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Promise Land

Stuart Bird at Goodman Gallery

By Leigh-Anne Niehaus
19 January - 25 February. 0 Comment(s)
Calling

Stuart Bird
Calling, 2011. Video Still .

Stuart Bird maintains a thoughtful clarity when speaking about his first solo show, 'Promise Land'. This coherence is a necessary device for taming the myriad references and approaches Bird employs. Like his locutions, Bird’s meticulously handcrafted sculptures are heavily laced with explicit meaning. Accused in the past of didacticism, his intention, the artist explained in an interview, is to dissociate himself from the opaque exclusivity that is all too often associated with highbrow conceptual art. As Bird puts it, 'I aim for my work to have the capacity to elicit a response equally from a professor or a child.' This is no place for hermetic trickery; even the plugs and electrical fittings are left visible throughout the exhibition – keying in harmoniously with the transparency of Bird’s intention and meaning.

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'Promise Land' speaks to the socio-economic situation of present day South Africa. The story is a double-edged sword: the country’s potential for greatness existing alongside empty governmental promises proffered at crucial moments. This notion of duality seems to be at the core of his material selection, production method, even the titling of his works.

The spatial and conceptual centerpiece of the exhibition is a floor sculpture entitled Change (2011), which unashamedly cuts the exhibition space in half – forcing the viewer to negotiate the physicality and, equally, the critical implications of the piece. The reverse mirror image of the word 'struggle' is expertly constructed from pieces of wood and embedded coins (or 'change') that punctuate its surface. Floating above the floor on a haze of red underlighting, it is only from the floor that the word can be read without reversal: an intelligible implication that it is only from below that one can truly comprehend the validity and force of the word 'struggle'. Bird’s response is one of crimson-tinged outrage. The artist uses a similar bulb in I Product (2011), a work that spells out his name in illuminated lettering. Reminiscent of Broadway lights on backstage dressing-room mirrors, the piece suggests a sense of theatrical showmanship that continues throughout the exhibition.

Another work that exhibits a palpable sense of theatricality is Over the Rainbow (2011). Although the title has been taken from the much-loved and fantastical 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, its namesake here is a bit more cynical. The phrase ‘Over the Rainbow’ is contained within a rainbow-shaped arch and is made up of sharp, menacing mirror shards. The shards stand at right angles to the wall, threatening to stab anyone that ventures too close. The sculpture is lit to emphasise its mirror-like qualities. If one approaches the word 'reflect' as a homonym, the work could imply the impossibility of honest reflexivity (on our country’s situation?); instead we are left with an empty mantra.

Riffing on that same theme, Present Tense (2011) comprises a shallow framed box of a segmented stained glass South African flag as a frontage, with a partially concealed old South African flag (made from mirror) behind it. These two flags, each representing their own zeitgeist, are held in an ongoing suspension: an eternity of tingeing and reflecting one another. Similarly, Rainbow Nation (2011) is a tightly packed box frame with a mirror backing containing a dense crowd of small lights. These claustrophic bulbs flicker away inexhaustibly in Bird’s satirical take on our rainbow nation. Mesmerisingly kaleidoscopic from a distance, on closer inspection one is struck by the chintzy nature of the materials, and perhaps also, their built-in redundancy.

Chip off the old Block (2011), an intricate wood carving of a noose and rope that hangs 5.5 metres in length, is another dramatically illuminated piece. Placed below this astoundingly realistic rope sculpture is a small pile of wood-chips and sawdust. As the title suggests this gloomy work references the troubled legacy that is our national heritage. In an equally impressive woodcarving that sits taut between two walls, Blood Knot (2012) speaks of civic and familial ties. As Blood Knot extends to the wall, its original beam form is revealed, countering the uncanny realism of its sibling sculpture, Chip off the old Block. Bird again leads us by the hand into a land of extended metaphor. Explaining his choice of knot: 'It seemed perfect as it is used in climbing and fishing to join two ropes/strings together without losing strength overall. So, for me, the metaphor describes a powerful bond, one soaked in blood with all the implied violence. The red teak oil which I used to treat the wood after carving, drips onto the floor and activates the piece.' A complex knot requiring skill to tie, no guesses here what this piece is suggesting about societal bonds, and how inescapably beholden we are to history.

In his short digital film, Calling (2011), Bird documents the ritualistic performance of inscribing ‘REVOLUTION’ and ‘COUNTER’ onto the roof of a building using an Acetylene torch. 'It struck me,' the artist explains, 'that the ideological lines between a counter-revolutionary and a revolutionary could be blurred and confusing. And I wondered about the recurring nature of revolutions, implied even in the alternative meaning of the word itself.' Conceived with a specifically South African rhetoric in mind, the performance anteceded the erupting of the Arab Spring. Fittingly, the video is shot on the more democratic medium of a cellphone, granting the piece a lo-fi quality authenticating the work’s significance. As the sun sets and the scene darkens, all that can be made out is the flame steadily going about its work. Aligning Calling with the rest of the exhibition, Bird states, 'The work ties into "Promise Land" in various ways, not least because socially and politically we are in the midst of a revolution, albeit a slowly unfolding one.'