Lost light: fugitive images from deep space
Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
13 April - 26 May 2007
Much of Karel Nel's most recent work has been informed by vast, faint emanations from deep space; transient images of light, infrared, radio or x-ray that left their source millions of years ago. Telescopes capture these emanations as they approach Earth, which become forever lost to our gaze once they pass the planet. Nel's involvement with astronomy as a subject began after his 2002 Status of Dust exhibition in New York, when he was approached by Nick Scoville to join a team of thirty leading astronomers as their resident artist for the Cosmos Project. The purpose of this ambitious project is to map two square degrees of the universe. Over the last four years Nel has spent time with the Cosmos team at the Rose Planetarium, New York; the University of Kyoto, Japan; the Max Planck Institute's Ringberg castle, Germany, and the University of Honolulu, Hawaii.
Nel has also paid successive visits to observatories on the 13,000-foot high volcano, Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawaii, where the project's land-based observations are made with the Subaru telescope. These observations are correlated with data received for the project by the space-based Hubble telescope. The work of the team is to make sense of, and interpret, the complex array of data in relation to what they already know about galaxy formation, large scale structures, the mapping of dark matter, halo-modeling, stellar dust and the lensing of light. In Lost Light the primary focus concerns his engagement with both the ideas and images generated by the Cosmos Project. His large folding screens refer to the evanescent images approaching us from deep space. These fleeting images are perceived and captured in a more permanent form, and to achieve this, Nel uses salt and 540 million year-old black carboniferous dust as his chosen primordial substances. While the Lost Light works constitute the main focus of the exhibition, Nel's large-scale drawings from two other fascinating projects - In the Presence of Leaves and Status of Dust - are also on view. Nel is as much a collector as he is an artist. Over a number of years now, he has made expeditions across the Pacific to remote islands, sometimes in the footsteps of Cook, and has developed a deep understanding of the people of these regions, alongside their strategies to conserve their way of life and to deal with the challenges of globalization. Nel's collection of objects from Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons are shown as a companion exhibition to Lost Light, under the title of Oceanic Values: currencies of the Pacific. An Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, Nel's highly perceptive and creatively intelligent work is a rich source of information about important aspects of the world and the universe. The content of his art makes for a unique contribution to South Africa, where his work is on show for the first time in over seven years.
Nel's work is represented in all the key public collections and museums of South Africa and in the USA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution Washington DC and acquired major works for their collections.