Writing Art History Since 2002

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Strijdom van der Merwe I University of JHB Art Gallery I Johannesburg

Each of the triptychs in Strijdom van der Merwe’s Messages from the Southern Earth shows a symbol from a series of rock engravings at Driekopseiland in the Riet River near Kimberley, a photograph of the artist’s recreation of the symbol, and a map indicating the location of the latter. The works reflect a process of recording and marking, to which van der Merwe adds another layer by including in the exhibition a large floor installation of salt, sand, and herbs and an outdoor work of bark that will disappear in time.The exhibition is a handsome one, well suited to the long, boxlike structure of this new gallery but several things detract from its impact. One senses that the artist tried to match his prints to the gallery’s scale, making the mistake of equating size with strength. The photographs thus suffer from over-enlargement and the maps, at this scale, show clearly the pink banding associated with bad scans. The jewel-like slides displayed on one wall are far more satisfying, but even here one senses a nervousness on the part of the curator, as though these were included as a kind of CV lest we doubt the artist’s credibility. Finally, the engraved rocks for sale remind of the pet rocks we collected as children, and point to a crass commodification at odds with the artist’s work.What, we must ask, is the aesthetic point of van der Merwe’s project? Or – since Land Art has often been less about land than about an interrogation of the mediating structures of artistic production -the political point? Certainly the work draws attention to questions dogging current debates about land reform, and if you study the maps you will no doubt reflect on the erasures and misrepresentations that maps enact. But the artist’s re-creation and relocation of the marks found at Driekopseiland erase some of their geographical and cultural particularity, resituating them in the rich symbolic landscape of van der Merwe’s own art.To have a practitioner of Land Art in South Africa at this point in our history raises some interesting questions. Van der Merwe was born just when the genre’s iconic figures – Goldsworthy, Long, Heizer, Smithson – were beginning to create art that rejected the confines, literal and symbolic, of the gallery circuits (leaving aside the fact that exhibitions of this work brought it straight back into the institutions from which it had purportedly fled). Land Art has come a long way from the wet leaves and grass circles of these artists and now includes work as varied as Olafur Eliasson’s urban “interventions” and the projects of California’s Center for Land Use Interpretation, but it is to the pioneers that van der Merwe owes his greatest debt.I am sceptical of Melvyn Minnaar’s comment in van der Merwe’s (shoddily produced) book Sculpting the Land, that the artist “will bear the symbolic mark of his ancestral !giten.” Van der Merwe is no shaman, but an expert, and very western, practitioner of a particular kind of mark making. He is not alone in South Africa where several artists have made work that shares some of Land Art’s qualities: the in situ sculptures of Jackson Hlungwane and Noria Mabasa, Willem Boshoff’s use of wood and stone, or Jeremy Wafer’s Stones (2000). Van der Merwe has absorbed these influences but the overall impact of his work echoes those proponents of Land Art for whom the beauty of surprising combinations of colours and objects, the mathematical elegance of spirals, the universal appeal of cairns call attention not so much to political concerns as to a romantic impulse to generalise man’s interaction with the natural world. We have squabbled endlessly with romanticism and are, I suspect, content to let it assume its place amongst the many impulses motivating artists working in this post-postmodern world.

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