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Sean Slemon

By Michael Smith
A balancing act of value

Sean Slemon
A balancing act of value, 2010. Installation .

In ‘One place after another: site-specific art and locational identity’ Miwon Kwon highlights a certain crisis in the continued use of the term ‘site-specific’. Kwon states the term ‘is applied rather indiscriminately to art works, museum exhibitions, public art projects, city arts festivals, architectural installations; and it is embraced as an automatic signifier of “criticality” or “progressivity” by artists, dealers, curators, critics, arts administrators, and funding organizations’.

However, Kwon, collects together a number of alternatives, mentioning ‘context-specific, debate-specific, audience-specific, community-specific, project-based’.

Young SA-born, New York-based artist Sean Slemon incorporates numerous extensions of site-specificity into his practice, in ways that productively problematize site and space.


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Slemon’s approach emerges primarily from his training as a sculptor, but has begun in recent works and projects to embrace a combination of sculpture, installation, drawing and photography. He states that medium is determined by the conceptual requirements of the work.

Choices of materials and media are informed by a sensitivity to the concepts embedded in certain substances: wood, earth and light are three staples of Slemon’s career thus far, lending works a highly-charged veracity wherever they are shown. As he says about this dimension of his approach, ‘I use materials in both a representational manner and also to create physical and conceptual conflicts and reversals within the work, building up layers within the work physically and ideologically’.

An example of this is the drawing Acacia in Debt: enlarged canopy for additional insurance and heavy cover (additional room for tree schools), shown in early 2010 at Johannesburg gallery Brodie/Stevenson in which Slemon renders a typically African tree type in soil from the base of a typical New York street tree. The incongruence of North American soil being used to recreate an iconic African image is extended into absurdity, as the tree’s canopy is made to span an impossibly large width. With this motif Slemon interrogates the notion of protection from the elements, using the idea metaphorically to explore the vulnerability that the natural environment experiences in the face of rapacious capitalism.

About the notion of site-specificity in his work, Slemon says, ‘My desire to work site-specifically has been something of a challenge, given my move from South Africa to New York… of course my practice changed when this occurred. I have had to change my approach to what it means to work with site, in that I use it as the basis for the work, rather than the work being a site-specific physical installation. I wanted to make sure that I was able to maintain something of the context of the work I made in South Africa. The basis of this is social equality and access, and I was able to translate these ideas pretty successfully, the site becoming the contextual driver for the ideas behind the work.’

Working from a shared studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Slemon treats his practice much like a full-time job, working from 9-5 each day when he isn’t freelancing. Much of his work since moving to the USA has blurred the boundaries between art and various modes of recording. Of particular interest is a series of images called The Five Boroughs, remapping the five boroughs of New York: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx according to data on the segment of the population below the poverty line. In projects like this, Slemon illustrates a willingness to tinker with the dictates of mapped space, transposing an economically-informed logic onto the empirical order of geographically-mapped space.

Another of Slemon’s perennial preoccupations is light: since the creation of an early drawing Self-portrait with lightbulb in 1999, his work has revealed an interest in mapping, tracking and speculating on the fall of light. His installation Solid Light String at David Krut Projects in 2008 was for South African audiences one of the most significant manifestations of this interest. In this installation, Slemon echoed the light pouring through the project space’s windows on one side, with a series of taut strings installed between the wall and the floor on the other side. As such, the strings became, as the installation’s title suggests, a solidification of light. To say that all visual stimuli interact with light is a moot point: we rely on reflected light to see at all. Yet the strings in this work operated on a level above, interacting conceptually with light and all we associate with it: ephemerality, intangibility, and regenerative power.


‘Having lived and worked in South Africa and New York, the things that struck me about these cities were the opposites. In one poverty and inequality is blatant. In the next those disparities exist, but are hidden. It’s as if wealth and efficient infrastructure of the greatest city in the world has tricked itself into hiding its problems. I began to identify areas within infrastructure that were forgotten - nature, light and the shape of the land: basic things that we take for granted but that affect our lives, and I work primarily with these concepts.

In questioning our use of space, I explore politically charged issues through subtle signifiers. I believe that looking deeper at land and nature uncovers history. Confrontational discourses surrounding space and land can expose histories and legacies.

The work I have been making has begun to move in a more conceptual direction along these lines. Looking at components of urban life reveal neglected aspects – through the underscoring of issues. Once the issues are magnified, we can see the social implications of them, revealing shortcomings within urban space. Each city has very subtle signs and signifiers, and via these I work with a site. I adapt these ideas directly into a gallery space, or create work based on a site. I want to push the physicality of the work to make use of the space it inhabits in an effort to have the work and the site collaborate together to communicate the concepts efficiently.’
January 2010

‘I have always had a strong theoretical backing to the work I make, but in recent months I have made a concerted effort to put this aside and simply enjoy the aesthetics of the work and ideas that has come out of this conceptual framework I have created for myself.’

‘Being in New York has been a very exciting and challenging experience. It is a very tough place to be an artist, as you are one of about 5000 others all trying to get somewhere and be someone with the next new idea screaming for attention.’

‘There are many opportunities [in New York], far more than SA has to offer, and I have been able to benefit from some of them... New York is often all about connections… One needs to be prepared for a very long haul as an artist in any country: it has to be a lifelong passion that can become a way of life.’


'Sean Slemon’s topographical sculpture of carpet cutouts, Uplift: Mountain, Palazzo delle Papesse, 2008, explores the ideological appropriation of land while taking aim at museum and gallery display for its manipulation of the viewer.’
Emily Verla Bovino, Artforum, March 2007

‘The conceptual underpinning of 'Solid Light' pivots on the materialization of the immaterial, and yet the wobbliness of the string in the sculptural installation and the waviness of the hand-drawn line in the etchings introduces a tentativeness and vulnerability into the work that hints at the shimmering elusiveness of light and space, and the ultimate impossibility of materializing it. Perhaps this is the crux of the matter: space, defined as the absence of solid form, is nothingness, and surely then, of no consequence, and yet in Slemon’s attempt to solidify this nothingness we are reminded both of the societal and political impact of space, and at the same time of the futility of trying to dominate it.’
Jacki McInnes 'Sean Slemon Solidifies Light and Space'
 (Reproduced with permission from SA Art Times, Issue 8, August 2006)

'In blending his awareness of geographical and geopolitical distribution of space with his aesthetic capabilities, Slemon is earning a level of critical intrigue, and was recently the recipient of a coveted award, sparked off by his consecutive exhibitions in Gauteng. The wall-mounted and floor-standing sculptures, monumental in gesture, were surprisingly small in actuality. One of the pieces on this exhibition, entitled Maquette, won Slemon the Sasol New Signatures award earlier this year.'
- Robyn Sassen, Art South Africa, 2005

From mid-February to late March 2010, Slemon exhibited as part of a group show at the New York gallery MagnanMetz. He showed Public Property: Elm Tree, a 14ft diseased Elm Tree taken apart and placed inside a sealed Plexiglas box. The work questions the idea of the tree (nature) as public property, as well as policy and issues around the transport, movement and ownership of nature. By implication, nature in the urban environment is revealed to be in a state of quarantine.

Just before that, in January and February of 2010, Slemon showed ‘In the Red/In the Black’ at Brodie/Stevenson in Johannesburg, an exhibition that contained drawing, print and installation. In this show the artist explored the tension between the natural environment and humankind’s apparently endless speculation for profit. The centerpiece of this exhibition was In the Red/In the Black – A balancing act of value, an installation comprising a tree that had been painstakingly covered in gold leaf and then suspended in an interwoven lattice of red and black ribbon. In particular this work suggested the precarious position nature is in within the urban environment, expendable at the whims of a populace for whom profit is often the overriding principle.

About the work, David Brodie, gallerist of Brodie/Stevenson wrote, ‘the tree is a marker of the relationship between nature and finance, a metaphor for the mode of consumption that dominates both realms. It makes subtle reference to the terms “in the black” and “in the red” which describe the financial status of a company or an individual.’


In June and July of 2009, Slemon participated in a group show titled ‘Reflecting Transformation’, curated by Manon Slome. The show, under the auspices of No Longer Empty, a non-profit organization that places ‘high quality art exhibitions in vacated storefronts throughout New York City’, incorporated a panel discussion led by Manon Slome on the topic of ‘Public Art in New York City’. The panel featured curators like Tom Finklepearl from the Queens Museum of Art, as well as architects and urban planners.

For this show Slemon produced a site-specific installation titled Light beam at 7am, a ‘single light beam in solid’ mimicking its fall through one of the windows. The work was built from plywood, and the seams were left open. Fluorescent lights filled the inside of the work, allowing light to emanate from the piece.


In 2008 Slemon was invited to participate in ‘.ZA Giovane arte dal Sudafrica’, a group show of young South African artists, for which he built a site-specific installation made of carpet. The show involved five senior South African artists proposing lists of younger artists to show at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena. At this exhibition, Slemon showed Uplift: Mountain Palazzo delle Papesse, about which writer Amy Halliday said the following: ‘with its colourful contours of layered carpet, [the work] reflects the undulating Tuscan environment, simultaneously charting the interior gallery space’. (Art South Africa V6.4)

About the process of creating this work Slemon says, ‘This was one of the most gruelling but well-supported pieces I have had the opportunity to create. The install time was incredibly short but I was given lots of assistance by the Museum… I was in the situation where I was trying something out for the first time, under significant pressure, and not entirely sure whether it was going to work or not.’


Slemon is planning a solo show at MagnanMetz later in 2010, possibly for September/October.


Sean Ciaran Slemon
Born in Cape Town in 1978, lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.


2010    ‘In the Red/In the Black’, Brodie/Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg
2008    ‘Block 700’, Magnan Projects, New York City, USA
2007    ‘Public Property’, Central Utah Arts Center, Utah, USA
2006    ‘Solid Light’, David Krut Arts Resource, Johannesburg, South Africa
2005    ‘Katrina and the Five Boroughs’, David Krut Projects, New York, USA
2005    ‘Joburg One to Eleven’, The Premises Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
2005    ‘Uplift: The Premises Mountain’, The Premises Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
2005    ‘The Mountain and the City’, Outlet Gallery, Pretoria, South Africa


2009    ‘Reflecting Transformation’, No Longer Empty, curated by Manon Slome
2009    ‘Map South Africa: African Perspectives and the Heart of the African City’, Pretoria
2009    ‘Forever Summer’ at Denise Bibro Fine Art, curated by Scott Malbaurn
2008    .za Giovane arte dal Sudafrica, Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena, Italy, Feb, curated  by Lorenzo Fusi,
2007    ‘Works on paper: an exhibition of prints created in the David Krut Print workshop’,  UNISA Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
2006    ‘Contour: the Definitive Line’, Schedler Minchin Fine Art, Birmingham, Alabama, curated by Jon Coffelt
2005    ‘Sasol New Signatures Exhibition’ Aardklop Festival, Potchefstroom
2005    ‘Sasol New Signatures 2005’, Pretoria Art Museum
2004    ‘Absolut Secret 9’, Association of Visual Arts, Cape Town
2003    ‘Picnic’, Brendan Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town
2002    ‘Spier Outdoor Sculpture Biennial’, Stellenbosch
2000    ‘Softserve II’, South African National Gallery, Cape Town


2007    Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture
2007    Masters in Fine Arts at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York
2001    BA (Fine Arts), Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT, Cape Town


2009    Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Emergency Artists Grant
2007    National Arts Council of South Africa-Study Bursary
2005    Sasol New Signatures Award
2005    Sasol New Signatures Judges Merit Award


2008    ‘.za: Young Art from South Africa’ Pick of the month' Emily Verla Bovino, Artforum Magazine
2007    ‘An artist’s residency: The need for work/space in South Africa’ de Arte Vol.76, 2007, UNISA Press
2007    ‘Sean Slemon: Pratt Institute, New York’, by Jena Barry, Art South Africa Magazine Vol 6 Issue 1, P102
2006    ‘The Politics of Power and Space', Business Day, Sept 1st 2006, Alex Dodd
           ‘Sean Slemon Solidifies Light and Space’, by Jacki Mc Innes, SA Art Times, Issue 8, August
2005    ‘Sean Slemon-The Premises, Johannesburg’, by Robyn Sassen, Art South Africa Magazine, V4.2 P80, Dec 2005
2005    ArtThrob_reviews,, Robyn Sassen   
2002    ‘Spier Outdoor Sculpture Biennial’, catalogue, by Emma Bedford
2001    ArtThrob review, (online art magazine), Tracy Murinik