Subject as Matter

21 November 2012 – 29 June 2013
Curated by Penny Siopis


In [A.S.] Byatt’s novel, the interruption of the habit of looking through windows as transparencies enables the protagonist to look at a window itself in its opacity. As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things. Bill Brown, 2004

A deep and generous interest in the human subject lies at the heart of Piet Viljoen’s collection. This interest in the sovereign self – thought, feeling, embodiment – is also at the heart of much contemporary art. We seem creatively preoccupied by the desires and conflicts that make up our sense of self and our sensation of ‘being in the world’. Often we think and speak about all this when we think and speak about ‘identity’.

For me the real challenge and pleasure lies in the way an openness to material form can stretch our thinking beyond our usual, perhaps stock, ideas of ‘identity’. There is a tension between material form and subject matter, between subjectivity and objectness, which provokes an endlessly fascinating meditation on our identity and the identity of things. This fascination shapes my own work and has taken on a new energy in contemporary art. Giving carnal, material form to our ‘being in the world’ is perhaps art’s gift to life.

It is in the spirit of this gift that I have curated this exhibition. I have searched Piet Viljoen’s collection for works that resonate with the sensation of self and the sensing of a subject. Some work impressed me immediately in its assertive materiality – surface, shape, scale, light – that pushed form so far that reference to a subject and identity became fragile and tenuous, calling for a strong investment of imagination on the part of the viewer. Other works struck a powerful note in how they explored elaborate textual codes and self-consciously manipulated visual languages to articulate a sense of subjectivity.

I am going to select a few examples to give some shape to my curatorial thinking, part of which has also been determined by the spaces of the building.

Wim Botha’s sculpture Time Machine could have been made for the double-volume space at the rear of the building, so well does it ‘fit’. The piece continues an earlier work which explored time as a Janus-faced emblem of order and chaos. Time Machine is a gesture of fluorescent light tubes, pine strips and painted wood structures that the artist refers to as ‘aircon ducting’. The implied gesture – oddly both human and mechanical – challenges the rigid medium and its utilitarian functionality. The work turns into ‘something else’, suggesting a different energy, another kind of being. Here light becomes physical form which gives a life force, a subjectivity to inert material. Is it the promise of transcendence through the energy of light or more a process of taking pleasure in manipulating resistant materials into eccentric compliance? The work reminds me of a challenging project I once set students where they had to draw a human being using only the lines that could be made with a ruler.

More figurative, but equally a subject in flux, is Robin Rhode’s 24-piece ‘documentation’ of his animation Piano Chair. In a series of sequences the artist’s doppelgänger, dressed in black coat and tails, does violence to a drawing on a wall. The drawing is of a piano. The doppelgänger uses a brick, then a panga, then an axe to smash the drawing. He tries to smother it with a pillow, set it alight and finally to hang it on a hangman’s noose. Rhode is well-known for his performances with drawing, showing ways in which depictions and objects shape our subjectivity. For all that his is a kind of wry play-acting, it often involves real-world situations which spark and occasionally inflame the viewer’s imagination. “I remember,” says Rhode, “one time I did a performance in Johannesburg where I drew a bike on the wall and tried to ride it. Then a security guard came, I thought he was going to catch us all, but then he said, ‘wait, let me help you on the bike’.”1

Dineo Seshee Bopape shapes situations through object installations focusing on how things can evoke human activity. The constellations of objects and materials in her piece seem invested in personal and social significance. In part they suggest the informal trading structures that often emerge on the fringes of larger economic communities or places where people pass by on their way to work or play. The ‘temporary’ wispy form of her piece also speaks to the provisionality of invention and play, bringing together things that might, for instance, be left lying around after some social event. Blue saturates the work. Ribbons, beads, sequins, wool, a photograph of light, tin foil and less identifiable objects ‘act’ in the space between two upright poles resting on islands cut from ersatz blue linoleum. For Bopape this key colour ranges from Yves Klein’s ‘blue’ to the blue of local church uniforms. Myriad associations collide in her work, through things and their absence, or as she puts it, “[w]hen ‘sense’ is somewhat distorted and there emerge some holes”2. We might see in Bopape’s situations a reflection of a makeshift subjectivity that is incessantly on the move.

In painting, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s haunting works show people imagined as much through their painted surface as the visual shapes suggesting eyes, face, dress and gesture. Her people are like ‘characters’ in a novel, with little reference to individuals in the real world. But the reference to modernist figurative painting is clear, particularly the works of Eduard Manet. There has been much comment about Yiadom-Boakye’s ‘subjects’ being black, yet, as she has often explained, she is as interested in making their presence as human beings tangible in paint, wanting “to drag people out of the canvas”. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist she remarks: “It’s a sensual thing – it’s about a sense of touch and a sensibility. I want it to be that kind of experience as well [for the viewer], which is why I don’t like the idea of giving too much of a story and trying to control that response too much.”3

Georgina Gratrix’s painting Mr Nice to Meet You also wrestles intense physical materiality into figuration. There is personality here, but, unlike Yiadom-Boakye’s quiet fictional characters, Gratrix’s Mr Nice seems to be a particular ‘somebody’ in the world. For me, what matters more than his identity is the way the medium meshes or mangles itself into a face and outfit. Along with the title of the work the image gives a strong, almost literal impression of the subject – a character – which speaks perhaps more eloquently in this case than matters of history and biographical fact. Embodiment and subjectivity are also at issue in Gratrix’s word-picture Please call me, and in those other works on show that use text to construct forms of the subject.

I chose these text works because of the way they conjure the subject through reading as much as seeing. The modes of address, the words used, the actual writing itself, as well as other forms of language inscription, are all at play here in shaping the subject as textual content, as author, as creative subject.

In Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet (Letter E), an installation of metal boxes, crafted wooden objects and aluminium plates with Braille inscriptions, codes of touch are used as the source of legibility, where the subject cannot be assumed to see. This is a different code of touch to that invested in the iconic painted surfaces of Yiadom-Boakye’s works, but it is no less affecting.

Walter Battiss’s manuscript titled Cosmic Fookism reads as a desire for utopia, a desire held in both the character of his script – the cadences of his crossings-out and additions – and in the content of his sentences. In his monochrome oil painting Fook Island Alphabet we see words in the artist’s painterly cursive lying beside and emerging from his calligraphic gestural paint marks. The words are his imagined alphabet for his invented Fook Island. This is the word of the hand.

Put writing on the wall, or place it in a frame, and the viewer becomes reader; the gait and structure of reading – line by line – is often at odds with the relative fluidity of looking at a visual field, a picture. These embodied texts say more than their words, and some – like Avant Car Guard’s oil on canvas Done – are happy to risk non-sense.

Then there are works that are so over-coded, so manifestly artificial and saturated with the energy of play that their visual signs overheat and meaning is cut loose. For all that these works often overtly declare the subjects they represent, their manifest production of an unstable pictorial and symbolic world, and over-ironising of art, implies we can’t really believe what we see. We must rely on our own sense of the world to enjoy theirs. Avant Car Guard’s ACG at J.H. Pierneef ’s Grave 1954 leads this way, taken with liberal pinches of salt.

Often what sense we do have of the subject is derived from our pre-knowledge of the context of the making of the work or our awareness of the exploitation of visual language as play. This preknowledge often points to the fact that many of these works are in fact self-representations or self-fictions which raise active questions about truth and authenticity.

History is not a fiction for Serge Alain Nitegeka. His paintings Black Subject vs Tunnel III and Black Subjects I: “…and walk in my shoes” give visible form to his feeling of being unsettled in time and place. Yet the form he uses – his visual architecture – strongly references modernist formalism which is in compelling tension with both narrative and the kind of emotion associated with displacement and forced migration (Nitegeka is originally from Burundi).

Bridget Baker’s large photograph The Maiden Perfect is pure fiction. It shows Baker enacting a scene of a woman hanging precariously over the ocean from the deck of a ship. Her gesture is one of flamboyant desperation. The woman Baker enacts is her mother, back in the day when she won a beauty contest as part of the ‘crossing the line’ festivities on board a Union-Castle liner. It is a little-talked-about fact in the Baker family history. We might then see the artist’s re-staging of subjectivity coming close to registering desire for a very real experience of self. “Staging myself as her figure”, Baker remarks, “was a moment that simultaneously registered desire and failure. The process of getting one shot required many hours of labour and ‘holding on’.”4 For all that this is a photograph of a scene, when we look closely at its smooth reflective surface we see that a wave in the ocean is embroidered in the ‘original’. Part of the sea became a sewn surface at some point. In the end the subject – Baker with her embroidery – was caught in a cinematic moment enmeshing body, hand and surface.

In this text I have commented on only a few works. But all the pieces on the exhibition reveal a strong consciousness of the tension between matter and subject. I have placed some works to ‘speak’ directly to each other, while others call on an intense investment of memory to create connections. At times I have exploited confined spaces to encourage close attention to surface and an articulate materiality.

The phenomenal creative world that Piet Viljoen’s collection reflects allows us deep insights into the complexities of human subjectivity; the precarious, fragile achievement of a sense of selfhood continuously made and unmade in form and indeed experience. I have curated in such a way as to show something of the matter and the mettle of the subject and this collection.

  1. Robin Rhode interview by Selina Ting (31 October 2010), InitiArt online magazine, Accessed 8 October 2012
  2. Artist statement, Geography of Somewhere (exhibition catalogue), Stevenson, Johannesburg, 2011
  3. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist (14 June 2012), Kaleidoscope online magazine, Accessed 8 October 2012
  4. Bridget Baker: email correspondence, 23 October 2012