Wim Botha at Michael Stevenson
by Fabian Saptouw
Wim Botha is well known for his subversive engagement with the icons, objects and emblems of power of official discourses and their revered place in society. In recent years, he has incorporated clearly recognisable elements from political, religious, mythological and popular culture. The elegance of Botha's gesture lies in the intricate cross-pollination of thematic links to which his works allude.
Botha's combination of traditional form and consolidated conceptual thought is as refreshing as it is perplexing. In 'Apocalagnosia' the artist once again presents a diverse range of media to communicate what can only be described as a skillfully encrypted message. The works include a large scale lino-print, an oil painting, detailed drawings, an engraving into the wall, carved dictionaries and an installation featuring two identically sculpted skulls and a revolving chandelier.
The choice to work in such a diverse range of media is not merely a display of Botha's obvious skill as a craftsman. In each case, the method of execution is part and parcel of the work. The tradition from which the work stems acts not only as a backdrop, but opens up an entirely new field for interaction. Each work enacts a ritual of simultaneously distancing itself from its sources while being thoroughly entrenched in the iconology of its subject matter.
Relative to Botha's previous Michael Stevenson outing, the works on 'Apocalagnosia' are more sparsely executed. Together with the dimmed overhead lighting, this lends a dramatic effect. Directional red and orange beams cast deep shadows that accentuate the profiles of each work. In Generic Self-portrait as a Superior Hybrid, the shape of a Boer goat's head carved from a mass of Afrikaans/English dictionaries is doubled up on the gallery wall. The lighting lends the object a more ominous presence than it had in its previous appearance in 'Premonition of War', last year's Standard Bank Young Artist Award touring exhibition.
The lighting method also casts a dual shadow on the centre piece Sublimation. This is the largest work on display and features a burnt, revolving chandelier sculpted from Kiaat, flanked by two strips of Rhodesian teak parquet blocks which erupt and deconstruct towards the centre. Two skulls, apparently sculpted from the same material, emerge at opposing ends of the parquet. Their gazes meet in the middle, where the mechanised chandelier rotates at a steady pace. Its motor emits a slight groan that permeates the gallery.
The title Sublimation describes a chemical process that changes a solid substance directly into a gas, or vice versa, without becoming a liquid in between. Alternatively, it describes the progressive change of an instinctual urge into a socially acceptable form. Not that either definition provides an explanation for the force that has disrupted the precisely laid out parquet flooring. Given the angle and the trajectory of the distortion, one is inclined to believe the disturbance originated underneath or within the flooring itself. Spilling out here is maize meal on one side and marble dust on the other.
In Afterimage, the mantle, helm and crest of the old South African coat of arms is rendered in thick oil paint. The mantle delicately trails downward, becoming almost floral in its meander across the unprimed canvas. Thin pencil lines trace areas unexplored by Botha's brush. Instead of the traditional motto, shield and supporters, he has slit the centre of the canvas surface. A signature, possibly the artist's, is visible inside. The work is set into an opulent wooden frame like many earlier works where Botha subverts various revered state symbols and icons.
Botha also toys with the viewer's reverence of the image surface. He does so by granting access to the reverse sides of Afterimage and Apocalumbilicus. These have been reworked, with brown paper tape, coffee and water, to resemble a bird of prey in the one instance and a cross-hatched pattern in the other. This device, together with the incision, breaks the spell of two-dimensional simulacrum by referring to its construction.
Apocalumbilicus refers to the tradition of 15th century woodcuts, in particular the 1498 Apocalypse series (1498) by Albrecht Dürer. In Botha's work, one skeleton holds another in its arms, and the background is desolate, a dried up tree-stump offering a single fruit-bearing branch. Knowing Botha's oeuvre, one might have expected the figures to be a mother and child but they are in fact Silenus and the infant Bacchus. Silenus was both a tutor and travelling companion to the young deity and is more often depicted as a Satyr or a jovial, intoxicated elderly male. What is interesting is the unexpected yet effective coupling of apocalyptic imagery with the idea of the paternity or childhood alluded to in the title.
A similar labelling tactic, to a different end, is used in the works Tragelaphus Strepsiceros (Greater Kudu) and Phyllocrania Paradoxa (Ghost Mantis). The titles themselves impose the strict sensibility of scientific taxonomy, yet a viewer remains unconvinced of the probability of these creatures' existence. The drawings reference the field of nature study, particularly the densely cross-hatched line and the frontal pose. The simple frames, in counterpoint to the opulence of other works, are apparently weathered by age, a device utilised in the works themselves.
'Apocalagnosia' is a neologism of 'apocalypse' and 'agnosia'. The first is generally understood to mean the end of the world but the literal meaning has more to do with the unveiling of knowledge, says Botha. Agnosia is a neurological condition that affects one's ability to recognise objects through use of the senses. This deliberately chosen title not only sets the tone for the exhibition, but also acts as a neat metaphor for Botha's practice. It identifies our inability to grasp the artist's true motivations, presenting us with a complex open-ended interrogation of subject matter that entices, unveils and eludes.
Fabian Saptouw is a Master of Fine Art student at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art
Opens: January 11
Closes: February 10
Michael Stevenson Gallery
Hill House, De Smidt Street, Green Point
Tel: (021) 421 2575
Fax: (021) 421 2578
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm