My work focuses on the development of the modern tradition into postmodernism. Cyberpunk literature, music, and film have all influenced my iconography and helped create a metaphorical description of the South African situation within the post-industrial paradigm. Linking these cyberpunk influences with the genres of colonialism and a post-apocalyptic landscape, such as those found in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) 9 , and the work of the South African artists, W. Kentridge, J. Ractliffe, G. Younge and D. Brown, [Figures 30-33], I have set out to portray an environment 10 in which machines and implements are involved in an imaginary struggle.
Figure 30: William Kentridge.
Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old , 1991.
(Godby 1991: 19)
An analogy between intelligent machines programmed to perform in a certain way, and society programmed to function accordingly, is constructed as a response to the influence of modern electronic communication networks. The aesthetics deriving from this intercultural exchange are reflected in my iconographical constructions.
The subtext that underlies the machines and implements in my work is a communication network linking all the sculptures. This conceptual communication web, or cyberspace, is the foundation upon which the body of work rests in-so-far as it attempts to portray a cybernetic system in action. A moving radar scanner, transmitting TV monitors, micro-electronic components and radio antennas are used to create the illusion of the existence of such a communication network. The group of sculptures is intended to provide a field of receptors and communicators which promote, or provoke, interaction from the viewer. This interaction is both physical (feeling the draught from the fan, reading the TV display monitors) and conceptual. Although none of the taps and gauges 'work', a degree of naturalism is adhered to. These imaginary feedback loops question personal autonomy in the face of an outside technocratic world order.
Figure 31: Jo Ractliffe. No. 7; Series 3, 1988.
(Ractliffe 1988: 86)
Formally, cybernetics deals with a fundamental sculptural aspect - space in and around objects. In the same way that cyberpunk writers have created cyberspace to provide a narrative compensation 'tool' to describe the loss of visibility and space in today's technological / cybernetic world, contemporary sculptors face the challenge of addressing this phenomenon. Where Rodin's and Moore's work dealt with the interaction of space and form, new electronic technologies and their related concepts extend the possibilities of space to time and movement. As Nam June Paik stated: 'In the past, art was three dimensional and two dimensional and didn't deal with time. Visual artists need to deal with time components - and that means video'. (Lovejoy 1989: 191) The integration of space, form, time and movement to create a conceptual communication web not only serves as a foundation for this body of work, but also indicates the direction that forthcoming work might take.
By creating a cyberpunk environment, set in a post-apocalyptic South African landscape, I have set out to portray post-industrial society. The aim of my work is to evoke thoughts on how the information structures of society control human behaviour and action. The works ask upon whose ignorance the actions of these systems depend. This question is not entirely a new one. As Phil Joffe writes in respect of Conrad's Heart of Darkness :
The anonymity vital to the system, in which those firing shells can be detached from the targets they choose not to see, is extended further to include those figures in the mother country upon whose chosen ignorance of the consequences of action the system depends ... Marlow recalls the callously indifferent old woman in black, knitting in the Company's head office in Europe, and perceives that it is she who is sitting at the other end of such an affair.
(Joffe 1987: 11)
This passage reveals the fact that the colonial enterprise does not end, but merely changes the transmission of its message.
Figure 32: Gavin Younge.
Steinkopf I and Steinkopf II , 1986.
(Younge 1986: 5)
South Africa is an ideal setting in which to explore postmodernism's cultural plurality. I have argued that by the end of the twentieth century, the modernist paradigm had run its course, and consequently a demand for aes-thetic renewal had developed. The crisis of our present age is that there are no more cultures left to 'discover' which can act as catalysts for renewal, as was the case with the advent of modernism. The African art collections that constituted inspiration for Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) are to be found in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. Similar collections were stored and catalogued by the British Museum and probably influenced D. H. Lawrence to include African art images in his novel The Rainbow (1916). These collections came about because of Europe's encounter with African culture in the period of the so-called 'Scramble for Africa' in the 1880s and 1890s. While the European countries were engaged in violently suppressing the 'savage' cultures they encountered in West and East Africa, African masks, carvings and jewellry were imported as spoils. These collections served as catalysts for Picasso and the rest of the modernists that followed, and to the development of abstract art.
Because of the drastic expansion of mobility - migrant labour, tourism, immigration, urban sprawl - and the media and communication explosion of the second half of the twentieth century, today's world is characterised by a 'plurality of cultures'. The following quote from Rian Malan's book, My Traitor's Heart , serves to illustrate this point:
It is a place of head-spinning contrasts. In Msinga, you see black men driving goats, and black men driving BMWs ...You see bare-breasted Zulu maidens with shaved heads and bodies draped with beads. They seem to have stepped out of National Geographic, but if you look closer you see that they're wearing Day-Glo leg warmers and running shoes. You see men in traditional dress carrying briefcases through the bush, and school-uniformed teenagers dancing through the wasteland with ghetto blasters on their shoulders. So Msinga isn't quaint, and it's not storybook Africa. (Malan 1990: 89)
Figure 33: David Brown. Dogwatch 2 , 1991.
(Brown 1991: 3)
Scenarios such as described in the above quotation, subvert 'traditional' cultural categorisation. Approaches such as comparing 'tribal art' and 'modern art' in order to find formal similarities, as in the controversial Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Primitivism in 20th Century Art (1984), are full of colonialist and racist assumptions. Today's cultural interaction questions the identity of objects and their contexts, because the recombination of parts produces new patterns of meaning. The result of this, as Jameson writes, is that the 'conception of the signifying chain essentially presupposes one of the basic principles of Saussurean structuralism, namely the proposition that meaning is not a one-to-one relationship between signifier and signified, between the materiality of language, between a word or a name, and its referent or concept. Meaning, in the new view is generated by the movement from signifier to signifier: what we generally call the signified - the meaning or conceptual content of an utterance - is now rather to be seen as a meaning-effect, as that objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers amongst each other. When that relationship breaks down, when the links of the signifying chain snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rabble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.' (Jameson 1991: 24) To put it in cybernetic terms, the signal received can be decoded differently from the way it was encoded when transmitted. Thus powerful areas of ambiguity are opened up, where an object may participate in more than one area of meaning at once. This gives rise to paradoxes about the significance of objects and materials, a refutation of single interpretations. As Susan Hiller wrote in The Myth of Primitivism : 'Surely it is past time to relinquish the quest for one totalizing, seemingly authoritative perspective in favour of a more complex, fragmented evocation that allows contradictions to emerge as spaces where new understanding can form themselves.'(1991: 6)
Figure 34: Andries Botha. Alleenspraak in Paradys , 1990.
(Botha 1991: 14)
Having discussed the ways in which video artist Nam Paik June makes use of random editing, and cyberpunk writer William Gibson 'mongrelized' different literary and artistic styles in response to this postmodern condition, the approaches taken by two South African visual artists are similar in concept. The aeroplanes made by the artist Titus Moteyane are examples in which materials are re-used, changing their original meaning. The media used, such as mild steel wire or tin plate, which have been made by highly complex industrial processes, have been applied in a different context. In a similar way, Andries Botha appropriates the Zulu skills of rope making, weaving and knotting into his iconography to create sculptures instead of functional objects. However he does not only use wood and thatch but also applies urban materials like aluminium and strips of rubber tyres to weave abstract and animal / human forms. [Figure 34]
Always looking at ways in which to appropriate and develop a 'South African Style' in step with international trends, paradox has become an important element of my work. The combination of local, industrial and electronically produced goods shows that the function and meaning of an item / message is never fixed and immutable. Not only am I reflecting on the society in which I live, but I am also trying to extend the possibilities opened up for sculpture by new electronic technologies. In the same way that cubism, via industrial society, altered the course of sculpture, I suggest that cybernetics / cyberpunk, via the paradigm of pluralism, is leading to a new direction in sculpture.