The brick as metaphor in South African art and writing
I arrive early for a press briefing and sit outside Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. Flipping through a magazine, I pause on Vladimir Nabokov’s account of his 1942 lecture tour of South Carolina. ‘The photograph has not been sent here,’ he writes to his wife Vera, ‘so it’s no surprise that the college was expecting a gentlemen with Dostoyevsky’s beard, Stalin’s moustache, Chekhov’s pince-nez and a Tolstoyan blouse.’ I look up and see workmen busy installing a wall-sized canvas print of the Berlin Wall, more or less on the spot where the wall once stood. A wall resembling and remembering a wall: weird, I think to myself, and return to Nabokov.
The press briefing for André Kertész’s retrospective is in French and German; his photographs, however, need no translation. One work in particular intrigues: made in 1933, the black and white image shows a neatly stacked pile of bricks. The arrangement, which predates Carl Andre’s famous exercise in equivalence by three decades, and speaks across time to a landscape study with bricks made in suburban Tangier by Yto Barrada in 2003, which I will see later in the day, fills almost the entire picture plane; the only marker of place is the Eiffel Tower in the corner. The bricks make me think of Ivan Vladislavic. (No, he isn’t Hungarian, nor does he have a Stalin moustache.) ‘The name is Croatian,’ explained the Johannesburg-based novelist and essayist in a 1999 interview. ‘My grandparents on my father’s side were Croatian immigrants.’ Vladislavic is one of contemporary South Africa’s most distinguished literary figures. His 2001 novel, The Restless Supermarket, a story about cosmopolitan entropy and the travails of proofreading, won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. His most recent novel, Double Negative (2010), has been similarly fêted. The outcome of a collaboration with photographer David Goldblatt, the novel tells the story of Neville Lister, a morose youth whose encounter with a taciturn documentarian, Saul Auerbach, prompts him to become a photographer. Like much of Vladislavic’s writing, Double Negative immerses its reader in the idiosyncratic physical and psychic geography of Johannesburg. Here’s Lister, a late-blooming artist – and participant in Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s recent exercise in artistic subterfuge for the Krakow Photobiennial, ‘Alias’ – on his interest in photographing the city’s over-abundant walls: ‘As the walls go on rising, the character of the place grows more and more obscure [...] you think there is life behind one guarded façade or another, a mind behind the blank stare, but you cannot be sure.’
Walls and bricks have preoccupied Vladislavic since the get go. His first book, Missing Persons (1989), includes an amusing story of suburban paranoia, ‘Journal of a Wall’. Written at the fag end of apartheid, the unnamed narrator records seeing bricks being hurled at township buses on television; however, it is the immediate proximity of the brick wall across the road that compels him. ‘I went over just after midnight, in an overcoat, in a balaclava,’ the narrator tells. ‘I brought back with me a brick.’ Confronted by its ‘stony silence’ and ‘impenetrable skin’, he soon returns the pilfered building block.
Despite their standardized rectangular form and obstinate appearance, bricks are adaptable conveniences for Vladislavic. They can ‘inflict metaphor’, to repurpose a description he used in an early story. More prosaically, as he observes in Portrait with Keys (2006), a collage of essayistic sketches of contemporary Johannesburg, bricks can function as ‘a doorstop, a weapon or a purse’. The brick’s potential for violence, both actual and symbolic, should not be underestimated. ‘A passer-by had flung a brick through the plate-glass window and snatched some goods from the display,’ offers Vladislavic in Portrait with Keys, of a theft from a shop near his home. ‘The brick was still lying there among the dusty satin drapes, chrome-plated pedestals and handwritten price-tags. It was a wonderful brick, a model brick, with three round holes through it the size of coins, filled with chips of broken glass.’ The passage reads likes a deadpan description of an early work by Kendell Geers, Title Withheld (Brick) (1994–6).
Once you begin to look for them, bricks recur everywhere in South African art and writing. ‘He had been involved in a fight,’ writes photographer Santu Mofokeng in his 2001 monograph. Currently the subject of a touring European survey show, Mofokeng is recalling an incident from the 1980s, involving a Soweto friend, Vusi. ‘He stopped a brick with his head, knocked out cold.’ Goldblatt’s interest in bricks is more ideological than actual: apartheid was physically constructed into being. Unsurprisingly, the octogenarian photographer’s opus is packed with bricks. Sometimes they form a uniform backdrop for his portraits, other times they function as his explicit subject, as in his 1990 photograph of Abraham Thipe’s almost Andre-esque display of used bricks on a Johannesburg pavement. The photo predates by two years the action in Vladislavic’s short story ‘Propaganda by Monuments’. Boniface Khumalo, a tavern owner who has received news from Russian authorities that his request for a ‘surplus’ statue of Lenin has been approved, is walking past a demolition site in Pretoria. An old man is salvaging bricks. ‘Do you sell these things?’ asks Boniface. He is anticipating building a large plinth for Lenin’s head. ‘This rubbish belongs to no-one,’ the old man replies. ‘It is just lying here. You can see it yourself.’ Often, however, we don’t.
First published in Issue 141