Filling a park in the countryside with sculptures by some of the country’s most notable artists sounds like a playful and fanciful mission. Liza Essers, Neil Dundas and Benji Liebmann, the joint curators of Sources: Contemporary Sculpture in the Landscape, created a spectacle of grand proportions at the Nirox Foundation’s sculpture park, located in the Cradle of Humankind region of the Magaliesberg range northwest of Johannesburg.
Filling a park in the countryside with sculptures by some of the country’s most notable artists sounds like a playful and fanciful mission. Liza Essers, Neil Dundas and Benji Liebmann, the joint curators of Sources: Contemporary Sculpture in the Landscape, created a spectacle of grand proportions at the Nirox Foundation’s sculpture park, located in the Cradle of Humankind region of the Magaliesberg range northwest of Johannesburg. Drawing on the Goodman Gallery’s stable of artists, including William Kentridge, Jeremy Wafer, Walter Oltmann, Brett Murray, Willem Boshoff and Kagiso Pat Mautloa, Nirox was transformed into a dynamic space, presenting a physical and intellectual adventure. But the beautifully manicured lawns of the park are undeniably seductive and captivating, often adumbrating the ideological persona of the artworks. One senses that this project was part of a drive to generate sales. Tough economic conditions perhaps call for creative sales pitches that entail heightened sensual encounters with art.However, while this is not a progressive exhibition, in the sense that it will cause any dramatic shifts in art historical discourses, it provides an opportunity for visitors to reconsider these artists’ works in a new context. With its connections to archaeological finds substantiating the continent’s centrality in the history of humankind the site is not a neutral backdrop. This has consequences, not just in terms of the formal configurations of the art but its ideological character too. To compete with the natural features of the landscape the artists were forced to reconsider the dimensions of their work.Marco Cianfanelli is accustomed to creating art for outdoor settings but with seemingly infinite space to fill he significantly upped the scale of his work. His steel human effigy, Reconstruction – cradle to grave (2005-09) is gargantuan in comparison to his average sculptures, the scale instilling another layer of meaning by conjuring the human compulsion to dominate. Similarly, Deborah Bell’s ‘monuments’ boast increased dimensions. Many of the works’ visual impact took precedence over their conceptual personas – not that the two are mutually exclusive. Take Bell’s Monument – Sacred Wisdom (2005/09): a smaller rendition would simply have underplayed the manner in which her aesthetic reflects on the mechanics of ancient sculptural forms.Another consequence of the setting is that the artworks no longer function as self-contained objects: their ideological resonance is dependent on an external signifier. This is an involuntary process although some artists exploited this. Not in a superficial manner. The curators made careful selections, ensuring that the artists’ works share an affiliation with nature. Cianfanelli practice, for instance, has been defined by his engagement with the landscape, and Wafer and Oltmann both take their cue from organic forms. However, on a visceral level the interrelation between the sculptures and the environment dominates one’s readings of the work, eliciting a dialogue that revolves on each sculpture’s opposition to, and conformance with the natural environment.Thus the relevance of Wafer’s Spindle (2006/09), a long white tapered rod with ridges, is measured according to what degree it mimics and/or opposes nature. With its hard white exterior, slick execution, and raised ridges that recall the textured outer skin of animal or plant matter, it is both alien and common to the setting. Other sculptures, such as Kentridge and Gerhard Marx’s Fire Walker (2009), a collaborative work that sees ‘torn’ sheets of steel coagulate into the figure of a woman carrying a brazier, or Murray’s highly stylised black bronze Donkey (2005/06), both address socio-political issues unrelated to this environment. They appear detached, disconnected and displaced. In this way the environment projects a new framework of reference onto the objects that does not necessarily coincide with the artists’ practice or intentions, creating a narrow prism through which the art is received.For Mautloa the surroundings enhance his expression. One could not dream-up a better location for Work and Rest (2008), a configuration of disused spades clumped together to form an abstract silhouette. It is not just that the patina of the spades makes logical sense in an outdoor setting, where they would naturally rust and disintegrate, but his sculpture conjures the invisible team of gardeners who maintain the pristine lawns. Mautloa comments not only on the contrived beauty of the environment but the socio-economic dynamics that underpin the setting’s bourgeoisie character. The spades also refer to the setting’s location within the Cradle of Humankind, where archaeological evidence is employed to redefine or reassert Africaness. Mautloa’s layered approach to engaging with this site is one of only a few such examples.In Murray’s La Petite Revolution (2009), the artist dispenses with any formal engagement with the environment. Aiming for the jugular, he also contributed a canvas awning imprinted with the text: “Pass me the cucumber sandwiches darling… we are having a revolution.” Installed along an extended patio where the Goodman Gallery’s moneyed guests retired after perusing the gardens, it delivers an incisive comment on the underlying context of this exhibition.Mary Corrigall is an art critic and senior feature writer at The Sunday Independent