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DAVID J BROWN - LAST WORKS

ZOO

DAVID J BROWN LAST WORKS

Edited by Pippa Skotnes

Edited by Pippa Skotnes

ZOO


ZOO DAVID J BROWN LAST WORKS


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without prior permission from the publisher or copyright holder. Š Text the respective authors Originally published in South Africa in 2018 by Axeage Private Press in collaboration with Circa and the Everard Read Gallery ISBN: 978-0-620-82146-9 Edited by Pippa Skotnes Design & layout by Niek de Greef Zoo was first exhibited at CIRCA, Cape Town, 4th December – 4th January 2018 and then at Everard Read, Johannesburg, from 7th March 2019.


ZOO Edited by Pippa Skotnes

Introduction

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Pippa Skotnes  Berlin days

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Pippa Skotnes Deeper water

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Alexandra Dodd Owl augur

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Jules Skotnes-Brown ‘The studio is rocking, my brother’ 

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David musing on a productive day John Skotnes David’s last assistant

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Martin Wilson

Zoo: works

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Acknowledgements

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No tears to cry No feelings left This species has amused itself to death Amused itself to death Amused to Death Roger Waters


This book accompanies an exhibition of David’s last works: a collection of wax fragments, small-scale bronze sculptures and a series of linocut prints, inspired by a period of time he spent in Berlin. It is more than just a catalogue, and this is more than just an exhibition. Because of the nature of the work, my involvement with it and with David, and the fact that the project remained unfinished as a result of his sudden death, the texts in this publication express themselves as elegiac. Even as they contextualise his work, they memorialise his life. Zoo represents both a continuation of the work and themes that had been at the heart of David’s work over many years, and a shift in a new direction. As I see it, artists really only have one theme they work with all their lives. The form may change (as it was starting to do in this work) but there is something like a longing, a desire, a need, something inarticulate – without words – that takes hold of artists, I think, and it nags away at them until their last breath. For David it was a yearning to understand what he saw as the very extremes of human experience – pain and cruelty, and beauty and freedom – and to find peace from these irreconcilable paradoxes in the expansive space of the wilderness areas of the country he loved. David was born in Johannesburg and grew up a wild child living in the semi-rural edge of Mondeor. His mother was a nurse, but had had polio and so was never allowed to practice; his father was a playwright and journalist, and David was allowed to run free, more or less, playing in the hills, swimming in the river, collecting mushrooms and wild fruit. He did not take school very seriously and thought of his life as happy, but for the inhumanity that he, like all of us at that time, encountered because of race laws and police brutality. Several of these encounters he remembered with painful clarity, and they are reflected

Introduction

in the work he made. He came to Cape Town with his parents when he

PIPPA SKOTNES

was 16 and spent a miserable year at Westerford High School, feeling 1


straightjacketed in its uniform and by its commitment, in

My lecturer at the time, Dimitri Fanourakis, was particularly

those days, to national Christian education.

brilliant. He showed me images by an American photographer,

After school he did his nine months’ obligatory military

Bruce Davidson. His way of doing things was to walk into the

service, which he considered not only an enormous

slums of Harlem with his cameras and equipment hanging

waste of time but a travesty, and he retained a revulsion

from him. Here he would wait until people asked him to

for anything to do with the army or with institutions

photograph them, thus a non-exploitative dialogue began

that regimented behaviour and enforced the horrors of

with his sitters, and he exchanged prints for the privilege of

immoral regimes. When it came to thinking about his

photographing them. At the time I was living up the street

future, he was not sure, but decided to study graphic

from an area which had been declared a ‘whites only area’

design at Michaelis, turning to photography in his fourth

and was evicting ‘people of colour’. I wanted to document this

year. As his first significant creative project he produced

area, Harfield Village. Most of the photographs were taken in

a body of photographs taken in the street where he lived.

Second Avenue. One half of the street (the half I lived in) had

This work was re-presented decades later at the District 6

always been a whites-only area, the other half for ‘non-whites’.

Museum (in 2015), ironically being both his first exhibition

It was this other half where people were being evicted. I began

(when a student) and the last that he attended of his own

hanging around the area with my camera dangling from my

work. At that time he remembered the project as follows:

neck. Sure enough within 15 minutes I was invited into one of


the dark little cottages. Thus began an intimate dialogue with the people of Harfield Village. I printed the photographs I took and gave them in exchange for the privilege of being allowed into their homes. Rapidly I became known in the area, I was invited to photograph babies, old grannies who took to their beds in winter, children dressed up in their best, friends. Some made me special meals; a tailor made me a pair of pants. I was given samosas to take home. The poorest gave me bread with Lucky Star pilchards spread on the slice. I photographed there for a year and produced a series called Second Avenue People. I experienced only generosity, no animosity, no hatred because I was white. Thus began a remarkable year. I was only 21 and seeing the suffering the Group Areas Act inflicted still cuts me up. To this day driving through Harfield haunts me. I will never forget going into a house on a cold winter’s afternoon, a NW storm raging, and in the first bedroom I entered a woman was wrapped up in bed keeping warm, lovely and welcoming, and I took her photo. She told me to go into the next room. Her ancient mother was in her bed also keeping warm. Beside her, hanging off the bedpost, was a crucifix. She started talking ‘I was born in this house … soon I will die, and I am being forced out of my house.’ That summed up the unbelievable brutality and cruelty of that terrible system.1

A couple of years after he left Michaelis, David found a studio in an old building on the edge of the business district of Cape Town, bordering the beleaguered District 6, which at the time was also subject to forced removals, the demolition of homes, the breakdown of community, 3


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as families packed up to leave for an uncertain future on

often bandaged, making their way around town with or

the Cape Flats. This studio and its environment was to

in supermarket trolleys. A couple – he a paraplegic, she

play a significant role in the development of his work.

his companion – slept under David’s window, and he

Just opposite, in a plot of fenced ground, riot police got

remembered overhearing many conversations in which

dressed in camouflage uniform, leaving in their armoured

she would recall fond memories of her mother frying her

vehicles for daily combat in the townships. Within the

an egg or cooking some other simple treat. These people,

low-walled boundary of the building and on the opposite

seldom sober, often harassed by the police, became part

pavement, groups of street-people, or strollers as they

of David’s life and his first real audience. Many befriended

preferred to call themselves, set up home in packing crates

him, one man entrusting his monthly disability grant

or the shells of old motor cars, and in the evenings would

to his care and then making regular withdrawals for

make fires in open braziers. Some were disabled, legless,

meatballs from the corner cafe, a new radio (to replace a


stolen one) or other expenses. All had comments on the sculptures that were gradually evolving to incorporate the brutality, pathos and disparate community of people that characterised both the area and the time. Once, when he was making a large wood and steel hanging figure, a man new to the area wandered into his studio. He introduced himself as recently released from prison. What was his crime, David asked; ‘Murder, my baas’ came the answer. He gave the work its title: Death in Detention, he called it. The other occupants of the building also contributed to

this

strange,

liminal

society.

His

neighbour,

1. Exhibition text. After the 2015 exhibition at the Homecoming Centre at District Six, my colleague, Siona O’Connell, set to work to find some of those evicted from their homes in Harfield as part of her extended project on the effects of the Group Areas evictions. Many of those he photographed have been found and remembered David as a young, long-haired photographer, like Peter Pan going about the neighbourhood followed by dozens of excited children. Sadly he will never see the book Siona is to publish, nor re-encounter the wonderful people that I, and my son Jules, have since been privileged to meet. The photographs on the previous page are of Sharifa Floris and her brother Suliaman Floris, previous residents of Harfield village. 2. This was Gary Branquet, a magnificent craftsperson who later assisted David in crafting some of his ‘furniture’ artworks.

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engineer-inventor Howard Stasin (a good friend and later

expressed a medieval quality, at once a parade of the

a surfing partner), had set up a workshop constructed

condemned and a triumphant return from a distant battle.

out of old bits of machinery, fridges and other tailored

The figures and carts also recalled gladiatorial combat,

contraptions and experimented with a form of injection

images from the Inquisition, Bruegel’s peasants, drunks

moulding which resulted in bizarre constructions of foam

and gluttons and, more to the present, Ridley Walker’s

– not least of all clinging to his shoes and clothing – and

vision of post-apocalyptic, deranged chaos.

finally brilliant success. Further down the corridor, a

It was at this time that David began work on a

business making burglar bars and security gates flourished.

commission for the Johannesburg Art Gallery which

And upstairs, a marvellous but somewhat downtrodden

resulted in the monumental bronze and metal sculpture

carpenter2 spent years creating the interior of a yacht

Tightroping. This work was completed in 1985 and drew on

which would finally take its wealthy owner away from the

the themes of his previous work. Placed as it was outside

chaos that seemed to be the inevitable fate of South Africa.

the gallery in Joubert Park, the sculpture found a home

David’s first solo exhibition, Dogs of War (1980), was

from home and was to become the favourite backdrop for

held in the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. These were

photographers in the area. In 1996, one of the figures was

large, brooding sculptures carved from jarrah and incorporating metal jackets or armour. His first icon was the dog – an animal he was to use as both a symbol of powerlessness and of aggression. Further developed in his series One Man and his Dog (1983), these contrasting attributes – the sense of a loving domestic animal gone feral – lent to the works a quality of menace, as if all that was familiar and dependable was really founded on a deep, dark pool of irrational mistrust. In 1985, David exhibited a collection of bronzes entitled Procession at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and later at the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland. These works appeared as 23 separate pieces linked together as a cavalcade of vehicles, transporting structures and figures with flags and megaphones (some victims, some victors) to an uncertain destination. Together, the procession 7


stolen and for a decade or more the sculpture, as such, no

survivors driven crazy by violence, repression, hopeless-

longer existed. It was later found in a scrap yard in Cape

ness and processes of dehumanisation. These ships are

Town by artist Willie Bester and was eventually returned

destined to sail to no new destination. There is no hope for

to Johannesburg.

their human cargo, yet they display their own destruction,

The group of works that followed Procession was titled Voyages (1989). These works took the ship – the

8

as if David were symbolically packaging the horror and holding it up for our scrutiny.

Ship of Fools, the slave vessel, the ships of the voyages

For the next few years, David was to work on his

of discovery – as their central theme. On these vessels,

biggest and most ambitious sculptures yet. These

groups of figures work hard; rowing, pulling, hoisting,

included the exhibition at the Goodman Gallery entitled

bellowing, going nowhere. These are ships unworthy to

Dogwatch (1993) and the Dialogue at the Dogwatch (1995),

sail: rusted, broken, their sides split open. They are full of

a commission for a house in the English countryside.


The latter was commissioned by Charles Diamond, one of several collectors David was lucky to encounter, and whose own eccentricities seemed to coincide with his own. David worked on the piece for two years, and in the end it covered an area of 30 m by 11 m, with a height of 6.5 m. Today it is part of the collection at the University of Cape Town outside the Middle Campus administration building, donated by its previous owner. Works from these series have found their way into various collections; one found a home on the farm of our friends Steve and Erna Louw, where it has been befriended by horses who rub their rumps and noses on the burnished bronze bums and thighs. All these works focused on folly, brutality and paradox, with their historical roots in the travelling carnival shows or mobile arenas where costumed figures enacted ritualised inversions of hierarchies through ridicule and the absurd. David loved making these big works and he titled them Dogwatch, playing with his long-term theme of the dog, but borrowing marine terminology – the dogwatch being the two watches from 4 to 6 pm and from 6 to 8 pm. Apparently the name comes either from the dog star – first to be seen at night – or because it was a half watch – those on the watch were dodging their watch, and those sleeping would only get a dog sleep, a shorter nap. David’s figures had a rough, brutish quality. At one time he became fascinated with wrestling matches and wrote: ‘I attended many of these – they were filled with macho bravado, brutal violence, heads were battered with chairs, ring posts and so on – sweaty, bulky, fat bodies, along 9


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with an adoring crowd of fans, shrieking in pleasure. This

artists, young sculptors he inspired and also children, for

seemed to be another microcosm of the brutal, oppressive

whom his figures conjured magical or scary stories. Even

system we lived under.’

animals liked his work.

The final large-scale body of work David made was

When David left his studio on the afternoon of the 17th

titled Portraits of Sinners. These works were amongst the

of March, 2016, it was a space full of creative energy. The

ones I admired most. Somehow, everything seemed to

waxes he made in the year that he and I spent in Berlin

come together in them. They were shown at SMAC in

were lying about, awaiting that big buyer who was going

Woodstock, and they looked magnificent. Alexandra Dodd

to pre-order the casts so he could afford to get the moulds

wrote about these for the exhibition (her essay can be

made. His new work was taking shape. He had packed

found on the SMAC website, and she mentions them later

up his tools in his metal trunk, changed from his work

in this catalogue).

clothes, which he draped over an old metal tripod, and

At the beginning of this brief introduction, I suggested

left his new steel capped boots under his plaster-splashed

that all artists’ work is an endless reiteration. David’s

table. For the last time, he turned off his hi-fi, which had

memories of the police abuses he saw as a young boy

been playing Pink Floyd’s live version of The Wall … ‘Is

growing up in the blue-collar belt of Mondeor, the forced

there anybody out there …’ and locked the gate on which

removals of Second Avenue and District 6, riot police and

a sign encouraged visitors to ‘SHOUT’. It was his last

bloated government officials all haunted his work, as did

day in the studio. The next morning, we said goodbye as

the grim realities that were not just local but belonged to

I left for work, and he packed his board, his wetsuit and

societies all over the world. In spite of this, he also had a

booties and headed off for a surf. A friend told me later

great sense of humour and a sense of the absurd. In all his

that dolphins were in the water that day, and I like to think

work he pokes fun: he covered his figures with what he

that they came close to him, and that again he felt a part

called three-dimensional tattoos, and he tied their penises

of the non-human animal world he loved, before he was

in knots. He dwelt on thick neck folds, on the vanity of

taken from those who loved him.

body builders, on the absurdity of male bravado.

Mounting this exhibition has had its challenges and

David’s admirers have been the rich and famous

has required a strength of will I sometimes felt I did not

(several film stars were rumoured to have bought works

have. The police station, the mortuary, the autopsy, the

of his), eccentric art lovers and young collectors, but

undertaker, the master of the court; these are names and

his work was also admired and appreciated by ex-cons,

terms that conjure a personal abyss that endures. But like

people who lived on the street, ordinary people taking

David’s sinners, the paradox is alive even within the grim

their wedding photographs under his bulky figures, fellow

reality each represents. For this reason, I thank those two 11


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surfers who brought David to shore and let me know he

I certainly could not have brought this body of work

was not entirely alone at the end, and the police officer

to fruition without the skilled contributions of John

who finally, after a night-long search, called me to say

Skotnes and Martin Wilson, who worked on all aspects

she had tracked down his bakkie. My greatest thanks, for

of this exhibition, the support of Angus Taylor and

daily support and love, go to my son Jules, my brother

the enthusiasm of Mark Read, and I thank them too. I

John and my lifelong friend Karen, without whom this

also thank John, Jules, Martin and Alexandra Dodd, for

all would have been unendurable. Many others, both

their moving contributions to this publication, Thomas

my own dear friends and David’s, have cared for and

Cartwright for proofreading, and Niek de Greef for the

supported me. I thank them all.

work of putting it all together so beautifully.


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In August 2013, Dave and I left for Berlin. I was one of 42 fellows at the Wissenschaftskolleg, and we, together with our partners, became a closely-knit community for the year. Dave and I both had studios, attended the seminars and dinners and took advantage of all that the city had to offer. The building in which I worked was once owned by a Jewish couple, Georg and Emmy Braun, who were commemorated in the stolpersteine outside. Given its proximity to the Grunewald forest, the building was appropriated from them for Hermann Göring’s Reich Hunting Association and the offices of the Reich Hunting Museum, later serving as a button factory and then as a hospital. Today, the Braun’s descendants occupy the top floor, the comforting sounds of their lives audible above the daily activities of the Wissenschaftskolleg. Dave and I both felt the spectral presence of past lives in that building and wherever we went in the city. On the weekends, we would explore the public sites in the city, often wandering into the graveyards and abandoned or deserted places. No city anywhere can lay claim to a richer diversity of architectural and artist-generated memorials, museums, displays, temporary and permanent exhibitions, as well as places that express the transitions in its past. Berlin is a city of war, of walls, of division and of tragic and traumatic histories. Traces of the destruction of the city at the end of World War ll are everywhere; walls spattered with gunshots and the broken spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church a constant visible reminder. By contrast, reconstruction and rebuilding is ongoing in both the East and the West. It is an injured but simultaneously thriving city that does not hide its wounds. Small and substantial memorials to the people carted off to concentration camps or murdered in the streets are present beneath one’s feet as well as in

The Berlin work

multiple architectural and sculptural reminders. These people were,

PIPPA SKOTNES

for the most part, Jewish, but the prejudice and discrimination of the 15


Nazis seemed to know few boundaries. In places, the wall that subsequently divided the city remains in fragments, the miseries of this division recorded in multiple ways and sites. David was deeply moved by these memorials, by the powerful evidence of late- and post-war destruction and by the traces in some of the buildings, particularly in the West, of the grandeur that once characterised the city. Architectural details surprise and delight. Ships and human figures decorate facades. The houses in our neighbourhood had beautiful, intricate wrought-iron gates and fencing, and there are animal gargoyles all over the place in the parts of the city that were not entirely destroyed. These he refashioned into the broken facades that he worked on in his little studio that looked out over our leafy suburban neighbourhood near a lovely lake. The lake marked the passage of our year in Berlin. In late summer and early autumn, the leaves of the trees crowding its banks, slowly leached of life, turned into a brilliant palate of reds and umbers, yellows and bistre. As the temperature dropped, the surface froze metre by metre, and the ducks and swans clung to the small, dark disk of water in the middle of the lake. When it snowed, the ice turned to shimmering white. In early spring, on our way back from Thursday-night dinners during which we were plied with vodka by our friend, the Russian historian of the Soviet Union, or whisky by the Irish World War I historian, we often walked down to the lake to stand in the late-night silence and listen for nightingales, whose song we heard there for the first time. 16


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We got around the city on buses and trains, so reliable that we timed our travel with only a minute or so to wait at any stop. For David, the train and the tracks came to symbolise so much of the horror of the war and the destruction of life and community it entailed. Our local train station had preserved the old platforms where Jews were loaded onto carriages to be carted off to their deaths. Every metre or so, the daily number of people, sometimes hundreds, transported from that station is engraved in the metal platform, with date and destination, and the tracks, once heading out to the concentration camps, now end in overgrown grasses and trees, where visitors scatter red and white roses. We both found the museums to be perhaps the most startling and moving places in which the trauma comes to rest. The complex history of the city is folded into these institutions in ways that make the collections in museums – no matter from where – survivors of war, conflict, theft, appropriation and partial destruction. These objects offer up a way to read history; full of valence, expressing longing and giving presence to the violent conflicts that caused a global circulation (and devastation) of places, people and things. We both felt that this had implications for understanding the ways in which South Africans commemorate the past – the ways in which we could, or should, or need to. For both of us, the constant, open confrontation with the traumatic past that these many memorials made palpable allowed for a kind of active, ethical engagement that we do not seem to have achieved in South Africa. 19


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Much of the imagery that David used in the work he

Hitler’s holiday hotels for workers. They were designed to

did in Berlin was inspired by museum exhibits. In the

house 20 000 people at a time, each room with a sea view.

German Historical Museum, there was a collection of

Back in Berlin, we visited the technology museum several

toys associated with the Nazi era that included miniature

times. In it were war-wrecked planes and a submarine,

wind-up cars, prams and trains. In a cabinet nearby was a

which became an inspiration for some of his works. All of

figure wearing a plague mask (the long nose designed to

these appear in the waxes or in the linocuts.

hold herbs and other remedies, through which the wearer

Much as the city displays its trauma, it also seems to

breathed so as not to become infected). In a museum in

nurture a secret life. So many times, we wandered through

Binz, on the Baltic, where we travelled one week with my

corridors that opened up into wonderful courtyards

brother, there was a display of hair dryers that had the

impossible to imagine from the street. One sunny Sunday,

appearance of tortured robots. We walked along the beach

while walking towards the Martin Gropius Bau Museum –

on the magnificent Jutland Peninsula, where Caspar David

a museum we loved – a fox ran past us with a small grey

Friedrich painted his Monk by the Sea, until we came to the

rabbit in its mouth, long, soft ears flapping as he trotted

five-mile stretch of abandoned buildings that were once

along. We were subsequently introduced to the story of


the rabbits, who had been trapped in blissful peace in the

They checked out all the data in their lists

no-man’s-land between the two walls that divided East

And then the alien anthropologists

from West Berlin, until, for them, the tragic day of the ‘fall

Admitted they were still perplexed

of the wall’, when the foxes could feast on rabbits grown

But on eliminating every other reason

fat from fearlessness.

For our sad demise

When our son came to Berlin with a friend, we all went

They logged the only explanation left

to visit the sprawling, overgrown, abandoned amusement

This species has amused itself to death

park located alongside Treptower Park, the giant memorial

No tears to cry

to the Soviet dead. Both these places were haunted by a

No feelings left

sense of unimaginable loss and failure. Carefully curated

This species has amused itself to death

at Treptower, the loss was more suggestive at Spree Park,

Amused itself to death.

the tangled vegetation and broken train tracks calling to mind Amused to Death, a Roger Waters album that Dave often played in his studio.

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Animals loomed large for David during his time in Berlin. We both visited the zoo several times. In Berlin, there are two zoos (there are two of many things, duplicated during the time of the city’s traumatic division). The West Berlin zoo, Zoologischer Garten Berlin, is just off the grand Kurfürstendamm, where a trendy shopping centre looks out over the baboon enclosures. The night-time cages for the animals are grimly prison-like, often painted in blues and greens, with bare concrete floors and sad, pacing animals. A leopard would occasionally bat a food bowl around, and the chimps stared forlornly out into the distance. One gorilla, born in that zoo in the same year that I was born, brought tears to David’s eyes the first time we saw him. The East Berlin zoo, Tierpark, was worse. There, bears in metal cages never seemed to have the opportunity to feel earth beneath their feet. Several seemed intent on injuring themselves as they battered their bodies against the bars. We also visited the aquarium, and there is a theme running through David’s Berlin work of fish and the sea – there is a blowfish, an octopus, a hammerhead shark, a squid, as well as a scene of a hunt with a crocodile speared like Saint Sebastian. David did not eat land animals or food produced via crops that destroyed habitat, like palm oil, but occasionally he would eat seafood. In one of his last text messages to me, he wrote: ‘Just heard can’t eat prawns, hugely damaging to the ocean bed, massive bycatch birds, turtle etc. better scratch that off the list. Poor ocean’. He despaired for the environment. David’s daily pleasure during our stay was a long bike ride through the Grunewald forest. The forest is on the 23


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western edge of the city and is home to foxes and over 3 000 wild boars. He became very familiar with the forest’s many winding paths and saw (and photographed) it through its changing seasons. He only saw one family of boars in all that time, but he said he sometimes stopped and sensed they were about. He used to ride very fast; I think it gave him a thrill to be alone there, away from the noise of the city. Once, in the spring, he came upon some naked bathers in a small lake, and another time, in winter, a work party of men combing through the undergrowth and dead leaves. Further along the path stood a truck filled with old pieces of metal and unexploded shells. He wanted to photograph that pile but was told, Es ist verboten. He did manage to sneak away a British World War II wire cutter, which he brought to me as a present. Another influence that finds its way into this work is a trip we took to Sicily with a good friend we made, the classicist Kathleen Coleman, who introduced us to the mosaics at Piazza Armerina. I also wanted to see Palermo and the catacombs, and, when there, we took a terrifying taxi drive on the wrong side of the road up the hill to Monreale to what must be the most beautiful collection of mosaics in the Christian world (perhaps outside of Ravenna). The figure of Christ from Monreale, transformed somewhat from the original, appears several times in the linocuts that David subsequently made. At the end of our trip, David shipped his waxes back to Cape Town, but they came back very smashed up. He was devastated by this – it seemed to be a whole year’s work destroyed. After some time, though, he began to 26


piece together the parts and made a virtue of their damage,

reconstruction. Either way, it is hard not to see the works

as if they were mirroring the broken world he was trying

as, somehow, elegiac.

to represent. He worked on them on and off, and finally,

When I think back on those days in Berlin, I think

shortly before he died, he sent one piece to the foundry for

of coming home to our apartment on Koenigsallee and

mould-making. This tableaux, a wind-up car surrounded

finding him working on his waxes with the window wide

by pillars on which rest the heads of various animals, is

open (to control the smoke of the wax) and the icy winter

one of the few pieces assembled that gives us a clearer idea

air blowing in. It upset him that there were no bees in

of what he meant to do with all the components, and how

Berlin – and it was true, we hardly ever saw an insect

he meant to assemble them. There are some pictures of

despite living on the edge of the forest. At home in his

other scenes from Berlin, but for many of them it is not

Woodstock studio, working with beeswax meant whole

really clear which bits were to be included and which not.

swarms would arrive in the studio, eventually persuaded

This exhibition is an attempt, in as far as it is possible,

to leave by a gentle fan. The day we left Berlin in early

to assemble the works as he intended, but where we could

autumn, there were workers down at our lake installing

not determine this, the fragments speak to the reality of a

what looked like little wooden houses, made with various

project interrupted, and perhaps even to its poetry. I hope

bits of natural materials and punctured with dozens of

the exhibition can show the work, at least in spirit, as he

holes of different sizes. We were told that they were ‘insect

intended it, but also as an act of a loving remaking and

hotels’, intended to lure insects back into the city. We were

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both very pleased and were reminded of why we loved the place so much. When I was looking for a way to fund the casting of these sculptures, David’s friend Otto, a fellow artist and surfer, had a word with the sculptor Angus Taylor, who eventually contacted me and offered to cast the pieces at his foundry in Pretoria. I was overwhelmed and moved by this offer. Angus told me that as a young aspiring sculptor, he had, like many others, been inspired by David, and that it would be an honour to do this for him. I salute him for his generosity in the art world that David, like many of us artists, so often found to be grasping and greedy. After David died, I spent long hours in his studio. I would turn on the dusty, wax-spattered hi-fi and listen to the last album he had played – Pink Floyd’s The Wall Live – volume turned up. I thought of how much he had loved his life, despite the many things that troubled him, and how fearlessly he grasped his freedoms. Making sculpture was one of these. He came home exhilarated from one of the last days he spent in his studio: ‘I am making the most magnificent unsaleable work!’ he announced. The making of that sculpture had covered the studio in wood dust, and as I gently brushed clean the surface of the wax octopus, the giant squid and the hammerhead shark, I thought of another of his freedoms – the sea, on whose waves he had spent so many happy hours with his surfboard, and in whose waters he breathed his last breath.

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Waves I rode a wave one evening, long after the sun had set, with the first stars already out, that stood up and seemed to bend off the reef toward open water, which was impossible. There was a dark, bottle-green light in the bottom of the wall and a featherlike whiteness overhead. Everything else – the wind-riffled face, the channel ahead, the sky – was in shades of blue blackness. As it bent, and then bent some more, I found myself seemingly surfing toward north Vitu Levu, toward the mountain range where the sun rose. Not possible, my mind said. Keep going. The wave felt like a test of faith, or a test of sanity, or an enormous, undeserved gift. The laws of physics appeared to have been relaxed. A hollow wave was roaring off into deeper water. Not possible. It felt like a runaway train, an eruption of magical realism, with that ocean-bottom light and the lacy white canopy. I ran with it. Eventually, it bent back, of course, round the reef and tapered into the channel. I didn’t tell Bryan about it. He wouldn’t believe me. That wave was otherworldly. Surfers have a perfection fetish. The perfect wave, et cetera. There is no such thing. Waves are not stationary objects in nature, like roses or diamonds. They’re quick, violent events at the end of a long chain of storm action and ocean reaction. Even the most symmetrical breaks have quirks and a totally specific, local character, changing with every shift in tide and wind and swell. William Finnegan, Barbarian Days¹

It is late 2017 and I am sitting in the window of a surf café on

Not possible: keep going

Muizenberg Beach, reading through the transcription of an interview

ALEXANDRA DODD

I did with David Brown in October 2015 – just over two years ago, an 35


entire torrid epoch when you’re not looking at a watch. The wind is up and the waves are racing in low, quick-foaming succession toward the eliminating shoreline – one after the next, almost indistinguishable in their cyclical emergence and dissolution; each is new, entirely fresh, never the same. This is the sea. Constant transmutation. The perfect wave, et cetera. There is no such thing. This is the text. The perfect sentence, et cetera. There is no such thing. This is the sculpture. The perfect form, et cetera. There is no such thing. His words wash into consciousness: ‘I don’t necessarily know why I’m making the thing at the time of its making. I work in a very instinctual, intuitive way. I don’t think too much about meanings. The process flows like a river. I make one, then it runs into the next one, and I work a series until it dies.’ I did not plan it this way, but now, as I sit here in this seafront café on a Thursday morning, typing up thoughts as they occur, the fact cannot be evaded or muted. It washes through me, over and over. This was the sea in which he caught his last wave. As I read and type and look through the salted glass of the windowpane, my awareness swells and recedes. This was the place, these were the waves, this was the beach. Ambient music plays in the café, but because I am wearing headphones the detail is absent from its reception. I experience the music indistinctly, less through my ears than through the vibrations moving into my body as I type, blurred tones mingling with the sound of the waves, a constant sssssshhhhhhhhh combined with a basal hum. The information is coming through, but more as vibration than composition. 36


37


When I entered his studio two years ago, I was struck by the music of Pink Floyd, psychedelic rock filling up the large airy industrial space. ‘I’ve been here for 25 years,’ he said. ‘In Woodstock, on the railway track. The whole building is held up by these gigantic steel beams. They were going to pull it down, but then the hat maker bought the building and saved it.’ And now the Roger Waters chorus is coming through to me again: There is no pain, you are receding A distant ship, smoke on the horizon You are only coming through in waves Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying When I was a child I had a fever My hands felt just like two balloons Now I’ve got that feeling once again I can’t explain, you would not understand This is not how I am I have become comfortably numb Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb²

I was struck that day by the strangeness of the concurrence; I had just seen the 2014 documentary The Wall, in which Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters performs the band’s critically acclaimed album in its entirety. It wasn’t just the confluence of seeing the film and hearing the music. As the interview proceeded, I was struck by an uncanny overlap of content and concern – in the film, the music and the series of sculptures Brown was working on at the time. As well as 38


39


being an immersive concert experience of the classic Pink Floyd album, the film is a powerful anti-war statement. It is a road movie, in which Waters reckons with his own familial past, examining how successive wars imprinted themselves onto the lives of his grandfather, his father and his own, too, highlighting the human cost of conflict across three generations and across the span of an entire century. So yes, as the interview proceeded in Brown’s hangar of a studio, the astral music of Pink Floyd transmitting through the ether, it became apparent that this body of sculptures was also all about war, and that it had to a large extent been inspired by Brown’s reflections across his own masculine familial line. His father, the journalist and writer James Ambrose Brown, was the first reporter on the scene of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when the South African police opened fire on a crowd of pass law protesters, killing 69 people. Before that, he had fought in World War II and wrote a diary of the horrors of fighting in the watershed Second Battle of El Alamein in Mara Matruh, Egypt in 1942. [In another quirk of ancestral allegiance, my grandfather Charles Dodd also served at El Alamein, in the 24th Bomber Squadron.] Two decades before that, Brown’s grandfather had fought in the Battle of Delville Wood, a series of engagements in the 1916 Battle of the Somme in World War I. Post-traumatic stress disorder: ‘Anxiety and flashbacks triggered by a traumatic event’. In the aftermath of World War I, ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder’ was referred to as ‘Hysterical Disorders of Warfare’, after the 1918 book of the same name penned by Lewis Ralph Yealland based on 40


his wartime findings. ‘Hysterical’ they were – boys and

age of 25 – one week before the Armistice. As a pacifist, I’ve

men reduced to paralysis, epilepsy and muteness, their

been drawn to their poetry since I first encountered it at

minds and bodies unable to contain the horrors they

high school.

had been forced to witness and perpetrate. ‘Hysterical’ like premenstrual or menopausal women – or, for that

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling

matter, any woman who happened to have an uncompliant

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

opinion of her own. Yealland was at the forefront of exper-

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

imental shock techniques to treat shell shock, believing

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. –

that men showing symptoms of hysteria displayed a lack

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

of discipline or duty. He practised a form of

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.⁴

auto-suggestive therapy based on punishment and is said to have gained a reputation for ‘curing’ his patients and quickly sending them back to the trenches. Yealland appears as a character in the 1997 film Regeneration, based on Pat Barker’s novel of the same name. He is portrayed using electric shock treatment to treat a shell-shocked man suffering from hysterial mutism and shows no compassion for his patient. You are only coming through in waves Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying³

I search for the scene on YouTube and find instead a filmic interpretation, from the same film, of the moment in 1917 when Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon meet at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where they were to write some of their most affecting war poems. One year later, in November 1918, Owen was killed in action at the 41


42


What form might an intersectional kind of pacifism take a century later, in the era of Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un, nuclear proliferation, #blacklivesmatter, #metoo and #animalliberationnow? These are all wars, after all – the war on black lives, the war on women’s lives, the war on animal lives – and each entails its technologies, ontologies and cultures of violence and profit. Perhaps these sculptures are its silent, metal grammar – a brut gestalt response to millennia of savage and systematic atrocities piled upon atrocities. In 2011, Brown had made a satirical series called 11 Deadly Sinners inspired by Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gulag: a History (2003), in which she describes how, largely under Stalin’s watch, a vast system of Soviet concentration camps arose out of the Russian Revolution, holding millions of political and criminal prisoners. Imagining the terrifying train journeys to the frozen wastelands of Siberia, Brown wondered what the train drivers were thinking, and so the first sinner in the series ‘The Engine Driver’ was born. Each of these small-scale sculptures features a full figure on a structure that relates to his character or crime. Deadly Sinners was a continuation of the same theme. Encountering this series for the first time in Brown’s studio that October day in 2015, I was surrounded by several larger-than-life bronze busts – grotesque, yet deeply, physically compassionate caricatures of men embroiled in lives of violence – the surgeon, engine driver, boxer, lumberjack, doorman, hunter, butcher, preacher, soldier, prison warder, lion tamer. Like Waters’ film, Brown’s busts summon the ghosts of intergenerational trauma. 43


But the uncanniness – or unheimlichkeit, as Heidegger

intimate substrata of gendered inheritance is the even

and Freud called it – does not end there. Is it merely

deeper fire-hewn conditioning of human separateness

my radical openness to the intelligibility of things? Is

and superiority – the familial folkloric inscriptions by

it a purely affective phenomenon insofar as I feel the

which we learn to hold the conscience captive and devour

concurrence of these things to be uncanny, strange

flesh, to capitalise on an elaborate, brutal and unrelent-

or spell-like? I do not know. But through these waves

ing form of systematic dominion over almost all other

of concurrence, a conversation of sorts – an internal

species on Earth, barring perhaps the deadly and nimble

dialogue – begins to take shape. The sense I make of the

mosquito. Beware, dear crocodile, we are humans and we

world begins to teeter in a way that is at once ghostly,

are coming for you. We will eat your tender flesh and wear

productive and alive. It teeters and tethers around the

your protective skin as a handbag. Beware, agile octopus,

theme of violence – the energetic violence of waves, the

our children will suck the very life out of your tentacles.

cyclical violence of war, the mass violence that shadows

We will eat you for lunch with an expensive sea view and a

the processes of modernity, slavery, industrialisation,

glass of chardonnay. Not possible: keep going.

colonisation, apartheid – the inherited violence of being a man. Not possible: keep going.

44

As I read through the interview transcript, Brown’s words leap off the screen with altered prescience: ‘This is

Meanwhile, in the tense present [at the time of

a brutal society we live in, and it has always been like this.

writing the initial draft], Donald ‘Grab them by the pussy’

You think history can never get so bad again. But then it

Trump, in his capacity as President of the United States of

repeats in a worse way. The wheel just keeps on rolling.’⁵

America, announces his decision to move the US embassy

The repressive desire to deny atrocities – to turn away

to Jerusalem, supporting Israel’s claim on the so-called

and banish terrible events from our consciousness – runs

‘holy city’, eradicating all pretence of a peace agreement

deep, operating at both public and private levels, effec-

and firing up another endless war to be paid for in blood

tively amputating our grip on the dire fullness of history,

and taxes by civilians who have little to no say in these

cutting us off from shared knowledge of past and present

perpetually orchestrated cycles of violence, oppression

social psychosis. We, the living, are the walking wounded,

and traumatic events of human design.

the oppressors and the oppressed. We carry turbulent

This deep-hewn lineage of catastrophe upon catastro-

centuries in our aching soles, war in our dreams and

phe is cast, etched, hewn, scraped, punched, chiselled,

digestive tracts. We find it morally convenient to imagine

buffed and polished into Brown’s sculptures, echoing the

that slavery ended in 1848 or 1865. In the face of trauma,

culture of violence that forges itself into the masculine

it is difficult for an observer to remain clear-headed and

body and psyche from cradle to grave. And coded into this

calm, to see more than a few fragments of the picture at


any one time – to retain all the pieces and fit them together.

The works on this exhibition are the last small works

Trauma is a choreographer of extreme fragmentation. In

Brown was working on before he died. He started them

the face of this subliminal choreography, Brown spoke of

in Berlin, drawing on the museums and sites he and

how his sculptures were intended, in part, as a direct prov-

Pippa visited during a year-long stay in the city at the

ocation to continue looking – to resist turning away in the

Wissenschaftskolleg in 2013/14. ‘They include animals and

face of violence, to sustain the gaze until it turns back in

objects, many of the latter related to the Second World

on the self. Not possible: keep going. ‘That human sense of

War. I think they expressed his deepest feelings about

being conscripted whether you like it or not, and having to

cruelty and horror both of Berlin’s past and present – and

just keep on – the walking wounded – it affects you more as

I think he meant them to have a wider resonance too,’

you get older. Mortal. There is something liberating about

Skotnes tells me.

bringing these fears into a physical dimension – dealing with them, facing them,’ he said. ‘If you can see it, touch

Almost too soon he was on Adalbertstrasse … There were

it, walk around it, it ceases to hold you in its inchoate grip.

apartment blocks with facades drilled by small arms fire,

That’s what I’m always trying to do. This is you. Look at

especially round the doors and windows. Every second or

yourself. Confront. Release.’⁶

third building had a gutted interior, and was without its roof. Whole structures had collapsed and the rubble lay where it

On the natural history of destruction

had fallen. Ian McEwan, The Innocent⁸

I spent a year in Berlin. The presence of the ghosts of that vortex of evil were still floating around there. I did a lot of

In the final years of World World II, a million tons of

mountain biking; we were near this big forest and I rode there

bombs were dropped by the Allies on 131 German towns

every morning. In the winter, the forest froze over, but when

and cities. Six hundred thousand civilians died, and 3 500

the spring came, forest management teams came in to tidy the

000 homes were destroyed. Cities were ravaged, reduced

forest. They had Geiger counters, and 68 or so years after the

to charred ruins, mounds of ‘rubble reached up to to the

war, they were still pulling out skip-loads of shell fragments

first floor of burnt-out facades’.⁹ Brown was drawn to the

and bits of weaponry. There were about 200 unexploded shells

persistent traces of wreckage in Berlin, often integrated

… One day I found a pair of barbed wire cutters just lying

into the city’s reconstruction (as in the Copperfield

there in the skip. So there’s always this sense of a past – of

remaking of the Neues Museum), the objects destroyed

ghosts floating ... I suppose we have that here too.

and preserved as fragments in the 1945 bombing of Berlin David Brown⁷

in the Altes Museum, the mangled wreckage of planes 47


in the Deutsches Technickmuseum, the photographs of

of wild animals for study, conservation and display to

people dragging their possessions around the devastated

the public. There are no savannahs or plains to be found

city... Some of these images and fragments, along with

in the elegantly productive grid of the European city –

the stuffed hippo and some of the sea creatures he

only well-maintained parks designed for the lunch-hour

saw suspended in formaldehyde in the Natural History

somnambulations of anaesthetised office workers and

Museum, found their way into both the waxes and the

silently hysterical ladies with prams.

linocuts he made while living in the city.

There are two zoos in Berlin – one in the West and one in the East. Opened in 1844 at the height of the

Zoo and Natural History Museum

19th-century European obsession with capturing, collecting, containing and observing other species, the Zool-

Not very many tourists go to the Tierpark, so it’s also a good

ogischer Garten Berlin is the oldest and best known zoo

opportunity to see East Berliners and their children enjoying

in Germany and the most visited zoo in Europe. In 1939,

themselves. There are several places to eat (and get warm, if

during the early rumblings of World War II, three ‘gold

it’s cold). All in all, I like it better than the Zoo, and don’t think

crates’ containing 1 538 of the most precious objects from

you’d regret going there… Note: if you care about animals and

the Altes Museum were hidden in the flak-tower of the zoo

the conditions they are kept in, the Tierpark is let down by the

and survived the war unscathed despite the bombing. The

Big Cat house: it’s much too small for lions and tigers, etc.,

animals were not as lucky.

and you can tell by their behaviour that they aren’t happy.

The zoo was devastated by the air raids, incendiary

Many people find it a shock. That’s the downside: otherwise,

bombs and cannisters of phosphorous, which set alight

it’s a great day out.

15 of its buildings. The antelope house and the enclosure

User commentary on difference between Berlin Zoo and

for the beasts of prey were annihilated, while the monkey

Tierpark, Tripadvisor, Oct 19, 2014, 5:59 am.

house, the quarantine building and the elephant’s Indian temple were left in ruins or badly damaged. ‘Deer and

The brown bears and wolves that once roamed Germany’s

monkeys escaped, birds flew away through the shattered

forests are no longer to be found. Over time, their vast

glass roofs.’10 The decorative three-storey aquarium and

forest habitats became smaller, as trees were chopped

the 30-metre crocodile hall, along with the artificial jungle,

down and cities rose in their place. Within expansive

were also destroyed.

green zoological gardens, designed to remind urbanised

48

humans of the limitless green worlds from which we arose,

The great reptiles, writhing in pain, writes [Lutz] Heck, now

we find zoos – establishments that maintain collections

lay beneath chunks of concrete, earth, broken glass, fallen


49


palms and tree trunks, in water a foot deep, or crawled down the visitor’s staircase, while the firelight of the dying city of Berlin shone red through a gate knocked off its hinges in the background. Over the next few days the elephants who had perished in the ruins of their sleeping quarters had to be cut up where they lay, and Heck describes men crawling around inside the rib-cages of the huge pachyderms and burrowing through mountains of entrails.11

Although some were evacuated, of the thousands of animals held in captivity at the zoo, less than a hundred survived the intensive bombing of the area, including two lions, two hyenas, an Asian bull elephant, a hippo bull, ten hamadryas baboons, a chimpanzee and a black stork. Nobody speaks of the PTSD they suffered, because they were suffering from mute hysteria before the war had even begun. The war ended more than half a century ago; the animal captivity and mute hysteria continue. He was very moved by a gorilla in the Berlin Zoo, who was born in the same year as me and who had been in the zoo her whole life. She sat there looking at us with these terribly knowing eyes ‌ He was terribly moved by that gorilla. We both took a lot of photographs of the zoo.12

Estimated to have been born in the wild in 1957, Fatou was captured and brought from West Africa to to France by a sailor in 1959, then bought by the Berlin Zoo. She has been in captivity since she was about two years old. In 1974, she gave birth to Dufte, the first gorilla to have been born and 50


raised in captivity in Berlin. Fatou turned 61 on 13 April 2018. She is the oldest living gorilla in the world.13 Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying.14

It is said that the father of the stuffed hippopotamus in the cool halls of the Museum für Naturkunde’s wet specimen collection was one of the only animals to survive World War II at the Berlin Zoo. Despite rationing, he was kept alive with food donations from hungry Berliners during the closing stages of the conflict. Like Fatou the gorilla, his ancestor was once also a living, breathing, sensate being violently seized from his/her home and transported to a foreign land. Exiled from his/her moving and flowing riverine world, the descendant is now held static in the silent fixity of all time, a forced migrant destined for eternal taxidermied displacement. His/her thick skin no longer shimmers with liquid evanescence. Stuffed and lifeless, it has become a representation of itself, indicative of a biological category. A timeless museological surrogate for the great waddling, wading, galumphing, spurting and raging creature that once inhabited the muddy liquid element of Earth, it stands as empirical evidence that the very large Hippopotamus, of the Family Hippopotamidae, once frequented the rivers and lakes and now-decimated forests of West Africa. Somewhere in the same museum, a hammerhead shark inhabits a cylindrical glass vessel, just large enough to contain his/her once vivid, writhing body. His/her large eyes and arabesque nostrils are visible near the flattened 51


bladelike extensions on either side of his/her head, clearly

bruised quality about them – and a translucency that

visible through the transparent walls of his/her formalde-

captures something of the incremental, instinctual

hyde vitrine for observation and study. Once an inhabitant

process of carving. From the colour changes in the objects’

of tropical temperate oceans, he/she is now a specimen

surfaces, he could see where Brown had reworked the wax,

who dwells in cool fixity amidst a myriad other bottled

heating and reheating it as he carved the surfaces anew.

specimens extracted from once-teeming oceans.

‘There’s this very tangible sense of these being the actual objects that he touched and built,’ says Wilson.18 It is an

Hello (hello) (hello)

intimate kind of tactility, heightened by the fact that he

Is there anybody in there?

has been working with the same tools that Brown used to

Just nod if you can hear me

carve these pieces. Beeswax has an organic, bodily, visceral quality about

Is there anyone at home? 15

it. Like flesh or desiccated shark meat, it emits a feeling of Repair

the body. At the same time, it looks old – as if these sculptures might have been made during war time and have been

The ruins, for me, are the beginning. With the debris, you can

sitting in an attic all this time. ‘They really are like relics,’

construct new ideas. They are symbols of a beginning.

says Wilson. ‘There are some formulated, clear things, but

Anselm Kiefer16

also so many indiscernible fragments and shards of wax. There are the animals, but also this fragmented sense

52

‘The last time you saw me, everything was in wax. I was

of a structural framework – the shattered armature or

sitting with a hot flame and hot plate trying to smooth out

apparatus within which the living forms circulate.’19

and clean up the waxes,’ says sculptor Martin Wilson.17

When the waxes were sent back from Berlin, they

Wilson is in the same vast, hangar-like space where I first

arrived shattered. Brown put some of them together

interviewed Brown in late 2015. Almost three years later,

again, but differently to how they’d been in Berlin. So

the studio remains the studio – the private habitat Brown

they retained that elegiac quality of having been broken

forged for himself, a titanic, airy engine room of ongoing

and patched together again. Still, they came to Wilson in

alchemy. For more than a year, Wilson has been working

pieces – all bust up and disassembled during their convey-

with the waxes Brown carved in Berlin, to bring them to the

ance from Berlin to Cape Town, so that it was almost

bronze phase of the process.

impossible to discern what was a mimetic shard or crack

At the start of the project, he was presented with the

crafted by Brown and what was an actual break incurred

original heavy beeswax sculptures that have a golden,

in transit. ‘There’s this whole sense of breakage, wreckage


and brokenness. There is even a cracked window … When

in case they were damaged in transit back to South Africa.

the octopus came back from the foundry, it had no legs. I

But beyond that… nothing. Skotnes didn’t know how to

had to slowly melt its legs back on … This car came to me

assemble all the elements – if there was meant to be a

with no wheels on it, and I had to work out which wind-up

narrative running through it all… ‘All the objects belong

instrument belonged to it. There is a lot of repair work.’20

within scenes or diorama-like structures, framed by these

When I first visited Wilson in Brown’s studio, I

broken-down building facades, and we’re slowly piecing

encountered an extraordinary assembly of wax objects:

them together piece by piece… We know that the baboon

a wind-up submarine, what seemed like a hammerhead

and the high chair and these spears and the crocodile all

shark, an anglerfish, an octopus – recalling the multiplic-

belong together in this kind of crazy tableau – same as

itous, mysterious and monstrous undersea world of Jules

the car,’ says Wilson. ‘But then there are objects, like this

Verne’s 1870 science fiction adventure novel, Twenty

octopus, that are not in the photographs other than on its

Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. There was the crocodile,

own. So does it belong with the submarine? Clearly, the

the ghoulish baboon head on the pole, the pram on the

submarine is on a plinth, so what do we do? I’m reluctant

tram line, the wrecked railway line, the abacus, the cot, the

to add a story in place of any story he might have had in

head of the pig with a ring through its nose that recalled

mind. It is as if I’ve been presented with relics, artefacts

Edward Lear’s Owl and the Pussycat… Then there was

or fossils of a thing, and now it’s my task to try and work

the dreaded plague mask – another deeply paradoxical

out as much as possible without just adding for the sake

object. ‘Ring a ring a rosie, a pocket full of posies, a-tishoo,

of adding. My wish is to somehow leave it in that levitating

a-tishoo, we all fall down!’ The associations to the ghoulish

realm before something is completely resolved – to leave it

double-valence in folk tales and nursery rhymes came

more open.’21

quick and fast. All these random shattered objects and

The stretcher could be used for rescue and aid, but it

evocations – how to put them together again? Especially

also looks like a rack for torture. It has the strap to secure

bearing in mind that ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s

an injured person – practical in times of war, but also filled

men couldn’t put Humpty together again’…

with menace in that a person might be strapped down

Skotnes was with Brown in Berlin when he was making

against their will. Some of the building facades even have

this body of work and knew the conceptual direction in

bandages or plasters on them. The abiding atmosphere is

which he was moving. She knew it was going to be a type

of post-war carnage. But there is also a pronounced sense

of zoo and that it was influenced by the architecture of

of theatricality about the whole project – a fantastically

post-war Berlin. Brown took a few photographs while he

grotesque feeling of make-believe. ‘The way that he’s made

was building the sculptures – perhaps to document them

the building facades super flat reminds me of spaghetti 53


Westerns, where you’d have the facade of the building but

almost always one thing would be highlighted in green,’

nothing else,’ Wilson observes.22 The convertible wind-up

says Wilson. ‘We’re trying to stick with the same tonal

car seems to date back to World War II; it’s like a retro

register that he would have used.’

Dinky Toy, but also the sort of car you’d see Nazi generals driving around in in Holocaust movies.

54

Seeing the bronzes as they were envisioned, I am struck by the luminosity of certain details – the suctions on the

While conjuring a mood of violence and destruction,

octopus’s tentacles, the baboon’s teeth, the crocodile’s

these sculptures are also like small, three-dimensional

shiny fangs. There’s a figure who stands in an open-armed

vignettes that pop up out of a toy box. ‘I can’t think of

gesture of surrender. He has guns strapped to both arms,

another time I’ve seen David work at this diminutive

and it as if he has been through every war imaginable.

scale in such a sustained way,’ says Wilson. The toy

His gesture echoes that of the central figure in the white

box aspect gives rise to thoughts about childhood – the

shirt in Third of May, 1808, Francisco Goya’s unbearably

origin of our deep programming as humans, the earliest

frank depiction of political martyrdom, commissioned

psychosocial imprint that is almost impossible to undo

to celebrate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s army. Like

or change. Amidst the instruments of war and torture,

the Goya painting, Brown’s sculptures speak with radical

there is a Punch and Judy-like marionette quality about

bluntness of his vision of war. But it is the detail of the

the series. The sculptural vignettes conjure a bombed city

soldier’s shoelaces that draws me in. Oddly evocative, they

and an amusement park all at once – the line between play

remind me of the laces on my childhood ice-skating boots

and horror, imagination and torment is disconcertingly

or the kinds of boots I imagine Edmund Hillary would

blurred. We have entered the terrain of trickery, suspen-

have worn to climb Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

sion of disbelief, smoke and mirrors, make-believe… The

They are archetypal shoelaces, archetypal boots.

floor could be a door, a facade could be the jaw of a shark.

I am struck by the gravitational force of this

When I return to the studio more than a year later,

magnetic assembly of objects and scenes. Shipped,

Wilson is busy thinking through the arrangement and

shattered and pieced together again, this geography and

staging of the bronzes that have been cast in Angus

threshold-spanning series comes to me now as the recon-

Taylor’s foundry up in Pretoria. Goldsmith John Skotnes

struction of multiple fragmented traumas of a collective

(Brown’s brother-in-law, who is deeply familiar with his

past. I encounter it as a collapsed city, a city battered

method and approach, having worked with him in the

by war. Stark, blunt and chunky, the bronzes have a new

studio) has been making headway with the patination

weightiness about them that is equal to the time-spanning

process, bringing the sculptures to their intended finish.

worlds of carnage and violence they conjure. The green-

‘David liked to stick within the browns and blacks, but

hued patina heightens the sense of chronological expanse


and environmental impact. It echoes natural processes of

thing. This is the sculpture. The perfect form, et cetera.

oxidisation and decay. The objects have become relics, as

There is no such thing. His words wash into conscious-

if they themselves have been retrieved from a museum in

ness: ‘I don’t necessarily know why I’m making the thing

some bombed city or from an abandoned deep-sea wreck.

at the time of its making. I work in a very instinctual,

It is all coming through in minor key now – like a dirge

intuitive way. I don’t think too much about meanings. The

played across time or under water. Under water, through

process flows like a river. I make one, then it runs into the

the waves, twenty thousand leagues under the sea… The

next one, and I work a series until it dies.’

wind is up and the waves are racing in low, quick-foaming succession toward the eliminating shoreline – one after the next, almost indistinguishable in their cyclical emergence and dissolution, each is new, entirely fresh, never the same. This is the sea. Constant transmutation. The perfect wave, et cetera. There is no such thing. This is the text. The perfect sentence, et cetera. There is no such

55


1. Finnegan, William. (2016). Barbarian Days. London: Corsair, 226. 2. Pink Floyd. (1979). ‘Comfortably numb’, The Wall. London: Harvest Records. 3. Ibid. 4. Owen, Wilfed. (1921). ‘Dulce et decorum est’, Poems. New York: The Viking Press, London: Chatto & Windus. 5. Brown, David. Interviewed by Alexandra Dodd, 5 and 7 October 2015, Cape Town. 6. Ibid. 7. Ibid. 8. McEwan, Ian. (1990). The Innocent. London: Vintage. 9. Sebald, W.G. (2009). On the Natural History of Destruction. London: Hamish Hamilton, 17. 10. Ibid, 92. 11. Ibid, 92-93. 12. Skotnes, Pippa. Interviewed by Alexandra Dodd, 24 August 2017, Cape Town.

13. ‘Fatou (gorilla)’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Fatou_(gorilla). Last accessed 15 October 2018. 14. Pink Floyd. (1979). ‘Comfortably numb’, The Wall. London: Harvest Records. 15. Ibid. 16. Chayka, Kyle. (3 November 2010). ‘Anselm Kiefer talks religion, politics, ruins at 92Y’, Hyperallergic, https:// hyperallergic.com/11870/anselm-kiefer-92y. Last accessed 16 October 2018. 17. Wilson, Martin. Interviewed by Alexandra Dodd, 7 August 2018, Cape Town. 18. Ibid. 19. Ibid. 20. Ibid. 21. Ibid. 22. Ibid

Alexandra Dodd is a writer and editor and a Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Change in the National Research Foundation SARChI (South African Research Chair Initiative) at the University of Fort Hare. 57


58


When I was nine years old, my father took me on one of our many trips to the Algeria campsite in the Cederberg. The drive had been long and arduous: extensive flooding had delayed our mid-winter journey, and it was already dark by the time we arrived. On the stereo of his old Isuzu bakkie, Sacred Spirit – an esoteric compilation of American First Nations music – was playing. Rain splattered on our windscreen. Dad slammed on his brakes: from the darkness, a spotted eagle-owl swooped silently past our windscreen and landed on a nearby tree. It pivoted its head and stared, alert to our arrival in its territory, and then flew off as silently as it had arrived. Then another appeared, and another, and another. By the time we reached the campsite, eight owls had come to herald our arrival. The road was teeming with frogs and snails, and we had interrupted their feast. I was wildly excited – I had never seen so many owls before and had never seen the spotted eagle-owl at all. As we pulled into the gate, my dad and I agreed that nothing could top this extraordinary sighting – unless another owl arrived. And it did. A magnificent barn owl, almost luminous in the headlamps, landed on a tree nearby us and hooted, as if to welcome us to the campsite. We stopped and watched it for a few minutes. It stared at the car, moving its head slowly from side to side as if captivated by the chanting music. Eventually we left, and the owl remained on its perch until we were far in the distance. For many years, my dad had tried to tear me away from my Gameboy Color, Pokemon cards and computer games and teach me to appreciate nature. On this trip, he succeeded. I was fascinated by these birds, who seemed as mesmerised by us as we were by them. For the first time, I understood that an entire realm of life existed independent of human control. This was something my father was

Owl augur

always passionate about experiencing – escaping human spaces and

JULES SKOTNES-BROWN

entering the wilderness. He found it to be healing: an antidote to 61


the pressures of traffic, crime, tax returns and exhibition openings. He strove to do all he could to protect it, with a vigorous regime of recycling, water saving and alien-vegetation clearing. At a glance, these Berlin works may appear to reflect the opposite of this and, indeed, in some ways they do. My father was horrified by the actions of European conquerors who, apart from unimaginable cruelty to people, had incinerated forests for farming and slaughtered, tortured and imprisoned millions of animals for sport and science. More terrifying was that the horrors of the nine­teenth-century largely continued at the hands of modern industrialists and agriculturalists. Zoo reveals the horrifying entanglements of human and animal life in past and present Berlin, even as it resonates far beyond that city. It refers to an assemblage of sights and exhibits he regularly saw in the places he visited: in the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Technology, the German Historical Museum and the Berlin Zoological Garden. In these works, he draws on curiosities pulled from the depths and stuffed for display in museum cabinets – an anglerfish, a squid and an octopus. A wounded crocodile is battling its would-be zookeeper. A baboon, of the kind he could see from the Bikini Berlin centre overlooking the famous West Berlin Zoo, ferociously howls atop a circus platform. The butcher shop is filled with carcasses to be consumed for pleasure. Intermingled with this spectacle of natural history are cars, submarines and rifles – technologies used in the exploitation of nature and destruction of our own and our fellow species. 62


63


But this darker reading belies a comical absurdity: the humans are all blindfolded, stocky, their penises lying flaccid and pathetic. In shooting, skinning and stuffing animals for profit and pleasure, they try to demonstrate their masculinity and superiority over ‘lower beasts’. In doing so, however, they expose their inferiority and destroy their humanity. Cruel people, try as they might, cannot always undermine the agency of what we think of as the natural world. In Berlin, my father developed a great love for the Grunewald forest, in which he cycled every day. He spoke fondly of the fact that much of the forest had grown upon the rubble of WWII, and that, for the first time since the war, wild boar had gradually returned and thrived. He was fascinated by the fact that, during WWII, the zoo was bombed several times, destroying the aquarium entirely and releasing many of the animals, who ran amok in the ruined city. Our visit to Spreepark – a fascinating abandoned East Berlin amusement park – was much the same. In the absence of screaming children, popcorn and ice cream sellers, the park had been reclaimed by rodents, birds and vegetation. These works mirror such stories of nature reclaiming a home amidst the ravages of humanity: alongside the crumbling facades of buildings, like devastated 1940s Berlin, nature returned. The baboon has taken charge of the ring, the crocodile has escaped its captor. The humans 64


are strangled and bound by their own technologies, their once-controlled world reduced to rubble. With their world in tatters, nature once again begins to thrive. I write this essay as I prepare to return to Cambridge, where I am entering my second year as a PhD student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. My thesis is deeply engaged with the establishment of national parks in South Africa, the politics of the interactions between farmers and wildlife and the free movement of disease across the borders between the two. My father did not live to witness this part of my life and will now never know how that night, the two of us alone in the car, with a magical world of owls outside, took hold of my imagination and in some way, even without me knowing, guided me along the road I now travel.

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The Old Castle Brewery building, no. 6 Beach Road, Woodstock, was built in 1901 between the railway line and Beach Road. It was designed by a New York architect, with its facade resembling a medieval castle. In 1955, the brewery moved to Newlands and the building was sold to SA Metal, who stripped it of copper boilers and fittings, storage vats and huge amounts of scrap metal. It gained a new life when I&J acquired the building, and it morphed into a fish canning plant: the entire structure was converted into huge freezer rooms as cold storage for their products. Windows were bricked up and walls, floors and roofs were insulated with 250 mm-thick cork. Then, in the early eighties, the property and adjacent land was bought by Max Arlen to be converted into a hat factory. Adjacent ‘studios’ were quickly rented out to an eclectic set: photographers, silk screeners, advertisers, architects, dressmakers and the like. My father was one of the first tenants when he hired a space from Max to create giant wood panels for the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown. I had recently moved to Cape Town at that time and had been working as a salesman for 3M Company. After being retrenched in 1985, I too signed a lease, for a tiny room adjacent to my father’s, with the intention of becoming a sculptor.

David, around that time, was forced to leave his Harrington Street studio and, as the gods decreed, a large space on the third floor became available, and we resolved to rent it together. Dave often made the point that his work was essentially figurative. His figures were distorted with rage, oft absurd and deformed, demonic and at times comic parodies. They were also the foot soldiers of a brutal regime, the security police, prison guards,

‘The studio is rocking my brother’ David musing on a productive day

informants and the bureaucrats, the ones who kept the wheels of

JOHN SKOTNES

always placed these men and women on a stage of one kind or

oppression grinding on and on with remorseless efficiency. David

69


another. A rusted ship’s hull, perhaps a platform, a cart

fuelled David’s passion for physical work and the mastery

or railway track; these contexts gave his work a sense

of his technique.

of theatre. I think his creativity and the studio shared a similar symbiosis.

Rummaging through the detritus of the former era, piled high against the back fence alongside the railway

In essence, we moved into an ‘unrenovated’ space.

track, David and I found a hoist motor. He designed, and

It had the romantic feel that only eighty-five years of

we manufactured, the arm pulley that linked our studio to

utility and neglect can engender. The renovation of the

the platform at ground level. David taught me the basics of

rest of building involved a process of stripping away old

welding on that job. More importantly, whatever we made

insulation, which often led to the discovery of a hidden

with whatever materials, we had to design our sculpture in

room or passageway, which was then refurbished before

a way that would not exceed the capacity of the hoist and

moving further into the heart of the building. The Brewery at that time was part rehabilitated space and part warren. An industrial space with sweeping brick arches framing a multitude of city and mountain views through doubleglazed windows and steel columns, constructed with the same technology that holds the Eiffel tower together, and reinforced concrete floors, made to take the weight of giant vats of beer. The facade of the building faced south, towards the railway line. Below our studio window was Woodstock train station. There was something in the resonance of that junction that I always imagined the composer John Cage would have approved of. The interweaving sounds of the daily advancing and retreating tides of people; the distorted public-address system; steel wheels grinding upon steel track; the vibration underfoot as trains went by, which after decades began to rupture the plaster upon the walls. Whistles, sirens, diesel engines and the crack of high voltage cables became the theme music to a lost mechanical age of anvils and augers, whose very DNA 71


would fit through the door. Dave exploited this constraint

African life which so influenced David’s imagery. We talked

with great creativity, and he allowed it, in part, to inform

mountains and music, wine and weather and how lucky we

his vision. Given the nature of his output, he had to be able

were to be loved and supported by the people we knew. He

to assemble and disassemble everything he constructed.

was gentle and incredibly strong. We laughed. Most of all

His multi-piece sculpture, extending over more than

we worked long, hard hours.

30m2, commissioned by South African art lover Charles Diamond, is a typical case in point.

72

For ten years, the message of sculpting alongside him was that anything was possible. The materials of his trade

As a goldsmith, I brought some ‘smithing’ skills to my

were unforgiving, so he approached sculpture with an

sculpture. I understood the business of forging, chasing,

implacable will. Be they the hardest, the heaviest, the most

repoussé and raising metal. I understood a fair amount

resistant, the very materiality of his chosen media produced

about lost wax casting and working with patinas. David

unquenchable possibility. David often worked with corten

opened another world to me, that of steel. Coupled to

steel. Used correctly, the metal forms a rusty surface that,

that, sharing a studio with him gave me a different vision

in turn, inhibits rusting. It is that kind of paradox that I

of ‘scale’. Steel liberated me, and bronze anchored my

think is key to understanding his skills and creativity.

creativity. David became a mentor; it was both a subtle

When my father died in 2009, David, in homage to Cecil,

and a direct mentorship. We mused on the work of artists

told a ‘studio’ story at his funeral. It was deeply moving,

such as Sir Anthony Caro, David Smith, Julio González and

but on reflection it was as much about David’s bravery,

Constantin Brâncusi. We discussed technical matters. I

humanity and compassion as it was about my father’s. Two

loved his directness, because our studio was a safe space

giants of our art world. Your tribute to Cecil is mine to you,

in which to offer and receive ideas. Old friends, old stories.

David. I loved you deeply. Without you I would never have

We returned time and again to the absurdity of South

been a sculptor. VIVA, my brother. The studio sure rocked.


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I have one story to tell, which I think gives the measure

an extinguisher and emptied it on the burning canister.

of this extraordinary man and artist. John Skotnes and I

Cecil stood transfixed.

used to share my great studio in the Old Castle Breweries

The flames continued burning and doubled in size.

Building in Woodstock. John had had an incredibly busy

Next the pipes that carried the gas caught fire and

year setting up the Cape Tech jewellery department and

exploded around the bottles. I found the second extin-

was doing battle with an unusual commission to enlarge

guisher, screaming at Cecil,

a Ming dynasty horse to life size. The job was taking a long, long time. Cecil, with his characteristic generosity, came to lend a hand, and was mixing the plaster and assisting

‘Get the fuck out of here, the bottles are going to explode!’ He did not pause for a moment but shouted at me from across the room,

John with the surfaces. To set the scene, my studio is a

‘Hell no son, if the bottles go up, we go out together!’

workshop with large welders, oxyacetylene and plasma

The wall next to the burning bottles was now on fire,

cutters, gantries, anvils, surfaces filled with objects and

but the power of the second extinguisher finally managed

sheets of metal. An oxyacetylene torch with its highly

to quell the flames and with the third I managed to put

inflammable gas can be a dangerous piece of equipment

it out. I said to the great Maestro afterwards, ‘Cecil,

and has to be treated with care. Some of you may

you should have gotten out of here, we could have both

remember the oil tanker in Table Bay with its side blown

been killed’. He looked at me with that lovely grin we all

out – the result of an exploding set of acetylene bottles.

remember so well and said, ‘No Boet, I could never have

I came to work one morning and Cecil was already there busy with a bowl of plaster. It was a dark wintery morning and as I reached for the light switch, I smelt

left you here to explode alone!’ I loved him deeply. Without him I would never have been a sculptor. VIVA CECIL.

something strange but did not at once detect the leaking gas. When the light flicked on the acetylene bottle ignited

Dave’s tribute at Cecil’s funeral

and a flame burst from the top of the bottle. I leapt for

14th April 2016, South African National Gallery

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76


My first encounter with David Brown’s work came long before I had any connection with art or sculpture. Sitting in the Hoerikwaggo Building on UCT’s upper campus between engineering lectures, I would often semi-consciously contemplate the dark, surreal figures of men and dogs and ships that sat uneasily among the building’s thickly painted walls and exposed steel framework. My one and only meeting with David came years later, during a third-year sculpture class visit to his studio. Standing slightly separated at the back of the class group, my strongest memories are of the studio and the rows of heavy, well-used tools, which hung from thick steel pegs on the wall. To me, David (the man) seemed particularly soft-spoken and gentle, in contrast to the space he had constructed. Neither he nor I could have guessed that in four short years I would be completing his final bronzes in that same space – without ever meeting him again. The workshops of sculptors like David – who rely on human muscle, hardened tools, thick chains and metal-melting heat – are always peculiarly idiosyncratic spaces. From an outsider’s perspective it can be difficult even to distinguish between tool and artwork, or between architecture and object. Every one of the twenty-something different hammers in the studio is as sculpted as any of the bronze figures. Some handles are wrapped in copper wire, others in leather; and each face has been incrementally wrought into the shape most suited to its preferred task. Some of the tools can be found assimilated into the last objects that they made, and some are even welded into the walls and windows of the building itself. Being surrounded by things so intimately known by someone else inevitably leads one to a bit of an imposter/intruder complex. At the very beginning of the project, I remember feeling particu-

David’s last assistant

larly uneasy about using the studio’s hi-fi (with David’s iPod still

MARTIN WILSON

attached). In my mind, the studio had fallen silent at David’s death, 77


and restarting the music would perhaps have been one transgression too far. But being timid and reverent is not a particularly productive mindset in which to make sculpture, and so I slowly worked through the process of getting to know the studio and, by association, a part of David too. One of my first tasks was to repair and finish the foundry wax castings that were made from David’s original beeswax sculpts. Those first weeks were full of unknowns: the beeswax objects had been damaged in their transport from Berlin, reworked by David with little-to-no documentation, fragmented by the foundry mould-makers and finally been recast imperfectly (as is the nature of wax casting). Finding any point of certainty in the vast, under-defined, three-dimensional puzzle was rare; but whenever they did appear, it was always accompanied by a glimmer of connection between me and the man behind them. Looking back, it surprises me how small a discovery was needed to turn a day in the studio into a success. Sometimes I actively searched for a breakthrough – rummaging in boxes full of beeswax fragments, looking for a piece which may have been overlooked at the foundry. But far more often, the little successes were unexpected and unplanned – like finding the tool that matched a particular texture on the surface of the wax exactly, enabling my hand to finish the stroke that David’s had started. Bronze and wax are far more similar than one would initially expect. Both materials can be melted, stretched, poured, cast, fused, polished and eventually recycled. 78


From a sculptor’s perspective, the only real difference is the energy required to get the material to comply. What can be done with bare fingers, candles and toothpicks in wax must later be done with hammers, induction furnaces, arc welders and grinders in metal. In practice, this means that what starts as a project that can be done alone in the comfort of the studio quickly transforms into a project that requires a lot of help. It is a testament to David’s character how many people donated their knowledge, funds and time to help me finish his last works to the highest quality possible. Whether travelling to foundries to inspect the casting or just receiving unexpected visitors at David’s studio door, I feel that I have been lucky to witness some of the relationships that David built during his life. The final stage of completing David’s last works was the curatorial strategy and practical display of the works in the gallery space. We had the most difficult decisions to make in this phase: how much of the exhibition could possibly be what David had imagined in the beginning; how much of it should be about the work being left unfinished; and to what degree did we owe it to David to be authentic and open about what was added? While it has not always been the most comfortable for me to be the ‘stranger’ in the studio – surrounded by David’s colleagues, friends and family, who all know sides of him that remain entirely inaccessible to me – it is perhaps poetic that these decisions had to be answered in part by someone who came to know David entirely through the work and the studio that he left behind. 79


80


81


Zoo: works 83


Pillar portraits (left to right): Plague mask Proboscis monkey Hamadryas baboon Brown bear 84


85


86


87


Octopus 88


89


Angler fish 90


91


Squid 92


93


Hammerhead shark 94


95


96


Berlin Days, a series of linocuts made and proofed by David J Brown, edition of 10 printed posthumously. 97


Shafted, with crocodile and chacma baboon 98


99


Soldier at the outpost 1 100


101


Soldier at the outpost 2 102


103


Butcher from Berlin 104


105


106


107


Submarine 108


109


Wind-up car with monkeys, bear and plague-mask stylites 110


111


Zoo, with pram of possessions 112


113


Place of arrival, with crank and track 114


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I give my sincere thanks to all those who have offered me so much support since David died and helped me to do some justice to the last works that he made but was unable to complete and exhibit. These include colleagues, family and friends, amongst them: Jules, John, Sandy, Bridget, Gwen, Carolyn, Marilet, Paula, Malcolm, Mark S, Wendy, Cheryl, Abbie, Alex, Frances, Fritha, Carine, Stephen, Siona, Virginia, Johann, Jade, Martin, Thomas, Niek, Mark R, Nicholas, Steve and Erna, Howard and Janet, Marga, Glenn, Derek, Matthias, Leona and James, Sharifa and Suliaman. I also want to thank Kathleen and the fellows of the 2013/2014 Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin for their very generous donation to Waves for Change in David’s name. The photographs of the bronzes were taken at the studio by Martin Wilson. Most of the other photographs were taken by David Brown (those in Berlin) or Pippa Skotnes (the broken waxes and those in David’s studio). In Owl augur, the photograph of his father was taken

Acknowledgements

by Jules Skotnes-Brown while on a trip in the Cederberg. 119


www.davidjbrown.co.za


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DAVID J BROWN - LAST WORKS ZOO Edited by Pippa Skotnes

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ZOO, David J Brown, Last Works  

Zoo is an exhibition of David J. Brown’s last works: a collection of wax fragments, small-scale bronze sculptures and a series of linocut pr...

ZOO, David J Brown, Last Works  

Zoo is an exhibition of David J. Brown’s last works: a collection of wax fragments, small-scale bronze sculptures and a series of linocut pr...

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