Interview with Zander Blom on the occasion of his exhibition, 'The Drain of Progress'
by Michael Smith
Artist Zander Blom has a show up at the Rooke Gallery in Newtown during October, cryptically entitled 'The Drain of Progress'. The exhibition represents Blom's exploration of Modernism from a South African context, and consists in equal measure of prints, framed paper constructions and one-off photographs of odd constructions created in spaces inside his Brixton home. I interviewed him at the gallery a week into this powerful show.
Michael Smith: What is it about Modernism that you're interested in interrogating or unpacking?
Zander Blom: I'm interested in exploring some aspects of the avant garde art movements of the 20th Century that I find compelling. Examples of this include the super optimism, idealism and seriousness of Mondrian and De Stijl, the striving towards revolution and progress that characterises movements like Constructivism, and the glorification of modernisation which Futurism is know for. My exploration has to do with trying to understand Modernism from the perspective of a young person living in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the dawn of the 21st Century - a position which is very much dislocated in time, space, and ideology from what it attempts to investigate. The works which I made in the last four years either directly mimic selected visual qualities of modernist related subjects, or comment in some way on the various ideologies of art movements of the 20th Century.
MS: There seems to be an aesthetic of messiness, stains, bits of tape left on walls, scratches, even motifs seemingly seeping out of your ceilings in some photographs. This is at odds with the clinical nature of some Modernism, particularly work by Mondrian.
ZB: Regardless of whether the work I'm referencing is clean or messy - Pollock's for example are generally very messy, while something from De Stijl is usually very clinical - in my case it's about bringing it back to: 'This is where I live, this is where I eat, sleep, and make work, this is the position from which I'm exploring these things, a very confined space with a limited budget, and limited access to the work that I'm exploring.' I live in an old house in Brixton. If I'm reconstructing a Mondrian composition on the stained pressed ceiling in my bedroom with vinyl tape and black paint or ink, from faded colour plate reproductions, then it's going to have a certain kind of inglorious, un-glamorous look to it.
MS: In a number of the works, photographs and drawings, there seems to be an interest in the accumulation of identical units into a whole: this suggests the Postmodern impulse detectable in much Pop Art. How does that fit into your programme?
ZB: To me shapes like the target, the dolphin and the log of wood are about having a unit with which to construct different compositions. In most cases I'm trying to nullify their original meanings and create a sort of formalist abstraction from them.
That said, because I'm attempting to make very formalist or modernist compositions, but the seriousness, optimism and the ideals of progress which fueled modernism are replaced with pseudo-nihilism, a demise of seriousness, and a sense of irony, these compositions become more like Postmodern voids than anything else.
In the case of the target specifically, I wanted very much to reclaim the shape from the association with Pop Art, and turn it into a formalist composition simulating a wormlike void.
MS: I notice that a number of images, paintings, drawings etc that appear in your photographs are also placed loose and unframed in the gallery space.
ZB: Yes, some of these works have been framed and isolated so one is able to view them as important pieces, but I also wanted to show some of them in a way that was more in touch with the method of their production and the purpose they have as props in the narrative that is communicated by the photographs.
The book and a big part of the exhibition comprise photographs that were taken in my home. Apart from communicating the exploration into modernism, which is effectively the underlying theme of this body of work, with it I wanted the photographs to be considered completed works, rather than snaps of my home, or what I was making. Basically, with the layout of the exhibition I wanted to treat some things as museum pieces, and others as props or debris.
MS: In one of your works one of the base units from which you construct the image is a swastika: what is your thinking behind this choice?
ZB: In the context of my show the swastika is the same as a dolphin or a target: it's a shape that I find quite beautiful, one I have used as the basis to explore different compositions. I use it in spite of its connotations of 'evil' and 'death', which I'm still sensitive to, but I'm trying to rid these shapes of their moral content and use them for their visual qualities in constructing formalist compositions.
I am not interested in making works that deal with violence, or that rely solely on shock value.
MS: The catalogue raisonné that forms part of this show is an interesting document. Could you tell me about it?
ZB: The book is designed to mimic the type of catalogue raisonné which one associates with an accomplished modernist artist from Europe or North America. The kind of publication that it mimics has been my main source of reference to the art history subjects I was exploring, so I wanted the works I produced to be viewed within a similar frame. Another aspect of it is that I wanted to mimic the colour plate reproductions which these kinds of books feature, and elevate the documentation of artworks or artist studios to works of art. Thus instead of having a book that features photographs of my work, I made a book where the photographs of my works are effectively the works. The remnants from installations in my home, or paintings and drawings are things that I also consider artworks, but in a way where they function more as props in a narrative which the book and photographs convey.
The book features a concise introduction to my practice, then 74 photographic works which were produced over a period of four years, and then follows with explanatory text on individual pieces. It is produced in a limited edition of 300, and is to be understood as an editioned artwork, rather than a catalogue of work. All the photographs featured in the book exist as one-off large-scale photographic works.