Artists’ underarm tactics

Hazel Friedman

YUCK. Urgh. Gross. The Pits! These are some of the four-letter responses usually evoked by the following question: “What is your opinion of the giant statue of gold miner George Harrison towering over the Bruma- Eastgate intersection?”

And these responses were elicited prior to the sudden appearance (outgrowth might be a better term) of a mossy, furry, yucky, urghy day-glo green substance under the armpits of the sculpture of the miner credited (erroneously, I might add) with discovering gold on the Witwatersrand.

This is the latest in a series of strange sightings, mysterious disappearances and other “cultural interventions”, perpetutated by disparate bands of “urbculters” (urban cultural terrorists, as they would no doubt prefer to be called), intent on throwing Jo’burg’s aesthetic sensibilities (or lack thereof) into disarray.

During last year`s Africus Biennale several crop circles mysteriously appeared at the Electric Workshop – courtesy of artist Kim Lieberman and cohorts in protest against the exclusion of young artists from South Africa’s international art extravaganza. A radical statement, no doubt, but not nearly as dastardly as the cultural intervention of a disgruntled British artist who poured black ink into a tank containing a sheep’s head suspended in formaldehyde, which had been produced by conceptualist Damien Hirst, and called it Black Sheep.

But now the underarm tactics of artists Fiona and Karen Stewart and Tony Scullion have set a new precedent. They have gone where no urbculter dared: straight to the heart, or thereabouts, of their target. Last weekend the culprits purchased a dashboard- size fur piece and perilously climbed the giant monument to artistic mediocrity.

“It got a bit hairy around the armpits because the statue is so huge,” recalls Stewart, “But we managed to prod the fur into place with the aid of glue and a long stick.” And what was the motive for placing pieces of puke-green fur under the armpits of this symbol for the old South Africa: a desire to promote Green consciousness; a save-the-algae campaign or simply a penchant for a close shave? Said Fiona Stewart: “We had wanted to decorate the sculpture for a long-time and it was a lot of fun.”

But it’s unlikely to tickle the funny-bone of Francois Oberholzer (who was responsible for commissioning the monstrosity), when the one-time mayor of Johannesburg and a man of dubious aesthetic sensibility gets to hear about the urbculters’ desecration.

But Oberholzer’s ire will be slight compared with sculptor David Brown’s devastation after the female half of his sculpture disappeared overnight from outside the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Called Tightroping and commissioned for the opening of the new wing of the gallery in 1986, the work consisted of two giant bronze torsos – a man and woman – locked in an absurd embrace.

Logistically, the chances of a thief extricating one half of the monumental sculpture from the base and trotting off into the night with it under an arm in the direction of Sotheby’s are fairly remote. The gallery’s big cheese, Julia Charlton, thinks the bronze was melted down into base metal. “To make matters worse, the work is irreplaceable,” Charlton said. Which might say something about the lack of respect for public sculpture in this city and a lot more about the woeful economic circumstances which force the desperate into playing inverted alchemists.

Actually, the Johannesburg Art Gallery is no stranger to thievery and other forms of urbculterrisms. Past criminal acts in the inner-city enclave of the gallery have included a stray bullet from a taxi shootout embedding itself in Charlton’s office wall. Although opinion is divided over whether it was an accidental “intervention” or the terror tactic of an armed and dangerous conceptualist?


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