Gavin Younge

A fine parchment known as vellum, historically used for 'important writings' - charters, university diplomas and wills - assumed a provocatively skewed and curious form in two recent works by Gavin Younge - Sit Down Benny!, exhibited in Lisbon for an exhibition entitled 'Messing with Mr In-Between', and Giving the Drum Back to Europe, part of a collaboration with Billi Mandindi called Umkrweli/House for 'Art Across Oceans' in Copenhagen, cultural capital of Europe for 1996.

Younge's Lisbon exhibit comprised a pointed collection of books signalling colonial rule, like Rhodesians Never Die, and the apartheid educational system of the 1960s and '70s, like Benny and Betty and Their Friends. These were covered with vellum, stitched closed, and accompanied with a computer disk onto which the book's cover had been scanned. The disk had been removed from its outer plastic cover, however, and so rendered equally useless for the retrieval of information. In this twofold sealing, the books, along with a period in history, are 'memorialised'. Vellum is de-limed goatskin, and because of its partial opacity, the covers are not easily read. What is this display that is also a denial? Does it not say that some things are not worth salvaging except as surfaces, shapes and ciphers? History hurts, Younge suggests, and because it hurts it must be remembered in order - and only - to be forgotten.

'The framing metaphor of Sit Down Benny! is the closure of content,' says Younge. 'Short of burning them', the sealing and stitching of the books is 'an intervention, a stopping of transfer'. The closure of the books addresses 'the elision of memory of a certain period - a desire to forget'. Many of the books such as Benny and Betty and Their Friend, a Std 1 (Grade 3) English reader, exist today as remainders in stockrooms ready to be pulped. By retrieving and sealing them, Younge turns the reality of 'remaindering' into art. The books survive because they are deemed extinct. This, for Younge, is one of art's paradoxical functions: simultaneously to depict and stifle, and thus serve as a testament to buried rememberings.

The tense shifts, becomes more bracingly present, in Younge's collaboration with Billy Mandindi. For 'Art Across Oceans' in Copenhagen, Younge and Mandindi represented the port of Cape Town. Ninety-six containers were stacked into levels, connected by interlinking walk-ways. The Capetonians occupied a container on the third level, their contribution Umkrweli/House. Their objective, in Younge's words, was to set up 'a pictographic representation of two paired terms' which were not translations of each other. Umkrweli, the Xhosa term which Younge addressed, means 'scraper'.

While Mandindi annexed the space of dreams by painting four images of fantastical habitations, Younge chose, through the abrasive connotations of the word umkrweli, to deal with 'a tension in his status as a landowner'. The difference in focus and intent between the works of the two artists is instructive in its clarity. The dispossessed envisions the citadel - luxury and power incarnate. The landowner addresses a threat at the heart of power - theft and burglary. On the far wall of the container Mandindi attached his dream-like citadels. Against the sides Younge exhibited the eight car doors wrapped in vellum. The surfaces of the doors were scratched with a key, scraped with a brick, splattered with paint and, at Younge's request, shot at by a police marksman, the bullet holes forming words with interlinked meanings - khaki/colour, kaartjie/ticket, and car key. Surfaces for a language game, the turbulent signs of vandalism, the doors also reinforced the thematics of rudimentary shelter, taxi wars, mobility. Hence Younge's observation: 'The townships belong to the automobile. We are what we drive.' For Younge, we bear the scars of that, which we own. Ownership must incorporate the fact and threat of crime.

Along the bright walls of the container, papered with rolls of Sunlight Soap packaging to suggest the interior of a shack, Younge ran a 'frieze' of names of all the squatter camps which have existed in South Africa in the last 20 or so years. These - Unibell, Windermere, etc. - were taken from newspaper clippings and interspersed with the names of squatters in an attempt to retrieve a history - bring it 'back into consciousness'. In Younge's notes we read: 'History is our story. The one we scream in silence. On our patios - on our beaches - in our shacks. Who makes history; where is it; what is it? Do you remember?'

The photograph of Younge shows the artist squatting beside three suitcases with a knobkierie attached to each. One thinks of a journey, or perhaps an evacuation. These objects, too, have been sealed in vellum. Again one wonders, Have these suitcases not been rendered useless? Are they empty, or are they full and impenetrable? And why have the knobkieries - weapons, walking sticks, emblems of potency - also been sealed? Confronted with this riddle, Younge reminds us that another use for vellum is as the acoustic surface of drums. Thus, the hollowed backs of the car doors were also acoustic instruments. Hence Younge's notion of taking the sound of Africa back to Europe. It follows, then, that the suitcases and knobkieries are also instruments of drumming - the reverberations of the the artist's alarum. One imagines the artist bereft of all his possessions, with only his resounding suitcases and weapons left to him. Are these not perhaps a charged and poetic testament? A last defence?

Sue Williamson and Ashraf Jamal in Art in South Africa - the future present