Wilhelm Saayman at Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
by Michael Smith
I always wonder if an exhibition were to literally speak, what accent it would have. Though this is probably treacherous territory given our nation's hair-trigger propensity for prejudice, I still like to imagine shows talking to me, their accents inflecting the cold rhetoric the art world often works with. Accents are wonderfully indicative of background and life experience, in ways that the text of an exhibition catalogue or a website could never be. So, after visiting Wilhelm Saayman's 'The girl who always ignored me got hit by a bus' at Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art, I was left wondering how this body of work would sound. One thing's for sure, it wouldn't speak with the haughty hot potato of much other SA drawing; rather, I imagine a complex mix of suburban lilts and phrases, rapid one moment and drawling the next, sacrificing correctness for emphasis. Much like the punk ethos that has so heavily influenced Saayman, the drawings on this show speak neither down nor up to their audience, but directly and simply, straight across.
Saayman is a video editor by trade, spending much of his time editing adverts aimed at boosting consumer consumption. His works on paper (the show consists only of graphite, coloured pencil and marker drawings on A4 and A3 paper, despite previous forays into video art) reveal an interest in making things that are light years away from the rapid-fire manipulation of advertising. These images trade in a refined and considered simplicity that serves up nuanced understandings of complicated relationships, emotions and memories.
Despite most works' reduction to a two-punch of image and text, Saayman says he avoids making works that operate like one-liners; no mean feat for an artist with such a propensity for the comedic. Rather, his humour is tinged with a sadness and a world-weariness that enables these images to transcend mere entertainment.
The drawings are culled from a number of series, many of them ongoing, and are broadly divisible into images that deal with war and associated atrocities, those that investigate metaphysical concerns, and a third set that images and revisits pivotal memories from Saayman's life. There are others that don't easily fit these classifications, signaling the flexibility and porosity of Saayman's project.
In particular, his twinning of violent images with incongruous song titles or lyrics ripples out into incisive social critique. The work We've only just begun pairs these lyrics from the sappiest of 70s MOR popsters The Carpenters with a bloodied pile of corpses. The picture is drawn in the mode of a naÏve yet bloodthirsty child; this communicates the extent to which global aggression has been internalised in our culture, and lends the song words an ominous tone. This reading of the work is augmented by a similar image, (and one that Siebrits has chosen to curate quite close to We've only just begun), called School. It is essentially a re-enactment of an incident from Saayman's childhood: he was drawing a scene of war and destruction when his teacher became incensed by the work, took it away unfinished and told Saayman to stand in the corner. The stylistic traits of these two works suggest that the artist is playing a complex game of shifting subjectivity back to that of the child. The result is a play-off between childhood phenomenological wonder and acerbic adult wit.
In a more speculative work, the first half of the title of the Clash's ode to the oppressed, I fought the law (but the law won), is juxtaposed with an image of a rabbit, rendered in colour pencil and marker. The work suggests the impossibility of effective resistance to systems of control, likening the knee-jerk rebellion of punk to the vain attempts of a rabbit to escape its confinement. Like many of his images, this one works with a kind of productive ridiculousness, using humour to deflate and question received notions of resistance to power. It is in images such as this that one senses the accent of the show quite strongly, a laconic yet knowing tone underpinning the sharpness of its observations.
It is, however, with the works that deal in philosophical concerns that the show widens its scope and convinces of Saayman's abilities. Works like Death, which contains the text 'death: what really happens (and that's why you shouldn't be afraid)', has an oddly poetic quality to it, suggestive of a necessarily inadequate conceptualisation of death and the afterlife. A number of works occupy this speculative realm: The longterm (sic) effects of DIVORCE on infants, children and teenagers uses a kind of distorted contouring abstraction to point to the impossibility of measuring or understanding certain phenomena.
A review of this show wouldn't be complete without mentioning Saayman's very evident preoccupation with illness and mortality. Works like Enlarged Prostate, Cancer and Not much longer now all utilize a very particular frankness to speak with pathos about the inevitability of disease and death. The latter especially reveals the power of Saayman's drawing ability: an old woman, her age apparent only through the accuracy of her body pose and the frailty of the line used to render her, is shown embracing a younger man, possibly her son. Saayman questions prolonged life, referring to one of the most complex moral dilemmas of our time with the simplest of means.
Avoiding the theatrical mannerisms so beloved of the previous generation of SA draughtspeople like Diane Victor, William Kentridge, Clive van den Berg, and even printmakers like Judy Woodborne and Christine Dixie, Saayman has found a way to draw that is lucid and pared down, yet sacrifices none of the gravitas necessary for good art. I would even venture so far as to say this exhibition is an important milestone for SA drawing, in all that it avoids replicating.
Opens: October 11
Closes: November 9
Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 327 0000
Hours: Tue - Fri 11am - 6pm, Sat 11am - 3pm