Wall Text

The brick as metaphor in South African art and writing

walltext2.gif

Kendell Geers, 'Title Withheld (Brick)', 1993-94, Situation / Performance, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Stephan Friedman Gallery and the artist.

Kendell Geers, 'Title Withheld (Brick)', 1993-94, Situation / Performance, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Stephan Friedman Gallery and the artist.

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).

walltext1.gif

Yto Barrada Bricks, 2003/2011, C-print, 150x150cm. Courtesy: Sfeir-Semler Gallery and the artist.

Yto Barrada Bricks, 2003/2011, C-print, 150x150cm. Courtesy: Sfeir-Semler Gallery and the artist.

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.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor living in Cape Town, South Africa. He contributed an essay to David Goldblatt’s updated 2016 Steidl edition of In Boksburg (1982).

Issue 141

First published in Issue 141

September 2011

Most Read

If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018