MP: So, the beach is an unusual place to do an interview…
JVS: Well, we have these lovely beaches in Cape Town that are still publicly accessible, so it makes sense to maximise beach time.
MP: And is it usually only a morning thing?
JVS: No, this time of the year I try to come as much as possible. I go into a summer working schedule where I start at the beach to write, then go to the studio and come back to the beach in the afternoon. It’s a way for me to keep working but also feel like I’m on holiday. I am quite tired at this time of the year.
MP: So, it’s been a busy year for you. What have been some of the highlights?
JVS: Certainly the highlight has been Art on Paper closing. Highlight is probably not the right word. Let’s say it was the major event.
MP: How long were you with GALLERY AOP?
JVS: Five, six years… basically since I started making art for a living here in South Africa. Working with AOP was also the main way through which I learned more about South African art and we had a very specific kind of relationship that was very special, one that bordered on many things.
MP: And how long have you been back in South Africa from NY?
JVS: Since 2008. There was a blurry period where I was half in NY, half here. But certainly by 2010/2011, when I begin working with AOP, I’m solidly back, trying to absorb as much of what I’ve missed out on in terms of my education in African/South African art.
MP: So you were in NY for nine years… and in that time you were studying film?
JVS: I was studying fine art. Drawing. I went there to study industrial design because I thought that way I’d get a job. But then figure drawing was just to incredible, so I made the change to fine art and drawing in particular.
MP: That was at Pratt?
JVS: Yes, which is a Bauhaus-type school. You do a foundation year which is the same for everyone, whether you do design or art. So, it’s like figure drawing, colour classes, basic three-dimensional design… Bauhaus stuff. So I shifted into the drawing program, which involved quite rigorous anatomical studies, human dissection at Columbia Medical University every second Saturday… I’ve been very lucky in that regard. I don’t know many people who’ve been able to do that.
MP: But now, the same time as that experience, there is also a book that came out of your time there?
JVS: Yes. After my second show with AOP I could buy myself some time. And so, the question was, what will I do with the time? I’ve always wanted to write. Writing, as you know well, is a great challenge. So the novel came out of wanting to write but it also came out of Jaco+Z-dog, you know, working in Afrikaans writing songs and lyrics… I started to really love working with the language. And so the novel was a great formal challenge that could answer all the questions I had about what I wanted to do with the language, which was essentially to break it down and start from scratch with Afrikaans.
MP: Do you think it was quite interesting in terms of that text, positioning an Afrikaans vernacular but within a totally decontextualized space within NY? How did you find that sort of disparate relationship working?
JVS: Well, I should preface this by saying that coming from Pretoria, and coming from a specific part of Pretoria, not geographically but a specific segment of Afrikaans culture… you know, we spent our Friday evenings trying to make it through this gauntlet of jocks without getting beat up to go have our Gobi berry juice or whatever… I suppose I was from a different segment of society. And within that segment people like Koos Kombuis and the Voëlvry movement were really the only people who’s use of Afrikaans we could stomach, because it felt like we were resisting the same kind of things.
So I had a complicated relationship with Afrikaans and part of the incentive to go to NY was just to get away from that shit, to get to a place that was really free from that really Apartheid-era thinking. To me NY was a fascinating, open space. In 1999 it was a wonderfully multi-cultural space where I could slowly make contact with other Africans and South Africans. There was a hub of great musicians and artists in Fort Greene. I felt like I had stumbled into Bohemia. I mean, I got to meet Bakithi Khumalo there. And Tony Cedras, and Lucky Ngema, and I was just a kid. Obviously we spoke English because nobody wanted to speak Afrikaans, myself included. It was the language of oppression after all.
But slowly, you start to use a few words here and there, mostly swear words… like, cricket language that nobody around you can understand. There’s a shared pleasure in that, having a sort of secret common language that’s kind of naughty, one that allows you to comment on the people around you without them being able to understand what you’re saying about them. You form a bond that way. And so we created a magical space there where the language was not loaded with all those oppressive associations.
So when I came back and I had the kind of purging through Jaco+Z-dog, I found the joy in the language again. So writing in Afrikaans about New York was a direct result of what we had already done there in terms of creating a South Africa or a space where the language was not associated with the connotations of the past. I don’t write about that time or that space in the book. I might return to it one day, but we were really building our “New” South Africa on our own terms. It was magic.
MP: Just context for readers about Jaco+Z-dog… that was your kind of “musical project”…
JVS: Yes, I’d sort of fallen in with a group of Black American blues players in NY. I toured with a guy called Carl Hancock Rux and through him I got to meet some incredible people. I mean, to be an Afrikaans kid from Pretoria touring with The Last Poets, talking to Abiodun about Nina Simone over scrambled eggs at the hotel… it was incredible. So when I came back I reconnected with some of my old artist friends from high school. Jan Henri (Booyens) introduces me to Zander (Blom) and Zander was working on this sort of Rock and Roll music that he’d composed as part of his show the Travels of Bad, when he was still with the Rooke Gallery…
MP: I remember yes…I didn’t realise it was as early as that…
JVS: So, I think Jan-Henri told him that I could mixed well. I had mixed an album (Good Bread Alley, thirsty Ear Records) with Carl, composed some things on that record, and got to work with a Grammy award winning producer called Dave Darlington… so I had some tricks. And I initially just met Zander to mix what he had already composed. That went well so we decided to start a band. We wanted to have an Afrikaans Rock and Roll band that wasn’t whiney.
We had rules: don’t whine about things. We wanted to make proper Rock and Roll in Afrikaans. And my definition of proper Rock and Roll was formed in NY through contact with the Black Rock Coalition. People like Me’shell Ndegeocello, Suffragette, Mark Anthony Thompson. I was looking at Chuck Berry, not the Rolling Stones. But still, I mean, we were shit! We got pretty good towards the end but it was a kind of very intense two-year collaboration that ended partially because of the novel and partially because Zander really had to focus on his painting.
MP: I still have one of those albums, the gold one with Jaco+Z-dog scratched in on it , I think it was one of the first things you guys brought out…
JVS: Goud Werd, the second EP.
MP: My favourite song on that is Google jouself. It kind of speaks about this weary narcissism that’s involved in the creative process. Especially with this cult of personality that’s evolved with artists now.
JVS: Ja, I think 2009-2011 was a very interesting time in Johannesburg. I think with Google Jouself we picked up on an initial interaction with that level of narcissism. It’s like when cell phones first came out, everybody swore that they’d never have one. “It’s narcissistic, how dare you?” You know, sit in the coffee shop with your cell phone. It was the same thing with Google, you didn’t want an online profile. Whereas now, if you don’t have an online profile, your work doesn’t exist, no matter what you do. So we reacted to that. We reacted to just about anything.
MP: Now with Open Dialog Box, coming from a sort of literary orientation as well as a practical drawing orientation, this most recent exhibition that opened the Open Dialog Box, it appeared to me for me as quite a sculptural attempt on the one hand but also a sort of installation attempt on the other. How did you learn about the project?
JVS: I’d met Claire van Blerck initially when she was working at Blank Projects. We move in a similar social circle around the Kimberley Hotel where, you know, you run into people. I think she’d come back from England wanting to do something, she came to my studio and bought a drawing and then, I was just excited to do something and she wanted me involved. So the initial discussions were really just about her saying “I want to do something” and then me saying, “well, I’d love to do something.” It was really organic in that way.
She settled on the container, I loved the idea of the container… maybe we shared a similar approach at that moment: it’s what you have available, you use what you have, and that is how that came about. And then the main thing was really just for me to find the idea but also to find the correct writer to partner with, and that was quite a process. Claire’s over-arching idea of combining an artist and a writer is very important I think, especially now because it is such a necessity from an artist’s perspective to have someone writing about the work but also because writing is in trouble, I mean globally. It is so important to have writers interpret the work for the public in a way that the public finds compelling; and writers must also be given the chance to learn how to write about art just like artists must learn how to communicate with writers. So I thought the basic concept was fantastic.
MP: So, who did you pair up with?
JVS: Sinazo Chiya. I became aware of her work through a review she wrote of the New Monuments show at Commune1 earlier this year. That was the first time I’d exhibited something post-AOP, I showed a roll of tape that I’d cast in bronze. It was my favourite tape but also Alet from AOP’s favourite. I called it Monument for Things that Disappear. It was a monument for my take on the nature of things but it was also a very personal object. Sinazo wrote a very concise and cogent review that did not fall into any of the pitfalls associated with a show called New Monuments in the age of Rhodes must fall.
There were many reviews but I found hers to be just really sensitive and capable of finding –not just in my work but in everything she looked at – real subtlety in the idea. I also saw that she was not satisfied with broad strokes when dealing with ideas, and I think that’s quite rare, and so I approached her to find out if she’d be available to collaborate and I think she wrote something fantastic.
MP: It’s quite an unusual form that you took. You took the box and flipped it on its head. Speak to me a little bit about the content of the how and why, and what you filled it with. That’s important. What’s quite interesting was there was your physical presence underneath the box with the projector. So it was almost as if you were the medium in a chamber noir.
JVS: Ja. Because it was a non-commercial space… I thought it would be a good space for video art. You know, because of an event like AOP closing, I went through a period immediately where… you know I had plans. We had plans. There was no plan to close the gallery. With the gallery closing, my future plans basically just all fell out the window. And so you come that close to the possibility that ‘art might end for you’, you know I had to… I scrambled to do anything, because there’s so much that I want to do… drawing is one thing, but I’ve always looked forward to being able to expand my metier, which takes a lifetime… So, AOP closing really catalysed everything. I bought a CCTV system and I put into my studio so that whatever I did would be recorded. I started making the bronze sculpture. I started making drawings about making drawings about making works, some of which were performative. I went back to some of my early influences when I was a student, early conceptual art, performance art, minimalism… Vito Acconci…
MP: How important is it for you then, the physical engagement of actually doing. Because there is a kind of materiality that emerges in your physicality of performing something. Even so drawings are physically lines that are performed through the body…
JVS: Well there’s a relationship between drawing and thinking that is very close, so those lines are the results of thinking. They’re thoughts. I don’t know how much performance there is in my drawings, it varies. But there is definitely action and in that sense it is of primary importance. You know drawing, I don’t think and then draw, I draw to think. It’s like starting an engine of an old car. You move your wrist to start the brain, otherwise you get stuck in an idea-first situation… and those ideas are generally pretty shit. Nonetheless, it is an approach I find pervasive in almost all tertiary education institutions in this country.
JVS: But to come back to Liftup… clearly the decision to lift up the gallery space is one of revolutionary or militant thinking. It is one that says “I will take the designated space and flip it on its head.”
MP: And do you find there’s a certain amount of antagonism in that?
JVS: Of course.
MP: What’s the orientation of your antagonism?
JVS: Well, there’s a fine line here and there are two components. First, my feeling through observing my environment is that it is at the moment quite hostile to culture. We’ve lost the news. We lost the news in like 2010/2011. Now it feels like we’re about to lose culture. I felt that the antagonism is towards… there’s a lot expectation of entitlement on the side of the viewer towards seeing something that we understand…
MP: We’re entitled to know…
JVS: Exactly. With no prior experience or research or work. And yet, so much of the joy of viewing is about learning and knowing more about what you see. And losing that is what I mean by losing culture. So, the antagonism was orientated towards that event horizon where the artists meets the viewer in the work, and shifting it more towards the side of the viewer. So, initially it was going to be: lift up the exhibition space 1.4m above the ground and have people go, under the fear of death, to look at a video projection of me painting in the studio. But then, I was reminded again by Vito Acconci that there are ethical issues with putting the viewer in danger because we like to pretend as an art world that we’re not in this for the money but it’s a fucking business. It’s about selling shit.
So to put the viewer in danger is probably just one of the most narcissistic ways to build on a lie. So it occurred to me two days before lifting up the exhibition space that I would have to be in there. Because ultimately I am optimistic and I want to have a space of empathy above antagonism. Art to me is about pathos, it’s about being able to feel and experience through feeling –not so much through knowledge or understanding, and the idea is very powerful but – to bring people together to feel together something, I think is key to art. So it was clear that I’d had to be in there performing a role of calming everyone down and saying “It’s okay, we’ll get through this together.” And I think that was quite successful.
MP: I thought the comment that you had where you said it was a non-commercial space and so you decided to do video art was quite interesting. (laughs). Because a lot of the time viewers don’t know how to relate to video art in South Africa.
JVS: Well I’m one of those viewers.
MP: Video art occupies this quite strange way in a medium that is not necessarily sellable. So it’s not one that artists necessarily embrace, so it’s a choice to go okay, well, if I really want to be experimental per se and I want to kind of fight the system, video art seems to be the way to go, next to performance. How did you go about the content of the video?
JVS: Generally I think that life is too short for video art. I mean, I just cannot be bothered to spend five or ten minutes in a video art exhibition at an art fair or gallery. Not because of the medium per se but because the quality of the work is so bad. Generally the quality of the video art that we see here is terrible. If you go and you look at William Wegman’s work or Bruce Nauman… that is compelling work that you don’t ever want to stop watching. Think of Jonas Mekas. He’s entire output of experimental film is unbelievable to watch. But when you go in to a exhibition space here to see video art you can immediately see what that artist has been looking at, and they’ve been looking at mostly mainstream stuff… stuff you get off Netflix or DSTV or whatever. That’s not video art. That’s just the democratization of the video camera.
So, you might think you’re being experimental but you’re not doing anything that wasn’t done much better forty or fifty years ago. So I think when I was doing stuff in the studio under CCTV, that video is a by-product of painting. You’re looking at security camera footage of some very strange actions on my side to make specific marks with paint. I was studying pre-Renaissance painting techniques. In the video I’m wearing my studio apron, I’m dipping a broomstick with a strip of cheese cloth fastened to one end into a bucket filled with a glaze I’ve prepared and then it looks like I’m flogging my work, like I’m flogging the substrate. And I thought this footage was fantastically funny because it looks like it’s medieval. There’s this dude in his studio somewhere, a small square space, doing something very strange. And that joke would get lost otherwise. There’s no way of documenting that apart from using a video camera. So, the necessity in lifting up the exhibition space was on the one hand “okay fuck this, let’s lift up the gallery space” but on the other hand was “okay, let’s create a space where I can show this very strange, personal thing from my studio without taking too much on myself.” I’m not going to – voluntarily – make a fool out of myself… apart from writing a novel…
JVS: So… I guess I’m used to that. But I wanted to create a space where we, the viewer and I could look at this thing with the same kind of danger associated in viewing what is a very personal moment, essentially. And so that was also really the incentive for lifting the container and bringing danger into the viewing because, this is actually quite special information. We’re talking about art, which is the transference of very special information at great risk to all parties for hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years. That’s how art keeps going.
MP: In terms of the question. What do you see when the personal becomes political, the private becomes public… what do you see is the relationship of the studio space and the gallery performing the process or the detritus or the after effects, the product of the gallery space…?
JVS: Lets just be a bit more specific. In South Africa, commercial gallery spaces are fulfilling a bunch of roles that they’re not really supposed to, traditionally speaking. Here commercial gallery spaces, like much of the private sector in other industries, has to take up the slack left by non-functioning institutions like museums or government funded project spaces or, photographic publications etc. So when it comes to the role of the studio and the role of the gallery, its not that clear cut. The studio space by definition becomes a commercially orientated space because you have to pay your rent. And that shit’s not cheap if you want to work in Cape Town. I have a very small space because that is what I can afford. I know people who have done very well for themselves through art. They have gigantic warehouses with offices larger than many commercial gallery spaces. But they’re making essentially bronzes for wine farms and things that sell, like paintings with trees, elephants or kind of generic African figures… whatever.
I’m not interested in that. Part of the reason I moved away from North America is that you feel like the moment you’re having the idea you’re already thinking of monetizing it. And that to me is not a space that allows for the creation of art. That is a space that allows for the creation of advertising or product. I don’t have any issue with the mainstream but I’d like to investigate things that don’t want to be in television. So trying to keep the initial thought throughout the whole process, including where I chose to exhibit the work, who collects the work… as much as possible, you cant control everything but, essentially one is creating an audience for the kind of work that you want to make rather than “tapping in’ to an existing market. So there is a lot of different components that are difficult to negotiate, but I enjoy the negotiation, essentially in a sound bite: Keeping the freedom of making going through the studio space, through the gallery space, into the collector space… and hopefully one day into the museum space.
Jaco van Schalkwyk is represented by David Krut in South Africa and New York. The Alibi Club, his debut novel, was published by Penguin Random House in 2014