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Siobhan Keam talks to Vivien Kohler about his upcoming solo show at the Lovell Gallery in September 2014

Siobhan Keam: Hi Vivien, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your work. You were the winner of the Lovell Gallery 2013 Artists competition (now called the Lovell Tranyr Art Trophy). How did winning that competition affect your career?

Vivien Kohler, Dad said I can, 2012. 1.2m x 1.6m, Parquet, found metal object and
oil in board. Courtesy of the artist.

Vivien Kohler: Since winning the competition the journey I must say has been more fruitful than I had anticipated. The amount of work The Lovell Gallery have put into my career has been more than I could have asked for, affording me both local and international recognition and exposure. I have found them to be real professionals at connecting one with the right dots. The win has and is without a doubt fast tracking my career.

The Lovell Gallery emphasises focusing on a body of work, rather than a single artwork; this is in contrast to most of the competitions that currently occur in South Africa. What are your opinions of this approach, vs. the traditional single-artwork entry?

I do understand the single-artwork entry reasoning, especially in terms of logistics. Usually the artworks would be physically brought into a drop off point and the works would then be evaluated. But a truer sense of the artist’s work and thinking can only be gleaned from seeing a body of work. As an artist you are able to voice your visual opinion or direction far more fluently with a body of work. With the competition being hosted by a gallery, they understand this reasoning. The Lovell Gallery being a forward thinking establishment have taken this into consideration when putting the competition together. Being afforded the opportunity to present a body of work for the competition I feel allowed me to show my full range of artistic expression, especially since the materiality of my work is so varied. It would not have been possible for me to show all of that with just one work. At the same time it was quite a challenge to produce a body of work for the competition. It forced me to think in terms of a solo exhibition and not just an entry for a competition.

Can you give us some insight into the reoccurring motifs in your work? You seem to use the paper plane repeatedly, as well as elements such as parquet flooring. The repetition of these elements creates an interesting sense of recognition when viewing your work as a whole; each work is distinct, but they clearly relate to, and draw from, one another. Can you expand on that?

VK: A cultural visual language is something we all share in quite a profound way. We have all grown up folding paper planes from scraps of newspaper as children. This childhood recollection can also be ascribed to the parquet flooring. The greatest attribute of these memories is that they effortlessly cross racial boundaries. Art being a visual language, I have endeavoured to harness this shared memory in an effort to speak to as many as possible. One does not need to be learned to appreciate art. In his book Ways of seeing, John Berger opens by saying that seeing comes before words and that the child looks and recognizes before it can speak. This is my intension in using these memory laden objects, allowing conceptual ease of access for the viewer.

The paper plane for me is a symbol of freedom, hope and faith. Freedom is something we instinctively all desire, and hope and faith is what enables us to strive to reach our dreams. The parquet of course is a symbol of home and safety. Quite reminiscent of a womb or incubator environment, it is a place of peace and comfort, a place of rest. Especially in a country like South Africa with all its history of strife and more specifically our current longing for a true working democracy, it is hope and faith that will get us to that place of rest. It is then that this country will truly become home.

As well as creating works for solo and group shows, you have also curated shows. Do you differentiate between your role as a curator and that of an artists; or do the two relate to one another? Does the interest in curation inform your practice?

Even though I have curated shows in the past I do not view myself as a curator. At those points in time the curated shows were born of necessity. Instead of waiting for an opportunity to come my way, I created them. Also, I might have initiated the ideas but I always co-curated the shows with colleagues who were far more knowledgeable in terms of curation. First and foremost I am an artist, but I suppose the art of creating a successful body of work could also be seen as a type of curation. I am far more confident as an artist than I am of being a curator, and in that sense I definitely differentiate between the two. I must say though that I did rather enjoy my few stints at curating.

Your first solo show at the Lovell Gallery is scheduled for September 2014. What are you planning for this show, and how will it expand on or differ from the shows you have already completed? Will you continue to be using your heritage and history as your inspiration/subject matter?

My September solo show at The Lovell Gallery I feel will be a culmination of my work thus far, exploring both my internal reflections and external influences of life in South Africa. My heritage, both in terms of race as well as society, will play a large part in informing the work. My previous shows dealt more with the cares and feelings of others, this show however will be more introspective in its initial approach. All in all it will be quite a varied body of work tackling issues ranging from the deeply personal to that of the societal and political. My personal works are used as a starting point from which to investigate our shared narrative. As far as the materiality of the work, I feel this will be more expressive this time round. I am quite interested in the public’s reaction to my rawer metal work pieces. Also I am quite enjoying the political aspect in my newer works at the moment.

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