Barnard Gallery, Cape Town
22.08 – 19.09.2017
Jaco van Schalkwyk’s solo exhibition, -arium, recently finished its exhibition run at Cape Town’s Barnard Gallery. Natasha Norman caught up with artist visiting from Johannesburg to discuss his interest in collecting images on a cellphone, the Cabinet of Curiosities, the ‘othering’ of cultures and the self-reflexive task of being a South African artist.
Natasha Norman: One of the things that really struck me when I walked into your show was that it had been a long time since I had seen an exhibition with as much depth of thought that was also so accessible to a viewer.
Jaco van Schalkwyk: It is a very complex show. When you enter the space you become a participant and that was my whole idea. It comes from the context of the Western idea of the museum where usually things are behind glass. So when you come towards the gallery, you see the Cabinet of Curiosity or the Museum behind glass but then you enter and participate in some of the works.
NN: You have described this as a Still Life exhibition.
JVS: Yes. Even the landscape becomes a Still Life. In Pteridomania I took a photo of a real Vietnamese natural jungle scene on my cellphone. Back in studio, I developed the photograph and took it into the garden, taking a new photograph on my cellphone as though the printed photograph was a prop in the garden theatre. I developed a painting from that image of the photo in the garden, which is what you see in the gallery. To further that process, I took the finished painting into the garden again and had it re-photographed by a professional photographer. So it’s in that ongoing process that objects or images become completely different things.
NN: The photograph as a still life object. You are estranging that photographic object through the representation of itself.
JVS: Yes. In digital photography I’ve heard that every time you process an image or email it there is some digital information that gets lost so that it changes the actual image.
NN: I think it’s called digital attrition.
JVS: That process is something I compare to the idea of collecting. Collecting, in my opinion, is a deconstructive practice. You take the object from its original context via photography, or physically, and you take it to a new context so immediately you change that object and its meaning. This brings us to the idea of Colonialism and the power over things, the objectification of things, how we change the object but also how it can change us as well.
NN: You’ve drawn on the context of the gallery space and the ethnographic museum, but in your show the objects are not easily contained. When I walked into the Pitt Rivers Museum, even though it was overwhelming and there were lots of objects, as a viewer I felt very in control of how I was progressing through the space. All the objects were contained by their cases and their curation. What struck me when I walked into -arium was that I felt vulnerable to the works themselves. I felt objectified by the gaze of subjects in paintings, through lenses back at me, or by their refusal to gaze at me as though I was inconsequential.
JVS: But it’s very subtle, I hope. Most people would come in and see an exhibition that would appear to be exotic. Ideas and an interest in the exotic still exists, despite how problematic the term is. I don’t think it will disappear. If I look at my own surroundings in Randburg, that area was formally a totally white suburb but has now changed by being populated by West African immigrants. So it’s not just happening in Syria where people are moving to Europe, there is also a huge migration happening in Africa.
NN: You were talking about putting yourself into the exhibition. I found the paintings, Tante Lang and Speaking for You two very touching moments in the show. It made me aware that through the cellphone camera and the current craze of taking selfies and instagraming, we are Othering ourselves. Those two rather tender paintings alerted me to how you are not just looking at other cultures you are also looking at yourself.
JVS: I must say that did start happening after I travelled to the East, specifically. After my visit to the East I had this guilty urge to portray the other. I took photographs, always with permission, sometimes in collaboration with the subject – choosing backgrounds etc. The painting, Speaking for You, is of my mother’s hand. She is very ill at the moment, more in hospital than out. Having come back from the East, I started to look at that space of my mother as something also exotic in its own right. It was hard for me to paint that because I was exposing my most private space. Even death becomes objectified or romanticised through the cellphone. But I thought I have to sacrifice that. If I want to portray others, I have to sacrifice that most private space.
It’s why I have also included the actual cellphone in the exhibition, where it becomes a voyeuristic moment for the viewer to be able to look at my looking at others or myself on my cellphone. It’s like reading someone else’s letters or looking at what someone else is reading or looking at on their phone on the train. It’s a voyeuristic pleasure. And I allow the viewer that voyeurism with my own cellphone.
NN: Yes, with your video work that aspect of voyeurism becomes very tangible to a viewer. I suddenly became aware that, “Oh my gosh, I’m looking over this guy’s shoulder at his things.” It’s a beautiful self-reflexive moment. Isn’t that what one does when looking at another culture’s things?
JVS: I think that’s an important moment in this show. Literally, every painting that is in this exhibition came from my cellphone. I hope it is a reflection on how we go about using our cellphones. Do we do it with respect?
NN: You are a painter who paints in realism but you are exhibiting at a time in Cape Town when the trend in painting is for very loose, watery surfaces. You have also collaborated with a sculpture, which I think has attributed to the success in the show where painting has met sculptural form. Who was the sculptor you collaborated with?
JVS: I collaborated with three artists. I worked with Alain Laing for the wooden sculptures with painting. I worked with Gustaf Tempelhoff on the digital works and for the finer, smaller works I collaborated with a jeweller, Constance van Loggerenberg.
NN: I’m fascinated by that process and I think it has greatly added to the success of the show. How was that collaborative process for you?
JVS: Working with the Cabinet of Curiosities I realised I needed objects. Painting I could do up to a point, I could include objects in the paintings but it’s limited. I knew it needed to go further. My realism needed to go from the canvas into sculpture: to push that limit of two and three dimension. To push the idea of realism because that is what we do as painters we create illusions on a two dimensional surface.
So I’m shifting that which I feel speaks to the contemporary. And collaboration is something contemporary. It challenges the idea of the individual and the “solo”. I have no problem with that or with giving credit to my collaborators because I know it’s not my forte. I think sculpturally and I conceptualise sculpturally but I’m not technically skilled in woodwork or jewellery. I’m a painter, that’s what I’m good at.
I made 3D prints with Gustaf Tempelhoff who has a very open and experimental mind. We scanned some of the three-dimensional objects in the show – some found objects, some created objects – and we scanned them through his cellphone. The data from the cellphone was fed into a programme where we could manipulate the forms in digital three-dimension. So we could sculpt digitally. What a fantastic idea! So that idea of change through digital processes comes in again.
NN: Could we use the word ‘translation’?
JVS: Ja! Beautiful word. Exactly, it’s translation. Exoticism and the other are all about language and how it is translated. Some information gets lost. But some truths stay the same. You will see in the publication launched with this exhibition that I have included a poem by a Burmese poet, written in English. I think as one reads through it one can see it is a translated poem. There is also a poem by the Afrikaans poet, Johan Myburg. I am Afrikaans and I think the idea of the Cabinet of Curiosities has a different nuance in the Afrikaans culture.
NN: Can you try and articulate that?
JVS: Johan Myburg writes that growing up as a child on the farm or visiting other farms, he remembers a showcase. He describes walking on the wooden floors of the farmhouse. As soon as the wooden floor moves, the objects inside the showcase start to move and he describes them as having conversations. That description was the inspiration behind the work Retroquire xiGubu where the viewer is required to press the drum pedal so that the objects start moving. Bringing something into motion so that there is conversation.
NN: I was looking at this idea of hybridity and the exotic, obviously you are a white artist working in a particular space. And I’m going to put you on the spot with a quote from Richard Dyer’s 1997 Routlege text, White. He observes that: “Postmodern multiculturalism may have genuinely opened up a space for the voices of the other, challenging the authority of the white West, but it may also simulaneously function as a side-show for white people who look on with delight at all the differences that surround them.”
JVS: Very true and I wouldn’t try and excuse myself from that. Because I’m white, I’m male and I’m very aware of that. When I travelled to Myanmar, earlier this year, I became aware of being the historical perpetrator in that space. The workshop was about trauma, transformation and violent memories in countries like South Africa and Cambodia. When I was there I knew that I was not the victim from my space. Some of the artists there were dissident poets who had to sit in prison for their work. So I knew I was going there as the white male perpetrator, the Colonialist from Africa.
I was scared to go and confront myself in that space but I went there and did that. And I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t be able to excuse myself from this. My predecessors did this, I may still do this in unconscious ways, but to try and have the awareness – that is the only thing I can do. I can say, sorry, and listen. Listen to what the victum has to say. I think that is important in South Africa. We do not listen enough to each other. As an artist I try to just be aware.
I know that in the end my work will be in a totally Western gallery, in an elitist gallery in the sense that all galleries can be seen to be elitist – even the Zeitz MOCAA – we paint for people with money. I produce a product and that will be, hopefully, bought by someone. It’s a consumerist economy of culture. But in an exhibition like this, one has a platform, as an artist, to raise or bring awareness. I think one needs to be honest, at least. I am honest that I have been the voyeur in someone else’s culture. I went into their temples and I took a picture of their floor or their shop or their sacred or most religious items. Would I like it if they did the same in my culture?