Wim Botha

Stevenson, Cape Town. Originally published on ArtThrob

In 2001 when I was eight years old I came across an exhibition that strikes me now as my first real experience of contemporary art. I was at KKNK in Oudtshoorn with my parents and walked into a room with a suspended life-size crucifixion constructed out of carved bibles. Much like his other works, Botha’s large-scale technical structures and unique use of materials induce a jolting sense of wonder. I was taken aback and frightened by the piece. Standing in the room with my head reared back it was clear to me the artist had issues with his religion and was making sure the viewer felt this. This technique of confrontation however plays out differently in Botha’s recent show at Stevenson Cape Town.

Stevenson notes that its untitled exhibition is a follow-up of ‘Still life with water’ at Fondation Blachere, which appears to have been a space of upliftment and exaltation. Delicate wings are suspended in flight throughout the space with white light tubes attached. The varying blues and whites of the reflective glass panes create a calming space. This clean aesthetic is turned upside down at the follow-up show at Stevenson: The space is filled with harshly carved red wax wings, polystyrene and small marble busts with figures emerging from within. Melted red wax and crystal-like minerals cover several of the works in gruesome depictions of organic matter.

Botha challenges his history of larger installations by providing the viewer with a collection of smaller mystical sculptures scattered throughout the gallery space, surrounding one larger central installation. Most of these sculptures are placed on table pedestals where some are mounted against the walls, alongside Botha’s ink and oil paintings. The sculptures take the form of busts, roughly carved out of polystyrene and some in sparkly white marble, ranging in varying handheld sizes. Botha covers parts of the polystyrene figures in molten red wax where other unexposed areas are covered in clusters of mineral crystals emerging from within the sculpture. Using a particular chemical solution, Botha soaks his figures and leaves them underneath an incubation lamp for these crystalline forms to germinate within the polystyrene’s aerated gaps. The vacancies within the porous polystyrene provide room for something new to emerge, challenging the boundaries of each sculpture.

The exhibition makes use of large glass panes of different colours. Some lean against the wall, whereas others provide the platform on which Botha’s carved sculptures sit, supported by their tall wooden tables. The particularly mirrored glass used selectively reflects and passes different light frequencies. This results in an illusionary effect where Botha’s smaller busts light up in yellows and greens and the pedestal shadows result in varying blues and pinks. The space plays illusionary tricks on the viewer and invites one to contemplate the works in an exploratory space. I walk through the gallery and see several distorted reflections of myself within the works. My silhouette displays blue and pink within a glass pane paired with a hand-sized polystyrene bust infected with delicate mineral clusters. The mirror reflections of differing colours pose the idea that what we see might not be what be what we understand. The artist challenges us to engage with ideas that we cannot see or perhaps have not yet been exposed to.

Furthermore the ‘Prism’ sculptures present themselves as a series of busts, where in their silhouettes and proportions the black polystyrene figures seem like geometrically distorted busts on classic small wooden pedestals. Yet they don’t resemble anything specific, unlike their smaller white counterparts. Some forms allude to a pair of wings and others to a multifaceted polygon. Where a large emphasis on this exhibition and the previous, is about light, reflection and translucence, nothing responds less to light than matte black. This material exists in this exhibition as non-matter – as if to exist, but not to exist. Yet in my exploration of the gallery space I still see reflections of these sculptures presented to me in gold and blue through coloured reflections. A challenge is posed again about our understanding of matter and how perception can change meaning.

The larger of the rooms hosts the central installation more familiar like the usual scale of Botha’s work. Titled ‘The Universal Truths Escape Me’ the work consists of a balanced chaos of unvarnished wood, wax carvings and mirrors. The heavy wings expressionistically carved out of red wax sit impaled by the wooden scaffolding. Implied by the title, a sense of frustration comes about: The artist is challenging our epistemologies of existence. Botha’s work regularly references classical mythology and art. His inclusion of wings references both myths of Leda and the Swan, as well as Icarus’ and his wax wings. Zeus takes the form of a swan to seduce Leda who succumbs to the power of the god. Yet in the artist’s words, “Leda is neither a victim nor the aggressor, but a participant and agent in her own story”. The notion of subjectivity becomes apparent in this myth, and is crucial for Botha’s inclusion of it in his work. We live in a world we don’t fully grasp whilst maintaining power and control over ourselves within it. We still remain mortal however. Like Icarus whose wings melt in the sun after ambitiously attempting to fly higher than his father warned, we are unable to obtain or grasp true universal truth and knowledge.

Wing motifs are extended in other works including a series of Botha’s untitled paintings. Each of the works represents a pair of wings reiterating the imagery and iconography of the Swan and of Icarus, with energetic strokes functioning much like a figurative representation of these dramatic myths. The brushwork appears very similar in nature to Chinese Wenrenhua paintings. Using stone shavings to produce ink, much like traditional Chinese pigments, he vigorously paints loose forms on the Fabriano paper. Wenrenhua works were known to include more expressive forms than representative subject matter by using brushwork and including calligraphic forms to allude to multifaceted meanings. Much like the other works in this space, Wenrenhua wants to depict a subjective interpretation of what is felt.

Historical references appear and reappear in varying form in Botha’s installations. He uses classical form and classical ideas in his works whilst simultaneously challenging their trajectory. He includes busts, and uses traditional art-making materials, yet recreates and remixes them either to be abstract multifaceted forms or crystalline-overgrown creations. Traditional methods of wax and woodcarving, or calligraphic illustrations, allude to a historical understanding or perspective, yet collectively this exhibition very much challenges historical ideas of universality and truth. In using classically western aesthetics in a subversive manner Botha perhaps challenges all western ideologies of truth and knowledge, or otherwise known as the ‘Universal Truths’. Using science and chemistry, which historically strive for the ‘objective truth’, his work suggests otherwise – that perhaps with our subjective experiences, we will never know full truth. Our realities are constructed by collections of perceptions and ultimately we are human, where the objective still emerges from the subjective human condition.