Out of The Cube

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No Consolation, No Everything

Rowan Smith at Whatiftheworld / Gallery

By M Blackman
07 June - 19 July. 0 Comment(s)
Installation view of No Everything


Installation view of No Everything, 2014. Photograph .

‘No Everything’ is a similar utterance to the one emitted by ArtThrob’s own back-end developer. ‘Badly written’ he pronounced as he struggled with our coding. ‘What is?’ I asked. ‘Badly written everything!’ he spat out exhaustedly. The title of Rowan Smith’s current exhibition at Whatiftheworld expresses the minimalism of exhaustion, that moment when only the significant words matter.

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To live in South Africa is an act of exhaustion. If one does not willfully close one's eyes to it, South Africa is a country where even the art world offers little mitigation – instead seeming to replicate its bigger societal father in a microcosm. But Rowan Smith, or certainly the Rowan Smith of some years ago, was not one to comment on the state of South Africa. His interests lay in a more universal commentary. Certainly there seemed small concern with moral exhaustion in his previous exhibition of 2009 at Whatiftheworld. ‘If you get far enough away, you’ll be on your way back home’ had little to do with the minimalism of exhaustion or with anything in particular to do with South Africa or his own position in it.

Smith’s works were in and of their time. They existed in a socially insular context. They were nostalgic and concerned with the loss of a world that seemed somehow more authentic. Perhaps their most notable quality was their finish and Smith's attention to detail. But there is nothing like living away from one’s country for a while to put it into a new focus. And certainly Smith’s sojourn to the States, where he completed a Masters, has had this affect on him.  

Nothing Lasts Forever Cecil

Rowan Smith
Nothing Lasts Forever Cecil
2014
Bronze, powder coated mild steel, tempered glass, swarm of bees
208.5 x 92 x 74.6 cm

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He always had the skill and the healthy obsession with finish that is present in ‘No Everything’, but what has been added is an interest in subject and his position in the world and in South African in particular. Unlike many Masters students working today, who seem to merely continue the work they did in their undergraduate years, Smith has brought a whole new sphere to his work. And what he has achieved is probably one of the best exhibitions that I have seen recently – it was certainly the most surprising. Where his sculptures once seemed to contain drawn out and obscure pontifications about the universe, they contained none of Smith’s own snappy mordant personality. Meet Smith and look at his work four years ago and one could barely understand how it came from the same person. Now however, his work seems more in line with his humour and his quick-witted dislikes. And to this he has brought his usual obsessively skilled artistic practice.    

Perhaps one should begin with Nothing Lasts Forever Cecil, which is to my mind one of the best works of the last ten years. The first thing that strikes one is its reference to Damien Hirst. Encased in a vitrine, a sculpture of a horse’s head seems to be being attacked by flies. But unlike many references or ‘quotations’ that South African artists have ‘borrowed’ from more famous overseas artists, Smith has not merely followed an overseas artist's style but has twisted it out of shape. On closer inspection one realises that these are not Hirst’s flies of putrefaction, but bees. This twists the reference, subverting Hirst and his obsession with death and replacing it with an idea of fecundity. 

But the progenitor of what? The bronze head full of bees, with its reference to Cecil John Rhodes’s memorial statue, appropriates the idea of monument, suggesting not immortality but both rebirth and (Hirst’s) decay. To be sure, nothing does last forever, but here the concept of forever is transformed into one of decay and then rebirth and reforming. And with the reworking of this old theme Smith makes it neither quite Hirst nor a simple appropriation of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Emptiness (Salt and Vinegar II)

Rowan Smith
Emptiness (Salt and Vinegar II)
2014
Jelutong, enamel and chrome
27 x 16 x 12.5 cm

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Certainly this idea of the impermanence of life within the context of its own ability to recreate and reform is continued in the other major work Oh Nationalism! - Oh Nationalism! You look so beautiful in ruin; but we never really loved you and chicken just tastes better where signs of the obsession of Afrikanner Nationalism are strewn amongst concrete bricks and sculpted chicken bones. Of course what does dominate the exhibition is the sense that something has outrun its course, that something of solidity has crumbled and been swept along into the corners of the room. Other markers of this are the carved wooden chip packets scattered on the floor, the bronze driftwood pieces titled Fuck Your Beach House I-V and the shattered car windows. 

In ‘No Everything’ Smith seems to have abstracted white influence in South Africa, demarcating this as his particular field of interest. This is the exhaustion of the show, and perhaps it is the legacy of being white in South Africa. Certainly its history and influences seem to be a catalogue of endless, pernicious degeneracy. Whether there are moments of reprieve in this history, it is difficult to say; certainly Smith seems to offer none. There are times, however, when Smith goes a little far with his disdain, disturbing the quiet helplessness of the minimalism of the rest of the works. The found object Christmas, a sign advertising ‘Xmas Trees Bosmandam Road’, and the letter from the Spur – that is adjoined to Smith’s empty outline of their logo – explaining their signage, overstates the vitriol and interrupts the bleak horror and emptiness of rest of the exhibition. 

This aside, Smith’s exhibition is one of the strongest ones I have seen recently. He has in many ways turned his back on his generation’s inability to make any kind of social comment. From their endless obsession with nostalgia to their interest in a seemingly empty abstraction and quasi-mysticism, it is perhaps now only Smith and Chad Rossouw that seem brave enough to comment on their inheritance.