Ruby Swinney might be one of the hottest young graduates from the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, having sold most of her grad show to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) but she relies on long-forgotten English folklore in her latest exhibition, Ignus Fatuus, showing at the Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town.
It is the dated notion of the ‘will-o-the-wisp’ a term referring to an atmospheric ghost or light that she brings to mind. English folklore offers two contrasting meanings for the ‘will-o-the-wisp’; either it is seen by travellers at night, teasing their primal desires and fuelling them to reach their full potential or, its more dark meaning, is tied to apparitions filled with mischief and spite, existing solely with the intent to confuse and entice misguided travelers into treacherous waters. Swinney combines these two opposing stances offering a visual experience that is both petrifying and purifying. Her representations of these atmospheric ghost lights appear in the form of glowing, humanesque creatures, haloed and out of focus. In the work Out Of Many Waters, these illuminated creatures appear as androgynous children, swimming in a body of water, while a tall, dark figure looms over them intently. The artist has titled this exhibition after a phrase drawn from a poem by Emily Dickinson – Ignis Fatuus, is loosely translated into the false wisps of light that dance along the surface of marsh and swampland in the dark hours of exceptional nights. There is definitely something exceptional about the light that her imagery emits.
The subjects in her art are elongated, sylph-like beings, who exist in the realm between canvas and the paint, traipsing their dominion coolly, appearing oblivious to their very real magic. Her use of tracing paper as her canvas plays into the theme of implausibility and deception. The titular mixed medium installation Ignis Fatuus, found on the second floor is by far the most demanding work in the exhibition. This exhibition is constructed to lead one on a journey from darkness ( the oil paintings) into light (the installation). The artist seems to be asking the viewer to go beyond the simple act of observation and to actively engage in the larger than life installation. Viewers are asked to slip on shoe covers, as the installation is made entirely out of white tracing paper. Ignis Fatuus presents the end of a journey of cleansing and self- reflection.
Swinney’s delicate large trace paper cut-outs that make up the installation to take on a life of their own, becoming denser, yet more and more alien the longer you linger. Fluorescent beams glare out intensely from in between the leafy works like omnipresent eyes, as if the viewer has now become the subject of the artwork. The installation works best as a solo journey, allowing you to confront your deepest desires,fears and concerns, all while being scrutinised, being cleansed by a supernatural presence that defies everything we know to be logical and true. Will-o-wisps have that same enchantment, baffling the world of science and religion time and time again. What’s most fascinating about this exhibition is the idea that the supernatural often occurs in the most mundane of experiences. Swinney merges things as everyday as paper and light, as if admitting that the extraordinary can be found within the ordinary all the time. All we have to do is look.
Flovers works for Mary Corrigall’s art consultancy. www.corrigall.org