“One replicates the confidence of Italian Renaissance classicism at its height, the other turns the Baroque exuberance of Bernini and Rubens, as well as Velazquez’s contemporary realism, into an expressionistic wasteland presided over by skeletons”
Joburg Altarpiece & Amazing Things from Other Places is Wim Botha’s fourth solo exhibition at Michael Stevenson. It is a powerful affirmation of the conceptual breadth that has characterised his work since he first – controversially – entered the public domain with Commune: Suspension of Disbelief (2001), a life-sized crucified Christ figure carved from compressed pages of the Bible. Underpinning this is a technical virtuosity that enables him to work in two and three dimensions and to explore a diverse range of media.Botha’s Joburg Altarpiece rivals his 2004 Mieliepap Pietà – in ambition, scale and engagement with western art history. Meaning and materiality come together in works as profoundly different as a sculpture, made of crushed maize and epoxy resin, and eight lino prints (one replicates the confidence of Italian Renaissance classicism at its height, the other turns the Baroque exuberance of Bernini and Rubens, as well as Velazquez’s contemporary realism, into an expressionistic wasteland presided over by skeletons). Apocalumbilicus, a linoprint on tea-stained Hahnemühle paper depicting a parent cradling a child, reveals the true spiritual source in Dürer’s Apocalypse series of 1498.Significantly, the enormous altarpiece is not dedicated to a holy personage or church, but to a city fraught with urban decay, poverty and crime, a city where South Africa’s inequalities are glaringly exposed. The violence of Botha’s imagery is intensified by the physicality of the slashes and radiating lines and marks; there is no redemption, and no prayer will be answered.This would hardly seem the place to introduce the exquisite geometry of the Platonic solid (a convex polyhedron that is regular), but it is exactly what Botha does, in the bottom of the central panel (After Rubens). Plato’s theory that the four classical elements (earth, air, water, fire) were constructed from the regular solids has occupied great minds for thousands of years. Botha takes on the challenge with the installation Amazing Things from Other Places, which includes five suspended sculptures – the heavenly constellations of Plato’s fifth regular solid. But these absolute ideals do not offer any respite from the apocalyptic vision of the Joburg Altarpiece; in fact each perfect shape has a figure straining or skull dangling from the geometry that keeps them captive. Only the bird (is it Icarus or a bird of prey?) escapes its octahedron. The figures are roughly carved and constructed from wood, in sharp contrast with the perfection of the Platonic solids.They are installed in the presence of portrait busts and skulls, carved from wood and paper (the ever-present Bible and Afrikaanse Woordelyste). Of course nothing can be read except the odd word, such as “patriot” in an open mouth. The screws and bolts, and the mechanics of display are integral to the works. Yet, as Botha reveals, he conceals and eludes the possibility of any fixed interpretation. In a 2005 interview with Michael Stevenson, Botha said: “Perhaps I am a failed product of Christelike Hoër Onderwys”. Botha is both an iconoclast and creator of his own iconology; this results in works that can be enigmatic and abstruse. But his power as an artist, who relentlessly excavates, subverts, destabilises, deconstructs and reconstructs venerated icons, systems of state, religion and history, is indisputable. He has not failed the society in which he lives and works.