08.08 - 08.09.2020
When I was younger, and computers were just beginning to penetrate South African suburban culture, I played around on Microsoft Word, as did everyone who couldn’t afford a copy of Duke Nukem. At the bottom of the screen, in the ribbon, was a little cube icon: it turned out that one could click on it and drop an image of a cube into the document, presumably to make one’s geometry task more interesting. I distinctly remember looking at the perspective of this little icon and realizing that it didn’t totally conform to what I would later learn was Brunelleschi’s rules of linear perspective: the orthogonal lines didn’t look as if they receded towards a vanishing point. I felt superior, thinking I had an inside track on the way the visual world worked, and that Bill Gates’s techies didn’t quite get it the way we art people did.
So, it was a difficult realization to have that even Brunelleschi’s canon was a construct. Renaissance perspective is but one (albeit pervasive) means of assembling the world. The journey that many of us with Eurocentric education face is one of unlearning, or at least mitigating the dominance of a European worldview.
This seems to be the task with which Gerhard Marx grapples in his show ‘Near Distant’. Marx states, in one of five wall texts that form part of the exhibition, ‘I have started to see this project as being inherently political, a project of undoing; of unmaking categories; of unmaking the viewer’s centrality as implied by perspective’. Indeed, the works bear out this claim: images of interrupted and mutated linear perspective abound. One moment they lure you in, the next, they thwart your expectation of how things will turn out. There is a resonance between these works and Analytical Cubism, but where Picasso and Braque were interrogating the traditional ‘interior’ and ‘still-life’ genres, Marx seems concerned with the city as a physical and conceptual space.
The series One thing, then another, of which there were four on show, read as intentional subversions of the cube, that central trope of the city block. Instead of clarifying spatial recession, Marx’s images intentionally jumble it, as if multiple views were superimposed over one another. As one nears the works, one sees that they are made in Marx’s signature method of reconfiguring printed maps. The mere fact of Marx cutting up and reconstituting maps has long been a way to reconstitute our sense of spatial reality. Earlier in his career, however, the images he rendered in this method were organic: skulls, dead flowers, body parts. Now, his approach feels even more fundamentally subversive: using the logic of the city grid to upend its organization of space.
To live in a city outside of Europe or the USA is, one could argue, to have a heightened sense of the challenge to Renaissance perspective. In South Africa, hastily-constructed settlements, often growing up in the wake of Apartheid’s constrictive Group Areas laws, have come to embody a sense of necessity, rather than an ideal. Departing from the gridded matrix, informal areas appear to break with the hegemony of Renaissance perspective and ordering quite effortlessly, responding instead to the needs of the users and the relative paucity of resources, rather than expressing an ideological position. It’s worth remembering that in 2013, Marx produced a monumental work, Vertical Aerial – Johannesburg, an aerial view of the Johannesburg city centre rendered in mosaic on a large surface. This work clearly takes in the grid of Johannesburg, but at the same time seems to subvert it playfully in the work’s strange, angled surface.
The philosophical implications of a city that looks so different to that early Renaissance trope, ‘The Ideal City’, are clear: to live so far away from the centres where such ideals were constructed (Rome, Florence, Urbino) is to live differently to the way they posited. Marx seems to be arguing for a fresh understanding of how we think about urban space. If 1970s artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts, which he termed ‘anarchitecture’, marked a symbolic puncturing of the profession for which he had trained, then Marx seems to be breaking the rules of linear perspective from the history of art, seemingly to dismantle their power and allow for something new to replace them. As the show statement says, Marx is concerned with ‘transforming visual certainties into new spatial imaginaries.’ What this ‘something new’ might be is unclear, and perhaps it needs to remain so: in another part of his statement, Marx states ‘Distance would dissolve the crisp outlines of things seen up close…’; and elsewhere, ‘distance is an open space for longing… a space of blurred certainty.’
Of course, the production of works for this show coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resultant clearing out of our cities as one lockdown rolled into another. Suddenly, the slick spatial hegemony of commercial districts was reevaluated. The ‘viewer’s centrality’, as Marx terms it, changed because the viewer, the subject of the city, was no longer there. (Ironically, of the three versions of ‘The Ideal City’ painting in existence [the traditional attribution to Piero della Francesca has been authoritatively questioned in all three cases] , two have no human figures; they rather resemble downtown Johannesburg and Cape Town at the height of lockdown.)
A very beautiful emblem for this interplay between the bodily and the spatial is the work The world makes your body. Arranged like a ten-line paragraph, this modestly-sized text work is the result of Marx snipping individual letters out of sections of maps that have yellow, orange and purple colouring, to construct the repeating phrase ‘The world makes your body and your body makes the world’. Because the last two words of each repetition also serve as the first two of the next, the work becomes a lo-fi loop, and a remixing of the map’s hegemonic narrative. With this work, and the similar None to see (which repeats ‘none to see but the sea of me’), one grasps that Marx is interested in telling a new story about our relationship to mapped space, one built from the ruins of the previously story which he has so enthusiastically and poetically dismantled in this show.
‘Near Distant’ reveals an artist able to navigate rigorously intellectual content with elegance and restrained beauty. Marx has to be one of South Africa’s finest and most compelling contemporary artists.