Arts and Culture

Wooden you believe it?

Chris Du Plessis

Sculptor Barend de Wet recently won the World Yo-Yo Championship, and is building up to his first serious exhibition.

It was somewhere between the bouillabaisse and the boiled lamb that Barend de Wet whipped out his penis.

Fellow artist Beezy Baily—who was responsible for the fine fish soup—didn’t flinch and De Wet’s girlfriend, Diana, who had obviously seen it before, hardly looked up from her plate as Sunday lunch at the sculptor’s log lodging in Knysna took a seemingly renegade turn.

Momentarily dumbstruck, I found myself somehow unable to divert my eyes from what is in actual fact one of the most common things on the planet. For this was not an ordinary protrusion. At first glance it looked excessively wrinkled—shrivelled up like that of a geriatric — but as my focus stabilised, a definite graphic pattern emerged.

And, as it was swung lazily into closer view across the cauldron of steaming lamb, it became clear that a series of earth-coloured, zebra-like stripes had been engraved all the way up and down the length of his Johnson to create what some would unhesitatingly describe as Art Deco’s lowest point.

“Who did that to you? Is it a ...” I stammered with a vicarious wince.

“Can’t you see?” Barend retorted smilingly while proudly stretching everything out to create an even larger zebra. “It’s wood!”
Suddenly I could see that the tattooed stripes were indeed meant to depict the grain-lines in a piece of wood and it made perfect sense. Throughout the years De Wet has consistently intertwined his art with blatant wordplay of this kind.

For one of his first big public exhibits in the mid-1980s in Cape Town he carved a massive cartoon-like wooden heart, cracked open in the centre. Covered in sticky blood-red enamel, it had dripping crimson tampons stuck all over it. “My Bleeding Heart,” he said when I went to interview him at his Buitenkant Street home before the exhibition. Elsewhere lay a fish with a candle protruding from its body in a pun-pregnant depiction of Christmas (Kers-vis—pronounced fees, geddit?). In another corner of the courtyard stood a huge wooden cake with lots of cups latched on to the layers. Hmm, lemme guess ...

In this context, and given his notorious state of chronic satyriasis, furnishing himself with permanent wood—so to speak—comes as no real surprise. Using his body as a vehicle for artistic expression is also not new. He once became a bodybuilder as a creative statement and later placed himself nude on a public pedestal as homage to “all artists who have stood as sculptures”—such as the two camp British pranksters Gilbert and George, and Bruce Nauman, who’s “Artist as Fountain” concept blew fresh life into water features. Last but not least is Piero Manzoni, whose tinned effluent was so well received that it later literally became worth more than its weight in gold.

Much of De Wet’s work is underpinned by irony and marked by a Banksy-like cheekiness that can, with difficulty, be seen as anything other than a spoofing of the art world (and life in general).

If the Belgian surrealist Magritte alludes to oral sex with his This Is Not a Pipe exhibition, De Wet pops a pipe in his mouth and entitles the performance This Is Not a Blow Job.

When Rudi Guilliani reads out the names of 9/11 victims, De Wet publicly lists names from a Cape Town phone book to celebrate life instead.

But he insists this mischief is not intentional. “It just happens that way,” he says, before attempting a justification: “Okay, look, it’s also maybe because of the state of art these days.” Meaning, I find out, that so much of modern art is trite nonsense or just plain rubbish that it’s impossible to not rip it off.

He doesn’t necessarily place himself in the same pool as the rogue Avant Car Guard—a group that particularly tasks itself with ridiculing pretentious art twits such as Kendell Geers. But he likes what they’re doing. “Many of these arseholes passing themselves off as artists don’t know even the most basic artistic techniques,” he says, laughing. “They’re just using ‘art’ [he does inverted commas with his fingers] as an excuse not to work or to get laid by groupies.”

In contrast, despite the flippancy, De Wet’s skill as sculptor is apparent in the bronze collages that occupy the niches of the National Gallery or the finesse of pieces such as that created for dramatist Chris Pretorius’s adaptation of Frank Wiedekind’s Lulu. In a combined installation and performance effort audiences could see him on stage constructing a ballet dress in steel that would have done Degas proud, while the play progressed.

“I don’t see art as anything fancy or exclusive,” he says. “Anything and everything is art. It can be applied anywhere in any form, so I just do what comes up next, basically”—such as opening and running a hotel as an art-piece, which De Wet did in Observatory some time ago, or using his own skin as canvas.

The new tiger coating for his John Thomas is not his only tattoo. There’s barely a spot left on his hide without an etching: a nude woman grappling a snake is emblazoned across his chest and a skull filled with flowers adorns his one thigh. On the other a grinning devil hisses: “Back in five minutes.” On his left wrist the word “Gatvol” (fed up) reminds of his more sombre side.

It’s the same hand that last year got him into a spot of trouble when it slapped Nadine Gordimer’s controversial biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, clean off his feet at an exhibition opening in Cape Town. Seemingly unaware that a good chunk of the world’s populace is probably envious of this action (at least a dozen people cheered loudly when I told them about it), De Wet’s only utterance on the matter is: “He pushed me first.”

But he does admit this sort of social upset has formed an intrinsic part of his personal chronology. “I still have a crick in my neck from all the battles,” he says, swivelling his head around. A long scar snakes across a bulge above his right eye—the residue of another incident at a goth club in Cape Town many years ago.

“I was in such a great mood and I was just too brightly dressed for their liking,” he says, listing the outfit: “Short pants with bovver boots, Hawaiian shirt, light-blue leather jacket.” He appears oblivious to the fact that such conduct in a subculture stronghold, where despondency is obligatory, is akin to applying to join the Black Consciousness Weightlifting Club in full AWB uniform. “They hit me with a bottle,” he says, rubbing the old wound.

But De Wet’s hands are not only good for slapping arrogant intellectuals and moulding mock art. They have also been righteously employed to bring home South Africa’s only World Masters Championship Yo-Yo Award.

“I’ll show you a classic,” he says, excitedly flipping open two aluminum cases in his bedroom. The insides are fitted with a sponge decking neatly cut out to host his vast collection of yo-yos. He holds aloft one of the white-rimmed Coca-Cola specimens that would trigger a flood of memories for any South African baby-boomer. “This is a Russell,” he says, seriously. “There are three generations of them. The grandson of the original founder is now running the company. They’re still one of the best for loops.”

Alongside lie some products by “Yo-Yo Jam”—the favourite playthings of multiple world-title string-trick winner Hiruyuki Suzuki. These are flanked by some “Diffio’s”—the same stable that introduced the first “Butterfly” yo-yos to the world and a few gleaming examples from “Yo-Yo Factory”.

“It’s a whole new game out there,” De Wet says. “The new yo-yos with bearings have been in existence for only five years, but all the tricks have changed radically. Rock the Cradle is child’s play today.”

De Wet and his 13-year-old son, Ben, both recently flew to the United States to compete in the International World Yo-Yo Championships (commonly referred to as “The Worlds”). It’s a tough contest in which participants get only a single chance to prove their worth and after hours of high tension, De Wet strode off in slo-mo to frenzied cheering with the world “Shoot-the-Moon” record for the longest throw ever: eight feet and five inches. Ben took the “String-trick Ladder” Junior World Championship title.

He also had the chance to meet all his heroes at the three-day all-out yo-yo extravaganza. People such as Dazzling Dave, the Japanese master Taka and a certain Mr Lucky, who is also one of the coaches for the US Olympic swimming team and holder of the Guinness Book of World Records’ titles for the largest yo-yo collection (more than 6 000) and swimming backstroke the furthest with his big toe in his mouth (really). “He’s a skin specialist, you know,” De Wet says, rounding off the list of achievements.

It took some doing to get to the competition because of an old dope rap from De Wet’s days as a landscape architecture student at Pretoria University. Agonisingly, his record was broken not long after he set it. But bouncing back gallantly, De Wet entered into an equally gruelling battle to regain supremacy back home—this time in one of yo-yo’s most challenging contests: Shoulder Pops.

It was worth the fight. He is now the Masters World Champion in 5A free-hand Shoulder Pops and Ben holds the junior title for longest Shoot the Moon. Yet, despite these enormous achievements, their victories had a hollow ring.

The fact that there was not a single South African to meet them at the airport on their return he can handle. Even that the event was covered on CNN while their efforts to make our country proud did not receive an iota of coverage in the local media. But there is one thing he cannot wrap his head around. “I’m OK with everything,” he says, “but what I don’t get is why yo-yoing is still less popular than golf.”

De Wet is no stranger to unpleasant surprises and he’s fielded serious setbacks before. Once after hearing that the girl he had just broken up with was pregnant, he reconciled with her and found himself on standby at the hospital for the birth. But he knew something was seriously amiss when a black baby emerged from the womb.

“It was obviously a mistake,” he says, laughing. “Both of us can hardly go in the sun our skins are so light. And this runs for generations. The real dad is up in Jo’burg. But it’s a great kid and we’re all friends now.”

It may or may not have been this incident (he’s not good with dates) that served as inspiration for his notorious wood-sculpture, Die Regte Piel vir Sannie (The Right Cock for Sannie). A dark vertical figure with a massive horizontal protuberance, he first exhibited it in the 1980s.

As we spoke he was in the process of revamping the piece for an exhibition in Cape Town curated by a fellow artist who first saw it when she was 11 years old. “I’ve made it bigger to accommodate her broader perception of the world now,” De Wet says, swirling the ice in his mug of red wine with a freckled finger. “He’s also pink instead of brown and I’ve renamed it Die Regte Piel vir Thandi.

Then he exchanges a frown for a smirk. “But I promise I’ll do a serious exhibit soon—I’m getting ready 30 years’ worth of photographs, plus steel sculptures, bronzes, etcetera. You’ll see ...”

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