MaxNormal.TV, GOOD MORNING SOUTH AFRICA, 2008. Label: Runaway Music. Courtesy of Warren Siebrits.

Warren Siebrits

Popular culture today, antique tomorrow

Warren Siebrits is a walking library of contemporary art – his vast knowledge and approach to collecting and advising artists stands as a testament to his prowess in the industry. Warren is an avid collector of contemporary art and purchased his first William Kentridge in 1990. He has a fascination with music and has blended his analysing skills of both art and music to understand the contemporary art scene in a new and unique manner. Siebrits has also been an art dealer and ran his own gallery from 2002-2009.

 

COLLECTOR.: You have been both a curator and a collector in the contemporary art scene, and purchased your first William Kentridge for only R100 circa 1990 – what drove this decision to go into the business of collecting, and can you tell us more about how it all began?

Warren Siebrits: Long before I started working in the art world I began taking a serious interest in pop music and record collecting. I was in high school in Johannesburg during the early-to-mid-eighties, and instead of taking art as a subject at school I took history. The syllabus in apartheid South Africa was narrow and one dimensional – collecting vinyl records became a way of creating an alternative reading of the world, where at the time we lived in a closed society, ostensibly cut off from the rest of the world.

It must also be stressed that it was a fully analogue world back then. There was no internet, and only a highly curtailed and censored State-controlled television. Most interesting books and printed comics and zines were censored or banned during apartheid, and the only way of gleaning information about underground music came from specialised music magazines and newspapers like the NME and Melody Maker – which often took weeks if not months to arrive.

 

MaxNormal.TV Poster. Courtesy of Warren Siebrits.MaxNormal.TV, GOOD MORNING SOUTH AFRICA, 2008. Label: Runaway Music. Courtesy of Warren Siebrits.

 

Both information-wise and in terms of getting hold of the music itself created a scarce economy – an economy of delay and anticipation which, in turn, created an intensity within the philosophy and ethos of music at the time. This is no longer as evident in today’s society of complete material and information access. Music at that time was very much more of a counter-culture that challenged the status quo of suburban thinking to its very core. As a result, the most challenging and alluring records were those which were often banned by the apartheid security police – making them even more difficult to find. Ownership of certain records could land you in jail, and so the politics of dancing were extreme during the eighties in particular.

Punk and post-punk’s great contribution was to foster a climate of independent record production and marketing. Most members of these bands were art students with a love for music and social discord. That explains why their records have become such collector’s items today, as the band’s self-designed record sleeves have become works of art in their own right. Then came the first wave of innovative British graphic designers like Neville Brody and Peter Saville who turned record cover design into an art industry. No longer was the music listened to in a vacuum, but considered very carefully in relation to its aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings.

Having not gone to university and studied art formally or academically, people are often surprised when I tell them that it was initially the record shop environment, particularly Street Records in Braamfontein and Hillbrow Records, that made me aware of the important influence the art world held in shaping the direction and aesthetic of popular culture.

 

Music at the time was very much more of a counter-culture that challenged the status quo of suburban thinking to its very core.

 

There has always been a strong socio-political cross-pollination between art and music, most noticeable with hippies in the sixties. This is the socio-political climate that helped me recognise the importance of William Kentridge’s work early on. I had just finished two years of military service and had begun working in the art auction business. Bill Ainslie had just been killed in a car accident and the Johannesburg arts community connected to the Art Foundation in Saxonwold – which Ainslie had founded many years earlier – rallied in support and donated many great contemporary artworks which were sold to help raise funds to keep the doors of the Art Foundation open.

 

Roger Ballen image which was used for the album cover Generation Freakshow, by the band Feeder.Roger Ballen image which was used for the album cover Generation Freakshow, by the band Feeder.

 

William Kentridge donated a number of prints including a magnificent impression of his large etching ‘Casspirs Full of Love’ (1988). I was amazed to see a South African artwork that seemed relevant to my understanding of South Africa at the time, making direct reference to an infamous counter-insurgency vehicle – also referred to in a protest bumper sticker as “Casspir the not so friendly ghost”. It was an expression that seemed to perfectly mirror the perversity, absurdity and ambiguity of existence in apartheid South Africa during the final year or two of white minority rule.

The work was estimated at R 2000 which seems like very little today, but it still represented three times my salary – after tax – at the time. My mom agreed to loan me a thousand rand, giving me a budget of just over R 2300. Unfortunately on the day of the auction I was outbid when the only other bidder interested secured the work for R2400. Although I was terribly disappointed it was then easy to afford to purchase two small silkscreen prints by Kentridge at R100 each. I gave the one to my girlfriend at the time as a Christmas gift and the other became the first artwork I ever owned. It depicted a concert of factory hooters in a small city outside Moscow, and is based on a photograph taken just prior to the Russian Revolution.

In the same year of purchasing these two small works by Kentridge, our very own revolution for change culminated with the announcement of the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress.

 

One must bear in mind that everything that is regarded as an antique today, came into the world as a contemporary reflection of the unique circumstances of its creation.

 

 

Collecting has always been an influential trade, and is rooted as a hobby – how do you feel the collection of contemporary art differs from that of antiques? And in addition, do you have any relationship to antique collecting or do you focus more on the contemporary art scene?

I don’t see a great difference between collecting contemporary art or antiquities. One must bear in mind that everything that is regarded as an antique today, came into the world as a contemporary reflection of the unique circumstances of its creation. This is the paradox that makes collecting so exciting and binds every generation of collectors together – the desire and attempt to recreate a physical presence to a time and place now lost. The objects we collect are ultimately a physical personification of the consciousness that existed in society during that period, which will never return again in that form or aesthetic.

I personally prefer looking and collecting more in the recent past rather than in the immediate contemporary environment, as I am interested in the objects and items people first admire and then reject. This proves that most collecting, like the political arena, is governed by mass consensus and marketing, which are positions I deeply distrust. Therefore a good starting point as a collector is to ask yourself how you can form a collection that challenges the notions of the current status quo in society. Sometimes I have found that to find the answers to the future you have to look carefully into the past.

 

MaxNormal.TV album cover, Songs From The Mall. Released: 2001.MaxNormal.TV album cover, Songs From The Mall. Released: 2001.

 

 

The marriage of pop music and contemporary art is growing – would you say you’ve felt a connection between popular culture and contemporary art currently? What do you think will be the outcome of this growing trend in the art and music scene worldwide?

With international fame and fortune, Die Antwoord for example, had budgets to make more than promotional posters and hit the world by storm with their innovative music videos which borrow from some of our most important artists like Jane Alexander and Roger Ballen. A few years later it seems like high profile artists in need of extra kudos, like Zanele Muholi, are borrowing from Die Antwoord’s unique and influential visual tapestry in the creation of their own images.

As one can see from this example there is a growing awareness and connectedness between the worlds of art, music and fashion. So the beauty of the marriage between high and low art practise is that one can make ones first acquaintance with the sculptures of Jane Alexander whilst doing a Google search as a Die Antwoord fan – much in the same way I discovered Dadaism by being a cabaret Voltaire fan back in 1983 when I was 15-years-old.

The danger however is not to view art as fashion. As they often say in the underground music business “If You Want To Destroy Something, Turn It Into A Fashion”. In other words when counter-culture is able to be assimilated and sanitised, to the degree that it can be sold on the high street as a trinket of commoditisation, it becomes no better than a bite with no venom.

 

 

Do you feel that Die Antwoord is art? Has the mixing of music and performance/fine art helped to persuade the youth to gain more interest in the art sphere albeit through a musical corridor at a younger age?

Yes, I do feel that Die Antwoord is art. Their approach reminds me a great deal of the punk and post-punk period of the late seventies and early eighties. Art collecting, like record collecting, has a great deal to do with understanding the context and trajectory of a creative expression – whether it is produced by a group or individual.

 

MaxNormal.TV, GOOD MORNING SOUTH AFRICA, 2008. Label: Runaway Music. Courtesy of Warren Siebrits.MaxNormal.TV, GOOD MORNING SOUTH AFRICA, 2008. Label: Runaway Music. Courtesy of Warren Siebrits.

 

Watkin (“Waddy”) Tudor Jones Jnr. a.k.a. Ninja has one of the most interesting trajectories and has been honing his skills, deeply committed to his craft since the early-to-mid-nineties when he first recorded tracks as part of the ‘Original Evergreens’. Their start was shaky, as was their cover design for that first release, probably due to the dogmatism of a corporate giant like Sony Music. The relationship soured thank god, which gave “Waddy” his first taste of being totally independent, meaning his new project “Max Normal” was able to determine each aspect of their approach to image, live performance, graphic design and marketing. At the time of their first CD ‘Songs From The Mall’ (2001), they were producing the most innovative and graphically interesting concert posters and flyers to advertise their concerts. That is still one of my biggest regrets – not stealing a whole lot of posters off a fence that ran along the Parkview Golf Course around Christmas 2001. Not only was the music important, but also their graphic expression.

This showed me early on that Waddy was not only sonically, but also visually, extremely literate and innovative. The greatest credit to Waddy is that he bit the bullet for almost an entire decade living on the smell of an oil rag between releasing ‘Songs From The Mall’ and Max Normal TV’s ‘Good Morning South Africa’ (2008) which inexplicably faded somewhat into obscurity at the time. Not only is this really the first Die Antwoord album, and the first time he recorded with partner Yolandi Visser, but has also become the most collectable recording they have made to date – with copies changing hands for close to R2000 on Discogs when the rand was a its weakest levels a year or two back.

These same copies used to retail at Look & Listen in Hyde Park for R79.99, and in a moment of desperation during a sale, they sold me a box of twenty copies – at a discounted rate of R50 each. This goes back to my theory of buying what other people don’t want or see no value in. The true value of this recording is that it birthed Die Antwoord the following year. The lesson in this evolution to any aspiring artist is to become the thing you parody. For years “Waddy” would style himself as the 9 to 5 businessman with a briefcase, suit and tie. Then he had the brainwave of becoming every 9 to 5 businessman with a briefcase, suit and tie’s worst nightmare. He achieved that with precision and artistry and the rest is history.

 

Once again, I have put my emphasis back on collecting – and the value, meaning and inspiration that it provides the collector beyond the one dimensionally obvious rationale that art provides a financial return.

 

 

You are an art consultant and an art dealer, could you explain more about these positions and how you can have a lasting effect on the trading of art in a global sense? What is your opinion on the art scene in the years to come?

In taking the decision almost a decade back to close my gallery, I was set free from the enormous financial burden of financing the running of a gallery, which these days can run into millions of rands a month. I have always been more interested in the philosophy behind the art and it’s making, rather than the selling of it. I also have more time to research and delve around in the strange and unusual corners of the art world where I find the most interesting items.

Once again, I have put my emphasis back on collecting – and the value, meaning and inspiration that it provides the collector beyond the one dimensionally obvious rationale that art provides a financial return. My weekly newsletter ‘The Art of Collecting’ was initiated four years ago as a forum to attempt to discuss the importance of art and culture, away from the pressure of having to try and sell it and justify it as a good investment, with all these meaningless financial charts and pie diagrams that permeate art discussions these days.

 

MaxNormal.TV, GOOD MORNING SOUTH AFRICA, 2008. Label: Runaway Music. Courtesy of Warren Siebrits.MaxNormal.TV, GOOD MORNING SOUTH AFRICA, 2008. Label: Runaway Music. Courtesy of Warren Siebrits.

 

The investment art provides is simple and hugely rewarding. In my experience, art awakens a sense of wonder, desire and pleasure to understand the world around us, which in turn provides a sense of inspiration, solace and hope. This is necessary to help keep a sense of pessimism at bay, caused by the extreme levels of volatility and unpredictability we encounter on a daily basis. Art and music are a ballast that restores equilibrium, which, along their infinite winding pathways, help one achieve rare insights into the human condition which are not achievable in any other way. I feel that my position as a private art consultant and art dealer of this nature effects a change by challenging collectors to re-examine their personal relationship to art rather than simply to acquire status, power and wealth. In my opinion the future of the global art scene promises to be extremely exciting in the years to come, but I hope for more grit and challenge, versus less commodification of stale and uninteresting ideas which seem to have overrun the art market at present.