The Archaeology of Time
Catalogue piece written by Clive Kellner for the FNB Vita Award Exhibition, 2001
Jan van der Merwe's works incorporate found objects, images, and junk materials that have been discarded. Most striking of his material usage is the rusted metals and tin that are forged together with inherited objects that evoke memories and serve as a starting point for his work. Tin cans are ordinarily utilized for preservation, metaphors for waste, loss and consumerism. Recycling becomes manifest as ecological issues pertinent to the last century are dragged along into the new millennium. At present the artist works with artefacts of our time (for example the computer) and tries to transform them into archaeological relics.
Van der Merwe's installations almost always consist of banal household utilitarian objects. Objects that are seemingly to loaded with meaning, leaving little room for conjecture and metaphor - a chair and jacket, an ironing board with a man's shirt, a clothes horse with ironed trousers depict the splendour of middle class values that have defined an aesthetic in South Africa predicated on the more conventional canons of race, class and gender. Who washes and irons the clothes? Who makes the bed? What happens when a spouse dies and the clothes are left hanging patiently in the cupboard? Is it memory, memorabilia or maybe a monument?
Van der Merwe attempts to preserve transience. His desire is to carefully render permutations and shapes from metal, revealing human pathos and weakness. His is a quest of irony, blurring the distinctions of civilian and military where soldiers wash, fold and care for the corners of the beds. Rusted clothes evoke the end of the era of male dominance. Blankets, towels and soaps are masculinized through the process of rusting. It is here that the artist also explores his own feminine self, bring to the fore conventional modes of male identity in society, particularly that of the male soldier. His is a healing ministry. The concept of healing is manifest through four works that are an attempt to heal the former conflict of war (Angolan War) through referring to history. Soldiers Bed, Ironing Board, Clothes Horse and Chair & Jacket suggest on a personal level that healing can be an instrument trough art and cooperation. Van der Merwe's personal experiences growing up in a traditional Afrikaans home, his orientation within the military and the role defined in society toward men are instrumental in the construction of his identity. This combination of home, domesticity and 'army' portray the memories and emotions of 'lost experience'. Through the act of creation, van der Merwe is able to experience intimacy, heal old wounds and confront his demons.
Van der Merwe's oeuvre occupies itself with the materialist concerns of modernism and more particularly the language of sculpture. The transmutation of metals, their possibilities of decay that allows for a delicate patina, rusted red. His work is didactic, human and empathetic. He crafts his materials into fictive narratives, tempered and moulded. Van der Merwe's objects have presence, they are monuments to the ordinary man. The subject in all of his works to date, have some relation to his personal life, his family and the military. Organised in arrangements of true to life size assemblages, van der Merwe's, chairs, beds, cupboards and other domestic objects convey a sense of human presence, once inhabited. We have the sense that these objects have been well used, a shadow of someone's life. It is in the attention to detail and the exquisite care and craftsmanship that render the objects immaculate, archaic and archaeological.
Jan van der Merwe's installations and object assemblages speak of end times. As van der Merwe
suggests, "Thus they take on an archaeological quality and become relics of a way of life, a
civilization degenerated and fossilized through time and rust. The suggest that something has
come to an end, but has also come to rest." Van der Merwe through his work, compels us to ask
questions about ourselves, our values and our society. It is just like a big mirror reflecting
back at us. Art is the measure of our civilization. The artist has been able through the act
of creation to restore aspects of his life, memories, feelings and those intangible things we
often consider less important than the more finite areas of our lives. Art remains primarily a
tool for communication, to reach out beyond our most immediate sphere of knowledge and lay
vulnerable our humanity before other human beings. It is a selfless act, a heroic act, one that
can be attributed to Jan van der Merwe. Clive Kellner.
Website of South African Artists