Writing Art History Since 2002

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he atmosphere darkens as the viewer moves on, seeking the source of the eerie, otherworldly music and sounds.

Walking into Hentie van der Merwe’s exhibition figuring II: Heiseb is like entering a world where the present has been elided, a world haunted by both past and future. At first glance it is bright and theatrical, a futuristic stage set where the Beekeepers (2009) – sculptural figures with fantastical headgear and superbly crafted shimmering costumes, their overalls dropped – hold sway. Their bodies are muscular but their race is undetermined; each one has a different skin tone. Closer inspection reveals a motif appearing on each of their left breast: a skull, bunny and circular swastika. All is not well.The atmosphere darkens as the viewer moves on, seeking the source of the eerie, otherworldly music and sounds. It is a film (directed by Amanda Evans, with music by composer Philip Miller) in which menacing spirits stalk the manic puppet-gymnast. This computer-generated character transmutes at high speed, as does the pommel horse on which it exercises its power; it takes flight and is propelled into a cave. Superman is reduced to a fearful entity as he descends Orpheus-like into a ghostly underworld. Will he be resurrected? The sculpture Hare (2009) is diametrically opposed in technique. Deconstructed, mangled shopping trolleys form the dress and feet of a headless shop-dummy torso, clad in a furry bustier that is embellished with golden sperm (or are they tears?).The hares, masks and skulls that occupy Van der Merwe’s recent works are here woven into a visually cogent installation of prints, mixed media works, sculpture and film. The camouflaged words “insatiable”, “dead” and “I am sorry” provide clues, but unless the visitor is prepared to do some personal research, figuring II: Heiseb remains impenetrable at the level of decoding Van der Merwe’s intentions and processes. Apart from the title of the exhibition there is no information and no attempt to guide the viewer into a richer and more rewarding experience of the artist’s thinking and concerns, his research and the way in which that research has manifested in a significant body of work. There is not even a wall text. Is this neglect or arrogance?The (badly) photocopied story How Heiseb Made the World, written by Van der Merwe, and the notes on the history of Sigrid Schmidt’s Audio Archive of Nama Folktales, available on request, helped. Heiseb flatters the bees into giving him honey, which he greedily consumes; when the hive is empty the angry bees attack and destroy his skull. Hare sings their praises, but Heiseb deceives her and slaughters her, and uses her skin to cover his open brain. Thus he survives to create a world in his own image. This fascinating story could have been turned into an illuminating wall panel.

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