A monthly feature on an artist currently in the public eye
By Kathryn Smith (November, 1999)
For this self proclaimed "working-class bushie artist", the first two years of art school were living hell - until he read an article in Frieze magazine featuring the work of Kendell Geers, Stephen Hobbs and Wayne Barker. Feeling a true kinship with Geers' aesthetic terrorism, and recognising the work to be part of his life experience to a point where he felt he 'owned' the work mentioned in the piece, it became Rhode's desire to be Shakespeare's "pregnant enemy". Rhode believes art has a definite practical function and educational potential, which is partly the reason why he gives his art what he calls "real life form". He aspires to be entertaining and for his audience to be judgmental. Self-deprecating and very self-aware, Rhode has invented a word and life philosophy that he believes should be consciously applied at least once a day:
" I have been working extensively with video and performance art by alluding to formalism while actually engaging with very gritty and personal subject matter. I am as serious about my subject - a personal experience of rough Johannesburg neighbourhoods and its criminal subculture - as I am about making art. These experiences have inspired me to commit myself to the processes required in the making of contemporary art. My sculptural pieces have involved the construction of barcoding as a form of colloquial or encoded subcultural language. My interactive pieces can be seen as an attempt to foreground the way objects functions as signs before people see them as material things."
As the only Johannesburg artist invited to 'Softserve', a multi media event at the SA National Gallery in Cape Town, Rhode is currently busy with his performance. Called 'Radio Rahim', it takes its title from a character, Rahim, in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" , whose ubiquitous ghetto-blaster blares Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power'. Without giving the game away, the piece is based on the unavoidable infiltration of media technology into our lives. In the performance, Rhode plans to insert himself into an entire 'drawing field', extending his desire to become one with his drawing.
He is also producing a short film called Persona non Grata, as part of a film course at the University of the Witwatersrand, and he is a development coach for an U13 cricket team in Westbury.
Rhode featured prominently in a number of shows at the Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery earlier this year. All of his contributions involved his acclaimed performance work, placing himself in the literal and figurative 'foreground' and everything else in the 'background'. In this way, he is able to present us with a version of reality, only to turn it on its head minutes later. In 'Personal Concerns' he gave us Leak, drawing a urinal on the gallery wall, pissing 'into' it, and leaving the gallery. Drawing on the male tendency to mark territory, the artist sees this as a symptom of artworld behaviour, with a nod and a wink to Marcel Duchamp. Theft, performed for 'Truth Veils: The Inner City' involved him drawing a CitiGolf on the gallery wall (the easiest car to steal apparently) and trying to break into it with half a tennis ball and a coathanger. These attempts having failed, he threw a rock 'through' the window.
Bicycle was given impetus by a high school intiation ritual in which older students drew a bicycle on the wall of the cloakroom and instructed a younger student to '"Ry die fokken bike!" Rhode did the same, except it was him attempting to 'ride' his drawing. According to Rhode, having no bike as a child was sign of a dysfunctional family and not being 'one of the guys'. When his family moved to Johannesburg, his bike was left behind and now serves as an iconic image of this 'outsider' status.
His first video, Coffee Cup is an elegant and sophisticated piece, featuring an aerial shot of a cup of coffee that changes colour from pale beige to black. Rhode adopts this as a sign of racial preference that has been used by both Malcolm X and our own Thabo Mbeki, who went one step further and spoke of the 'cappucino' of cultural diversity: white froth on top and dark coffee beneath.
Rhode is currently doing research for a book on local graffiti art, tentatively titled Against the Wall. He is interested in the humble yet powerful expression of territory, pride and respect that the graffiti subculture carries with it. Unlike the flashy, stylized graffiti work that has evolved more into mural art, the 'unglamorous' and 'gloomy' graffiti that adorns walls in his neighbourhood is 'authentic' in its lack of artistic skill or style.
On New Years Eve, Rhode will be one of the Johannesburg artists taking part in global fax art project, 'Wrapping the World'. In each time zone, artists will be stationed ready to draw when the fax comes through from the previous zone. The paper will then be fed back into the machine to reach the next zone, effectively 'wrapping' the world in one really long drawing.