Dick, dick, dick, dick!

This article was published in Art South Africa Volume 7 Issue 2 2008

 

“You sound bitter.  You’re a strange man, Blake.  You have strange attitudes to life and war.”

“Strange? Listen… once you figure out what a joke everything is, being the Comedian’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“The charred villages, the boys with necklaces of human ears… these are part of the joke?”

“Hey… I never said it was a good joke! I’m just playing along with the gag…”

Doctor Manhattan in conversation with the Comedian. From Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, Chapter II, Page 13, Frames 3 and 4

Stuart Bird is a sculptor, but accomplished in a variety of media; his work trades in visual puns and sight gags with bleak punchlines. Indeed, the idea of a punch is quite significant as his jokes are almost always about the intersection of masculinity, sex, violence and politics. Like a good punch, his objects can sometimes be hard to look at, visually aggressive, tramping a fine line between the controversial and offensive. Like a good comedian, it’s a fine place to operate. His particular aesthetic is encapsulated in his painted bronze series Zuma Biscuits (2007), which received widespread attention in the national press after it was first displayed on a group exhibition in early 2007.

“Do we have to talk about that one?” he asks. “No,” I lie.  Nevertheless, Zuma Biscuits’s black humour and slick presentation are a good introduction. The work parodies a well known biscuit, Baker’s Iced Zoo, substituting its children friendly icons of animals with symbols – an AK-47, traditional Zulu shield, skirt and shower – representing contentious views expressed by Jacob Zuma around the time of his rape trial, in 2006.

Bird, who is completing his Masters degree at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, says he choose the biscuit because of its popularity amongst children, “as a ground for highlighting the seductive nature of his rhetoric and his position of influence as a politician of the people.”

Unlike his Zuma Biscuits, the majority of Bird’s production takes a more general, if tougher, look at masculine sexuality and violence. Traditional Weapons (2008) is a series of wood penises resembling knobkerries (or baseball bats). Dick as truncheon is an old joke, long established in psychology, but the twist is in the weapons taking a ‘traditional’ form. The joke has become normalized, part of our heritage, and violence against women by men has become incredibly widespread. However, owing to the form, the work can be seen as culturally specific.

Says Bird: “It seeks to situate the habitualised and normalised violence against woman and children firmly within enforced hegemonic culture. The work seeks to be culturally inclusive in its indictment through the tonal range found in the phalluses. The allusion to the club, or specifically in the South African context, the knobkerrie, functions to ground the work in the local, however the cultural specificity implied is undercut by the tonal range.”

Heart to Heart (2006), shown on his degree show at the Michaelis Gallery, takes this notion of ingrained sexual violence further. Two heart shaped plaques, one baby pink, the other powder blue, face each other.  The male plaque has a fishhook protruding from it, while the female version is gouged into a vagina shape. The child-like, gender-specific colours imply indoctrination of these values from a young age.

Bird’s puns can be more complex, as in Grapes of Wrath, in which blue balaclavas hang ominously from the ceiling.  Referencing John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, in which the clashing of old values with modern capitalism dehumanises people and breeds crime, the work reflects desperation and poverty in South Africa. Resembling strange fruit (in the Billie Holliday sense), they look pointedly at both the current situation, of a growing wealth gap, and the past, where rapid urbanization mixed with apartheid cities and racist policies have created a bitter wine.

While Bird’s one-liners can be simple, didactic even, they venture into complex territory where many other artists pull back. He is not afraid of laughing at himself either. In <i>Lost That One<i>, he built a display cabinet around his own tooth, knocked out in a fight. It is a shrine to masculine violence, but at the same time personal and regretful, a memorial to the futility of the punch.

 

 

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