Though it may appear archetypically modern—with unambiguous Duchamp references, no less—Robin Rhode’s public art, as depicted in photographic stop-action series, is a far more primordial thing, closely aligned with cave paintings and the outsider surrealism of early memories. Incorporating design elements based on geometric fractals found in traditional West African symbolism, the works in the South African-born, Berlin-based artist’s show “Drawing Waves,” on view at the Drawing Center in New York, acknowledge this fact more directly than his previous, realistically drawn works in charcoal and chalk. In the stop-motion photo series Breaking Waves, blue semicircles, alternating direction, are painted on an unidentified, crumbling city wall, suggesting a longitudinal pattern of ocean waves across which a surfer balances a silver surfboard from an impossible angle. Imagination—is there any other freedom so satisfying?
And yet, Rhode’s escapist interventions inevitably trace an uneasy reality. Accompanying the photo series, the artist recruits a group of children, ages 8 to 10, and films their contributions to a nautical-themed mural on a wall at the Drawing Center in a project titled Paries Pictus-Draw The Waves. Using enormous specially made oil crayons, the children improvise the rendering of the ocean surrounding pre-drawn shapes of 17th-century mercantile ships, a reference to the East India Trading Company, which first settled in South Africa. Juxtaposing unspoiled creativity with a difficult history of colonialism, personal retrospection with participatory components, “Drawing Waves” presents an ephemeral illustration of the state of mind in post-apartheid South Africa.
Rhode and I took to email to discuss his latest show, his life, and his practice. The interview has been lightly edited.
ARTnews: What is it about waves that inspired you to create these works? I read that the nautical motif symbolizes South Africa’s history of colonization, and how it affected your childhood, but could you elaborate on this connection?
Rhode: I was inspired by the Khoi San cave painting myth of South Africa, which has a similar narrative to that of Aboriginal Australians. We’ve discovered cave paintings depicting the rudimentary shapes of ships, which would have been their first foreign visual encounter. This idea plays itself out in the Drawing Center exhibition where a group of children were asked to draw their impression of waves around colonial ships that have been painted directly onto the wall surface of the exhibition space. My motive is to create a relational narrative that allows societies to share or connect with certain ideas regarding colonialism or social experiences without being overly pedantic. Rather, I hope my artwork embraces aspects of the drawing experience by creating a visual narrative space in which a youth demographic is able to engage and play.
How often do you work within a political context?
I constantly work within a political context, but without becoming overly conscious of it. I prefer to allow forms and lines to govern my political thinking—context is like the wind in the sails of a ship.
What, or who, are your artistic influences?
I have many varying influences. I think my biggest influences are artists. I have taken a liking to John Baldessari recently. Mostly because he makes art seem so effortless, while injecting levels of humor as well. I am not so much into the notion of labor, or labor-intensive production. I prefer fleeting moments that are more about the poetic realm. Dreams and idealism are my forte—I only need chalk and charcoal as my tools of expression. This means I’m quite easy; easiness, too, is a gift and a curse.
You have talked about how the tension in your work between frozen moments and action is connected to how your movement was sometimes restricted during the end days of apartheid, when, for instance, you were not allowed to bicycle to school. Do you consider your practice subversive in this way?
My work can appear to be quite light and humorous, which therefore disguises many subversive elements. Childhood and repressed memory has played an important role in shaping certain concepts and ideas. My creative process is very much linked to physicality and movement, and therein lies the energy to extract a particular line or gesture from an idea or condition that has been set up, either by me or by the situation at hand, on a street corner or a gallery or museum wall.
In an interview, you said that physical humor was sort of a childhood coping mechanism that evolved from South Africa’s political situation at the time. Do you see this as a tradition running throughout art history as well?
I think that artists have over the course of history relied on various coping mechanisms in the same way as van Gogh relied on absinthe, or Picasso on the female figure. These coping mechanisms function as a means to allow us to overcome certain barriers which are sometimes mental and physical, emotional and psychological, so we adhere to a particular means for coping with the pressures and pains of our reality that is so much about inclusion and exclusion.
What is your relationship with Johannesburg like now? How often do you return to the city? And why did you decide to move to Berlin?
Though having lived in Berlin for 14 years, I view Johannesburg from a relative distance but love the city like a distant relative, and I return quite often. Johannesburg, I believe, is still a place where the avant-garde still resides. One discovers the avant-garde in the pockets of undefined spaces. Europe, and Berlin in particular, is too defined already, too established. It is in the geographical periphery where the new avant-garde will emerge. Political margins require artists to exercise levels of constraint—that’s where one could find, or even produce, the most interesting work. I visited Berlin on a residency in 2001 and immediately fell in love with the city, which is a kind of magnet for so many artists from around the world. Affordable rent and large spaces, the quality of life, its prominent café and bar culture (let alone nightclub culture), gives it an edge over most capitals. Berlin is grounded in art history too, from Dada to Surrealism to Bauhaus, and being able to access these histories and information as an African artist in the diaspora has been fundamental to my development.
In a short time, street art has gone from being an illicit practice to a relatively mainstream one. How do you feel about this change, and how has it affected your work in Berlin, Johannesburg, and other places around the world?
Street art has become mainstream, much like any niche market or subculture; it begins with notoriety before becoming championed by the dominant discourse of the time. The mainstream attention has probably allowed my work a lot more focus even though I do not consider myself a street artist. Neither does the art world. I have always gravitated towards street art and street culture and see many parallels between my ideas and my approach, which is to bring contemporary idea to the general public who do not necessarily visit art exhibitions or who have no real understanding of art. My approach is to afford the passersby the opportunity to access a creative process in the formation of a contemporary art concept, and to engage, or to even participate, in the idea. The power I believe is in the masses, in the people.
Of course various contexts have their own effect—I cannot compare Johannesburg to Berlin in that regard. Berlin I feel has become more complicated, but also more mainstream. Walls are covered in graffiti, but it is stylistic rather than political. It’s almost like fashion. I have had limited access to walls in Berlin, even though it is the city of walls. I have no intention of being caught by police or of becoming an anarchist in the true sense. I am more inspired by the context of Johannesburg due to the socio-political conditions of the environment. Johannesburg still has pockets of empty walls and the social interaction there is a lot different than that of Berlin.
I remember in the late ‘90s there were very little spray-painted graffiti, because people couldn’t afford cans; instead, there was mural art with strong religious and political iconography, and this, I felt, was deeply interesting as it contained a greater sense of narrative. Therefore to balance both contexts has been an interesting dilemma. For me, Berlin has become a site for research and Johannesburg a site for productive execution.
For Breaking Waves, you created waves out of minimalist semi-circles. Was this a change in style for you? Your other work is often very realistic and detailed.
I have often embraced a strong geometric approach to my work aesthetic. I attempt to foreground a physical narrative that overlays a basic geometric composition. In Breaking Waves, I incorporated fractal geometry found in West African symbolism and design—their symbol of “calm waters” uses interconnected half circles over a horizontal plane. The semi-circles begin to blend into circles, denoting infinity, as does the character of the number 8. We see eight gradients of blue tone from left to right in the end of the artwork, with four circles positioned vertically. Numerical divisibility is key and functions as a conceptual code in many of my artworks, as does the idea of imaginary landscapes as presented in a work about the ocean in a space without water. The city of Johannesburg is completely landlocked, without water, ocean, or rivers, so the act of creating a work that so completely encapsulates the sea becomes a means to project oneself away from the given reality.
In what ways do you feel you’ve improved since you began your career as an artist? Have you had to progress physically, in order to pose in your photos?
I’ve become more professional through experience, which enables one to handle pressure much better and to channel that into the creative process. I also don’t become too overwhelmed by the conditions at hand. I strongly believe in exercising intuition—this becomes integral when working in the public realm, when encountering various outside influences that begin to shape the creative process. Decisions have to be made in a split second. With regards to physical performance and photography, I have had to place a larger focus on my physical wellbeing. I do physical training for certain artworks, but I also incorporate doppelgangers in many of my works. These characters are much younger than me and are therefore available to inject a youthful energy into the physical performance. Youth is of paramount importance to my working process—that lack of fear, of brushing aside any preconceptions. These qualities give rise to a spiritual freedom that we as adults are sometimes unable to reach due to our inhibitions.
Do you view your work as a form of escapism?
I do view my work as total escapism, for me as well as for my collaborators. We take great pleasure in the creative process and I feel quite privileged to be afforded the time to realize my artistic ideas in a collaborative manner. Nothing can be more profound than art functioning as a means to create a group identity for the purpose of being played with, or even reinvented.