Valerio Berruti's portrait for posterity

Stoned: Valerio Berruti’s Over the Rainbow. (Madelene Cronjé)

Stoned: Valerio Berruti’s Over the Rainbow. (Madelene Cronjé)

The landscape changes quickly as you head north out of Jo’burg. Passing through Honeydew and Diep­sloot, the arid scrub begins to take on a softer quality and in the distance there is a hint of steeper ­terrain.

The Nirox Foundation, an artists’ residency programme situated in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind at the foothills of the Magaliesberg is, like its surroundings, a magical place. The foundation has a permanent, lush, green sculpture ­garden that has echoes of the countryside where Monet once painted his famous The Water-Lily Pond.

Valerio Berruti, an Italian artist who has represented Italy at the Venice Biennale and lived in exotic locations such as Tokyo, Tel Aviv and Serbia, has created a monumental piece of land art that, until you ­experience it, defies conception.

Titled Over the Rainbow and curated by fellow Italian Martina Venturi, the work has taken 16 months to complete and spans 350m up the height of a hill and 50m across. Berruti explains his choice of location: the work is situated on a hill behind the sculpture garden. “I wanted the viewer to get a sense of the landscape,” he says as he casts his eyes across the rolling hills of the Magaliesberg.

Using 50 tonnes of local stone, Berruti has created a portrait of a young girl. He has outlined the face in white using a special organic pigment. But because the work is executed on the slopes of a hill, the angle at which it is viewed is especially important. Berruti has installed a series of concrete blocks on an adjacent hill to mark the ideal position from which to view his anamorphic work.

In physics, the phenomenon is known as the error of parallax — objects seen at an angle change according to where they are viewed from. On the hill where the rocks are installed the degree of the slope is quite sharp. “If you move just one stone,” Berruti says, “the entire expression changes.” What’s more is the way this error of parallax has been worked out and perfected. “We started with strips of white blanket and walkie-talkies,” Venturi explains. “Valerio would stand where the blocks are and tell me ‘walk down, or left, or right’.”

More poetry than social commentary
At first the process was confusing, because when one stands where the rocks are positioned the angles seem off and the image is barely intelligible.

Yet, apart from these technical concerns, the portrait has a deeper significance. Working from images of local children, Berruti finally settled on one of a girl from a local school named Lena.

The artist approached the principal of the school; he met the children, photographed them and so chose an image.

“As an artist I do not see myself as a tourist but as a citizen,” Berruti says, which is why he wanted the work to have some connection to its environment. “In my art I try to do more poetry than social commentary,” Berruti says. “I don’t believe in art without dreaming.” What he sees as a challenge in this particular historical moment is the tension between contemporaneity and ancient, more traditional forms of expression. These concerns can be seen in his show opening this week at the Smac Gallery in Stellenbosch, where he will screen an animation of the drawings from which Lena was selected.

Titled Udaka (the isiZulu word for mud) the drawings reveal his extending concern with materials. Made from earth taken from Nirox, these line drawings reveal a raw connection with his subjects that goes beyond representational formalism to appeal to an elemental vitality that his chosen material provides.

What is sure is that, while on permanent show, Over the Rainbow will change through the seasons. And although the landscape remains the face will weather, reflecting upon the generations that walk on it.

Nirox Sculpture Garden, Kromdraai Road, Maropeng. Website: Smac Gallery, De Wet Centre, Church Street, Stellenbosch, until January 19

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