by Sue Williamson (February, 2008)
Known for his enduring influence on young artists, Andrew Putter is something of a cult figure in Cape Town art circles. Admired by his peers for his energetic co-initiation of such mega art parties as the Mother City Queer Project (Putter's collaborator was architect Andre Vorster), a lavish over-the-top annual affair started in 1994 to celebrate queer culture, Putter explored the event as an art-form, attempting to use the aesthetic realm of art projects as an arena for micro-political change.
Putter was also the organising machine behind 'Softserve' (2000), a one night art and performance event which took place under the auspices of public art organisation Public Eye in the South African National Gallery. With this art party, Public Eye attempted to begin to change the somewhat stodgy image of the SANG, drawing in a new audience by throwing open the floors of the gallery to young artists for experimental and performance work. Public Eye, started in 1999, was the country's first public art collective, and Putter was a founding member.
The project he is best known for organising under that hat was the follow up party to 'Softserve', 'YDETAG' (2001) at the South African National Gallery. Working with 200 artists and designers, Putter facilitated new collaborative works across traditional disciplinary boundaries. It was the first time that queues outside the National Gallery were so long that people had to be turned away.
In the same year, working with Natasha Becker, Putter painted large scale tattoos from designs by legendary tattoo artist Jimmy Adams on walls in Cape Town's waterfront for another Public Eye initiative, 'Homeport', which considered the importance to Cape Town of its being a harbour city.
Putter's own studio work has a very specific aesthetic - unpretentious but compelling would be one way to describe his pieces made in the 80s and 90s, which often used throwaway materials and small found objects to make precise statements about gender issues, like Gene Pool and the visually shocking Female Circumcision. The former was shown on the 1st Johannesburg Bienale in 1995, and was the first work of Putter's to be bought by a major collection.
There were also quirky performances. For one, Putter found a set of old false teeth which looked as if they had once belonged to a sheep, and employing a nurse (to hygienically disinfect the teeth between wearings) and a photographer, had queues of friends and fellow artists lining up to wear the teeth for a portrait. The result was a grid of odd images linked by one startling facial feature.
Then, for almost a decade from 1997, Putter stopped making art objects, and instead explored the notion of underground culture, and subtle variations on public art, forming various groups to do this. It is really only in the last year that he has again started to make his own personal art.
'My work is obliquely - but heavily - indebted to the writings of two philosophers: Walter Benjamin and Gilles Deleuze. Benjamin intensified my interest in history - especially counter-histories based on seemingly insignificant, marginal material. And Deleuze taught me so many things, most especially that joy is a far more rigorous concept than I once supposed.'
'Disdaining agitprop, stereotypes and nostalgia, the work uses quiet logic and technical precision to cut through the divisions between intimacy and distance, movement and stasis, sound and silence, past and present, between fictional voices and institutional authority to present a vision of history that's surprisingly tender, deeply open-ended and refreshingly utopian.'
Miles Keylock, Mail&Guardian, January 11, 2008
Putter's recent video-installation Secretly I will love you more was acclaimed by almost everyone as absolutely the best piece on Spier Contemporary 2007, the new national survey biennial which debuted on the Spier Wine Estate last December. Putter was one of the seven winners.
Mining very early colonial history, Putter's Secretly I will love you more revisits the relationship between Maria Della Quellerie, wife of Jan van Riebeeck, first Dutch commander of the Cape of Good Hope, and Krotoa, daughter of one of the 'Hottentot' chiefs at the Cape. Krotoa was taken into the Van Riebeeck home, as a mediator between the Dutch, whose language she spoke, and the Khoi. Putter's piece suggests an affection given to the young girl very different from the traditionally accepted colonial setup.
Framed in an oval matrix, a bonneted Della Quellerie faces her audience to sing a gentle song in the music and soft clicks of the last existing Khoi language. The translation informs us that the song celebrates Della Quellerie's warm feelings for Krotoa, admiring her soft woolly hair and the shiny skin of the girl child. Putter's piece opens a space which reminds us that history is not to be understood strictly by what is written in text books.
Earlier last year, Putter re-entered the mainstream art-world with his artwork 20 Smells. With this work, a single event, Putter introduced audience members to 'the world of the nose'. Eighty four participants were seated facing each other at long tables for the two hour experience, each pair with a set of small glass phials containing carefully chosen smells gathered from around the world.
A year of research went into the event. Sniffings were accompanied by a highly informative lecture from Putter, pointing out, for instance that indole, the chemical found in white flowers like jasmine, is also produced by decaying flesh, and that the green smell of freshly mowed lawns used in many household products is generated by a chemical known as hexenol.
By isolating these chemicals and presenting them as individual smells, Putter aroused in his audience a new sensitivity to the world around them, focussing on the one sense generally excluded from what is considered to be art.
In his non-art object making phase in the late 90s, Putter and fellow-artist Peet Pienaar frequently collaborated on projects, and were often seen together, identically dressed. Their collaborative work Club (1997, Artscape Theatre) took the form of a perfect club - that lasted only one night. In Club, Putter worked with all his favourite djs and singers, setting them up against each other in dance-based, hybrid-genre performances. In Award, the two artists dressed up and gave out hand-written awards to all the bars and clubs they frequented late at night.
The last body of work Putter made expressly for galleries before his long break from the art-world included his series of Glitter Paintings, a celebration of the camp glamour that underpinned the aesthetic of many of his large events. Each was simply a rectangle of coloured glitter on board, framed.
Putter is using the Spier Contemporary prize-money to make four new works this year. Two of these are video portraits: one a double-portrait of two soldiers in the Anglo-Boer war facing each other across the battlefield; the other a tiny portrait of an 18th century English-woman singing an Arabic love song. He is also currently working on two photographs: an ethnographic-styled portrait of a Bushman woman wearing diamond jewelry, the other based closely on a 17th century Dutch flower painting, but using only flowers associated with the early Cape 'Hottentots'.
Andrew Putter was born in 1965 in Cape Town, where he still lives and works. He teaches art at Rondebosch Boys High School.
2007 Spier Contemporary 2007, Spier Wine Estate, Cape Town
'20 Smells', a Bowling Club event, Rondebosch Boys High School, Cape Town
2002 'Post', Bijou cinema, Observatory, Cape Town
2001 'Homeport', curated by Cell, Rotterdam, and Public Eye, Cape Town
'YDETAG', South African National Gallery, Cape Town
1999 Cape Town Month of Photography
'Oos Wes Tuis Bes', Klein Karoo National Arts Festival, Oudtshoorn
'Postcards from South Africa', Axis Gallery, New York
1998 'Art Frankfurt', Gallerie Frank Hanel
1997 'Lo Irony', Solo show, Gallerie Frank Hanel, Cape Town
'Club' (with Peet Pienaar), Artscape Theatre
1996 'Vita Art Awards', Johannesburg Art Gallery
1995 'Scurvy', with the Secret Seven, the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town
'For Better, for Worse, Kunst Heimat Kunst', (with Sue Williamson), Steirischer Herbst, Graz, Austria
'Objects of defiance, Spaces of contemplation', MuseumAfrica,
1st Johnnesburg Biennale
'Art Home Art', Grahamstown National Arts Festival
1994 'Mother City Queer Project' (with Andre Vorster), the River Club, Cape Town
1992 'Volkskas Atelier National Art Awards', Pretoria Association of Arts
1991 'The Heart of the Virus', SA Association of Arts, Cape Town