Willie Bester at 34Long
by Mark Oppenheimer
I felt the impact of Willie Bester's new show 'Metalized' before I even entered the gallery. Standing beneath a crystal chandelier and between two sets of security gates was a sculpture proclaiming: 'Bly uit! Oortreders sal geskiet word'. I was immediately made aware of the fact that I was entering a gallery that housed elite works of art, catered for elite clientele and only half jokingly preferred riffraff like me to keep my distance.
I hesitantly walked through the steel gate guarding the gallery entrance to take a closer look at the rather antagonistically titled sculpture. A toy police officer sporting oversized breasts and a semi-automatic rifle stood encased in a shiny petrol canister. She was accompanied by a much smaller and almost pathetic looking policeman who cowered behind a vicious German Shepherd. The room that they protected was filled with electronic devices strung together with colourful power cables and I could just make out the red eyes of a giant spider lurking behind.
The artwork succeeds as a mood setting device for the rest of the exhibition, it has powerful political undertones but it is also laced with a charming sense of humour. 'Metalized' demonstrates Bester's ability to examine some of the power dynamics that are currently at play in the new South Africa. He questions the state's concern with maintaining a balance between freedom and security in works that are conceptually dense, while presenting us with intimate depictions of people struggling to be free.
The pieces on display were carefully positoned by the gallery, in consultation with Bester, to create an experience that made one feel slightly on edge, but thoroughly engaged. In order to view the rest of the exhibition I had to pass between the jaws of a distressed dog and a plump security guard with a revolver on his hip and a machine gun hanging from his shoulder. He stood like a cowboy with a smirk on his face and a cold hand ready to reach for his firearm if I caused any trouble. The sculpture was fashioned from chunks of steel plate that had been battered into shape and welded together to form part of its carapace. Gaps in the shell revealed a skeletal structure constructed from a number of carefully chosen machine parts. Nuts, bolts, levers and cogs had all been fused together to create the impression that the guard was once involved in an urban shoot-out from which he managed to escape, with the war wounds to prove it. Although the guard's stance and expression made him appear comical it would be a grave error of judgment not to take him seriously.
The pregnant dog standing within arm's length of the guard looked up at me with a pair of deranged eyes. I edged myself around her slowly and marveled at the brilliance of Bester's design. I could imagine him perched on top of an enormous scrapheap eyeing out exactly which parts he would need to create the sculpture in front of me. It is difficult not to stand in awe of an artist that can perform an act of modern day alchemy by transforming a pile of seemingly incompatible machine parts into an artwork, that is not only anatomically convincing, but on the verge of springing to life.
State Development takes the form of an elaborately crafted machine. It took me quite a while to absorb all of the parts of the structure and work out how they functioned together on both a physical and a conceptual level. The machine was fitted with control panels on both ends. The control panel in the front was made from discarded computer parts and attached to surveillance equipment that looked back at me. An AK-47 was placed adjacent to the rear control panel, which was made from a church organ keyboard and an Afrikaans bible open at the Old Testament book of Kings. These parts of the machine successfully signified the Christian rhetoric and violent coercion used by the old apartheid regime to keep South Africans obedient and afraid.
Four well-dressed black men fashioned from wood were trapped inside a transparent cage near the centre of the machine. The figures were connected to the rest of the machine and each other by electrical wire. Their cage was attached to a series of steel pipes, with a meat grinding mechanism in the middle and a refuse chute at the end. A bowl filled with crudely carved and unpainted figures lay at the foot of the chute. It is easy for one to imagine that this machine is fuelled by black labour that is painlessly consumed and discharged in a dilapidated state as waste material.
A painting depicting forced removals carried out by bulldozers and apartheid-era policemen was also integrated into the machine. A collage of blood-spattered gloves, medical equipment, children's toys and other objects was affixed to the back of the canvas. The artifacts churned out by the machine created a conglomeration of garbage that stood in place of human refuse. The entire contraption serves as a type of apartheid memorial site but it also condemns the unjust labour practices that continue even today.
The monumental sculpture entitled New Arrival is an ambivalent representation of a woman traveling with a piece of modern but half-unzipped luggage. It is not clear whether the woman is part of a new generation of migrant labourers that have been forced to depart their homes in order to earn a living, or she is exercising a new-found freedom to travel. She was outfitted in an elegant red dress pieced together from the tattered shell of a vehicle culled from a scrapyard. The work is a powerful demonstration of Bester's ability to fuse the tragic with the sublime.
'Metalized' is a wonderful collection of Bester's sculptural work over the last five years. The works on display communicate with each other effectively and they are fine examples of Bester's technical ability and his intellectual prowess. The exhibition was thought provoking, unsettling at times, but ultimately a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience.
Opens: September 6
Closes: October 8
34 Long Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 426 4594
Hours: Tue - Fri 9am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 2pm