Out of The Cube

artthrob picks

SunStar and Sunglasses

By Chad Rossouw on 04 December


Chris Swift
SunStar, . Various views of the work

Michael Elion and Chris Swift almost broke FaceBook this month. Between ‘SunStar’ and ‘Perceiving Freedom’, the conversations about public art, public space, corporate interests, funding, aesthetics, censorship and the city flooded into most people’s social media. If you haven’t been following closely, there are articles here, here and here. I would also highly encourage you to read the petition that has been circulating, here.

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Besides for these important debates, it’s been interesting for me, as an artist and as an art critic, to figure out just how these sculptures operate as artworks – if at all. It has come up in multiple comment threads that ‘Perceiving Freedom’ is not art. It has been accused of being unoriginal or of being pure advertising. While there may be some truth to both those claims, it ultimately seems to be an attempt to invalidate the work in categorical terms, rather than through critical thinking. This sets up a rather un-useful dichotomy between art as elite and Elion as an everyman. 

And yet, I still feel uneasy and not only from the undercurrents of corporate interests and opportunism. What unsettles me is how these two dissimilar structures, can have meanings effortlessly grafted onto them, both corporate meanings and rhetorical ones. This happens in part by how the artists talk and write about their work, and partly in how the works operate formally.

Most contemporary artworks we are familiar with operate in the realm of metaphor or allegory, where meaning is mutable, polyvalent and referential. The artists for these two works seem to have foregone this suggestiveness, and are attempting to create meaning through fiat. ‘SunStar’, for instance, is a beacon of hope. ‘Perceiving Freedom’ is about Mandela and what it means to be free. In both cases the artists are trying to wrestle against a basic tenet of artmaking, an artwork’s waywardness, forcing the works into the realm of the symbol. Symbol, of course, is a complex term, with different functions in different fields, so I will use the output of blockbuster author Dan Brown to elucidate what I mean.

In books like The Da Vinci Code or Inferno, Brown hangs plot points on the meanings of visual symbols. Five- and six-pointed stars, zodiac signs, roses and pyramids. For Brown, a five-pointed star is a symbol of Illuminati power, a six-pointed one equates to the mystical union of the feminine and masculine, and so forth. Signs which are arbitrary, with meaning that is conventional, are portrayed as inherent and complete. Form and content are unified into a clean whole. The stable and one-dimensional meanings of these symbols can then be linked together to map a coherent world-view. There is nothing spiky or jarring or ambiguous to push the meanings apart.

This is the charm of a Dan Brown novel, and could account in part for their popularity. Meaning is direct and true, sometimes complex, but never ambiguous. The world is full, but with an enlightened guide, Robert Langdon, Brown himself, it is navigable and interpretable.

Similarly, Elion and Swift have presented their works in this manner, through info boards, promo videos, press releases and other media incursions. 

This portrayal of the artworks as symbols is why a corporate, whose interest is ultimately in branding, can easily slide their agenda in. They like the direct line, the clean and the whole. Meaning through fiat, arriving whole and unsullied in a consumers mind, is ultimately what branding tries to achieve. The symbol of the artwork links with the symbol of the corporate brand to map a coherent world-view. A more ambiguous mapping of the world asks questions that corporates don’t want asked (like: what is coolness? Who is Sol Kerzner? How much do you pay your workers? What is the morality of luxury?)

While we are talking about world mapping and symbols, I’ll just leave this link here for your enjoyment. 

The form of both SunStar and Perceiving Freedom lend themselves to this transformation into symbols, even though they are vastly different. Elion’s structure is easy to understand, as it is a scaled version of something that has symbolic value. There is already something smooth and unspiky about its shape. (Although this is also why the difference between its forms and ones worn by Mandela on Robben Island in the accompanying were so quickly noticed.)

Swift’s construction, on the other hand, is so arbitrary in form, so non-descript that only fiat could make it contain any message beyond its light bulbs. It is only through conventionalizing the meaning through marketing it that it gains any traction at all. The veneer of Robben Island fencing, another act of opportunism that would take another article to unpack, is only significant through the repeated statement of its origins.

Ultimately, the works will be popular, because easy consumption and direct meaning are nice. And these comments aren’t a judgement of people’s enjoyment of the works, which is probably the only sincere aspect to these two works. But in the same way that Dan Brown hasn’t shifted anything in the world with his novels, neither have these works.