The Dashboard Melted But We Still Had The Radio: Zander Blom and Julia Rosa Clark

This essay appeared in a catalogue for Julia Rosa Clark and Zander Blom published by Whatiftheworld 2008

Remnants are a significant theme in the work of both Zander Blom and Julia Rosa Clark, although they approach the concept in ways that are as varied as they are similar. It is the remnants of art, of modernism, of culture and of objects that provide the spine of these artists’ work. It is an important concept too, in the life of a young South African artist where political, economic and social remnants are prevalent.  Crumbs from a dismal, brutal and segregated past are their daily bread.

The remnants have taken the form of installations for both artists, The Drain of Progress in Zander Blom’s case and Hypocrite’s Lament in Julia Rosa Clark’s instance.  Blom’s large-scale photographs and publication document a house he lived in for four years, and the installation that evolved there over that time.

The house was in the inner suburb of Brixton in Johannesburg.  It’s a slightly strange area, dominated by the country’s main broadcast tower, Sentech Tower, which looms 237 metres over the houses (though because of this proximity no-one gets decent reception). This famous structure, visible from almost anywhere, was built in 1961. Originally called Albert Hertzog Tower, after the statesman it is a monument to Afrikaner modernism, it’s slick lines and reinforced concrete structure now seem dated, though, like broadcasting the wrong message.

Brixton is also a slightly down-at-heel suburb, a little desolate, a little seedy because it rubs shoulders with Jo’burg’s notorious city centre.

Blom, working there, took both a fascination and distrust of Modernism and its art, particularly the Western manifestations as a starting point for his work. Modernism holds a strange appeal for South Africans: parts of it we missed entirely owing to our isolation (TV was only broadcast from the Albert Hertzog Tower after 1976), and we feel a little left out. Other parts have shown their ugly flipside here. Capitalism showed up as exploitation, nationalism as apartheid, colonialism as domination.  Flipsides that we are still struggling with.

With this in mind, Blom started to examine this time in art, re-enacting modernism through monochrome ink drawings.  A simple paired down medium used like an archaeologist’s brush and trowel.

As he tried to empty his art of representation, an act which both acknowledges the goal of abstraction as well as the impossibility of achieving it, the drawings began to slide off the paper, and onto the walls. The paper seemed an unnecessary constraint. From the walls it slid up to the ceiling and off again into constructions of paper and tape.  Old drawings were cut up and reassembled, taped up into jagged landscapes.  Formalist constructions were made out of vinyl tape, and parodies of Mondrian and Schwitters crept up the corners.  Areas were worked and reworked, in a progression emulating the development of Modernism, each movement eating the one before. Garish colours started to appear, out-the-can green and red and yellow, devoid of symbolism, except perhaps an ironic emptiness.

As the process developed, the objects themselves became less important. His investigation, locked up in his house, became performative. To this end, he meticulously documented it with photographs, positions and times carefully recorded, remnants of acts that naturally destroyed themselves.

This flow of information, as opposed to objects, brings the work into the present, and appropriately, these make portal for an audience to enter the work.  In a nice turn it is similar to the way that South Africans, outside of the major centres of Western art, accessed and access Modernist art, through books and monographs.

It is a famous aphorism that great works of art need to be experienced first hand and not once removed through media.  In the same vein, Blom’s work has a built in blockage.  The viewer can never understand what it is like to spend four years in a little house in Brixton being a Modernist. We can only see it in translation. The irony of this circle is not lost.

Julia Rosa Clark’s installation Hypocrite’s Lament is on the surface far more comfortable with objects and representation.  It is a panoply of images, colours, textures and things. Clark is a consummate collector, with a taste for the cheap, the mass produced, the unwanted and the kitsch, but with the eyes of a teenager.  Bright colored stickers, googly eyes, pencils, hairclips, ballerinas and straws all are assimilated: the remnants of hyper-capitalism. Like a collector, these object are not only visual, but contain information, even if that information sometimes only declares it’s own emptiness.  Making sense of this information is where the collector in her ends and the artist begins.

Hidden beneath the bright crust of objects, Clark, the artist, is a conspiracy theorist. Although conspiracies have existed throughout time, the conspiracy theorist is a thoroughly post-modern phenomenon.  Faced with the incredible flow of information, a conspiracy theorist cannot map all the disparate threads, nor find logical connections between them, a thing that humans tend to do as part of normal social behaviour.  Instead links and ties become tenuous and facts are twisted to fit a central thesis.  It is this coping method that Clark wittingly uses, both visually and in tone. It works because there is a bit of that conspiracy theorist in all of us.  Except the Masons.

In her installation old thrift store paintings weep neon string, images from children’s text books tangled up in them.  A miniature Christmas tree spawns a line of presents, growing exponentially until the grotesque.  A pillar composed of porcelain trinkets casts a dreadful and dark shadow, while the walls are lined with hundreds of food images, whirling into a hurricane. A collection of newspaper clippings forewarn of earth’s imminent doom.

Like the conspiracy theorist the links between these things are rickety.  The information the objects contain is saying different things, at the same time.  To look is an assault, confusing and disorientating.  It’s a schizophrenic experience, not in the voices-in-the-head sense, but in the disconnection between the signs and signifiers. However, like the conspiracy theorist there is a central axes, a paranoid edge, but here it is a terrible fear not of shadowy control but of images and objects, and what their profusion means in a world always on the brink of disaster.  This is not a joyful show that the bright colours belie, but an ironic twist up between panic and desire. For, of course, Clark is the hypocrite of the title, lamenting the deadlock between her love for things and what that love implies in a saturated world.  It is the collector and the artist facing off.

Dilemmas, torn loyalties and depression continually fight against the positive act of creation for both these artists. In the words of the band Modest Mouse: “The dashboard melted/ But we still had the radio”.  This tension, whether a suspicion of the past or a fear of the future, situates them right in the present moment.  For us viewers it is a worthwhile ride to take with them, for surely the past and the future concern us intimately.

 

 

 

 

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