over the last four years Nel has spent time with the Cosmos team at the Rose Planetarium, New York; the University of Kyoto, Japan; the Max Planck Institute’s Ringberg castle, Germany, and the University of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Nel has also paid successive visits to observatories on the 13,000-foot high volcano, Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawaii, where the project’s land-based observations are made with the Subaru telescope. These observations are correlated with data received for the project by the space-based Hubble telescope. The work of the team is to make sense of, and interpret, the complex array of data in relation to what they already know about galaxy formation, large scale structures, the mapping of dark matter, halo-modeling, stellar dust and the lensing of light.

In Lost Light the primary focus is on Nel’s work resulting from his engagement with both the ideas and images generated by the Cosmos Project. His large folding screens refer to the evanescent images approaching us from deep space. These fleeting images are perceived and captured in a more permanent form, and to do so, Nel uses salt and 540 million year-old black carboniferous dust, both primordial substances.

While the Lost Light works constitute the central interest of the exhibition, Nel’s large-scale drawings from two other fascinating projects – In the Presence of Leaves and Status of Dust – are also on view. 

In his quest to know the world, Nel is intensely preoccupied with nature and the environment. In In the Presence of Leaves he pays tribute to the beauty and value of trees, many of which are today threatened because of environmental degradation. To make the works in the series, Nel travelled extensively to collect some of the largest leaves on the planet. These include the famous Coco de Mer palms from the Seychelles; Baobab fibre from Morandava in Madagascar; and the Pandanus leaves of Rabal, New Ireland and Micronesia. Once in Nel’s studio, these huge leaves – he calls them “extraordinary examples of engineering” – were used as points of departure for his investigations into nature and the ecological dilemmas of our time, as in his series, Elegies to the Forests.

Status of Dust comprises a series of works dealing with what Nel calls “the forensic nature of our time.” By this he means that we can only see so much with the naked eye, and that it is only through deeper analytical investigation that we can access more information and precise data. 

In making the works for Status of Dust, Nel collected and used a variety of site-specific materials, such as red ochres from ancient open-cast mines in South Africa; yellow and white pigment from the Transkei; sheets of baobab fibre from Madagascar; and carboniferous dust of dinosaurs and tree ferns laid down millions of years ago on Gondwanaland, the huge landmass that split into the continents that we know today.

Two works from Status of Dust are made from earth gathered from Ground Zero in New York after the catastrophic events of September 11. Nel was in fact in New York until just four days before 9/11, working as Artist in Residence at the Ampersand Foundation studio, just a few blocks away from the Twin Towers. In January 2002 he returned to the city, where he collected the earth from Ground Zero. As Nel explains, “the matter itself contains molecular memory of those events encoded in it; events which shook New York, the world and changed the ground rules of human trust and interaction for the coming century.”    

Nel is as much a collector as he is an artist. Over a number of years now, he has made expeditions across the Pacific, which has amplified his respect for, and understanding of, the people of the region and their strategies to conserve their way of life and to deal with the challenges of globalization. Nel’s collection of objects from Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons will be shown as a companion exhibition to Lost Light, and is entitled Oceanic Values: currencies of the Pacific.

An Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of the Wiwatersrand, Nel is a highly perceptive and creatively intelligent artist whose work is a rich source of information about important aspects of the world and the universe. The content of his work makes for a unique contribution to South African and global art, and he has much to offer by way of sensitizing us to our surroundings.


Karel Nel at work

Karel Nel, Shuttered Darkness, 2004. Primordial substances: 540 million year-old black carboniferous material formed on the Gondwanaland landmass before the splitting of the continent and salt crystals from the Atlantic Ocean laid onto a wooden base. 50x180 cm

Karel Nel, Red Shift, 2004. Black and red ochre, scarlet pigment and sprayed pigment on bonded fibre fabric. 64x235 cm

Dark Matter, 2004. Black ochre and sprayed pigment on bonded fibre fabric. 239x69 cm

Sector: Two Square Degrees, 2007. Charcoal, pastel, specularite and sprayed pigment on bonded fibre fabric. 193 x 193 cm. 

Standard Bank Gallery

Corner Simmonds and Frederick Street, Johannesburg
Tel: 011 631-1889
Gallery hours: Mon-Fri, 08:00-16:30; Saturday, 09:00-13:00
The gallery is closed on Sundays and public holidays.
Admission free

Issued by The Heritage Agency cc on behalf of Standard Bank Gallery

For further information please contact:

Jo-Anne Duggan
The Heritage Agency
Tel: 083 285 3600



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