Archive: Issue No. 81, May 2004

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Barend de Wet

Barend de Wet
G O D, 2004
photograph of sculptural installation

Courtesy RTF Publishing

Beneath their wisdom
by Karen Rolfes

Some of the greatest works of art are transitory. The flight of birds through the sky, the shimmer of fish. These familiar sights can leave lasting impressions. So it was with a piece of land art entitled Homage to GOD, erected by conceptual artist Barend de Wet on three lone columns, representing the remains of a defunct bridge, which stand at the mouth of the Bitou River near Plettenberg Bay.

The two-metre high, pristine white letters, spelling 'G' 'O' 'D', were simply too much for some observers to contemplate. In record time, the Bitou Municipality had the artwork summarily removed allegedly because of complaints received. The artwork was erected on a Saturday; by the following Wednesday, notwithstanding the intervening public holiday, four men, two bakkies, and a boat were dispatched to the site, and the work was peremptorily carted off to the trash heap at the municipal depot.

"I want to celebrate intelligence," says de Wet, "and to celebrate living and health, rather than focusing on the negative aspects of life. God is something everyone can identify with. You can say you believe in God or you can say you don't; but as a concept, God is still there as something you are thinking about, whether you like it or not."

Permission to erect the work on the pillars was granted by landowner Mrs Panji Naidu, a businesswoman who initially purchased the land with the idea of starting a health centre next to the river. When first approached with the idea, Mrs Naidu was delighted. "I think it's wonderful. The more people celebrate the name of God, the better," she said. "In the same way as the many separate rivers flow and become part of the sea, so there are many sources of inspiration in different cultures, but they all lead to God."

Pastor of the NGK in Wittedrif, Mr Chris du Preez, was so touched by the piece when he turned past the bridge into the valley on the Sunday morning that he sought out the artist in order to thank him personally, and to request permission for photographs taken of the work to be used in his regular Sunday sermon. Of the many responses received by the artist, the overwhelming majority were positive.

Says de Wet; "It's strange to me that the people who liked it came and told me so. But the people who hated it went behind my back to destroy it, without needing to find out anything more about it. Euan (Wilderman, Mayor of Plett, who authorized the removal of the work) didn't even know it was me who put it up. Then he said it was the National Roads Agency which ruled that any signage visible from a national road needs permission. But it's not signage, it's sculpture! If they had asked me, I would have told them that."

When approached for comment, Mr Rob Taitum of the South African National Roads Agency said that he knew nothing of the offending word, nor had he signed any of the requisite documentation instructing the Bitou Municipality to remove the work.

People telephone municipalities to complain, not to express their pleasure at things they enjoy; it is in the nature of business. In this case, it was 'first come, first served'. "Dis witmense wat kla," said a fisherman philosophically, watching his line as he sat next to the bridge staring at the space where the artwork had stood. "Hul's jaloers." Indeed, although Wilderman refused to name the complainants, one gets the impression that the 'for example two woman driving past in a car' were probably white.

The Bitou Municipality, ably headed by Wilderman and municipal manager George Seitisho, has its work cut out in balancing the widely disparate demands of their many constituencies. The local community comprises small traders, businesspeople, a few professionals and some farmers.

But then there is also an army of people who service the needs of the most self-important community of all; the millionaires, billionaires and gazillionaires who flock to Plett's sunny shores to fritter away their youth in careless pleasures, only to depart again as suddenly as they have come. Locals are generally left drained and exhausted by their inexorable demands, but happy for the cash.

Some dedicate their time, money and skills to improving the local community. But there are the racists too, who, still convinced of their superiority, have a habit of making snide asides to anybody who can stomach it; 'of course, they will **** it up, if they can' - meaning, a municipality run by people who aren't white can't possibly get it together. But could municipality pay people enough to afford housing in Plett?

I'm sure that even in the city, your average town planner can't afford a 'little rural hideaway' for R3.5 million. The fact that there are serious logistical problems to solve in a town with a skills shortage, a water shortage, a hectic unemployment problem, and a monstrous housing boom under way, is apparently no reason to demonstrate a little patience.

The successes tend to be overlooked. In Wittedrif, a pleasant-looking, well-run school now stands where a dilapidated old building used to list like a three-day-old babelaas. Effective speed control along the Garden Route where wreaths used to sprinkle the way like lilies of the Valley in Autumn, makes the long drive actually safe and pleasant. A process is underway, which will give incentives to developers and property owners to develop in accordance with an overall conceptual plan, which once effected, will transform the town substantially, making it a friendlier, more pleasant place in which to work, live, and interact.

And, mirabulis eccu, 'they' are still apparently succeeding in convincing a populace whose autochthonous traditions are abhorrent of inequality, that it is in their best interest to vote for a structure which facilitates the building of R27 million holiday homes by the sea, pleading the usual trickle effect.

On a national level, 'they' have also demonstrated a depth of forbearance which frankly leaves every single Western democracy in history standing. As a friend put it recently, "If I knew what Thabo knows, I would have gone mad long ago". Defusing rogue reactionary elements employing mercenaries, covering over the cracks in the wall behind which stand a multiplicity of abuses yet to be accounted for, so that we can get on with the business of agreeing to live together. So much has been done for the complainants already. Yet the moaning continues.

So it is not surprising that a municipality which faces uphill battles every day, in, for example, raising levies on services (Why should we pay for them to live) should find it expedient to satisfy the moaners by sorting out a problem which could be easily solved by four men, a bakkie and a boat in a couple of hours. Your friendly municipality acting in your interest. Job creation. Something which can be done to alleviate the anxiety of living in a democracy.

It is the nature of conceptual art to tap into people's emotions and to lay bare their prejudices, and De Wet has clearly struck a crucial nerve in the body politic. The responses were passionate, both for and against. For example, a local businessman was so upset by the removal of the artwork that he set his alarm clock for 3 am, got his boat, his torch, a paintbrush and some paint and, accompanied by his daughter, was about to embark on a graffiti mission to reinstate the missing letters.

He stopped only when he had the thought that whatever he did could only constitute an insult to the original. When it was laughingly suggested that he might have landed in jail for his efforts, he said emphatically that he would gladly have done so. Clearly, we are dealing with powerful feelings here.

And the passion against? What is it about the word GOD that is so deeply offensive to some? As we have freedom of worship underwritten in our constitution, its secular nature also guarantees freedom simply not to worship, if that is your preference. Had Barend placed an AIDS memorial at the intersection of the valley, as somebody once suggested, would the response have been different? Would political correctness have guaranteed the safety of the piece?

Perhaps the arguments are environmental. The Bitou wetland is one of the last undisturbed freshwater estuaries in the country and is famed for the variety of its birdlife, which includes several Red Data species. It will not last long, given the current rate of development, and people are angry about this. A woman passing in a canoe suggested, as de Wet was installing the piece, that his time would be better-spent planting trees. "That I also do," said the artist, "But not here."

Yet no animal or bird could possibly have been disturbed by the placement of the artwork. A bit of glue, a bit of sheet metal; humble, really, in comparison to the monstrosity on the opposite bank, being some kind of mausoleum offering entrance to a bizarre homestead, which, now, being further developed, is entirely legally carving up a wetland supposedly protected by law.

Or is it that, in a town overburdened by architectural follies of every description, against which even a duly constituted Aesthetics Committee can only meekly whimper, a frustrated public chose to vent their anger because they spied a target that would easily fall? In the centre of Plettenberg Bay stands a sculpture of a dolphin, erected with public permission.

It is a prosaic piece of work, inexorably marking the town as the parochial backwater it actually is. This, like planting trees on top of defunct bridges, is not what De Wet does. Perhaps he knew he was taking a chance, relying on the word of a woman who thought she owned the water. Public permission could have meant years of exhausting paperwork, and would probably never have been granted anyway, so the old anarchist resurrected itself in him and went ahead despite.

My guess is that all these reasons will be cited as the cause of the resentment against de Wet's work. But the common cause, I suspect, is a deep unease with the very notion of God. Many people hold strong - warranted - suspicions at the way that the notion of God has, historically, been manipulated toward the attainment of base purposes.

Bibles and poison blankets, acts of terrorism, acts of genocide, acts of slaughter; these things remain prominent in the minds of reasonable people who abhor the poverty, who abhor the global sickness, who abhor the waste. Churches, monasteries, mosques, synagogues - all these institutions, at some point, can and have been held accountable for the reduction in human freedom and for the countless miseries inflicted by humanity on humanity.

The iconoclast de Wet, in refusing to identify with sectarian purposes, in expressing in every act of his life the very opinion of the anti-religious lobby which tore him down, and then in nevertheless autonomously choosing to speak the Name of his own free will, has defied every known law of intellectual property, and has paid the price.

And the lovers of the artpiece? Those who saw the creation reflected in the morning sun, the word reflected on the still water, who dared not, even in their anger, embark on any action, which would distress the perfection of the original? Surely they are lovers of life!

It is a visible fact that people are helped by being in communities where they can evaluate their moral lives and actions in sober contemplation; the results are clear on their faces when they return from cleansing their bodies and their attitudes in whichever way they elect to do so. They may do it by the river at night when the eels are summoned, sending sparks of electricity through the flesh; or in the Temple, where they dance until they are pure crazy; or in the monastery, where they prostrate themselves; or in the Mosque, or Synagogue; or in ceremonies on the plains of the Sierra; all the many cultures of the world have different modes of expression, but in almost every case, the impulse is similar.

Is it wrong to encourage the living, to be the best we can be, to be free, to be flexible, to observe constraint, to reflect, to be passionate whilst observing good sense, to demonstrate compassion, to exemplify justice in thought and action, to educate ourselves? The hope residing in these principles, I am sure, is what the businessman saw being torn down, and this is why he was nearly driven to a desperate act - and also, paradoxically, why he was prevented from carrying it out.

So the work proved ephemeral, like the flight of birds, or the shimmer of fish. There is only one photograph of it. The rest have gone overseas with a passing visitor. We thought we would have time, to capture it. We never did, except in our imaginations, where it will remain. The three columns now standing bare recede back to what they were; grey, unloved, unimaginative reminders of the time when the destruction of the valley commenced.

Such fury over a little artwork, which was so easy to take down, in the end. It was a simple gift, from a humble African man. Some accepted the gift, some refused it. That is also simple. But if we can disagree so strongly about a little word, how are we ever going to pull together, to help ourselves by helping others, to assist the dying, to put a stop to the damn poverty reflected in the eyes of so many discarded children?

To curb the excesses of those who abuse their power? To enact justice in our institutions? If we allow ourselves to be blinded by racism and prejudice, how are we going to see the bigger picture clearly, and galvanize ourselves to act? We have it all; the tools, the concepts, a glowing sense of pride in our nation.

But time - this one thing we do not have in abundance, against the growing discontent of the multitudes, which, unless we are seriously deaf, can be heard in whispers on every street corner. Art can be play, as it can be serious; it can even be both in the same moment. But even holidays come to an end, as every schoolchild knows.

There really is work to be done.