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20 Jan 2016 11:05
Arnhem Mirror from Johan van der Schijff's I to I.
It took more than a hashtag campaign to
remove the Cecil Rhodes statue from its prime position on the University of
Cape Town campus. It took a large crane and a team of men to extricate it from
its prime position, making clear it had never been designed with removal in
This was no doubt part of the
misplaced hubris underlying its creation. When it was eventually detached from its
plinth even the notion of its permanence was only partially shattered – it
wasn’t destroyed – just relocated. Nevertheless,
this landmark moment, dislodged other seemingly enduring conditions; such as
the slow and ineffective transformation of our centres of education, and our society
at large. Public art, monuments also
came under scrutiny; however, the fate of existing ones was the focus rather
than a complete overhaul of the role and design of public monuments.
This was an oversight and a conundrum that has
recently been addressed by an unlikely individual – a Pretoria-born Afrikaner
who spent time at veldschool – or as Johann van der Schijff puts it “our
version of Hitler’s youth camps.” He seems to have been a skeptical
non-conformist since those days when he scoffed at measuring his pulse while
listening to Neil Diamond’s music to gauge the negative effects of rock music.
As a lecturer at UCT, who teaches sculpture, he is perhaps well placed to suggest
alternative public art models.
He proposes some interesting ones in his
recent exhibition, I to I, showing at
the Art on Paper Gallery in Joburg, where via a collection of models for public
sculptures he completely overturns the design and function of them. He advances
two radical alterations to public art; firstly, that monuments should never be conceived
of as being impermanent from the get-go. To this end all of his public artworks
have wheels attached to them so that not only can they be removed quickly, but,
potentially, if they prove useful to society, can travel to different sites at
different times where they can be accessed (or rejected) by different
The second radical idea he advances through
this show is that monuments should be functional in that they set the stage for
public performances and can be used by the public rather than just operate as
objects to gaze upon. For this reason he has designed a feet-washing podium and
one based on a Roman Catholic confessional booth – there are two seats on
either side of divide with a grill through which the two participants can
communicate to each other without revealing their identity.
Chicken run (Johan van Der Schijff)
Both of these podiums are rendered in minature
and 1/3 scale, however, he would have liked them to be realised and has sent
the proposals to various public art committees and such. He felt that gestures
of repentance shouldn’t be done behind closed doors but should be publicly
enacted, as in the manner of the TRC. The foot-washing podium was made in
response to Adrian Vlok’s eagerness to clean the feet of his victims or their
Van der Schijff conceived of these podiums
and the notion of temporary public sculptures in 2007 – long before the
#rhodesmustfall campaign. He encountered Vlok during the height of apartheid as
a student at the University of Pretoria, where along with other arts students he
was protesting against the government’s policies.
“I remember he got into his car and he
opened his electric window and he laughed at us. He was frightening,” recalls
Van der Schijff.
It is probably for this reason that he was
completely skeptical of Vlok’s attempt at repentance via foot washing.
“Is he doing it because he is Christian and
is afraid of how God will judge him or because he is genuinely repentant?” asks
Van der Schijff.
I to I (Johann van der Schijff)
This level of skepticism underlies his
foot-washing podium and also the confessional one, which appears like a prison
or military device – its design was inspired by the look of Kaspirs and Ratels
from the apartheid era.
is absurd, why would you want to talk to someone through this thing,” he says moving
the grill back and forth.
It should be surprising that he is cynical
about his own creations but this is an intrinsic part of them; for while they
present an opportunity for South Africans to come to terms with the past
individually and publicly, he is unsure whether can be done or have any impact.
This view is based on his perceived failure of the TRC.
This may explain why these podiums have
never been executed in reality but also why the rest of his exhibition is
largely devoted to the artist analysing his own middle-class white existence.
In this way his exhibition is a bit like one of his podiums; a temporary public
show of coming to terms with his position in society. He makes a
tongue-in-cheek ‘confession’ to eating a Woolies sandwich for lunch via a wood
sculpture that mirrors the plastic packaging it comes in. In this way he
monumentalises his privilege – makes his ‘shame’ concrete. Does he really confront his privilege by doing
so, can one? These are the questions that beat at the heart of this exhibition.
Art should pose questions not answers and
perhaps that ultimately should drive the creation of our new public monuments. Not
only should they be temporary and functional, as Van der Schijff proposes, but their
value should always be conditional, before they are wheeled away and hidden
from public view.
generated by IncorrigibleCorrigall and subsidised by the gallery.
I’ is showing at the Art on Paper Gallery in Joburg until 30 January 2016.
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