JAN VAN DER MERWE AND THE PATINA OF TIME
”We are constantly experiencing the present; the past and the future are the present, stained and textured by the patina of time.” By Koos van der Watt
Jan van der Merwe’s work over the past decade has predominantly been concerned with the typical dilemma facing many contemporary artists; how do artists, trained within the late modernist tradition, cope with the contemporary divide between high modernist’s relentless hostility to mass culture, new media, and the contemporary technological pre-occupation with mass consumption culture, as well as the postmodern “aesthetic amnesia” and disregard for the “unique personal artistic manifest” of high modernism? The core problem remains a matter of choice, a choice between the art manifestation as a unique and personal “confession”, or as a more postmodern sensibility accommodating a form of codification via relevant metaphors directed at popular accessibility.1
Jan van der Merwe commits to a cardinal sin in terms of the prevailing post modernist sensibility; the preference to refer to a past, stained by modernist aesthetic norms and formal considerations, combined with a contemporary pre-occupation with a metaphorically inclined visual narrative stripped of modernist pretensions. The artist’s “aesthetic conscience” burdens him with a modernist legacy of a consideration for the aesthetic quality of form and the need to communicate a unique and individual idealect on the one hand and the insistence to deny such an “elitist” agenda at the expense of coming to terms with a demand for a contemporary and more “democratic” notion of what art at the present should be.
From van der Merwe’s installation ”Final Inspection.” at the African Window, April 1998 (his M. Tech Masters dissertation exhibition and his first one man show), it became apparent that he demonstrates the sensibility of a true postmodernist spirit. This rigid classification hints at typical Structuralism and the dualistic and ambiguous nature of his work will have to be clarified within this context. This installation presented as the practical component of his M.Tech dissertation did not only launch his career locally but also opened up opportunities for international recognition.2 Jan’s installation staged in a large exhibition space of the African Window, now referred to as The National Cultural History Museum, in Pretoria evoked references to a mausoleum, a memorial to his memories and the ‘history’ of his personal involvement in the tragic ideological conflict in Angola in which South Africa, Angola and Cuba were involved during the seventies and early eighties. Although this exhibition was primarily autobiographical it already yielded a metaphorical signification communicating the commonalities of a collective identity, shared experiences in conflict: memories of memories in the presence of the ‘darkness’ of death and destruction. What gave this installation its unique character was the formal arrangement of it elements. A series of two-dimensional components were used to demarcate a square space like the fence of a graveyard, the walls of a mausoleum. In the center space four “objects” are lined up; a made-up soldiers bed with helmet on the pillow, an ironing board with a shirt on it, a clothes horse with a pair of ironed pants hanging on the rail, a chair with a mans jacket hanging on it’s back. What made these banal objects unique is the fact that they are all covered in rusted tin, layered with a patina reminiscent of relics excavated from an archeological site. What does this central composition evoke within the specific time-space paradigm construed by the composite elements? On the one hand the modernist disciple would be inclined to appreciate these objects for their aesthetic qualities, the sensitive manipulation of the medium and the personalized exploration of the found material - rusted tin and banal objects in this instance. In terms of a postmodernist sensibility one can argue that these “objects” should not be considered as “sculpture” in the traditional modernist sense. But, what are they? Once the spectator considers these objects in terms of their metaphorical potential, the true postmodernist awareness instigated by their intentional nature, started to emerge. What is non-negotiable though is the fact that the objects forming the main focus of the installation, the central composition as well as the “frame”, refer to objects and their “histories”. It is within this context that his present work will be considered, the implications concerning the historical nature and characteristics that form the locus of Jan van der Merwe’s response to the present. The double metaphor that van der Merwe explores; the objects as metaphorical signifiers as well as the transformation process implied by the rusted metal patina covering the objects, work in tandem to enhance its conceptual rather than its aesthetic dimension. For van der Merwe it becomes a way of dealing with the colour and texture of the present.
Without trying to cover all the aspects in the ‘art or metaphor’ debate, I will suffice by starting of with a generalization regarding the postmodernist spirit of the artist’s work and would prefer to motivate my initial remark concerning the postmodernist “mould” I reserve for the work of the artist by referring to J Dockers’ summary of what a postmodernist sensibility represents. Docker argues that PM does not prescribe innovation and experimentation as cultural absolutes by which to judge all aesthetic expression.
…it is interested in a plurality of forms and genres, a pluralizing of aesthetic criteria, where such forms and genres may have long and fascinating histories, not as static and separate but entwined, interacting, conflicting, contesting, playing off against each other, mixing in unpredictable combinations, protean in energy, moving quickly between extremes, from pathos to farce, intensity to burlesque, endlessly fertile as narrative, theatricality, and performance. (Docker: 1994:xvii)3
An issue that constantly appears and re-appears according to Docker (1994:xx) in this dialectic is the awareness of popular culture as a force in the binary opposition between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture; the dialectic assuming history as meta-narrative, as governed by logic and laws, the dialogic refers to forces and meanings which endlessly shift and slip, of language and culture as “ceaseless unpredictable heterogeneity, history as reversible.” In the discussion that follows these claims will be put in context as the analysis of various artworks unfolds.
A discussion of van der Merwe’s work in terms of its content would inevitable involve its relationship to contemporary culture theory and notions of historicity within this paradigm. This would then also amount to an exploration of time-space relations as it manifests in the particular form his concepts acquire via his creative methodology as it manifested in his installation ”Waiting.” (2000).4 Comprising a bed with a wedding dress laid out on top and a wardrobe with dresses hanging inside, this composition evokes references to a specific historical incident but also to a universal phenomenon. In its most literal context it could be argued that it illustrates a historical metaphor, a bride waiting for a soldier to return from war. The dresses hanging in the ‘barbed wire wardrobe’ metaphoric of the concentration camps in which woman and children were held, during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), enhancing this historical reference. The artist’s strategy to use actual or ‘real objects’ (the bed and dresses) and to cover them with thin layers of rusted tin confirms the historical ‘setting’ of the tableau. The bedcover, the wedding dress and hanging dresses become embalmed in a historical crust like ancient archeological relics excavated from an ancient site. The delicate and brittle rusted surface evokes meaning and interpretation on various levels. The reference to an old wedding dress, an old bed, dresses hanging on clothes hangers referring to a specific historical period, invites a historical reading of the compilation. This reads as a historical equation, the history of woman and children being the victims of ideological conflict, from the past and in the present. The question arising from this strategy is: why does van der Merwe bother to retrieve the past? Knowing the artist and how he operates, one realizes that he is always in a process of historicizing the present. In this particular instance one can speculate whether the past has been exhumed or is the present being pushed backwards in time-space and why? Can we argue because of the re-occurrence of the same phenomenon, that it is not a question of past and present but that the past and the present are actually only the present? Is Jan reminding the viewer of the atrocities of the past or is he warning against realities of the present? The artist’s intention to evoke empathy within a particular human condition should be regarded as an affirmation of the present and the postmodernist notion that histories are inevitable gauged in terms of the present.
The way van der Merwe “excavates” references to a past and the theatrical settings he construes to “exhibit” the evidence of his archeological procedures inevitable invites an extension of the debate to include the discourse on modernist versus postmodernist notions on the history of art and the “post-historical”, the “end of art” and the “contemporary”. Earlier in the discussion I referred to the implied dualities in the work of van der Merwe concerning the “modernist” and aesthetic character of his three-dimensional objects. In terms of critical theory we are still inclined to submit to a subtle blunder as Margolis coins it, in the sense that we in reaction to earlier times when we thought that history was quite legible, that is periodized, we …
”suppose that we now have now eclipsed the entire narrative structure of history. For the rejection of periodized history is itself, in a way, the mark of a distinctive period of history. Also, a fixed periodized or essentialized history is not really history at all but a punctuated span of time within a frozen, changeless space – a teleologized evolution posing as history” 5(Margolis: 1999)
In our conjecture of the characterization of what we define as “modern”, the “postmodern”, and the “contemporary”, we are often inclined to set norms and expectations associated with a distinctive period of history and when an artist works within the postmodernist paradigm art should be devoid of any aesthetic considerations otherwise it would be classified as being “modernist”. Being postmodern could imply exactly that what we criticize; the notion that modernist stylistic qualities quite regularly manifests in so-called ‘post-modernist’ works of art. It would be wise to remember that as Arthur Danto define “contemporary” to designate something more than simply the art of the present moment, “ it designates less a period in some master narrative of art, and less a style of making art then a style of using styles.” In van der Merwe’s case it becomes a matter of using a style to articulate a contemporary postmodern sensibility. This awareness surfaces prominently in van der Merwe’s 2001 installation ”The Archeology of time: Baggage Arrival (2001) .” exhibited at the Durban NSA Gallery. The artist was one of six finalists for this prestigious competition. According to van der Merwe he wanted to demonstrate “that our history moves on and yet is always with us”. What gives van der Merwe’s installation its relevance is the remarkable co-incidence of this work being installed three weeks prier to the September 11 Twin Towers disaster. A moving carousel with a variety of baggage layered in rusted tin constantly moves on its oval track and then disappears behind a screen wall. On the wall one can follow its route behind the wall on a TV- monitor. The almost prophetic vision of luggage never to be collected - the implication that it will accumulate a historical patina and will re-appear over and over again, confirming its timeless and universal metaphorical poetry, links it to the September 11 disaster. Apart from its historical actuality it also evokes a sense of immediacy – the surfaces of the “luggage” comprises recycled layers of consumer products canned in tin metal. The obvious reference to consumerism as if passengers are mass- produced consumer products, extends its ambivalence. Like with an archeological exhibit the spectator is intrigued and mystified by the absence evoked by the presence. What is not revealed? What is the content of the luggage- whose luggage is it? The ever-present surveillance camera is monitoring every move and second of this continiuos process. The notion to ‘loop’ time to evoke a sense of ‘history’ and at the same time to articulate ‘presence’ by ‘absence’ and visa versa, confirms van der Merwe’s postmodern awareness that the past is the present and that there can be no claim to ‘history’.
A characteristic of van der Merwe’s recent work is his use of contemporary technology to animate the poetic moment. In his installation for the ”Trapped Reflections.” exhibition of September 2000 with the author Koos van der Watt as curator, van der Merwe explored the use of video technology to instill a sense of ‘entrapment’.6 In the hart shaped confinement of a traditional Thonga fish trap reconstructed in the museum space, van der Merwe has installed a table and several chairs, entitled ”Guests .” (2000). On each of the chairs ‘relic-like’ objects substitute for the absence of the individuals to whom the object belongs: a waste-coat, a briefcase and necktie, a bunch of flowers, and a lady’s handbag. On the table four video monitor screens displace the conventional placemats. On the screens the same animated image appears and re-appears on a constant loop – a gun being fired over and over again. The seen is set for an alternative ‘last supper’. In the actual trap component linked to this setting another incident is staged, ”No, I want my Mother (2000). .” A chair with a woman’s slip draped over the back and a suite cases placed next to it echo’s the same sense of absence. The seat of the chair displaced by a video monitor concludes the narrative; a mother’s hand stroking that of her child, over and over again. The metaphorical references to the human condition and social phenomena related to violence and the human entrapment in a vicious cycle of violence and destruction are treated with such empathy and sympathy that the entrapped space established for this human sceranio, becomes the stage for a timeless and universal moment. These moments are not bound by history and time, but transcend all time constraints – it is the time-space of our present human predicament. In this instance van der Merwe is not commenting on archeological time but on the notion of “now time”. The fact that “archeological time” is trapped in “now time” confirms the cyclic nature of the phenomenon he isolates – the absence of his “guests” confirms the presence of violence.
It is generally accepted that objects and images preceded writing as a form of history. Jan’s work is a form of “writing” and “coding” of a history of objects and meaning, a play of meaning that exceeds the immediacy of speech and language based on a model of speech. His work becomes a play of supplements; of substitutes replacing narrative speech descriptors with material and techniques that has its own inherent historical characteristics. The metaphorical power of the ”corrosion process .”becomes a means to comment on the process of change and transformation, to comment on time and significance without having to use narration or words. In his ”Confessional (Biegbak) .” (2003) van der Merwe demarcates a confined space, an intimate scullery for personal introspection. In its literal descriptive context it is only a scullery with a kitchen sink with dishes, dish clothes, oven gloves, and an apron. Built into the basin is a TV monitor depicting a scene of hands continuously scrubbing a cooking pot. Above the sink a projected image depicts a rainy courtyard seen through a window. This intimate “walled-in ” and “curtained-off” space creates a shrine like presence and the images in the sink and on the wall lend a nostalgic atmosphere to the mundane - the ritual of cleansing and the repetitive cycles in nature (the rain outside). According to Jan, referring to the significance of the installation, “each generation cleans up” and tries to “start afresh”. In a sense Van der Merwe acknowledges himself as the decoder of his own metaphorical text, shaped by particular generic expectations. ”Confessional .”aims at allowing for a moment for reconsideration and reflection. By using corroded metal and combining it with technology, van der Merwe establishes a contemporary archaeology, a means to shift time and confirm the immediacy of memory as a present experience and a way of decoding his understanding of the signifiers that allow him to live the present as both past and present.
While his earlier works (”6pm,1998) .” relied predominantly on the use of rusted tin and the corrosive process to comment on the notion of change and transformation, his later works (”Artifacts.”,( 1999) and ”Showcase.” (2003) are increasingly exploiting various forms of electronic technology to enhance this particular metaphorical context. In a sense it becomes a counterpoint, a means of preventing the aesthetically inclined objects of becoming fetishized. The tendency to appreciate van der Merwe’s earlier works in terms of an almost fetishistic quality derives from the elevated status the autonomous objects acquire due to the surface treatment and the fact that it is technically embalmed with a layer of rusted tin, a patina of time suggesting an elevated significance like objects excavated from an archaeological site. Another factor that could contribute to his mundane and banal objects acquiring an elevated fetishistic status is that these objects were revered and linked directly to his past – they become the links to a nostalgic conjuring up of memories from his past and the metaphoric translation of associations with particular objects and events. His ”Soldier’s Bed, Clothes Horse, Ironing Board.” and ”Chair and Jacket.” from his 19998 Exhibition at the African Window Museum, Pretoria qualifies for this type of stereotyping.
The inclination to associate van der Merwe’s art objects with fetishism derives from on the one hand the typical modernist claim to authenticity and essence, for which van der Merwe qualifies due to his unique style and technique (the trade mark of the modernist artist) and on the other hand the introduction of electronic technology that demystifies the objects by confirming it’s banal status as every day functional objects devoid of specific aesthetic significance. These “mere real things” as Margolis would refer to them, become tools and a means to endorse the dynamics activated by the scene projected on the monitor screen or the data-projector onto a wall of an enclosed installation. (1999: 35) Within this context the objects become props – they are part of the setting, the stage like in ”Showcase (2003) .” and ”Eclipse (2002). .” This strategy to ‘demystify” the “aestheticized” quality of his art objects by incorporating electronic technology in his installations, aggravates rather than alleviates his dilemma. The irony facing the artist is the fact that electronic technology with it “state-of –the–art” quality of high tech may be seen as a kind of fetishization of technology. Although Jan uses electronic technology merely as instrumental, as a means for achieving practical ends and not for its aesthetic or stylistic value, it still can be seen in this auxiliary and supplemental way as having value in its own right, as a kind of fetishism. Margolis argues that the fetishism of technology seems to be inherent to the very notion of high tech…”high tech is, by definition, fetishism“(1999:129). It is exactly the non–instrumental way that van der Merwe uses technology that undermines the mere functional application of high tech in his work. The poetic moments that he isolates; the hand of a mother stroking that of her child, a gun firing repeatedly, and the gesture of a hand dropping rose petals in a grave that confirm the autonomous and unique power of technology to venture beyond mere instrumentality - it endows the setting with something autonomous of human control, it affirms its own complex logic and ability to express content. This mysterious value, power, life or agency of its own, are the qualities endowed on functional electronic commodities, and qualifies as the traditional definition of fetishism. Van der Merwe’s intention is to use modern technology to be the very opposite of “fetishism”, as the essence of modern instrumentality.
The artist’s conceptual agenda includes the tension between old and new techniques – manipulation of the corrosive qualities of metal surfaces associated with natural transformation and therefore old memories, and contemporary electronic technology associated with the present, here and now. Past and present are mixed into a theatrical mutation – a hybrid of theatrical styles. This metaphor of mutation and mixture is crucial to the presentations of the present, rendered in the high tech idiom of the present. In installations like ”Baggage Arrival.” (2001) and ”Waiting .” (2000), van der Merwe choreographs space, three-dimensional objects, the surface treatment of the various objects and the dynamics generated by the electronic technology to bring the present to life; to unfold and reveal the reality of the present. Time moves within the parameters of the unique situation van der Merwe establishes - from the present back to the past and visa versa. Jan maintains that history has no essential structure and always manifests as the present. The corroded and rusted surface of objects becomes a means and a poetic voice that confirms the metaphorical claim of objects to have taken on a life, the ability to age and to evoke relevance and context. Irrespective of the conventions and formal strategies employed, his focus remains on how he directs his comment on the human condition. He construes poetic moments – reality theatre without physical human presence but with an implied human omnipotence suggesting and evocating a specific human predicament. The baggage on the moving conveyer platform, scrutinized by a surveillance camera as the objects appear and disappear behind the screen manifest as an everlasting present. It becomes an old history – a history repeating itself over and over again in the present. Van der Merwe has found a way to energize a sense of history and animate “mere real things” to confirm their ”Intentional properties. .”
From Andy Warhol’s renderings of Pop Art objects in the sixties we came to accept that his images of banal non-art, mass produced objects can be classified by definition as “mere real things” but do also qualify as art irrespective of its lack of what can be defined as “Intentional properties”. In Warhol’s case the transformation is technical – the objects are rendered technologically, silk screened to comment on mass production and consumption and accordingly it could be argued that the objects become a means to comment on a particular phenomenon. Van der Merwe also exploits banal “mere real things”, mostly functional objects for their significative properties. The way van der Merwe appropriates intentionality is by transforming the surface of his objects by covering its surface with a layer of rusted metal. The moment the objects are encrusted with a metallic layer they metaphorically shed their skins and their “nature” as mere real and banal objects and acquire a new identity as conceptual ”denotatums. .” The objects move beyond transformation – they become transfigured. They acquire a metaphorical significance that transcends the metaphysics of their “nature” as banal functional objects and evokes a magical presence loaded with intentional properties. In ”Luggage Trolley.”, (2003) Van der Merwe’s modus operandi is closer to what Jasper Johns does with his ”Painted Bronze (Beer Cans) .” of 1960. Johns sculpted his beer cans in bronze and then painted them to resemble “mere real things” – van der Merwe transfigures his objects by transforming the surface to acquire a new metaphorical identity. This work entered as one of the South African entries for an art competition sponsored by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the 2004 Olympics in Greece explore the use of banal real objects covered in rusted metal to refer to ancient tradition that endures through time.7 The rusted jacket, briefcase, sports bag, and medals on the luggage trolley transfigure into a monument to athletes, administrators and spectators. The rusted tin preserves but at the same time signifies the fragility and vulnerability of human beings – the rust becomes a reminder of the endless battle against time and transience.
In more recent works the artist is gradually moving away from the use of the corrosion process and rusted tin as his particular trademark. A variety of alternative materials are employed to address the typical concerns that are characteristic of van der Merwe’s oeuvre. He is increasingly intent on involving the viewers to become participants rather than mere spectators. The work becomes more interactive and involves the participant as active agent in the sensory experience of the physical space, visual and tactile qualities. You have to walk on a gravel pathway, experiencing the crunching sound of pebbles beneath your feet in ”Eclipse, .” (2002). The participant feels the softly moving air on her/his face moving past the half drawn curtains, moving through ”Its Cold Outside.” (2004). Van der Merwe implicates the senses of the participant who ventures into a private personal space, in the case of ”Its Cold Outside.” into the private world of the traces of a woman’s cosmetic ritual – in this instance rather the relics and remains of such a ritual. The amazing ambivalence of the setting and the physical experience evoked by the soft breeze and the motion on the monitor in the vanity case and the heat of the heater on the side, open up a multitude of interpretations and sensory experiences; cold as opposed to warmth, inside and outside. The use of the video monitor situates the setting in “now time” while the exploration of his corroded metal techniques once again displaces the historical time-related association with “now time” immediacy. In the lid of the vanity case a small TV monitor depicts a close up image of lipstick being applied to a women’s lips. The short animation is looped and repeats constantly. The TV screen acts like a mirror in the lid of the case. A similar work in which the artist invites the spectator to become an active participant on a meditative level is ”Installation: Sunday Suite.” (2003). This work evokes e sense of reflection on an important event and what lies ahead. The objects reflect on a particular intimate moment before or after a special event like a wedding, funeral or meeting. The reflective quality of the work is enhanced by the image on the small TV-monitor in the washbasin of a razor continuously being rinsed in water. In this work many of the concerns that van der Merwe has been dealing with over the last decade are consolidated; the garment as symbol of power, water as agent for the cleansing process the preservation of time and memory through the use of rusted tin and the emphasis on vulnerability and transience. What remains is the poetic moment – something spiritual and also a moment that also only survives temporarily.
Jan refers to his works of art as installations, but do they qualify to be considered as such? They are actually settings or locations for staging a particular poetic scenario and only partially comply with the standard expectations of what would qualify as an installation. Installations are considered to be “site specific” and become “machines of re-alignment”, to quote Erica Suderburg.8 Van der Merwe’s work in most instances retains its autonomy, irrespective of the particular space and although it quite often challenges the relevance of traditional gallery space, it also seems to be quite comfortable within the gallery context. What qualifies his work to operate within the installation paradigm is his manipulation of the space within the confines of his demarcated spatial borders. He invites the spectator to enter the space and participate in the staged experience – not like an audience watching a play but as the actors invading the setting and activating all the components to take on a new life, to become active agents in a play without actors. The viewer cum participant’s perception is mobilized in an ambiguous time-space to interpret objects as metaphors exploring the thin line between past and present - the process of transfiguration as it manifests in configuring the present. In ”Its Cold outside.” van der Merwe demarcates a particular space by the parameters defined by the “floor tiles”, not to isolate the work but to insolate a particular experience. Jan claims in pieces like ”Installation- Showcase.” (2003), ”Installation: Sunday Suite.” (2003) and ”Its Cold Outside.” (2004) the right to demarcate and control the “space of experience”. He defines and reconstructs the space for participation and experience of a specific metaphorically constructed event.
Reference was earlier made to van der Merwe’s introduction of alternative material in some of his more recent pieces. In ”Bullet Proof Jacket.” (2003) and ” ”Cleaning Instruction.” (2003) he mixes his typical rust coated treatment of objects with others used in their raw and untreated form. Instead of the homogenous quality of all objects subjected to his corrosion process, he retains the original qualities of some objects and in the process a visual tension emanates from the obvious dichotomy between archeological like time stained objects and the “new” functional ones. These works generally lack the poetic resonance of his early work but seem to have a more contemporary conceptual character. In ”Bullet Proof .” van der Merwe combines plastic, a metallic stand, TV monitor screen, a VCR and wax. The plastic bulletproof vests, dress and shirt filled with wax bullets evoke references to violence, body bags and forensic evidence. The image on the video monitor of a hand holding a gun repeatedly firing shots, establishes context for the various elements. The basic conceptual premise of van der Merwe’s work remains the same but somehow the introduction of alternative material do not evoke the same poetic empathy as his rust encrusted environments.9 Could it be that by eliminating the time-space association imposed by the corrosion process, the alternative materials signify too many diverse metaphorical readings and in the process loses the poetic experience? Perhaps it just lacks the potency of his established creative strategy and compromises the unique individuality of the artist’s concepts? Jan van der Merwe‘s latest works exude a different sensibility. It seems that the artist is stepping over the threshold into the next stage his professional career, challenging his established creative methodology by consciously selecting a range of alternative materials to act as decoders of his social concerns. What ever the selection of material in future, his content will most probable remain the same. Jan van der Merwe will find it more difficult to change his innate tendency to explore the colour and texture of time than the impulse to experiment with a range of new visual metaphors.
Van der Merwe’s work has always been accessible to the public irrespective of its sometimes rather complex content. It can be argued that his work in a sense qualifies as popular rather than “high art” because of its social relevance and his particular talent for staging a scene in simple visual terms. He has the ability to maneuver time to manifest in “now time” – time that the viewers share and understand exactly because it is part of their every day experience. A major challenge for the artist would be to address “future time” – to make choices regarding material and process that will invite the participant to venture into a time paradigm that has not been explored before.
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