Shireen Hassim

“Encounters with water”
– Professor Shireen Hassim – Political Studies Wits University

Robert Hamblin’s new work, The Colony (Occupy), is an unusual departure for the artist known for his powerful insights into the relationships between bodily intimacy and the constructs of gender. In The Colony Phase 2 he moves from the personal to the most abstracted and elusive form of capitalist power. Here he fixes his gaze on the stock market, and on the price of gold in particular. Gold materializes his gaze. It defines the colour palette and the intensity of light in the photographs. The hardness of the metal works with and against the softness of water. The line of the gold price graph is mapped onto the line of interaction between water and rock, between fluidity and solidity. Focusing on gold also domesticates global capital markets; no other commodity (with the possible exception of diamonds) captures as powerfully the relationship between the pursuit of wealth, the social invention of value and the devastating consequences for human life of South Africa’s gold industry.

Hamblin is explicitly commenting on capitalism of course. He is struck by the Occupy movement and especially by the breath-takingly ambitious challenge of that movement. Occupy sprang up in Zucotti Park, in the heart of New York’s financial district, to protest against corporate greed and speculative trading with the money of poor people. Its target was no less than the capitalist system itself, a twenty-first century return to the fundamental source of inequality. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek said of Occupy that its power lay in its capacity to name capitalism as the problem; for Hamblin its power lies in its capacity to critique without the certainty of an alternative.

Hamblin wants to understand the force of the system that shapes every life, his life. He is driven to impose meaning:
260 working days in the western calendar
260 days of gold price graphs
260 images of water

It is as if, by staring intensely at the water, every day, with tidal regularity, order might be arranged on the erratic stock market and anxiety might be tamed. Where Hollywood offers readings of financial capital that are vulgarly masculinist – Gordon Gecko, Jordan Belfort – Hamblin turns to the archetypal feminine metaphor. Water invokes the imprecise transition from embryonic to corporeal, the life-source and the divine, the giver of form and landscape. Dalebrook Pool in Kalk Bay, what Hamblin calls his ‘office’, is the tamed sea, the delineated space in in which water meets land. Hamblin invokes the concreted boundaries that humans create in order to impose meaning, a theme that runs through his previous exhibitions. The line of the pool is deliberately drawn into the photographs, always present even if never obviously in focus.

Hamblin’s use of water to explore the tensions between order and disorder invites the viewer to consider the limits of control. His work brings to mind the words of martial artist, Bruce Lee. Struggling to impose control over his body, Lee meditated by sailing alone in a junk. Seeking to hold ‘the softest substance in the world’ which could paradoxically ‘penetrate the hardest substance in the world’, he comes to realize that his greatest power lies in mimicking water. To ‘be like water’ is a form of self-control through surrender and is Lee’s well-known metaphor for resilience.

Bruce Lee’s meditative insight is not too far off from Hamblin’s endeavor in this exhibition. The work plays with anxiety; the water is still and seductive, then powerful. Now it looks like it welcomes you to sink into its calm depths; and then in another moment it is clear that you will be tossed by force onto the rocks. Over it all the glistening gold entices, induces desire, mesmerises and thrills. Yet the danger of the rocks is never too far away in these images. At times they are visible, often extraordinary in acting as the boundary of the feminine. Hamblin looks for and finds the line of the price graphs in this space of the encounter between fluid and solid; he may have drawn it with a paintbrush. In these images the tide, regular in its appearance, is by no means predictable in its effects. The water pushes back rather than enfolds, the encounter is violent. The archetypal soft feminine dissolves and ‘to be like water’ is to be, suddenly, the controller of power.

The obsessive creation of meaning through order operate not through the metaphor of water but also through the metaphor of piercing, a physical imposition on paper that requires again the obsessive concentration and application of bodily energy on the paper. Here, in the pierced graph that runs as a subterranean text below the photographs, Hamblin superimposes the tideline on the gold price over the course of a year. In Hamblin’s explanation to me, he suggests that in this aspect of the exhibition a masculine desire to control. The result however is elusive, because what emerges reads like the graph on a heart monitor. Anxiety returns.

In this reading, capitalism is a tense play between many binary forms: between the archetypes of masculinity and femininity, between desire and death, between having and losing. Yet Hamblin stays with the anxiety that meaning may not be possible – at least, not meaning that resolves the contradictory impulses. Like the Occupy movement, he turns the gaze on power without proffering more than hope that the space of encounter is the space of meaning. He might agree with Judith Butler’s appreciation of Occupy Wall Street: “If hope is an impossible demand then we demand the impossible.”