From Bernini to BMW

Art was put in service of advertising in the spectacle that was BMW’s Sandton Square sculpture garden. IAN TROMP reports

`IN the beginning there was silence.” Not even powerful lighting and loud music could redeem the voice-over accompanying Revelations in Form, an exhibition that was really a product launch for BMW’s new 5 Series. A potted history of human evolution followed — starting with communities of cave-painting savages and culminating in a brave new world of yuppies in BMWs.

For years, BMW has been a major sponsor of the arts in South Africa. Besides funding exhibitions like the landmark Tributaries show in 1985, the car manufacturer has opened an exhibition space in the BMW Pavilion at Cape Town’s waterfront, and will be funding the publication of several catalogues for the Johannesburg Art Gallery. But this recent exhibition of sculpture at Sandton Square cast its sponsorship in a less benevolent light.

The exhibition formed the backdrop for a nightly spectacle of dance, lights and hyperbole. As a marketing exercise, this was no doubt highly successful. What offended was the suggestion that the new product symbolises the height of human creativity — and the opportunism of disguising a product launch as an art exhibition.

The show centred on four works by five commissioned artists: Wynand Smit and Isaac Nkoana, Anton Smit, Edoardo Villa, and Jacques van der Merwe. Each of these works encompassed a BMW. Villa supported a car on its tail behind one of his familiar sentinel figures. Smit and Nkoana had their car borne by two cut-metal women. Van der Merwe’s was pictured virtually as the source of all creation, his figures tumbling from its open sunroof. The exhibition’s centrepiece, Anton Smit’s Immortalisation, was an enormous head with a BMW irrelevantly perched on top.

Most of the works on display represented the human body in some form, expressing the humanist conceit behind the show. Modern humankind was posited as the centre of the universe and as the product of an evolutionary programme now completed with the launch of the new BMW 5 Series.

The works ranged from the banal to the pedestrian, with few exceptions — among them Meshack Raphalalani’s Twisted Figures and a series of heads by Stefan Blom. Although Villa had more pieces on show than any other artist, Smit (who was involved in the selection of works) dominated the square. Some of his heads demonstrated a lyrical beauty, although most crossed into insipidity.

Many of those who paused to look at the works would not normally come into contact with art, and so this exhibition could have provided valuable exposure. But that would have required a better selection of works than this agglomeration of warm-and-fuzzy flotsam.

Ultimately the artworks were an unimportant accompaniment to the business at hand, and that’s corporate self-promotion. BMW has been a significant sponsor of the arts in the past; unhappily, if this exhibition is any sign of things to come, art is going to have to work a little harder for its money in the future.

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