Two weeks ago I went to an exhibition opening at Scifest Africa, South Africa’s National Science Festival held annually in Grahamstown. Yes, that’s right; an art exhibition at a science festival. Amazing.
Nigel Mullins is a renowned South African artist, and he happens to live in my hometown. In fact, I spent many an afternoon in his garden, as a friend of mine has been living in a flat on his property for several years. I have even cooked in his kitchen when he wasn’t there (don’t tell anyone).
Besides my claims to knowing him, Nigel is a fantastic artist. His exhibition, Chaotic Region, explores the relationships between art, science and superstition; between evidence and the unknown; and our attempts to explain and predict in an otherwise uncertain world. Carefully detailed, almost photorealist images contrast frantic, impasto cameos. The artist explores, among other concepts, the effect of scale and text on our ability to perceive pieces of art as amulets.
My favourite part of the exhibition was a series of lucky cats – the popular eastern waving talisman – each one painted in a different mood, as if tracking the cat’s own mood through a frenzied tantrum and back into calm, rhythmic waving.
The lucky cats contrast the unlucky dog, Laika, sent to space in the 1950s as a scientific sacrifice. A broader study of early space exploration is undertaken through a series of images of Aldrin and Armstrong. One particularly appealing picture of Armstrong was painted in an afternoon, and the following day, Mullins read in the newspaper that Armstrong had died. Ironically, this moment itself represents an unexpected interface between science, art and superstition.