When I jokingly ask Richard John Forbes whether his preoccupation with making big things is a compensatory act, the artist tells me that he is as interested in ‘minuments’ – the term is Anthony Gormley’s, and, like Gormley, Forbes loves big things, even when made up of thousands of little ones. But it is not scale per se which preoccupies him. Unlike the US’s current leader, he is no demented narcissist who, following the tragedy of September 11, declared that Trump Tower is now the tallest building in New York. No. For Forbes, scale is associated with the imagination, and with an absurdist humour, for what compels the artist most is the desire to lift the spirits.
In a disconsolate, curmudgeonly, and bitter age, one in which we are driven into opposed camps, and in which it is impossible for oneself, let alone the other, to think, Forbes’s talent is to allow us to drop our guard. His wittily titled Shy Restrained Pink Thing is anything but shy or restrained. A dirigible, or more familiarly, an inflatable blimp, Forbes’s portable work has travelled to Australia’s east coast, the central plains of America, Switzerland, and across South Africa. In a three-minute film, Forbes’s Shy Thing breaks loose and rolls across the plain. The artist does not chase after it, but allows it to drift into the great yonder. The film is unrestrained and beautiful, for at its heart there lies the celebration of liberty.
On a wet New Year’s Eve at the Nirox Residency, in the Cradle of Humankind north of Johannesburg, Forbes decided to inflate his Shy Thing. Pressed against the residency wall, cheek-by-jowl, the oddity of it all provoked what we all wish for on that portentous eve – joy, hope, possibility. And it is Forbes’s instinctive understanding of these yearnings which, to my mind, sets him apart from artists who think too deeply, or who shamelessly parade their publicly agreed upon grievances. This is because Forbes is neither a conceptual or a statement artist. It is neither the Idea that moves him, nor is it the political principle. Rather, a more humane register assumes dominance, for what Forbes embraces more fervently is what Roman Krznaric has dubbed an ‘empathic revolution’ and Paul Gilroy a ‘planetary humanism’.
Forbes is interested in what connects people irrespective of the categories deemed adamantine – social station, gender, or race. And the gel which makes this possible is joy. Forbes does not seek to understand people – to create a platform for understanding – but to allow a space for what is uninhibited within us, that which cannot be reasoned or controlled.
In a forest, while at the Alps Art Academy in Switzerland, Forbes chose to install a wooden revolving door along a deer path. Once again it is absurdism which holds sway. But then, Forbes is also reminding us of the circumscription of movement – doors as designated points of entry and exit – and of the comparative freedom which a labyrinthine forest affords. Positioned on a forest pathway, one can either bypass the revolving door or pass through it, but what one cannot ignore is its dissonant presence. As for the deer?
Absurdism emerged in Europe after the First World War, spawning Dada, Futurism, Surrealism, amongst other art movements. At its root lay trauma, for as the ethnographer James Clifford reminds us, after the First World War the world became permanently surreal. If Forbes has inherited this tradition it is, in part, because he too recognises the persistence of trauma, and the need to counter it. And yet, in his art works I do not detect the bitterness and despair one associates with earlier post-war art movements. Unlike Marinetti, say, Forbes would not declare war as the ultimate hygienic act. This is because Forbes is no latent fascist – a tendency dominant today, evident in the global rise of tribalism, nativism, populism, or anti-cosmopolitanism. On the contrary, the root of Forbes’s absurdism lies in the artist’s compassion.
A forthcoming work, titled Crying Booth, sums up this desire on the artist’s part to allow human beings to be, to release themselves from their grievances, or to exult in their joy. It will be positioned somewhere in the Karoo – South Africa’s semi-desert – says Forbes. It may be painted Vantablack – Anish Kapoor’s favoured colour – or it may be fire-engine red. However, while the colour, or even the final shape, remains unclear, what is certain is that we need to mourn, to weep, be it for the land, oneself, or another. This is because pain is inescapable, despite the artist’s desire to divert us from its inconsolable presence. But then, it is Forbes’s approach to the reality of pain which matters. His Crying Booth, like his revolving door, are structures prepared for ritualistic acts. They frame and momentarily house an act conducted in passing, because one must, and one can, work oneself through a loss, a lack, a confusion, or a fear.
Forbes’s art, then, is fundamentally consolatory. His Wasp’s nest, copied precisely on a large scale, is another instance of this benign quality, for it is not the threat or phobia generated by wasps – their sting as it were – but the elegant design of their home with its many fluted mouths and elongated and structured flow which inspired the artist. That he also chose to transform its many gaping mouths into sounding boxes once again reminds us that everything can be returned to song, to voice – a human echo. Forbes’s premise, here, is not that the human is primary, but that humanity can only be truly embraced and understood when perceived as part of a greater continuum and cycle of life.
When we spoke on New Year’s Eve, Forbes was in the thick of yet another monumental project which, provisionally, he has called Dervish. Like so many of Forbes’s structures, this one too is a dirigible – an object capable of being steered, guided, or directed. This is because motion – and emotion – is central to all that Forbes creates.
On this occasion the artist has chosen to exploit the weir at the Nirox residency. He will use the water-wheels to generate a lathe that cuts an assemblage of milled tree trunks into the shape of a spinning top – hence the dervish, a Sufi acolyte who, by spinning, arrives at a redemptive illumination. More prosaically, however, Forbes is simply preoccupied with moving things. If the word – dirigible – feels quaint, it is because one associates it with the early era of flight – with the Zeppelin, say, or, even earlier, with steam punk or the earliest throes of the industrial age. For there is something distinctively hand-hewn or visibly mechanical about Forbes’s works, and along with it, and endearingly so, something distinctively whimsical.
Once the spinning top has been carved it will be spun by a team of rugby players, says Forbes. Once again it is the absurdity of it all that strikes one, for Forbes hopes to spin the top on an ice rink, the cuts scored on the ice as a nod perhaps to Cy Twombly, or to Jackson Pollock, otherwise known as ‘Jack the Dripper’. This is because Forbes is far more interested in art as an event – as something which acts upon us, within us, that moves us – what he calls art’s ‘moreness’.