The Temptation to Exist

This article was published in the catalogue for Botes’ show The Temptation to Exist at Stevenson Cape Town 2011


Emil Cioran, whose book of essays lends its title to Conrad Botes’ new body of work, was a philosopher and writer who grappled with ideas of suicide, loss of faith, misotheism and tragic history. He was particularly adept at aphorisms, such as: ‘When we cannot be delivered from ourselves, we delight in devouring ourselves.’ ‘The temptation to exist’ is an expression of Cioran’s despair at the world, yet paradoxical desire to live.

In Christian mythology, ‘temptation’ is accorded a singular power. The very nature of the word suggests a continual battle between desire and repression. It points not only to the conflict between spiritual purity and earthly dirt central to Christianity, but also to the interaction of our reptilian id with our rational ego. Temptation is built into our psyches. The negative connotation of the word positions desire as bad and repression as holy.

The title of Botes’ exhibition implies that existence itself is improper, something to be repressed. However, the titular work consists of 16 self-portraits, an artistic self-affirmation. These paintings on canvas and reverse-glass roundels, some clustered against a mural, are rendered in a distinctive brushstroke – a graphic linearity so particular to Botes, it reinforces self-identity in the portraits. Behind each head, glowing lines radiate like a halo. The skin of each portrait crawls with comic-like figures who stab, dismember, shit and burn. While performing feats of violence and grossness, they are drawn with a loving glee. These maggoty figures, willingly placed across a self-portrait, remind me of the tale of St Simeon. Simeon was a stylite, an ascetic who sat on a pillar for 37 years. When the bugs and mites infesting his filthy body fell off, he would pick them up and let them burrow back into his skin. His radical self-denial made him holy, a saint – but also an insufferable show-off. Such rejection can only stem from either self-hate or pride; both emotions put the self on a pedestal, so to speak. St Simeon could be seen, then, as not only an ascetic but also a cynic. He withdraws from the world while living out his own existential crisis.

Botes’ work is marked by cynicism, but its nature is different from the selfishness of St Simeon. In The Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk considers cynicism as a dominant mode of contemporary life. He defines cynicism as ’enlightened false consciousness’. By this he means that particular modes and ideologies have been proven false, and yet one sticks to the form. One no longer believes in the purposefulness of authority, but still supports it. In daily life, one is indifferent, miserable and hopeless. An example would be the priest who no longer believes in the tenability of God, yet continues to preach. Or the graduate working in advertising while understanding Marx. Western society has grown up on a diet of God’s word as absolute, yet the critique of this since the Enlightenment has rocked its foundations. Even worse is the growing suspicion that the world’s leaders in industry and politics are the greatest cynics of all. They are reaping a bitter harvest of money and power, and have a vested interest in the status quo. In contradiction to this futility, Botes’ cynicism is tinged with melancholy and humour.

In the large painting Origin, Botes presents a God-like figure squatting over his creation of a violent populace pounding each other into the ground. God is shown as the Great Shitter, who bears a blasphemous resemblance to Botes himself.  His nastiness glows with a holy light. The pleasure here in obscenity is reminiscent of the Greek Diogenes, founder of the Cynic school of philosophy. Believing that most society was hypocritical and prevented us from attaining happiness, Diogenes refused to partake in it. He slept in a barrel and never worked. His beard grew wild and his clothes were rags. He dismissed all authority. Decency itself was a product of the dominant ideology, and so Diogenes shat in the theatre, masturbated in the market and pissed on passersby. As Sloterdijk suggests, Diogenes’ eschewal of theory for action, however inconsequential, is a far cry from the indifference of contemporary cynicism. This joyful, critical and self-reflexive cynicism is closer to Botes’ spirit.

In Botes’ work religious authority is continually put under fire. A diptych entitled Communist and Socialist portrays Jesus next to Osama bin Laden. Each has a glowing background and a web of writhing facial tattoos. While upending accepted views of these religious figures, giving them secular, political designations, it also equates the horrors perpetuated in their names. Cioran has a maxim which says it best: ’The fanatic is incorruptible: if he kills for an idea, he can just as well get himself killed for one; in either case, tyrant or martyr, he is a monster.’

The play between tyrant and martyr is illustrated in a more ambiguous way in the large sculptural installation The Stolen Shadow. The work comprises almost normal domestic items: a wall, a cupboard, a chair, a tub. These objects are marred by black paint and scrawled creatures. The bucket contains a severed hand, the cupboard a disembodied penis. Gazing out from this uncanny environment is a life-size figure in a grey smock. He wears a black dog mask, with glaring blank eyes. Riding on his shoulders is a twisty little homunculus. It is unclear who is demon and who is victim. The work is cloaked in a shadowy, encircling despair. Little cracks of light, however, break through. Scattered on the floor are stubs of chalk, like little signals of the positive act of creation.

Far from sinking into a bitter and vengeful depression, Botes’ work finds redemption in action, and specifically in art-making. Through self-awareness and expression, cynicism can turn from its futile nature into an act of criticism. Indifference is replaced with vitality. Emil Cioran, after all, lived to the ripe old age of 84.




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