Spier Outdoor Sculpture Festival
by Tracy Murinik
She surreptitiously sidled up to me as I made my way through the pristinely tailored grounds of the elegant Spier estate in Stellenbosch, "looking for sculpture" at the opening of the Spier Outdoor Sculpture Biennial, and said: "And have you seen our gables?" She was a plainclothes PRO with an eye for drawn pens and determined note-taking, and took it upon herself to reveal to me the inherent wonders of that environment and the symbolism of the estate's logo. Although interesting, it seemed an odd tangent at the time and aroused a fair sense of bafflement, considering the launch of the sculpture and all - but, in review, was by no means a dull point.
For it occurred to me that this is one of the most exciting latent elements that public sculpture can offer. That is, the idea that one can unsuspectingly come upon something that rouses a response, without warning, without explanation; a sudden entity that one might choose to stop and contemplate or remain oblivious to and move past. (I chose, in this instance, to remain focused on the new sculptural interventions on the block and leave the gable-spotting till later.)
The past several months have seen artworks sneakily snuck into the public realm with interesting results. The Joubert Park Public Art Project in Johannesburg towards the end of last year achieved, by many accounts, a public engagement that veered between offbeat and beautifully humane. Then there was 'Homeport', which formed part of a larger international public art project. Here some subtly interspersed artworks gradually revealed themselves from a range of vantage points, intermingled in Cape Town's sprawling V&A Waterfront, from the shopping mall to the harbour complex. Observations thereof ranged from emphatically surprised diners to startled giant pinhole camera novices, impressive out-of-aeroplane aerial sitings of word formations, in and out of the water, and the occasional spotting of a swigging, swinging art fiend getting down to the SA Navy Band playing the theme from The Love Boat, in a tent.
Most recently, though, the Spier Outdoor Sculpture Festival is providing a further realm of public art potential to explore. The offerings in this instance are diverse. They include the cunningly quirky chortle-inducing, the playful, the curious and intriguing, the gently contemplative and moving, the thoughtful and interesting, and occasionally the thoughtful but not quite that interesting.
Jo O'Connor's glorious burst of pristinely sculpted country garden psychedelia with a quietly lurking twist, entitled Gardenism, is a definite highlight. It's somewhat funereal in its sense of ornament and slightly strained insistence on cheer, with urn-like whitewashed flowerpots, attentively sculpted garden path and picket fence. A sheer mat of woodchips has been laid out and painted green in an ethos of Astroturf - and the blazing flourish of spring blooms reveals itself, at closer inspection and courageous feel, to be of not entirely natural substance. Meticulously conceived to defy all rules of nature: beauty and prime are declared a perpetual and unerring phenomenon. The sense of humour that underlies this slickly imposed landscape is site-specifically (gently) ironic and perfectly charming: an irresistible "garden of questions", as O'Connor describes it, of what is real and what is beautiful.
Then there is Nicole Meyer's rampantly choreographed installation of innovative dancing water sculptures that intermittently takes over an area of the regular Spier sprinkler system. Custom Made picks up on the iconic bulrushes of Spier's logo in a lightly satirical mode - a "return of pseudo bulrushes to a kept lawn". Added to them are some sneakily fitted industrial plumbing components which ultimately materialise in a moist fluster of nuttily spurting sprayguns in wild and sporadic formation on the lawns.
Bruce Arnott graces the grounds with a "friendly power figure" in yellowstone. One Man Band stands mounted on his plinth: a delectably stocky totemic character; an absolute of self-containment. Bearing his bulk of assorted instruments, he is a musician and a smartly sussed creative dynamo - and a perfectly fitting iconic mascot for an arts festival.
A less optimistic vision to encounter is Willie Bester's Catastrophe which is mounted tentatively on a large boulder. It is an instrument of unnervingly precarious mechanics, equipped with masses of gadgetry and a rather sinister flair, ET-like flying bicycle elements and flying balloon interlinked with razor-like propellers - and a warning not to operate any of the devices. It seems reasonable advice.
Sean Slemon's segmented cross-sectioned Head, on the other hand, inspires far more relaxed interaction and has been proving itself a fabulous natural jungle gym for curious kids investigating the cultural domains of the gardens.
Jaques Dhont brings a sweet love story to the festival in The Plumber and the Swamp Lady, a tender metaphorical coupling of an unlikely pair of lovers who find balance in their interaction between nature and technology and are a coming together of two oppositional forces.
Randolph Hartzenberg's Epitaph (Wall for the Wounded) requires one to cross a bridge over the river in a type of transformative crossing to proceed into a space of quiet contemplation and meditation. The sculpture comprises a wall with a supporting buttress in the form of narrow steps rising upward towards the top. It is a moving and humane piece. Hartzenberg describes it as being a response to a sense of vulnerability of a fractured social fabric and an acknowledgement of psychic pain. The sentiments are echoed in the sculpture as a physical form, being both solid and fragile in its construction.
And Deborah Bell's clay and bronze figures from her series, 'Unearthed X: Crossing', explores another passage: through time and history at a particular point of a new millennium. Like a procession of excavation and revision, there is a quiet transition that starts to happen in their crossing of the river.
Other works are by Susan Reid, David Brown and Swiss artist Urs Twellman.
Running concurrently is an associated outdoor sculpture exhibition at the Jan Marais Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch featuring work by Sanelle Aggenbach, Elmarie van der Merwe, Terry de Vries, Marco Franzoso, Hettie de Klerk, Jacobus Kloppers, Dannie Carstens and David Jones.
Public Eye will also be hosting an international symposium on public art from March 15 to 17 with linked presentations on public art taking place at the Centre for the Book during the week of the Cape Town Festival.
To listen to sound bites of what the artists have to say about their festival works, call 083 910 1235.
Until March 31
Spier Wine Estate and Jan Marais Nature Reserve, Stellenbosch