Writing Art History Since 2002

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Goodman Gallery Johannesburg

The slightly larger-than-life, tomb-like figure lying in the middle of Goodman Gallery forms the pivot of Clive van den Berg’s latest body of work. The sculpture appears to be submerged in a grey mass, with only two feet emerging at one end, and the head, curiously turned away, at the other. Around this figure ‘wheel’ many other representations of bodies and body parts, at times sharply edged out, at others, literally disappearing into the wall or the picture plane of the art work, making the whole gallery a virtual breathing, porous skin.The quiet repose of his central figure references many medieval tombs incorporating figures in similar pose. The turned head, however, is particularly redolent of the figure on the Tomb of a Knight in Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire (c1250), which portrays a fallen hero in violent, wriggling action, fighting till the last breath. The work invokes the memory of the crusaders who died in the struggle for the Holy Land.Memorialising has always been a central part of Van den Berg’s conceptual thinking. Van den Berg’s work memorialises that which has largely been denied visual representation and presents an imaginary truth of same sex love relationships. His work sets up an intricate conceptual framework, often in very unlikely public spaces – mine dumps and hillsides – or highly institutionalised and regulated environments, including legislative buildings, cathedrals, even the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. His sculpture is also part of a bigger project to present knowledge that has always been subjugated or, at least, masked by dominant discourses, an approach that corresponds well with his many architectural-, civic- and public art projects.The conceptual tenets infusing Van den Berg’s art are death, desire and loss, his project concerned with exploring the curious relationship between death and desire. The English sociologist and theorist Jonathan Dollimore points to many literary texts to hypothesise that the connection between death and desire is mutability: the sense that all being is governed by a ceaseless process of change, inseparable from an inconsolable sense of loss. He cites the case of Foucault, who literally died for love (Foucault’s “limit-experiences,” such as his practice of sadomasochistic sexual activities, literally killed him in the end; he died of AIDS in 1984), but also killed the very thing he loved (one of Foucault’s biographers, James Miller, intimates that he deliberately infected others). In addition to making statements about death and desire, Van den Berg’s art extends notions of eroticism, particularly as articulated in the previous edition of this magazine [ASA 5.2] by Stacy Hardy (‘Not Getting Any?’) and Nadine Botha (‘The Confessions of Perverts’). They argue that there is indeed enough representation of sex to go around, and that the agenda in contemporary (erotic) art should centre on the mechanics of sex, rather than the power behind the sexual act. Van den Berg’s artistic agenda eclipses eroticism by offering forms of alternative sexual identity, constructions of masculinity and male sexuality that depict men loving men. Where his previous work used the battlefield and/or the landscape as setting for male heads and bodies, as well as museums and galleries as haunted houses in which ghosts roam, his current work is located in the intimacy of the bedroom.Van den Berg’s art poses numerous questions that renegotiate the language of love spoken in such an intimate setting. How do we love without fear in the age of AIDS? How do we love in a way that honours loss? Death inhabits sexuality, as AIDS has abundantly shown. Sex and sexual knowledge have always been inextricably bound in an embrace of death. Responding to these questions, Van den Berg proposes recognition of physical frailty – a humbling that comes with age – and a renegotiation of desire, beauty and strength. Using human skin as a powerful and memorable metaphor for mutability, his show poses considered questions about the role of mark making on the picture plane and its relationship to memorialising human loss.

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