Art and Design

Back to the beginning

Lisa Johnston

If architects saw cities as part of the 'self' they would create places that are kind to their inhabitants, writes Lisa Johnston.

Sometimes it is necessary to go back to go forward, the premise of both the Drawing on ­Origins exhibitions. (Supplied)

As artist Rhett Martyn walked me through the first phase of the two-part Drawing on Origins exhibition held at the Gifa Gallery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, he casually said: "It's all in a state of entropy now; everything is falling apart."

The once pristine series of drawings and sculptures were looking a bit shabby and an audiovisual display, which featured proudly at the crowded launch of the event, had been switched off.

Had this been a conventional exhibition it might have been seen as catastrophic, but the first phase of the exhibition was always more about exploring the concept of origins through imagination, drawing and thinking than building a finished product.

As a concept the two consecutive Drawing on Origins exhibitions (the second spin-off exhibition being held at The Open in the Maboneng precinct until the end of October) are enormously exciting. The premise is that by going back to the point of origin, the architects who create our cities can re-examine the self as part of a living landscape and presumably work towards creating kinder environments that rekindle a sense of community.

Drawing on Origins came about after a series of workshops led by architects Elena Rocchi and Dieter Brandt that brought 14 artists and architects together with renowned paleoanthropologist Professor Lee Berger. The idea was to delve into the heart of humanity's origins at the Cradle of Humankind.

Humane connections
"The workshops were based on the philosophy of finding a humane connection between the actual experience of being human and how to translate that into architecture," Martyn said.

Titled "up and above", "surface movement" and "below ground", the workshops took the participants to important sites of discovery where they filmed, photographed and drew from three different perspectives "as a way of interrogating site – architecture's ground zero, the point of imaginative departure".

That it follows a three-tiered approach to creativity is significant in terms of humanity's most basic religious structure (in the case of Christianity: heaven, earth and hell) and the process of how our primal beliefs translate to how we view our physical reality and the intellectual understanding that emerges from that.

"As a mark on paper drawing is a representational link between the imagination and physical reality," said Brandt. "At its origin the image proceeds from imagination and emerges into sketch … taking place on the line where unconsciousness [below ground] shifts into the consciousness [up and above]."

The curatorship of the exhibitions literally followed the participants' experiences: starting with the powerful, primal sketches and photographs from their exploration in the caves of origins, through to examining the marks made by the human hand and the beginnings of the constructive or imaginative process and finally the intellectualised and a formalised end product – The Last Supper.

Essentially a table with placards representing each participant as an archetype, The Last Supper was conceived by Rocchi. She got the candidates to draw portraits of themselves as if they were looking through their bodies from an aerial perspective and asked clandestine questions to piece together the essential metaphysical bones of each member of the group.

New perspective
This was worked into a final art piece, which is still on exhibition at The Open. The members have donated it to the city as a marker of a new perspective on the overlap between architecture and archeology and, ultimately, an imagined city – a utopia of origins.

So why the need for architects to delve into history? "We are facing a crisis of representation in architecture," said Brandt. "The use of computer programmes [to design buildings] creates a disparity between the operation of body and mind … Interrogating thought is the essence of what we are as humans and as architects who shape the changing environment with our most essential tools in the practice of architecture – writing and drawing and building."

In essence, the basic "gatekeeping" role that artist and architects hold between society and the creation of public spaces has been going wrong. Instead of our cities being places of peace and community, they are places of segregation and hostility. By returning to the origins and creating dialogue among the people who literally build our society, the hope is that they can improve cities by creating spaces that invite communication instead of competition.

Although it is somewhat difficult for an outsider to grasp the nebulous essence of what the participants have experienced, there is a palpable excitement that is quite contagious. If it is true that we can improve ourselves and our communities by examining things from their bases to above, perhaps the Cradle should become a team-building venue to which we send our politicians and top businesspeople to delve into and remember where we all came from, so that we can start again with our origins intact.

Drawing on Origins is a Gifa and Nirox Foundation co-production. Drawing on Origins 2 is on at The Open in the Maboneng precinct's Main Change building until the end of October

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