Between 1998 and 2002 I made a series of temporary site-specific installations in South Africa and Brazil.
The works relied on the principles of anamorphic perspective to create an optical illusion. This was achieved through the painting of huge elongated images directly onto large areas of grass. I then arranged for the images to be viewed from a particular position - a specific distance from the image, and from several meters above the ground. The resulting foreshortening and correcting altered the form so that the original image appeared. A slight over-correction calculated into the original elongation caused the image to appear 3-dimensional and hovering just above the ground.
|TURF 1998 Johannesburg, South Africa|
All this trickery allowed me to "insert" floating objects within significant landscapes (and in one instance, an interior space), like painting onto a photograph, but actually viewed on site. This way of thinking about making an artwork fit well with the ideas with which I was tangling …ie. that absolutely everything is impermanent and constantly changing, and that the very idea of any legal individual claim to ownership of land anywhere is spurious. Together these ideas seem to me to be central to the story of South Africa and, indeed, to any understanding of human history or the projection of human existence in the future.
The issue of land shifted to centre as the focus of my thinking and attempts to make Art in the late 1990's; land as place meaning considerations of nationhood and identity, but also the material meaning of the word. As one of its symbols, grass or turf became a compelling subject for me, tying together ideas of fundamental substance or material and ownership. Turf is distinct from the wild/veld in that it is cultivated and protected. Turf seldom reflects seasonal rainfall or changing temperatures. It is green and evenly trimmed, neither of which would be achieved without human intervention of the most dedicated sort. The word “turf” has other associations too, linking the tended patch to its jealous and, if necessary, aggressive defense.
In 1998 Mark Wilby of the Ibis Art Centre in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, curated an exhibition of 15 site-specific works by South African artists. The event provided the ideal space for Illusions of Permanence, later renamed TURF I.
My chosen site in the Nieu-Bethesda area was the soccer field of Pienaarsig the small community located just outside Nieu-Bethesda itself. (Nieu-Bethesda and Pienaarsig are particularly tiny and isolated, located miles off the main road, deep in the mountains.) Historically and in the contemporary post apartheid version, the population of Pienaarsig provides labour for the town and the surrounding farms. The fortunes of one place and its people has always reflected that of the other’s. The sheep farms in the area which thrived at one time, for many reasons are not so numerous or successful now. In 1998, Pienaarsig was exceptionally poor and social community projects, like maintenance of the soccer field, were managed unevenly. Social factors and the climate meant that the turf was mostly dry and patchy. Regardless of this, 2 local teams (and their coach) used the field regularly.
|TURF I - Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa 1998|
My work on the field involved the painting of an image onto the grass using a specially formulated acrylic paint which would have no lasting ill effect on the grass. The image - a motif resembling a slanted piece of corrugated iron hovering just above its shadow - was painted as a drastically elongated version of itself toward one end of the field. The actual painted image stretched about 45m in length, and looked, from close-up, like a long striped snake. This was done with the technical help of 3-D Signs, a Cape Town company who had devised this method to put sponsors’ logos and other markings centre stage on major sports grounds all over the world for televised sports events . (Anamorphic perspective itself is, of course, centuries old, featuring in Renaissance works for instance, like Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors of 1533.)
|TURF I detail|
Corrugated iron, as in the central motif of TURF I, suggests temporary shelter, migration and early land claims. Its meaning in Nieu-Bethesda is the same as that in Johannesburg, which is famous for its relationship with the material, from the first temporary mining camp, and enduring until today in the informal settlements within and surrounding the city, although as products of history the 2 places progressed very differently. In both contexts, though very different, the physical environment and the fortunes of the residents is constantly changing and can be considered fragile.
In order for the work to be seen properly so that the optical illusion was achieved, one viewed the field and the whole landscape around it from a specified point on the sand road raised about 6 metres above the field and about 50m away from the painted image. The point was marked by a flagged viewing post from which the image corrected and one saw the illusion … the motif floating ghost-like above the brown soccer field with the village, a dusty road and a scrub-covered hillside in the background. The post bore a plaque etched with the words “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven”.
|TURF I detail|
On the opening day of !Xoe Site-specific, the 2 teams played a match on the field. For those 90 minutes, all elements of the work were brought together. The motif central to the work was worn on the shirts of the 2 teams – Silver Stars in white and Kayelitsha in yellow - as well as on the flags around the field and on the viewing post. The game played out as it always does, as metaphor for land possession and disputed ownership. On a sports-field land is demarcated and access restricted by rules. Universally, the language of war has morphed with that of sport, with "war cry", "battle" and "sudden death" being so essential to any Saturday afternoon in front of the television, we can forget they aren't literally meant. My image as logo on field, strips and flags in a sense gave me "ownership of the event" … much like that of the major sponsor. In contemporary sport, the power of money is central, just as wealth and social standing have always played a role in battle.
TURF I lasted until the grass grew out or the image was worn away, its transience resonant with so much of what the work and Nieu-Bethesda stand for. An example of this is in the land itself. In Prehistoric times, amazingly, the area around Nieu-Bethesda was swampland, which, with the creeping of the desert, became the dry scrubland it is now. Through history, the people who once lived in the area were pushed out by others, who in turn were later dominated by invaders more powerful by virtue of their greater numbers or more deadly weapons. More recently, apartheid determined the relationship of the peoples who lived here; but change, although always slower in places far from the cities, comes eventually nonetheless. There are traces of the past all over. Nieu-Bethesda itself feels like a trace of past vitality. Suspended as it is far from the main road between Johannesburg and Cape Town, it has no apparently more important reason for being than that. Its authentic air has steadily raised the value of its Real Estate, and on a less cynical note, it is a magical and haunted place (in every sense …so one hears). The area is rich in fossils and a world famous collection of fossils found locally is housed in a modest building on a farm near the town.
In 1999 I made TURF on the sportsfield of Barnato Park High School in Berea, Johannesburg. The school, one of the oldest in Johannesburg, was where many family members of my parents' and grandparents' generation were schooled. The school's history is directly tied to the beginnings of Johannesburg, my birthplace, and named after Barney Barnato, one of Johannesburg’s founders. Barnato's great wealth came from the gold mines which fuelled the dramatic growth of South Africa's largest city. The school’s grounds were in fact his pastoral estate in an early Johannesburg very different from what the city is now. All cities change, and Johannesburg’s changes have been sharp and poignant.
Berea in my parents' childhood years was a genteel, white, middle-class suburb and is now inner city and populous with immigrants from all over Africa as well as South Africans, whose children attend the school. The changes have been fast, this year, 2010, the city is not yet 130 years old.
In his history of Johannesburg, From Mining Camp to Metropolis – The Buildings of Johannesburg, Gerhard-Mark van der Waal called Johannesburg an " 'instant' city", saying, in its 100th birthday year, 1986, it “has always striven for 'renewal'. In the course of the century" most of the sites in its centre "have been built upon at least three or four times.”*
For TURF, I painted 3 corrugated iron motifs on to the field, and viewed and photographed them against the skyline of Hillbrow. (I was born in Hillbrow in 1962. The Hillbrow Tower, now as iconic in the city’s skyline as Table Mountain is to Cape Town, was not yet built. )
To view the work properly and allow the anamorphic perspective to morph the images into their fullest illusion of 3-dimensions, one was raised 8 metres into the air by a mechanical hoist. As the photographer and I were lifted up above the field I was able to see the effects of the gradually changing perspective on the images on the grass. My position in the cage allowed me the privilege of watching the change as it happened, as we were lifted gradually above the field, and I knew that I saw something not visible from the ground … the poetic and concrete embodiment of something I'd considered during the works conception … a narrative of the city and the country that continues to shift dramatically, not only with time, but relative to one's point of view.
The work was positioned on a smooth green field surrounded by flatland and traffic which provided the "canvas" for the trio of giant floating painted objects suspended over their own (painted) shadows, as if stopping there only for a moment. As with TURF I in Nieu-Bethesda, the work lasted only for several day, until the grass was mown in preparation for the next game; so again, its optical illusion was visible only briefly. And again the work cooperatively echoed the country's narrative by emphasising transience and the inevitability of change.
|Spirit II Sao Paulo, Brasil|
For the 25th Sao Paulo Bienal in 2002 I was commissioned to make a 2-part site-specific work which I called Spirit. It comprised Spirit I which was located on a ramp inside the exhibition centre in the Parque do Ibirapuera, and Spirit I, on the grass outside the centre.
(I realised that if I were going to make a work about 9/11, the sooner I did so the better.)
I used the corrugated iron imagery again, drawing the ghosts of the Twin Towers and the impact points of the 2 aeroplanes hovering over twin shadows. This part of the work was "correctly" viewed from inside the building, near the 2nd storey space where the South African work was exhibited. (We had a struggle with poor drainage on the site. As it always does in March in Sao Paulo, it rained heavily every afternoon, and the grassy area which was previously a tennis court, drained hardly at all.)
Spirit I was painted in long thin letters on the floor of the huge ramp which was to be a main entrance to the Bienal exhibition entrance. This was the first time I had made the work with the viewing point lower than the image. The optical illusion worked just as well as the other way around.
The 2 images that made up Spirit had a sense for me of a biblical portent appearing as a warning, against the skyline of the city of Sao Paulo and as the image that greeted the confident and excited visitors to the Bienal. The Twin Towers had been built to stand for all time but had been levelled tragically just 6 months earlier.
TURF and TURF I are documented in the catalogue produced for Halakasha, the exhibition of African football-related art and objects at the University of the Witwatersrand Art Gallery, Johannesburg, curated by Fiona Rankin-Smythe.
* From Mining Camp to Metropolis – The Buildings of Johannesburg
by Gerhard-Mark van der Waal (Chris van Rensburg Publications (PTY) LTD. 1987)
Photography for TURF by Natasha Christopher.