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MICHAELA YOUNGE

A TIGHT SQUEEZE

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A TIGHT SQUEEZE

14.02.24 - 06.04.24

SMAC PLUS PROJECTS

Text by Lucienne Bestall

That Michaela Younge is preoccupied with time passing is perhaps unsurprising given her chosen medium necessitating countless hours of patient labour, working loose fibres into form with a felting needle. The minutes spent at her desk accumulate slowly; gather like dust in the corners of the studio. Outside, time keeps a different metre – hurries along at speed, blows by like the summer South-Easter. Deadlines draw close, demands jostle for attention, appointments must be kept, artworks delivered. The tight squeeze of the title belongs to this time, the tempo at which the future seems hastily to advance, and the past to recede apace. It is to the latter Younge now returns, to those moments and places come and gone. From memories of a childhood, which once seemed interminable, to the lives of local landmarks well beyond their prime, time that has passed is traced in her felted wool. A sense of watchful distance runs as a seam through the collected works, a sense of being set apart by chance or circumstance, out of time and out of step.


A Tight Squeeze continues the darkly humorous scenes for which Younge is best known – what might best be called her ‘Dateline’ compositions, populated by a ragtag cast of animals, burlesque dancers, and other assorted players, their oddball titles seemingly borrowed from tabloid headlines, infomercials, and horoscopes. Included in the exhibition are three such works from the artist’s Selling Sunset series, which asks after promised leisure and luxury, and expectations falling short. All are exterior studies of real places, and all share a vague suggestion of being excluded or missing out. ‘Right of admission reserved,’ Younge says by way of explanation.


A self-described ‘voyeur of the Cape Historical Society,’ Younge looks to places of past glamour and pervading nostalgia, to those ‘diamonds that have lost their shine.’ Even the Mount Nelson Hotel – in High Tea and Higher Expectations – appears now to be lacking. Perhaps, as she suggests, the diamond was always quartz. The crowd is comparatively restrained for Younge (no misplaced nudes, no murders; only unexpected penguins). However, a less discrete and aspirant clientele – frog, dog, rocking horse – convene at the Royal Hotel, a three-star establishment in downtown Durban. Only the now-shuttered funfair on the nearby beachfront is uncharacteristically quiet, yet the scene is no less unsettling for it. One cannot help but feel that the party is over, that everyone has gone, packed up, skipped town. A storm gathers out to sea; the carnival atmosphere replaced with expectant humidity. To Younge, the empty fairground signals something more than a bygone time – the necessary end of child’s play. But any suggestion of sentimentality is quashed by the pun in the work’s title: A Sweeping Moment on the Carousel of Happiness.


Pivoting to personal histories, Tit for Tat recalls adolescent idols cut from magazines, those miscast assortments of pop culture’s gods: celebrities, film characters, the month’s cover girls – or here, E.T., Green Day, and two models from an old South African edition of Scope. An imagined time capsule from the far boundary of childhood, complete with ornamental frames, these keepsake cut-outs give pithy expression to teenage infatuations, envies, and ambitions. Recollections of youth follow a more melancholy (even ominous) line in My enemies have succeeded, a painterly series of luckless rabbits. Life-size and gently shaded, they are startling for their apparent naturalism; the works’ merino wool a closesynonym for downy fur. The soft animals – each described with a fleshy wound that recalls some recent, fatal tragedy – are to the artist ‘an ode to first loss’ and with it ‘a loss of innocence.’ But they are also, Younge suggests, an ode to forgotten aspirations, to a long-held desire since discarded: I wish I were a painter.


Further works speak to ‘passing time’ in its verb form – or killing time, in the case of Keep Calm and Carrion, which reprises the happy violence familiar to Younge’s work. For Submit to Me, a reworked readymade, the artist embellished a fireplace screen featuring a ‘historical’ tapestry of two suitors playing guitars to a reluctant audience. Younge doubles down on the scene’s unease, revealing what was once intended as a charming romantic interlude to be a social horror. The addition of wedding décor, a white gown, bridesmaids, and best man recast the tapestry as a 90s daytime television drama. That time rolls on, and the mores of courtship change, is here an ambivalent blessing. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, which coincides with the exhibition’s opening, a pair of decorative felt boxer shorts suggest an alternative, sartorial means of declaring one’s intentions.


To everything, its time. All things must be left behind – childhood pets, adolescent fancies, claims to glamour, uninvited serenades. In A Tight Squeeze, the past is reviewed with something like forbearance; neither longed for nor dismissed, but simply marked as a metronome marks time’s passage. Yet perhaps there remains a single regret. Among the thoughts that recur to Younge as she works is a repeated phrase: ‘The moment was gone because he’d waited too long.’ 


Text by Lucienne Bestall

SMAC
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