Darkness Visible
Ashraf Jamal

Wim Botha’s email address reads Vim Botta, reflecting a desire to at least have his name pronounced approximately in the greater world even though his works are barely understood. This is because Meaning, the assumption that one can and must understand an artwork, is something the artist contests. ‘The works are turning inward, and are attracted to and shaped by an interior universe that is at the same time more intangible and more visceral’, Botha writes. ‘Works that are concerned with appearance or communication of concept have an outside, the part that is presented to be seen or understood; this part references a language or visual cues that help us construct meaning. But in the same way that a body functions from the inside out, there are other more ethereal aspects of materials and ideas that are hidden from plain view’.

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“The Universal Truths Escape Me”

In a society in which, from the 1970s, art has been deemed a ‘weapon’ of struggle and instruction, as a means to an end to Apartheid, as the index of a ‘resistance culture’, in other words an art reactive, oppositional, subjunctive, anticipatory, what Wim Botha does is not only the reverse but an emphatic othering of dogma. His is not a work defined by surfaces or intent, but, as the artist avers, work that knows the very ineluctability of things, their mystery, ethereality, inconclusiveness. In this regard Botha has long been fighting the counter-intuitive struggle championed by Njabulo Ndebele when, in his fostering of the ordinary against the spectacular, asked that we free ourselves from the smoke and mirrors of dramatic excess.

If for Ndebele the ‘ordinary’ amounts to a prosaic sublime, it is because he sought to restore the human to its psychic complexity, the human irreducible to appearances – the politics of skin, identity, or nationhood. It is this sublimity which Botha too has made his core focus. An art that turns inwards, that involutes, that pulls away from the outside, exterior, and supplementary – the supplement here being an addition and a substitution – Botha’s work, in effect, runs radically counter to prevailing taste, opinion, desire, and hope. While achingly material – a work shaped and informed by matter – Botha’s art is never materialistic. Rather it is the product of a metaphysician, someone whose yearning has returned him repeatedly to that which is as ‘intangible’ as it is ‘visceral’.

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“The Universal Truths Escape Me” (Detail)

In a society ground down by conviction, protest, anger, outrage, hurt, misery, frustration, confusion, despair, and worst of all, nihilism, a society unnervingly determined by a death instinct, Botha chooses to give us life. That life, immersed in the transcendent and metaphysical, is however also a life of the fallen. For if Botha is a metaphysician he is also a postlapsarian, a fallen man, Icarus perhaps, with his wings scorched by his own hubris, a figure as aspirational and tragic as he is quintessentially human.

A fallen man, he is however no ‘Fallist’, that is, no nihilist who would will his own demise in the name of an Idea, in this case, in this country, an idea fuelled by the misbegotten fantasy of decolonisation. If this is so it is because Botha’s tragedy, peculiarly his own – though some might say that it is a tragedy that stems from caste, the artist’s Afrikaner heritage – is one which places the individual at its centre. However this individual, this self, is not merely the property of the state, or an Enlightenment conceit which prides consciousness and agency above all else, but an individuality that knows its source lies in deindividuation – the root source of the eighteenth century concept of the individual paradoxically being the indivisible.

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“Untitled (Bloom 2)”

Therefore, when experiencing a Botha work it is not the artist’s ego that is most apparent but the disassembling, rerouting, and confounding of that ego. The key work in his latest solo exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town attests to this deconstruction even immolation of the self. Inspired once again by the mythological theme of Leda and the Swan, this vast and fragmented work – a mix of broken waxed wings and reflective glass, amongst other materials – reads as a corporeal yet enigmatic pile of seemingly random bits and pieces. However, because this pile remains allusive, suggestive, inferential, we sense that what we are seeing is the fallout of a catastrophe, the fragmentation of a myth. For nothing quite holds in Botha’s mind and imagination. Rather, the centre is lost, the integuments that make up a whole reduced to their abbreviated and broken parts. And it is this acute sense of breakage, of being broken, which reveals the extent of the artist’s fall.

It is vital here to note that that ‘fall’ is not existential, Botha is not merely the victim of a secular crisis. Existentialism after all supposes the primacy of existence over essence. Botha, however, maintains even in his broken state the primacy of essence. A man infused by the church, drawn to classical myth, more monotheistic than atheistic, or, more drawn to a world of many gods – and here the paradox is critical, for Botha is a believer in the One and the Many – it is not surprising that he would question the realm of surfaces or an art historical language, shaped by secularism, which relies too heavily on an outwardly framed concept and intent.

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“Untitled (Bloom 9)”

‘Materials and ideas’, he says, ‘are hidden from plain view’. It is therefore the recessiveness of the artist’s mode of working, his refusal to reveal that which is blatantly visible, that tells us everything about how the artist inhabits the world and how he chooses to communicate within it. Many of us have heard the term ‘dark matter’ and know it to be a descriptor for something palpable, gravitational, yet obscure. Something to this effect occurs when standing in a room filled with things staged on plinths, bedecking walls, or seemingly randomly strewn across a floor. We look, fail to see, don’t get it consciously, and yet, psychically, emotively, unconsciously we somehow ‘know’ what it is we are experiencing. Are these T.S. Eliot’s fragments shorn up against our ruin? Are these the stigmata of a lost world? Or are they, after the poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, the instance of a darkness made visible?

‘Crystals are grown on busts to lend them energy and ecstasy. The recurring combination of red wax, white marble and unvarnished wood recalls flesh, bone, sinew’. Here Botha’s words affirm the visceral nature of his obscure mind. These works are invocations, adjectival insistences, ruses, runes, gnomic force-fields designed to catch us thinking, feeling, longing, dreading. There is never a direct exchange of intensities. We may commune with the works but the ritual remains a mystery. This is not because the artist has failed to communicate what he thinks and feels, but because his thoughts and feelings, while acute, raw, are not, and can never be reducible to a logical system of exchange.

Walter Benjamin, perhaps, is the artist’s ideal respondent, a man who could see the future by turning to the past, who could suspend time, bring dialectics to a standstill, and in the doing draw out the hidden mystery of all of time in a single instant. It is I think this strange suspension, laterality, eternality, caught in a single moment, which has powerfully compelled Botha. In this regard he is stridently unique in the South African mainframe, for his works do not speak to the agonistic urgencies of the present moment, they do not protest too much, they do not adhere to the cant of transformation, but, ruthlessly, woundingly, remind us of our fallibility.

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“Prism 22”

I spoke with Wim Botha the day after his opening. There were six people in the gallery, amongst them his two young children and his partner. What struck me – and this is the first time I have met the artist – was his infinite fragility. Here I thought was a man raw both on the inside and out, a man, contra Kundera, weighed down by the unbearable heaviness of being. No cool certainties dropped from his lips. Rather, it was the very perplexity of being itself which seemed to charge him. He was that rare thing, a kinetic abstract artist, preoccupied not by the figure – the uber obsessive-compulsive South African obsession – but the figure’s ravaged torn breakdown.

The artist’s rawness made me think of a portrait I’d seen in a book by Roland Barthes. The portrait was perceptibly human, but it was made up of human fibres and nerve endings and nothing else. This I thought was Botha, a man ragged, made of the rawest composition of living matter, a man purged of surface, identikit, type or caste, a man for whom oblivion mattered far more than self-conviction. And I thought, how desperately we need such a man, someone brave enough to live without the fetish of qualities, tastes, political correctness, a man that can make our darkness visible, a man ‘unconcerned with the reality of being seen … to sustain flamboyance … immersed in the damp internal worlds that are much bigger than the outer confines of the object’.

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