11 APRIL – 1 JUNE 2013
THE ART OF LO-FI, HI-DEF ROBIN RHODE INTERVIEWED BY JAMES SEY
JS: It’s more than a decade since you’ve exhibited in South Africa. How would you contextualise your own work now, after this long break? RR: For me, South Africa is fascinating in its openness to things, its attitude towards materials and spaces especially. I’m especially interested now, and think this has a lot to do with a particular South African aesthetic, in the lessons of African-American artist David Hammons, whose own work is street-smart, and blurs the lines between private and public spaces. I’ve always, like Hammons, used everyday materials and spaces, encoding them into an aesthetic experience, and not been too concerned with institutionalising art, whether in galleries or through identity politics. I’m also very taken with the ideas of the Arte Povera movement in Italy in the late 1960s, for the way they valued the everyday also, and returned to simple, powerful visual messages. South Africa has a great attitude to materials in this way, it’s not so institutionalised. Your combination of performance, lens-based media, street art and attitude has brought you exposure in major European and US galleries, including the Hayward Gallery in London, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Tell us a bit about how you’re received in the world. It varies quite a bit. My work is well-received in the UK, partly because of a larger, more prevalent black community of
art lovers. It’s also good in Italy, but perhaps more because
date, there’s our political past of protest murals, rather than
of a conceptual understanding in the market there. In
graffiti, the mural art in the townships that was more about
France, there’s more of an affinity with the performative
social upliftment than tagging – I was always drawn to that.
and comedic elements in my work. There’s a lot of street
Messages like ‘Stay away from drugs’, ‘AIDS kills’, ‘Down
art, buskers and live elements to art there, so that goes well
with Apartheid’. Once I took a US curator through Westbury
in France. In fact, the Centre Georges Pompidou has just
township, and we came across a crudely painted NYC
acquired what I call a ‘lo-fi, hi-def’ piece documenting me
skyline, which had in the foreground a view of the Venice
drawing a charcoal mic on a wall and interacting with it. It’s
Lagoon – why? Is it an aspiration to escape? A fantasy?
called Microphone. So there’s a diverse relation to my work,
It was so poignant.
and different kinds of appeal, with markets in Europe, but in the US it’s much more about the black experience. I’m
Paries Pictus – Latin for, roughly, wall drawing – includes
involved with the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York,
a site-specific intervention of drawings in collaboration
where I’ve started a record label out of the bookshop. We
with Cape Town children from disadvantaged
distribute through the museum, all limited edition vinyl, and
neighbourhoods. Could you say some more about
I design the covers. So that’s great to get involved in other
the wall drawing concept in this show?
artistic avenues, like design and music. I’m attempting to develop the idea of wall painting under Paries Pictus is your first show in South Africa in
the Paries Pictus banner, so that the potential of wall
12 years. Why now?
paintings can be used by ordinary people, can be better understood. I’ve taken this into a fine art context though –
A lot of it has to do with wall drawings! I’ve been much more
there are Bauhaus graphics in the template for colouring
involved with them lately, partly after seeing an amazing
in, and there are other considered design principles, such
show of wall drawings by Sol Le Witt at the Walker Art
as graphics on the evolution of urbanism, from mud huts
Center. And I’ve felt that there was a huge potential in South
to the megalopolis, on one side of the wall in the gallery. On
Africa for wall drawing. The lineage here, the ancient history
the other side are simple shapes forming a boat or yacht,
of Khoisan cave paintings, has always been important to
a set of dumbbells, a flower, etc, where the emphasis is
me. There’s something about the drawing of their belief
on geometry, shape recognition and change. Other parts
systems and rituals, their experiences and aspirations,
of the Paries Pictus space are devoted to drawing activity,
which resonates with me. And bringing that feeling up to
for example, where a stencil of five ‘colonial-era’ ships
goes across the wall, and the kids draw waves under them.
myself as a street artist, but as a contemporary artist who
Bringing wall art into the gallery is about planting a seed in
has roots in the street, and as one who adopts the mentality
these young people, which is unusual in South African art,
of the street. I always saw myself as being in the white cube
especially for young, disenfranchised kids. It’s about turning
of the gallery, and always saw myself as a conceptual artist
the gallery into a large colouring book.
that incorporates street materials. My work is in fact not on the street, but on a metaphorical roll of film, the one I use to
The wall painting approach raises the issue of the
document the drawing, performance, whatever it is.
relationship of your work to street art generally, which has been experiencing a bit of a vogue, what with Banksy,
You’re also showing a range of photo-based series –
Shepard Fairey and others going global. How do you
can you tell us a bit more about these?
perceive the relationship, if there is one? The choice of works for this show is all about their relevance There’s a much greater focus now on street art, and on its
to South Africa. One of my spiritual mentors is poet and
commercial value. When I showed at White Cube in London
activist Don Mattera, and a few of the works are inspired by
in 2011 there were street art blogs covering the show. So
him. Blackness Blooms, for example, with the giant comb
it’s big now. I think it’s a healthy thing that my work really
and the drawing which blooms into a huge afro that is also
just touches on but runs parallel to street art. Many street
about the blooming of black identity and consciousness,
works and techniques have now evolved into abstraction,
is inspired by lines from his work. It’s also of course a
but this doesn’t necessarily imply that they’re moving into
reference to the ‘comb test’ of blackness during the
a gallery or fine art context. My work in turn is more about
apartheid era, those strange markers of racial identity
an aesthetic evolution, about redefining the real. I have a
that we obsessed about at that time. Twilight and Vultures are companion pieces, also partly
creative need to push an idea of painting or a conceptual idea out of the gallery and into the street. The legitimacy
inspired by Mattera. Twilight references his metaphor of
of street art is about bravery in making a statement and
coloured people existing in a twilight zone, between black
risking injury and arrest, as much as about the image itself.
and white, night and day, indeterminate in terms of racial
I don’t want to be embroiled in the tired notion that being
classification and apartheid politics both physically and
an artist in a gallery context, but who works with concepts
psychologically. The feather in the piece acts as a kind of
and materials close to street art, means that I somehow
barometer or timepiece, moving from dawn to daylight to
appropriate that work or that idea. I therefore don’t see
evening. The purple hoodie the character in the piece wears
In the piece called Bones I’m relating the history of the
is referencing thug life, but also has spiritual undertones – a kind of priestliness or monasticism. Vultures was the
game of dominoes to the human body. All 28 domino pieces
name of Mattera’s gang in Sophiatown. The metaphor is of
are used, and the title puns on both the skeleton and the
the bird that feeds on scraps, but is only there when death
slang name for domino pieces. The character in the series
is around. The actual bird is replaced by an Okapi knife,
has a relation to each piece as part of the choreography.
used by the gangs as a weapon of choice. In the piece, the
It’s a very large work, 9.5 x 2.45m, and both numerically
knife appears closed, perching on the tree branch. As the
and visually very interesting, for example with the double
character approaches, the knife opens, and confronts the
blank and double six. The game also unfolds as part of the
character as his shadow.
The series called Bird on Wires is inspired by the serial
The last two works, A Day in May and Carry-on, are
‘chronophotography’ of the 19th-century scientist EJ Marey.
perhaps the most personal in terms of my feelings for South
He made very influential studies of animals and humans in
Africa. A Day in May is inspired by Worker’s Day. The digital
motion, including many of birds in flight, which influenced
animation shows the figure carrying a black flag, the symbol
the development of early cinema. The wires are also meant
of anarchism and opposition. But as he protests, he is held
to recall the strings of a guitar.
back by clothes pegs, so it’s domesticity that puts a stop
The Point of Vanishing offers an ironic take on imagining
to his revolutionary fervour, and hangs him out to dry. It’s
the perspectival view of inhabitants of the land when the
about coming back to a sense of self, and a sense of home.
colonists first landed in their ships off the Cape of Good
Carry-on is a pun on carry-on luggage, which in this case
Hope. Imagine a bushman cave or rock painting of such a
is a graphic outline of South Africa, tethered by ropes to
ship … the piece plays with the idea of such a representation,
the character, his sense of home that he carries with him,
and the character is dressed as a sailor, of course.
but struggles to deal with. It begins to repeat itself, and to
A Spanner in the Works of Infinity links the wall drawing of
fragment, so that although he is pulled by the South Africa
the car at the entrance to the gallery with the tool that fixes
symbol, by the end of the work it’s undefined.
it. Also the wheel spanner denotes an ‘X’, such as the one marking treasure or put down when casting a vote. When the character in the series throws the spanner into sky, it spirals, into the wall, creating the illusion of another dimension. Structurally, this piece has quite a formal compositional style,
James Sey is a writer, academic and artist. He is a Research Associate in the Research Centre of the Faculty of Fine Art, University of Johannesburg.
based on the Fibonacci mathematical grid.
PARIES PICTUS COLOUR IN THE PICTURES 2013 Vinyl stencils, paint, oil crayons in custom box With the participation of children from Lalela Project
PARIES PICTUS CONNECT THE DOTS, DRAW THE WAVES, COMPLETE THE MAZE 2013 Vinyl stencils, paint, oil crayons in custom box With the participation of children from Lalela Project
BIRD ON WIRES 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
Paries Pictus: Complete the Maze
Paries Pictus: Draw the Waves
THE POINT OF VANISHING 2012/3 15 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
Paries Pictus: Connect the Dots
VULTURES 2012 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
TWILIGHT 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
A SPANNER IN THE WORKS OF INFINITY 2012/3 9 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
UNTITLED (MOON STAMP + INK PAD) 2012 Wood, metal, rubber, Indian ink Installation dimensions variable
BLACKNESS BLOOMS 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
ALMANAC 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
CARRY-ON 2013 9 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each
BONES 2013 28 framed C-prints 50 x 50 x 4cm each
A DAY IN MAY 2013 Digital animation Duration 3 min 15 sec
Robin Rhode was born in 1976 in Cape Town, and lives in Berlin. Major museum solo exhibitions have taken place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California (2010); the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2009); the Hayward Gallery, London (2008); and Haus der Kunst, Munich (2007). Notable group exhibitions include Fruits of Passion at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2012); the 18th Sydney Biennale, All Our Relations (2012); Staging Action: Performance in Photography Since 1960, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011); The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture from 1839 to the Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010); The Dissolve, 8th Site Santa Fe Biennale, New Mexico (2010); Prospect.1 New Orleans, 1st New Orleans Biennial (2008); New Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2005); the 51st Venice Biennale (2005); and How Latitudes Become Forms, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, and other venues (2003-5).
Thanks to the staff and children of Lalela Project for their contribution to Paries Pictus, and to the teams at Rhodeworks, Berlin, and Stevenson, Cape Town. Special thanks to Sabinah Odumosu-Rhode.
Back to the Future, 2013, vinyl stencil, paint, 185 x 434cm
CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 F +27 (0)21 462 1501 JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 403 1055/1908 F +27 (0)86 275 1918 email@example.com www.stevenson.info Catalogue 71 April 2013 © 2013 for works by Robin Rhode: the artist © 2013 for text: the author Front cover Paries Pictus: Colour in the Pictures, 2013 Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Installation photography Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town