Melancholia is a soul-searching exhibition aptly displayed in a pathology museum - review by Chris Thurman / by Natasja De Wet

Business Day - review by Chris Thurman

Melancholia is a soul-searching exhibition aptly displayed in a pathology museum

At the Pathology Museum, UCT Pathology Learning Centre

I recently explored the University of Cape Town's Pathology Learning Centre. Tucked away in the labyrinth of buildings constituting the Health Sciences campus, in the shadow of the Groote Schuur Hospital complex, the centre is an Aladdin's Cave of medical history.

The former Pathology Museum, dating back to the construction of the medical school on the lower slopes of Devil's Peak in the 1920s, contains some fascinating records. Diligently compiled autopsy reports hint at the details of life stories even as they focus on bodies on the mortuary table. Black and white photographs that ostensibly served to document pathologies - the effects of syphilis, say - capture the humanity of their subjects in evocative portraits.

Most striking, however, are the shelves filled with specimens in various states of preservation: row upon row of organs, tissues, muscles, veins and nerves, resected and cross sectioned and lovingly captured in Perspex and formaldehyde.

They are all tagged and numbered, and one imagines how they might have been viewed with the detachment of medical students or researchers in years gone by.

But when you spend enough time with these bits of bodily detritus, in their amber casing that catches the light - and especially if you happen to glimpse some of the more discomfiting specimens through an open laboratory door - they cease to be mere biological matter.

What develops, beyond wonder at the human body in all its complexity and frailty, beyond curiosity at oversized or damaged or underdeveloped specimens (how did they come to look like that?), beyond shock or squeamishness, is a looming sense of sadness. Each post mortem that produced these body parts was the final act of a tragedy: a life that ended in grief and sorrow, or worse, anonymity and indifference.

Hovering over all this is the often grim history of medical science itself. From gruesome graveyard exhumations in the dead of night to experiments and autopsies conducted on those considered sub-human by certain forms of Western empirical enquiry (vagabonds, Jews, gays, Africans), scientific discoveries have often come at the expense of someone's dignity. It hardly needs emphasising that, even when they were ostensibly life-affirming medical advances in SA were made against the backdrop of - and to some extent were facilitated by - race based segregation and persecution. When, in 1967, heart transplant pioneer Chris Barnard was working in the very building that today houses the Pathology Learning Centre, a few kilometres away the apartheid government was passing the Terrorism Act in parliament and forcing people out of District Six.

For all these reasons, the centre is an apposite setting for the exhibition of Natasja de Wet's Melancholia (until March 30). This body of work seeks to give expression to the artist's own "experience of the melancholic disposition",

As De Wet explains in the catalogue text - a dense but insightful reflection on conceptions of melancholy that cites the work of theorists Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan, and draws art historical connections from Albrecht Dürer to Anselm Kiefer melancholia as a diagnosis dates to Hippocrates theory of the four "humours" developed in the 4th century BCE.

It has thus always been linked both to physiology and to a psychological state, understood simultaneously as temperament and an embodied "pathology" similar to those on display on the shelves that surround De Wet's work.

It is associated with the abject, like specimens of conditions to which the "healthy" individual is averse.

Yet, De Wet reminds us. melancholia is also associated with analysis and creativity; it is not the same as depressive paralysis, and can be "a generative mental and emotional state".

The works included in the exhibition evince the melancholic binary (the chiaroscuro) of "darkness and lightness". This is vividly executed in the main installation, in which paint-and dust-daubed canvases and sheets hang draped in the central atrium.

A number of the smaller works, however, convey the life-and-death conundrum with equal effect. One of my favourites is the layered canvas in Slivered Ball of Constriction, which calls to mind a pair of lungs such as one might see in a jar nearby, at the same time as bringing to the viewer's attention the materiality of art-making and the artist's process.