Wim Botha: It’s a continuation of all these works. None of these shows are in isolation, and so the title is a continuation of a thought process … Artworks are fantastical ways of finding meaning, and finding meaningful compositions, whether it is flowers or a memento mori composition, they tend to mean very similar things. But the idea of finding what is there and making a visual rendition of it very much applies to this way of finding things in the world, trying to make sense of it. So for me the idea of an artist creating is almost a personal experiment, exercising a dispassionate study as a neutral observer.
There’s a tradition of doing still lifes with flowers or fruit. It’s a very long list of Still Life with … something, to introduce this content as an emotional state into that dispassionate, observational trope. This suggests there is an emotional intent behind the works. It also becomes obliquely political again. In that service some of what informs these objects is about wanting to destabilize the types of individuals typically in power, and the kind of tropes we all traditionally play upon and build societies around. One can elaborate on it, but I’m not sure it’s really necessary. I think it’s more interesting to leave it at that.
JD: Tell us about the use of polystyrene in your work.
WB: I really enjoy not only the materiality of it but also how it intersects with the visual legacy of Western art history. There’s, for me, a wonderful relationship between the ethereal lightness of the polystyrene, and that it closely resembles the superdense, crystallized structure of marble. And although they couldn’t be further apart, the one becomes almost equivalent to the other in that the visual impact, at a distance, is the same: the whiteness, the purity of it is similar. In that same way, the paper bust becomes a surrogate for marble portraiture. Both of [these materials] become surrogates for a material tradition that speaks of power and money.
Marble is, and has always been, extremely expensive. It’s always been connected with the elite and the eternal and with notions of purity. When you cut through the text in a book, for instance, the ink on the paper leaves traces, so as you cut through it, you get white areas with this pure paper and gray or colored areas where you cut through the printed portion. With these governmental documents, the gray and white striations really resembled marble in that way as well, the lines in marble. The polystyrene is a little bit different in its lightness and its cellular structure. A roughly cut polystyrene block and a roughly cut marble block really do resemble each other. But the polystyrene is completely devoid of the status and the nobility value of the marble, or bronze for that matter.
JD: There’s also the longevity of the polystyrene …
WB: It may not last as marble but there’s still some durability to it… Well, Google just told me that polystyrene has a half-life of about a thousand years, so it’s pretty much forever! But it really is an extremely mundane material that has no illusions of grandeur. What’s nice about it is that if you slice it fine enough and hold it up to the light, it resembles nothing more than tissue cells under a microscope. It’s extraordinary how closely it resembles tissue structures on a cellular level. It’s a wonderful parallel: it’s a material that could not be more inert—it could not be deader than it is—but it’s very rich in its possibilities.
[... ] II think it is easy to see the work as something primarily driven by the novelty value of unusual materials, but this is not the case at all. I really am NOT interested in the novelty of it. I embrace traditional media, and I have an affinity for them much more than any other. In certain instances, a certain material seems to connect with an idea, and together they form the most suitable expression of that idea. So there’s not even a consciousness of the search for some interesting material to work with. It might happen, but at this point I would like nothing more than to be able to just continue the polystyrene relationship, for example. The material aspect is almost incidental. It’s purely because it was the right expression at the time, the right material at hand at the time.
Wim Botha, Prism 13 [Dead Pieta], 2015, bronze and wooden pallets, H. 95 1/4 x W. 88 1/5 x D. 49 1/2 in., Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa; Image: (c) 2015 Wim Botha; Photograph: Mario Todeschini
JD: We haven’t spoken yet about the translation of the polystyrene into bronze.
WB: Balance is important to me, the degree to which something deviates from the norm, or the extent of visceral impact that something has, and the moment that it veers—to my sensibility—too much in one direction. I feel a very strong impulse to counter that.
In the early days when I did works that were very much conceptually motivated, I liked that the content of the work could do a kind of a ping-pong between elements. That impulse still exists ... In that sense, the polystyrene and the bronze … cannot exist without one another.
The polystyrene became a very strong visual element—a very flighty element, literally—and it needed the counterpoint of the bronze, of being turned into bronze. The polystyrene is extremely airy, but it is ostensibly a solid, whereas the bronze is a hollow. The polystyrene reflects all kinds of light, so one could argue that it has an outer skin composed of whatever it is that creates the sense of color. And yet it is an absolutely impermeable skin, even though it’s such a porous material, so that light cannot penetrate it. Nothing stays behind it; it rejects everything. And then conversely the black bronzes seem to have an infinite capacity of absorbing, and even though it has a metallic skin and is hollow on the inside, that outer surface does not turn away anything that comes to it. It reflects all, takes it all in without judgment, without discrimination. These two spaces, for me, coexist, or at least they need each other. This is the very obvious translation between the throwaway, inexpensive material turning into a very expensive object, but by means of imperfection, which to me makes it all the more authentic.
Jennifer Dasal is curator of modern and contemporary art at the NCMA.
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