Southern Guild, Cape Town
14.11.2019 – 30.01.2020
‘A medieval association of craftsmen or merchants, often having considerable power’, a guild typifies the interface of economics and design. As to how ‘considerable’ that power is today is indisputable. No longer simply a ‘profession’, as László Moholy-Nagy predicted, design is an ‘attitude’ – a way of living, an assumption about what matters. Ron Arad, Marc Newson, Ettore Sottsass, and Zaha Hadid are some of the celebrated designers whose objects are championed as perfected and synergetic fusions of emotion and form. It is this conflation, over and above function, which defines our age. We want things that not only work but bind and extend us, and convey what we long for most – our sublimity. Rarefaction is the name of the game. Our houses – or rather, the houses of those who can afford it – are elegantly punctuated with objects whose beauty surpass their function. A gas-hob, light fixture, table counter – things that occupy a home’s nervous centre, the kitchen – have assumed a sacred dimension. No mere hearth, the home is the engine room of aspiration and desire.
There are contesting views as to what this might mean, and whether this predilection is truly good for one. For the Viennese pioneer of modern architecture, Adolf Loos, design supposes a life shorn of ornament and affectation. Loos loathed objects he saw as disfigured by a representational idea of itself. ‘Nothing in nature is superfluous’, he noted, ‘the degree of usefulness, together with harmony with the other parts, is beauty’, or, as I prefer to see it, sublimity. Beauty is a pit-stop, a drive-by, never the essence of a thing. The eighteenth century German poet and aesthete, Friedrich Schiller, expresses this view pithily – ‘The sublime affords us an egress from the sensuous world in which the beautiful would gladly hold us forever captive’. Sublimity liberates, beauty ensnares.At the Waterfront, en route to a meeting with Koyo Kouoh, the executive director of Zeitz MOCAA, I stopped at Southern Guild, South Africa’s premier home of design. The beauty of the signage caught my eye – thin bars and boldly rounded steel letters against a raw grey wall – but its emporia sheathed in sparkling glass drew me in. A showroom and exhibition space, Southern Guild’s Waterfront hub exemplifies the splice of business and art. Its current exhibition is entitled ‘Communion’, a sacramental affirmation of the business’s core – mysticism, awe, function, beauty. ‘Complimenting this spiritual focus is a strong awareness of the body’, the wall text read, for it seems that we can no longer possess one dimension without the other, unsurprising given the ruinous time in which we live, mired in conflict and a staggering disregard for the human. Earthiness distinguished the works on display by Andile Dyalvane, Madoda Fani, Rich Mnisi, and Zizipho Poswa, sharply juxtaposed by the plasticity of a Justine Mahoney collage and Chris Soal’s mandala made from bottle tops. I found myself caught between glitter and loam, contamination and fecundity, the inevitable mix and bleak paradox of our Anthropocene age.
The Guild’s manifesto, bolted to the entrance to their office, affirmed a commitment to a ‘courage … independent and disruptive’, that ‘only knows forward … to create a sublime kind of new’. Notwithstanding a prevailing taste for a Steve Jobsian inarticulacy, the sentiment is sound. ‘A sublime kind of new’ has been around for over two centuries, championed by Friedrich Schiller, Edmund Burke, and others, but the obsessiveness of its current focus deserves our attention. As the earth teeters before an abyss and unkindness gains traction, it is artists that embrace health who matter most. Zizipho Poswa and Chris Soal may seem markedly different, but what links them is the need for warmth and attentiveness in this punitive time.
Moved by the positivity of the exhibition, I ventured into the showroom, and, passing the Guild’s office, saw a blob of facetted blue glass which I thought exquisite. The work had recently been sold, Theo Absolon informed me. Struck by my keen interest he kindly extracted it from its recess and placed it before me. I was smitten. ‘I stumbled When I saw’, Gloucester cries in King Lear, and something to this effect had happened to me, for this was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in ages. I imagined my ashes placed inside of it, my life fired down to grit buoyed within shimmering blue glass. Morbid, I know, but it was the ‘egress’ this object inspired – ‘the action of going out of or leaving a place’ – that reinforced the transitory nature of beauty and the eternality of the sublime.
The maker was David Reade. I was heartened to learn two days later, visiting him in his studio in Worcester, that his vases were occasionally used for just such a purpose – as ‘ashes in glass’ – modular forms to enshrine life’s passing. Reade introduced me to his staff whom he has trained and who have worked with him for fifteen years. In his studio, which dates back to 1790, I saw variants of that same blue vessel smoothed with silica carbide, cut with a rough grind, their edges polished and sharpened to generate more light. Like Loos, Reade is a ‘lover of simplicity’. Danish design is a passion. I saw a pre-war lathe used for rippled patterns, round-bars of coloured glass shipped from Germany and America, a nub fused with clear glass to create a particular palette. When I asked if he had a favourite colour, the master glass blower told me ‘there is no such thing’.
It is curious that the most vital element in his alchemy – SiO₂, a fine-grained mineral and rock fragment comprised of silica and oxygen – is found in abundance on the Western ‘Cape Flats’. A road is named after the substance, a ‘sand industria’ built around it. Water filtration systems, horse racing tracks, floor coating, waterproofing, artificial grass, golf courses and playpens are some of the uses to which it is put. Sourced from a region considered arid and inessential – hence a dumpsite for those disenfranchised – this mineral is integral to Cape Town’s operation as a site of leisure. After all, from the point of view of its biggest industry – tourism – the city is a playpen. That its existence as a pleasure dome depends on this negated world is unsurprising. Glamour and poverty is a hideous inevitability in an industrial, now supposedly ‘post-industrial’ world, in which ‘alienated labour’ persists, the worker never in possession of their fate, never free to do or be what they will.
Though this is not the case in Reade’s cottage industry, reliant as he is on four fellow glass-blowers whom he has trained, one cannot consider the design world without admitting its dark side. That Adolf Loos should speak of ‘ornament and crime’, or Hal Foster of ‘design and crime’, should remind us that things come with consequences. What concerned Loos, however, was not the object per se but its gaudy ornamentation. And it seems that this pursuit of purity, despite its hefty price tag, is worth the struggle. Things, in short, are not bad for one. It is how one engages with them, why one makes them, that matters. If ‘nothing in nature is superfluous’, it is the uses to which that nature is put that counts. Horse racing tracks and golf courses are not to my liking. However, glass blowing – in which silica is an essential ingredient – is.
‘It is senseless to speak of morality when discussing art’, Sally Mann notes in her memoir, Hold Still, and yet I have. The place of morality in art is not so easily discounted. What one values comes at a cost. However, I must concur with Mann, and with Koyo Kouoh with whom this very matter arose, that one cannot ignore the overlay of morality and art. This, after all, is not a clear and clean time. While a Danish aesthetic is appealing this is South Africa, a country brutalised and disfigured, in which art and its uses is caught in the stranglehold of an exacting scrutiny. As Sally Mann notes, ‘If we only revere works made by those with whom we’d happily have our granny share a train compartment, we will have a paucity of art’. The question is whether or not you agree.