Razzle Dazzleby Sean O'Toole / 21.08.2009
Stephen Hobbs is a dazzlingly good conversationalist. Perhaps this is the problem. Were he any less persuasive a communicator, I suspect he’d only be making art – his true calling. But that’s not how it is, this irrepressible Wits fine art graduate nowadays making his principal wage as an exterior decorator to the city of Johannesburg.
Let me be clear. It’s great that the first 25 stations in the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system will each feature an original artwork by Jozi-based artists. It’s also reassuring to know that The Trinity Session, the interdisciplinary consultancy Hobbs co-founded early into the new millennium, is overseeing the mural artwork which will decorate the concrete retaining walls at the De La Rey Street railway underpass, between Vrededorp and Fordsburg.
Still, one wishes it were otherwise. After all, there are few artists gifted with Hobbs’ acuity when it comes to understanding architectural space. Sure, on one level we all understand architecture. Stairs suggest vertical movement. Pavements are for walking on. Roofs keep us dry. Skateboards dream of smooth linoleum floors. Etcetera and so on.
Hobbs, however, is more concerned with interstitial space. “It’s the corner of a building and a little bit of a pavement,” he once explained in relation to his anti-iconic photographs of Johannesburg. “It is all about the ambiguity and the miscommunication, the unintended pun. The idea that the palisade fence can serve as a drying area for muti is for me an in-joke about the omnipresence of palisade fencing as the most rudimentary means of creating boundaries and defending territory.”
Defence is an important subtext to Hobbs’ most recent artwork, an all-over “dazzle camouflage” painted onto the facades of an unlovely building near Pretoria’s historic zoo. Founded a couple of years ago by artist Abrie Fourie, the Outlet Project Room is a quirky little architectural space on the arts faculty campus of the Tshwane University of Technology. In its former life, before it became an experimental art space, it functioned as a projection room looking out over a small hall.
Hobbs’ intervention, simply titled ‘Dazzle’, comprises a monochromatic paint treatment that draws on a naval camouflage design known variously as “dazzle camouflage”, “razzle dazzle” and “dazzle painting”. Its inventor, marine artist Norman Wilkinson explained that the chief aim of this paint scheme “was not so much to cause the enemy to miss his shot when actually in firing position, but to mislead him, when the ship was first sighted, as to the correct position to take up”. Distortion of fixed perspectives was the ultimate aim.
Unlike most of Hobbs’ speculative interventions with architectural space, including his rather brilliant 2007 light and mirror installation, ‘Highvoltage/Lowvoltage’, shown at Wits University’s makeshift Substation art gallery, this work has been designated a “permanent installation”. This is, of course, a bit of an oxymoron. At the centre of Hobbs’ practice as an artist is his interest in dysfunctional architecture, architecture that doesn’t last. Little wonder he continues to live in Johannesburg.
As an aside: the South African Navy is still headquartered in Pretoria, although don’t hold your breath for the day a dazzle camouflaged corvette warship is berthed in the Apies River. It won’t happen. Ever.