To Live Is to Be Marked: Thinking through Material and Meaning in Wim Botha’s Art
By Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director
The plasticity of the human brain is a subject of heightened scientific interest today, as studies on the effects of computer use reveal that physical changes occur in the brain well into adulthood. The incessant connectivity and multitasking fostered by the use of digital technology is altering not only the way we live and communicate but also the very shape of the human brain and the way the mind functions. Synapses connecting areas of the brain associated with visual agility, responsiveness, and short-term memory are being strengthened by computer usage, while the vital pathways associated with deep thought and long-term memory are weakened through relative neglect. “In our dependence on the Internet, we are outsourcing memory,” says writer Nicholas Carr, who asks, “What are the consequences for the ‘unique self’?” Aristotle was famously hostile to the written word, fearing the diminishment of an oral tradition and asserting that “memory is the scribe of the soul.” Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains echoes these concerns: “As an infinitely available source of information,” says Carr, “the web is a technology of forgetfulness … When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect, and even our identity.”1 Scanning screens and exchanging rapid, remote responses, we consume more than contemplate, tuning our consciousness to the immediate moment, which quickly shifts and dissipates. As the written and printed word dissolves into the pixels of the digital age, books might be used more as physical material than as sources of knowledge.
For Wim Botha the printed word provides both material and meaning. The expanding global trove of abandoned books and discarded documents have been a potent source and resource for Botha, shaping the craft and content of some of his now-iconic works that interrogate iconography. Botha’s 2001 installation Commune: Suspension of Disbelief featured a life-size Christ figure of carved bibles, the books’ red-cover material strategically positioned in place of Christ’s wounds. Whereas the artist describes his practice as equally intentional and intuitive—the carving and cutting of paper, wood, marble, and polystyrene is often spontaneous and guided by the material—he is acutely aware of utilizing imagery already loaded with centuries of complex meaning. “It is the challenge of taking an image that is so assimilated into the communal psyche,” he says, “and presenting something that takes you completely by surprise, catches you off guard.”2 Botha returns to the imagery of Christianity, classical mythology, and European art history, mining iconography to reveal the potential for new meanings. A crucifixion of carved books, a pietà of cornmeal, a Laocoön sculpted in bronze, more abstract than figurative, and set upon a wooden pallet: Botha’s subjects are at once recognizable and obscured. He often uses and combines unusual and disparate materials—including polystyrene, florescent lights, marble, wood, bronze, and books—and lets his process guide him in the form his works take. His process of excavation is both conceptual and physical, as he contemplates and interrogates the subjects that have shaped his perception, and then carves, casts, and assembles materials to allow his vision to emerge in works that are mysterious and provocative. Yes, this is Christ, Leda, Laocoön, but transformed, exposed, arguably now anonymous. The content these symbols represent historically, to the communal imagination, has been both distilled and expanded.
Untitled (Bywoner) is the name Botha gives to several of his carved-book busts, again suggesting that his subject matter both does and does not define the meaning of his work. A bywoner is defined as an anonymous Afrikaans tenant farmer. Untitled (Bywoner 3) and Untitled (Bywoner 8) are both presented as vanitas portraits, a human face looking at a skull, contemplating mortality. Botha sculpts both head and skull from aged, leather-bound encyclopedias, sources of knowledge once revered, now redundant. If identity is synonymous with knowledge—if we are the sum of what we know—how will individual consciousness be understood when the printed word dissolves into the digital cloud? This is but one of many potential questions posed by this series (Why are they held in place with large steel screws driven deep into the cranium of the sculpture? would be another), indicating that this artist’s line of philosophical inquiry is existential. “Every questioning is a seeking,” said Martin Heidegger, whose writings anticipated Sartrean existentialism. “Every seeking gets guided beforehand from what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to Being as it is.”3 The struggle to define being, or consciousness, poses new challenges in the digital age, as the creation and transmission of knowledge becomes less and less tangible. Botha’s use of timeworn, timeless, and time-bound print in his vanitas, pietà, and other figures, offers a meditation on the evolution of knowledge, of how knowledge shapes personal and public memory, and determines and distorts power.
Botha questions and subverts aesthetic conventions of power and value in his use of materials: paper and cornmeal are carefully shaped into life-size sculptures, while marble is hacked and hewn as if to disfigure his subject in works like Untitled (Nebula 9). Carrara marble—a soft white stone with blue-gray veins—has been a favorite material of artists since antiquity. Quarried from the city of Carrara in the northernmost tip of Tuscany, Italy, Carrara marble has been used to create the Pantheon, Trajan’s column, the original Hellenistic Greek masterpiece Laocoön and His Sons, and Michelangelo’s Pietà and David. Botha uses this precious material to create a bust whose features are barely discernable because of the rough hacking, sawing, and scratching of shapes into the marble. Botha’s sculpting recalls gestural brushstrokes—a feat difficult to achieve with marble. In places the marble appears as granular as sugar—a commodity with its own history of shifting value from luxury product to cheap mass production. This extreme mark making obscures identity and emphasizes the artist’s process—a process defined by contradiction. The simple wooden base contrasts with the precious marble; combining disparate media is a hallmark of Botha’s work, which is reinforced here by the title. Nebula is the Latin word for cloud—an ephemeral, immaterial form the artist aligns with a shimmering sculpture, weighty with heft and art history. Indeed, the block of Carrara marble from which Michelangelo sculpted David had been worked on by a number of his predecessors, including Donatello. Owned by the state of Florence, the eighteen-foot marble block proved too great a challenge for many; Leonardo da Vinci apparently rejected an offer to use it. Botha’s consistent, contradictory questioning of history, of art, of the value of the creative process itself, is evoked in his groundbreaking use of this storied material, which he juxtaposes with the everyday, setting it upon what is better described as a base than a pedestal.
Playing with high and low, Botha’s work reinforces the fact that the presence of one makes the other more visible. A Thousand Things Part 190, for example, is a work made from wood and black ink that looks both burned and hacked with a saw, while standing atop a highly polished pedestal. Revealing as much as concealing, Botha’s anonymous, sculpted wood portrait conveys the complex, raw, human form, constructed spontaneously with functional, everyday materials. The artist notes that the faces he conjures are in some ways mangled, abject or broken, yet simultaneously beautiful. “Beauty is a difficult concept because it sits so close to ugliness; pleasure and pain are very closely related.”4
Pleasure and pain, beauty and horror, life and death converge on a grand scale in Botha’s Prism series. These dark bronze sculptures sit atop wooden pallets, solid and inanimate, yet ready to move. Their subjects, drawn from Greek and Christian mythology, both depict the death of adult children: Mary holds the dying Christ in her lap in the Pietà; Laocoön animates the death of a Trojan priest and his sons, who were poisoned by snakes sent by the goddess Athena in punishment for the priest’s warning (“beware of Greeks bearing gifts”) to the Trojan army when the Greeks delivered their infamous wooden horse. Martyrdom, sacrifice, struggle, and grief are evoked with pathos in these works, both of which have inspired countless representations in the histories of art and literature. The tragic tales they illustrate resonate in any century, perhaps especially so today, when the news daily brings stories of death and betrayal, cruelty and corruption. And yet, Dead Pietà and Dead Laocoön appear to defy the posthumous state the artist assigns them: the triangular composition of Pietà bursts outward with sharp edges and wing-like forms almost in flight, while the figures of mother and son are abstracted. Three forms are discernable in Dead Laocoön, but the tripartite sculpture is separated in two, while deeply carved lines suggesting drapery allude to writhing movement and blustery winds and some of the bronze elements appear to be on the verge of breaking apart. As critic Michael P. Steinberg writes, “On one hand, there is the black shroud of death. On the other, there is an explosion of movement, a life energy that seems to emanate from inanimate bronze without the help of anthropomorphic verisimilitude.”5 The “dead” subjects of Botha’s Prism sculptures seem poised to vibrate, poised for takeoff and transformation: perhaps it is the design of the prism—a triangular glass device that separates light into a spectrum of colors— that is the idea the artist considered as he conceived and cast these death-defying embodiments of simultaneous movement and stillness, distillation and dissipation.
Botha also subjects still-life imagery to a chrysalis-like transformation from the static to the explosive and luminous. His multimedia Still Life with Water expands the genre in three dimensions, contradicting the conventions of the art-historical canon. Here a minimalist glass slab symbolizing water is installed alongside fluorescent tubes of light and wood—pieces of found frames evoking wings and a sculpted, abstract bust atop an unfinished pedestal, creating a dizzying display that defies both tradition and physics. Growing up in South Africa, Botha first encountered historical masterpieces through reproductions of classical portraits, landscapes, and still-life imagery. Whereas the artist cannot escape the hold that the Eurocentric representation has on his imagination, he re-presents established modes of representation by exploring differing ways of seeing. Botha’s interrogation of art history is also a perceptual and philosophical investigation into the nature of reality: “I am interested in the principles of energy as described by physics and metaphysics,” he says, “by what is real yet unseen, by the possibility of duplicate or parallel worlds, adjacent but invisible mirrors of our own.”6
Utilizing many of the same materials—charred wood, blue lacquer, fluorescent light—Polarity Machine may be Botha’s most articulate acknowledgment of the underlying structure of his art as metaphoric/material dichotomy, as contradiction, as a taught balance of opposites. A tangle of glowing white lights hangs from the ceiling, the longest tube floating inches from the triangular, densely black wooden sculpture (another wing—a bird’s? an angel’s?) affixed to the wooden pole resting on the floor. An abstract sculpture of an abstract concept, Polarity Machine offers a meditation on lightness and darkness, stillness and movement, and other opposing ends of symbolic spectrums. And what, or who, is the machine referenced in the title? Might this be an allusion to the polarities of nature and technology? Might this be a response to the threat and promise of the technoculture: in the digital age, will the machine make, or be, art? Is the artist an automaton if he re-engages the same tropes and topics? Mysterious and alluring, Botha’s work poses existential questions to the viewer, to himself, to the practice of art making. The artist’s struggle to find and make meaning through his craft can be seen and felt in the lines and cuts of the wood, in the knotted jumble of the lights. The Gordian knot of his inquiries, sparked by his imagination and experience, and expressed through extensive mark making, prompts an infinity of wonder.
Utilizing the aesthetics of his inheritance—European, Christian, Afrikaans—Botha wrestles at once with those specific histories and with mortality. What emerges from the existential ring in which the artist confronts the riddle of the human condition is a vision of the sublime—the beauty and terror that attends the artist’s search for meaning within a finite lifespan. Posing questions that ask questions about the potential for an expanded human consciousness, a deeper understanding of self and other, of past and present, is inherently destabilizing, generating this state of discontent. If we take the artist’s lead and, thinking through the dichotomies of his art, fully accept our human condition, we inhabit the realm of the unresolved. The most alive we can be, then, is in the pursuit of questions, not answers. Contentment thus becomes complacency, a static state that exists in opposition to the dynamism, the movement, the markings, the jarring juxtapositions of Botha’s forms and materials. Repetitively interrogating the symbols and sources of religious, cultural, and political power, his works celebrate the anxiety of influence while resisting fixed interpretation: Laocoön and pietà are sliced and slashed; Christ is made of paper, or cornmeal; heroic busts are anonymous faces with features hacked or erased; still-lifes spread and mutate across the spaces they occupy. To be discontent is to critique content and to empty out that content from its traditional conventions, freeing the materials and metaphors of figure, landscape, and still life so that art can tell a multiplicity of stories ending in question marks.
Toward the end of The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel about an American missionary family in Africa, the mother says to the spirit of her dead child: “Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I’ve only found sorrow.”7 The art of Wim Botha is one of perceptual motion and perpetual momentum, propelling the viewer to close examination of his forms and materials, and of the multitude of contradictions and questions they present. To experience Botha’s art is to be led on a visceral journey, and to be marked.
1Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011), 195.
2Sean O’Toole, “Wim Botha: Art Bio,” Art Throb (April 2003), https://artthrob.co.za/03apr/artbio/html.
3Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 24.
4Wim Botha, “Beauty Is a Difficult Concept,” video interview, 22 October 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wS4KsIvFqs0, accessed 6 October 2017.
5Michael P Steinberg, “Laocoön/Pietà: Time and the Image,” in exhibition catalog Wim Botha: Pietà (Cape Town, Johannesburg: Stevenson Gallery, 2015), 10.
6Wim Botha, “Beauty Is a Difficult Concept,” video interview.
7Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998, reprinted New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 385.
Wim Botha: Still Life with Discontent is co-organized and presented by 21c and the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.