Gerhard Marx at Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
by Cara Snyman
I remember as a child being told by my mother that when she died she wanted to be buried in the garden with a tree planted on top of her. My other thoughts around death concerned the church, which was of the opinion that if you were good, you went up, and if you were bad, you went down. I had a vague notion of stars having something to do with it too.
Gerhard Marx, in a considered and thoughtful body of work entitled 'Photo-', explores the idea of death through a rich network of myth, rite and association. He creates an eloquent essay on frailty and strength, death and immortality.
Marx is well-known for the composite images he created for his first solo exhibition at Warren Siebrits, entitled 'Maps to get lost by' (2005). In that body of work, line drawings were created by cutting up and reassembling maps so that the thick red lines denoting major roads formed a seemingly continuous mark, often describing an image such as a part of the human anatomy. The method, as well as the motive of Skull without Nomenclature, was to become his starting point for 'Photo-'.
In Grandmother with Weeds, Bird with Weeds and Bird with Stars, Marx develops his composite method. Layering tiny fragments of star maps and roots printed on acetate, he creates 'negatives' which are exposed onto photographic paper to produce the final images. Marx expresses his delight at these photographic contact prints, as they turn the star maps, where stars are indicated as black dots, into maps of light. All the Night's Sky reflects this excitement rather than being an autonomous artwork.
Grandmother with Weeds traces the profile of an old woman, her face appearing from the organic chaos of strewn roots. She is the roots and the roots become her, she is plant-human in an image that evokes the natural process of decomposition - a delicate and sensitive portrait of frailty. Bird with Weeds continues this theme, as two dead pigeons are defined by a trail of roots. From Bird with Stars a delicate pigeon skeleton emerges, upright and solid. The bird seems dissimilar to the other two works in the series, in that only its skeleton alludes to its mortality. Star maps provide the basis of many works besides this one. Stars are associated with the eternal and unchanging, but as Marx points out, many of the stars we see no longer exist. Time and light trick us, just like a photograph where recorded light breaches logical time. Here stars become a metaphor for memory; conversely indestructible and totally fallible.
The use of stars and common garden weeds creates a portrait of the human being as simultaneously everything and nothing; the entire solar system and the common weed; irreplaceable and totally expendable. Death is imaged both as an extraordinary metaphysical experience and as a common, everyday occurrence. These works are haunting, ephemeral portraits that eloquently point to the frailty of life. They are weightless death masks that whisper the transience of existence.
Composite construction immediately also invokes the opposite - decomposition. One is almost able to trace Marx's movement as he builds up an image one tiny piece at a time, and the animation works as well in reverse. The idea of erasure finds a literal link in Marx's Weeds series, where he first builds up the skull portraits, pushing weeds into a mixture of black watercolour and glue - a thick tar-like base that evokes embalmment - and then sands these portraits down to a beautiful polished surface that exposes the insides of these tiny stems, the skeletal structure of the weeds. The process is not dissimilar to exhuming remains with the stems echoing bleached bone.
'Photo' means related to light, and 'graph' something written or drawn. In this context, one wonders why Marx dispensed with 'graph'. The works all seem in some way engaged with the idea of drawing with light. The 'photograph' as remembrance of things past, but also symbol of death, seems significant. As John Berger notes; 'Photography, because it stops the flow of life, is always flirting with death'. It is invariably 'dead' and going to die' adds Barthes. In a very literal way, death defined the photo from the beginning. Early commercial photography developed around the macabre practise of photographing the recently deceased - it was most practical for long exposures.
Marx mentions Daguerreotype photography as an influence, which in itself is a comment on fragility: images had to be protected in glass boxes, with the best surviving Besides the skull, another vanitas theme, perhaps unintentionally, finds expression in Marx's work: time. Images are laboured and his process is slow and meditative. One cannot be unaware of the toil, but especially the time involved in making these works. Dark Sky for instance was produced over a period of 18 months. Marx notes that the intensity of work prohibited him from working more than an hour or so at a time.
In the exhibition and its accompanying literature, much emphasis is placed on his working method. The negatives produced for the contact prints are showcased in a glass box, with the Dark Sky triptych almost a lesson in 'how to': the first two works are star maps that fell to Marx's scalpel and the last, the composite image. Dark Sky in general seems to be the preparatory sketch or workbook for 'Photo-', somehow containing all the elements but without achieving the elegant thought and execution of the later works.Moving Skies is an installation of 29 lithographs and is flat and repetitive by comparison.
Cultural expression of death permeates 'Photo-', both as connected to the earth, decomposition, regeneration and as an abstract concept. Marx plays with ancient symbol, common conception and myth to create a fertile network of association. The work is rich and layered, but it is really the three contact prints discussed and the Weeds series, that carry the exhibition. And on these works strength alone, 'Photo-' is an intelligent and lyrical essay on mortality.
Opens: November 15
Closes: December 12
Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 327 0000
Hours: Tue - Fri 11am - 6pm, Sat 11am - 3pm