Recovering a productive discourse on ‘public art’, memory and memorialisation in South Africa, via an un-covering of the societal currency inherent in Wim Botha’s studio
The springboard for the titular idea, centred on recovering through un-covering, is Wim Botha’s most recent solo show at Stevenson, Johannesburg. The exhibition employs a rigorous undoing – of one of Michelangelo’s most recognisable works, his first Pietà (1499) – via a careful choreography of oil and ink sketches which orbit the sculptural anchors of the show. What I enjoy the most about this particular exhibition is that, to ‘get it’, one has to work particularly hard. In contemplating the writing of this piece, I tried to think of an appropriate analogy for the time I spent mentally and physically immersed in the work. And here is the analogy I settle on: I was a pinball, working hard to stay on the exhibition’s loaded playing field, until I was satisfied to let myself slip out of Botha’s artistic ‘machine’ back onto the mundane streets of Braamfontein.
The above line-driven analogy is by no means a whimsical one. For me it satisfactorily nears an appropriate descriptor for an emergent visual syntax: a structure which arises from the sensorial and elastic toing-and-froing one exercises as one’s body, eye and mind ricochet between Botha’s sculptures and sketches, producing an invisible drawing of an inadvertently cognitive-cum-performative nature. On the night of the opening the conceptual tautness of the complex trajectories the artist has set up in his sophisticated mixed media galaxy was upset by a range of superficial modes of opening-night-consumption: for example, loose, rambling and lazy stylistic comparisons with the blob-like arrangements of oil which reside on recent Zander Blom canvasses. Returning to the space a few days later I am alone and able to set about to forensically distil a more useful reading of Botha’s spatial operations.
My (then) subconscious pinball state, allowed me the contemplative focus required for a very gratifying combination of sometimes Apollonian, sometimes Dionysian bouncing. The fluid and invisible floor drawings which resulted from my circumnavigatory musings on Botha’s relational undoings of Michelangelo’s original have since burnt themselves into my memory in the form of a fantastical irritant. If these automatically ephemeral drawings of questioning appraisal were to be visualised, more concretely, they would likely be crystallisations bearing a fractal-like correspondence with Botha’s sculpture Untitled (line drawing) (2015). In fact, the press release for the exhibition describes this dynamically plastic work as ‘a drawing in three dimensions.’ For the curious visitor – willing to do the work which this show elicits – the entanglement of lines traced and ‘drawn’ with one’s feet, in my view at least, begins to delineate an momentary version of a loaded blue-print; a code of attempted access to what one is seeing, experiencing and ultimately performing. Passive viewership has no currency here.
Botha’s work seldom, if ever, leaves the relatively safe confines of the gallery space. I want to provoke the tracing of a line between the cathedral-like cube, holding – as if a crypt – Botha’s current set of sacred subversions, and the territory of the everyday urban condition of all of South Africa’s cities beyond the thresholds of galleries. I believe that public art, particularly the recent dot-joining and blind-spot-filling necessary spate of erasing tendencies of the local memorial typology, could glean much from the rigorous and uncompromisingly analytical nature of Botha’s practice. I am not suggesting that the artist unleashes his canny and often wry intellect, and its formal translations, on the public realm (although the relatively dire landscape describing the physical and discursive conundrum South African public art currently finds itself in could certainly use some help). What I am advancing is that critical works of writing and interpretative translation – of the artist’s manifest works and the subjective ‘blue-prints’ of attempted understanding we trace around them – may expose lines of enquiry able to productively pierce the reified gallery envelope. Rupturing the self-conscious white cube is in this way is useful, I believe, as it facilitates new lines of questioning which have the potential to disrupt the largely default binary state of reductiveness the discourse on public art is stuck within. More specifically, as indicated in the title, it supports stimulating debate around important socio-political phenomena to do with memory, memorials and memorialisation, such as the revealing emergent discourse around the topical #RhodesMustFall saga.
In this sense what I’m suggesting is that the elastic relationship between Botha’s drawings and sculptural works, within the neat Cartesian grid of the Stevenson Gallery, should be extended to a propositional line of questioning regarding the contemporary role of the practice of sculpture, form- and image-making at large; a line which connects and infects physical public space and its attendant discourses outside the padded space of the while cube. I believe that Botha’s current body of work is excellently suited to such an exercise. Beyond-the-gallery readings of his work have been limited from the get-go, because of – by the artist’s own admission, and the textual cementing of this admission by critics in the past – his compulsion to explore classicist motifs and use these as starting points for formal, symbolic and art historical lines of enquiry. This particular body of work though, despite its occasional loyalty to classicist figuration (in some of the ink and the oil drawings), represents a significant turning point in the artist’s practice, in terms of what we may learn from it.
What Botha’s current set of formalistically contra-sculptural works do, in conjunction with the 119 sketches surrounding them, is to strip down the almost otherworldly precision of Michelangelo’s original Pietà, not to its essence necessarily, but to a skeletal nakedness. Botha’s sculptural mass-to-line distillation puts the classic sculpture tradition, to which the recently dislodged Rhodes memorial also belongs, squarely on the operating table. This move amounts to no less than a sculptural autopsy, echoing Michelangelo’s secretive nocturnal visits to the morgues of his day in his pursuits to interrogate what lies under the skin of his subjects. A good dose of Botha’s intelligent formal deconstructions and discardings of pristinely classicist surfaces is what is needed to challenge the oversimplified and reductive landscape of representation which has plagued our public spaces for so long. Such a rigorous approach, in considering an alternative and inclusive questioning of the programming of memorialisation, and of ‘art’ in the public realm at large, would contribute a much needed stance against the aesthetic flattening of a country so rich in political, social and cultural complexity as ours.
In conclusion, I use ‘uncovering’ in the title of this piece as a reference to the ‘apocalyptic’ themes Botha has addressed in his work in the past. The latter word is often too narrowly read, even completely misunderstood. At its core it is more revelatory than cataclysmic. Botha’s work consistently uncovers and questions. It offers a contra point to the reductively ceremonious act of ‘unveiling’ (a commemorative sculpture, for example, towards some political or corporate end), which has a finite register proffering a false sense of accomplishment, where everybody goes home after passively witnessing the cutting of a ribbon and forcing down a bad selection of over-priced finger food. The important critical mode of recurrent uncovering, embodied in this show and in Botha’s oeuvre at large, is what ‘art’ needs to do, always. It needs to do this in the gallery, yes, but particularly in the ‘gallery’ of everyday life: in the civic and media realms of exchange we navigate and are subjected to, the status quo of which we are still, I believe, generally far too uncritical of.
Based in Johannesburg, Alexander Opper teaches architecture in the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA). In addition to his educator-role, he is a writer, artist, architect, curator, and designer; most importantly, an occasional gardener.