Human Nature

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa
Cape Town
Curated by Julia Kabat

01 July  - 31 October 2018

“It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.”

-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Fall XIII, 2015. Oil on tracing paper, 42 x 30cm

The Other Side of Silence

Text by Noah Swinney 

Human Nature, these two words split the mind. Oppositions spring from this gap, “soul” and “mind”, “reason” and unreason”, “rational” and “spiritual”, “self” and other”. Are humans natural at all, is nature human at all? What is human, what is the origin of human that makes us natural if we are to be natural? This oxymoron is two words slanting in and away from each other, a hyperbole separated by an invisible asymptote. The paintings of Ruby Swinney are an engagement in that asymptote, an attempt to go beyond language and examine what we call “Human Nature”. The paintings invite and offer, not a self-assured Narcissus moment so familiar to our contemporary experience, but rather a deep introspection of the self-conscious self in relation to the ‘natural’ world.

Each painting in some way corresponds to this deep introspection of the self in the other. The artist is removed entirely from the subject matter, the faces of the figures are rendered as “others”, as strangers, their faces covered, obscured or erased. There is something deeply troubling about the inability to “put a name to a face”; the breaking down of our first mode of recognition and understanding. The figures in the painting seem many times unhuman and yet their humanity is inseparable from them, they are uncomfortably familiar as though we were staring into the memory of our own family photo album that we cannot quite remember. The landscapes too seem often familiar, a home, a countryside, a cityscape in the background, a public pool, a forest or a botanical garden – these are sites or images familiar to us all, and yet we cannot commit to knowing them personally.  The figures inhabiting them have often faces like masks, often haloed, their legs are long, even in animals we cannot be sure, white as ghosts and menacing in the dark recesses of night, hovering orbs of light – like the figures these landscapes seem to defy our efforts of recognition – like tracing a picture, the details unclear and obscured through the paper; or putting silk up to the light and attempting to make out the forms of the shadows that fall there. 

Renunciation of Earthly Strivings, 2017. Oil on tracing paper, dimension variable.

Swinney strives to decentre the self through a complete submergence into the self. Whether this selflessness, or othering of the self, is possible or not the paintings seem to urge the importance of the attempt, and invite the viewer to do the same. To see this attempt as a human responsibility is to try with knowledge of its failure. This moral responsibility of empathy is for and about all life human and natural, familiar and alien. These paintings are about the universal in deep waters of the individual, it is an attempt to stare into the face of Human Nature and seeing there not the romance of idyllic beauty but a troubled tangle of thoughts and pictures, fears and insecurities, a noise of bathing suits and family portraits, and beyond that, silence.

        “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” – George Eliot

View unpublished catalogue
View interview between curator Julia Kabat and Ruby Swinney

Installation Images

Installation view of entrance to Gallery 1

Gallery 1 

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life,
it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat,
and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

- George Eliot, Middlemarch

Individual works

Installation view of Gallery 1

Gallery 2 

Such a woman as I 
Mirage of all green forests—
The colour of the season always 
When hope lives of abolished pleasures

        Picture-dreaming in a room
Among silk provinces where pain
Ruined her body without stain—
So white, so out of time, so story-like.

While woman’s pride escaped
In tiger stripes. 

- Laura Riding Jackson, The Tiger

Individual works 

Installation view of Gallery 2

Gallery 3

At the most we gaze at it in wonder,
a kind of wonder which itself is a form
of dawning horror, for somehow we know
by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow
of their own destruction before them,
and are designed from the first with an eye
to their later existence as ruins.
- W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Individual works

Installation view of Gallery 3

Gallery 4 

by being moved I exert my empire,
making the dreams of night real:
into my body at the bottom of the water
I attract the beyonds of mirrors...

          - Rainer Maria Rilke, Water Lily

Individual works

Installation view of Gallery 4

Gallery 5  

They planted here the Serpent's seeds of light;
And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock
The riotous glass houses built on rock,
And candles gutter by an empty altar,
And light is where the landless blood of Cain
Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

- Robert Lowell,  Children of Light

Individual works 

Installation view of Gallery 5

Gallery 6 

No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.

Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.

A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the
no one’s rose.

our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.

- Paul Celan, Psalm trans. Michael Hamburger

Individual works 

Installation view of Gallery 6

The Pop-up shop 

All designs created by Platform .  Selected merchandise still available at Zeitz MOCAA Museum shop

Click here to view handpulled custom screen print.