Introduction to "Unknown"
by Willem Boshoff
As an artist, Jan van der Merwe matured on the South African scrap heap of Apartheid and has become the archaeologist and anthropologist of its varying states of decay. If there is a shred of evidence on a forsaken rubbish dump, he will find it. He grew up in the shadow of a military camp in Ladysmith and later served as military graphic artist and heraldist by imagining backdrops and signs to its ill-fated quests and conquests. But, following his conscience, he soon moved away from his former masters. He wanted to apply his considerable graphic skills to critique the unjust system of military occupation, rather than to conform to it. He wanted to censure rather than to respect a tarnished structure. Making a new career in Fine Art came at a high personal price, not only did he sacrifice job security and endured rebuffs from former colleagues, but he also had to rub shoulders with fellow students much younger than himself. Today his work reflects this tough, prolonged and dogged soul-searching and hence he can more fully empathise with the forlornness of the souls of others.
Where do we go when things come undone – when sifting through the rubble is the last real option? What can we do when “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”, when “the best lack all conviction while the worst are passionate with intensity”? When “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”? – THE SECOND COMING – W.B. Yeats (1865–1939).
Many artists work in the field of objét trouvet – the ‘found object’. They ‘rescue’ items from being dumped or, ironically, from being properly used, only to re-assign such objects as works of art. In Van der Merwe’s case, it is not the object, but spoilt rusted matter littering the countryside that is found and redefined. His ‘art materials’ were once in good use. Through time, oxidation and deterioration, they became discarded by everyone as unusable and undesirable. Through deftness and patience befitting an accomplished weaver he reformulates these unlikely materials into desirable ‘textiles’ and surfaces, finally to stitch and sew them into garments and objects of deeper significance. His boxes of old and rusted scraps do not simplistically make up a more ‘interesting’ palette from which he makes ‘beautiful’ artworks. Rather, his labour of love reaches far beyond such mimesis into the realm of social consciousness and speaks directly and profoundly of a dark and damaged place. For Van der Merwe the suffering of others matter. He might agree with Adorno Aesthetic Theory (1984) that “surely it would be better for art to vanish altogether than to forget suffering, which is art’s expression and which gives substance to its form.”
Jan van der Merwe shows carefully selected outfits and scenarios in stages of preparation and anticipation. The laid-out uniform of a smartly dressed soldier speaks of a keenness and expectancy to perform military duty. A wedding dress, ready for the big day, aims to fulfil a young woman’s life. We have arrived on a jet plane and our luggage awaits us. An ironing board with a garment in careful stiffening and starching wants to get us well turned out for proud obligations – typical South African pursuits, expected of model citizens. But “things fall apart”, things become tragically flawed – for the model citizens and for South Africa.
As much as the work reports on tragic loss, it also reflects a sense of pathos and sympathy. We commiserate with the loss of plans, the loss of innocence and the loss of opportunity. The people alluded to are people like us, but, hauntingly, they never get to wear their wedding dresses, they never pick up their luggage after their flight and they never get to perform in their uniforms. Above all, they are people who, long ago, gave up on any promise of redemption. What happened?
I wish to over-simplify two human mind-sets that seem to be at work. Anticipation precedes misfortune and is almost prophetic to it. In mindset one, by getting ready for a war, marriage, or some other glorious undertaking, we are committed to fight it or meet it headlong, and feel wasted and redundant when the appointed event does not happen. If, however, in mindset two, we are called upon to fight, marry, arrive and perform adequately, a shattered dream often ensues and the fragments of our disillusionment have to be tweezered out from the wreckage and exposed, often in public and usually by others. In van der Merwe’s work this sense of culpability is often included and portrayed by an ever-watchful television monitor. It plays back, exposes and repeats the betraying elements.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), disillusioned by the havoc and disenchantment that ensued from the human and industrial wreckage left by the first world war wrote one of his best poems, The Waste Land, in 1922. It portrays a sterile world of panicky fears and barren lusts, and of human beings waiting for some sign or promise of healing. Eliot expresses the hopelessness and confusion of purpose of life in the secularised city, the decay of urbs aeterna – the ‘eternal city’. In Eliot’s poem one is overawed by the scars and damage and in van der Merwe’s work, ironically it is the disfigurement of substance and the woundedness of constituents that form the evocative matrix. Although Eliot and van der Merwe have common points of departure, I would say that Eliot’s work is more pervasively angry and van der Merwe’s more pervasively sad in tone.
Kainomania is an obsession with novelties (Greek kainos – ‘recent’). Kainomaniacs are often young girls who can’t resist the trinkets, cute toys and other gee-gaws at corner shops. Many such girls remain obsessed with the glitz of novelty spoons and travel mementoes all their life. As old ladies they still have a collection of once-upon-new items, now elaborately and adoringly sprawled out in the showcase of their dusty old lounges in an attempt to reclaim a lost youth. Jan van der Merwe’s Showcase illustrates the folly of trying to make a former innocence permanent. Like a cryostatic deep-freezer it attempts to prolong shelflife. But, time is of course triumphant, life cannot be canned and “moth and rust doth corrupt, and ... thieves break through and steal.” (Matthew 6:19) Our memory of our own credulity and wholesomeness, of our former worth and decorousness, fades away, ultimately to betray us.
Website of South African Artists