To Walk On Waterby Linda Stupart / 06.06.2011
Abri de Swardt is a recently graduated Stellenbosch artist whose first solo show is on at Blank Projects until June 11. His work uses extreme modes of collage, costume, video editing and installation to create hyperreal mashups of art history, religion, myth, popular culture and politics of masculinity.
We spoke to him about being a man.
Mahala: A lot of your production interrogates ideas of masculinity, a kind of puncturing of the Men’s Health ideal. How do you relate this contemporary idea of MANness to constructions of masculinity in mythology and art history?
Abri de Swardt: A lot of what we see in contemporary advertising is derived from the Classical ideal of the male (and female) body that we see from Greek times. This ideal of bodily perfection – of the body as a temple where outer strength is a reflection of inner morality – is again replicated in the Renaissance, the populist focus of Art History. All these representations are mythically grounded in tales of the gods and the elements, especially the idea of the quest, and the language of victory imperative when thinking about what it means to be a man; Homer’s Odyssey for instance.
It’s very popular at the moment for ‘Men’ to talk about their masculinity being ‘threatened’ (by, like, skin care products and Feminists), but then you also have things like the Mankind Project, which tries to allow for a more emotional masculinity (through, like, power animals). Why do you think there’s such a focus on masculinity as a visible subject in contemporary society?
Abri: Yes, it is all Doctor Phil-like currently, but I think the space is needed, and the threats are imperative (not so much the products, but the people, especially feminist critiques). Masculinity is always formulated as something that should take effort. I think making effort visible is part of a masculine culture, and a deep sense of need for affirmation stemming from a sense of lack, an inadequacy. Of course this ties into the whole “men cannot speak about their feelings” ra-ra-rant, but somehow this still does hold some truth. That something such as the Mankind Project exists, and is ridiculed to a certain extent (‘‘like, keep it in bru”), means that this is a needed vehicle.
So, interrogations of the definition of masculinity, particularly when it includes aggression/physicality/action as its main tenets are important, especially in light of the perceived threat to this exact kind of masculinity?
Abri: Yes, but I think aggression is only a symptom of a larger problem, and physicality is great – exercise is good for you! I think it is this sense of lack-in-being, in being not enough, that is the issue. This striving to the impossible through perpetual action: Climb every mountain, bed the loveliest ladies, get the raise, buy that car, walk on water. Nothing is ever enough.
Harder, faster, stronger – the whole of Modernity was based on those kinds of principles. And look where they got us…
Abri: Yes, we are the steam train. Choo choo choo.
…and then the atom bomb came along.
Abri: Off the tracks, down the bridge, at the bottom of the ocean.
Which leads back to water: You use water a lot – your title refers to Jesus walking on its surface and also to a certain type of ambition and aspiration, but you also use images of liquid a lot; blood/baths/rivers. How do you think water specifically functions in a deconstruction of masculinity?
Abri: Don’t forget milk in your list of fluids.
Not to mention semen, piss, saliva…
Abri: And so we can go on: Spit and polish…
Abri: When I was making this body of work a specific Men’s Health issue in 2008 was of great influence, featuring their yearly Best Man competition. Ryk Neethling was on the cover, and he was standing in the sea/in a pool. At the time he seemed to be the epitome of South African masculinity, an Olympian who also sells Lays chips. Here I started to get interested in this link between man and water. Water has this capacity to slowly alter things: waves turn rock into sand. So there is a physical breakdown, but also another, metaphysical one in the archetypes offered by popular, and more obscure, culture(s). Ideas of the sea-farer, the Captain, on his quest, with the sea as feminine, a Her, and similar constructions, like the sailor and his sexual conquests, are very loaded and thus quite invigorating to deconstruct, not merely by subversion, but by affect.
And Jesus? He appears a lot in your work, especially in the big video/mirror piece (Walk on Water).
Abri: On the one hand several Greek ideas are embodied in the body of Christ. Also, he is another tenet to the imaging of a form of masculinity, not the mainstream Men’s Health kind, but the alternative type; you know, long hair, peaceful, passive. My interest is in this idea of the man-as-island, and the baptismal process, as Jesus experienced, seemed the right visualisation of this grafting away.
And Jesus as this nice guy pacifist who also managed to be the most famous man in history…
Abri: This idea of masculinity as a burden is also embodied in the Christ on the cross; this turmoil between flesh and spirit, a suffering, martyrdom. Blood. To carry your cross.
Yes, the burden of Man and God, I suppose, who are both always male (and by man I mean human, as in “mankind”).
Abri: Precisely, and then you have the Holy Spirit as this kind of third voice, presumably feminine, to make the whole. It is a sublimation that comes from this burden, a relief. The burden, it is heavy.
You think the Holy Ghost was a girl?
Abri: I often think so, perhaps, like the mother, and she is the invisible one. Patriarchal discourse is still quite a large part of the religious package.
I’m generally inclined to treat the burdens of men (success, money, power, ambition, the fact that people take you seriously) as kind of annoying, as a woman, but I’m trying to shift my ideas about masculinity…
Abri: Seriousness is a problem that I am also working with through the collages. The kind of ‘look to the horizon’ seen in all photographs of men. The other visualisation is the laddish, getting drunk and screaming kind. Experience is relegated to contemplation or excess. The burden of men annoys me the most.
But you still feel it?
Abri: Yes, it hits me from all over. I laugh it off and move on, but it is there, like a shadow.
And do you feel this burden specifically in South Africa – as white, male, Afrikaans, studying in Stellenbosch?
Abri: I see it visualised in most men I see around, so it is kind of inescapable. It is trans-cultural: for instance, on a smaller scale, it is both visible in the different types of men where I am living now, in Stellenbosch, as opposed to those in Cape Town – it is still there, in various guises, wearing different shorts, sporting different hair cuts, speaking various languages. Within Afrikaans culture there is an entirely idiosyncratic bouquet of archetypes, but I feel that many Afrikaans male artists have dealt with the Boer/Rugby Speler/ Ou in ‘n band and so forth, so my work rather reflects a more complex, mediated, visualised reality, rather than my immediate one.
So art historical and pop cultural archetypes as opposed to South African culturally specific ones?
Abri: Well, I was trying to locate this first political nexus of masculinity and whiteness in South Africa, and I found it in Bartolomeu Dias who landed in Mosselbay in 1488 – the first recorded white man in South Africa. In Bartholomeu Dias I: The Sao Cristovoa Anchors I re-enacted this landing, casting myself as him, so there is this conflation of time: History and the contemporary meet. So the politics I am interested in is a politics of origins, which are enacted and perpetuated through time. Odysseus and Narcissus, to Christ, to Dias and Marat, to Gulliver and Crusoe, to Citizen Kane, to Ryk Neethling, to myself.
Coming back to your own subjectivity: I was looking at the Hull section of your electronic
catalogue for the show, but also with Neethling and a lot of your references – there seems to be an element of a desiring gaze – a kind of conflation of a desire to be a man, and desire for men – any thoughts on that?
Abri: My desire is for a different kind of men, and this is a political, rather than sexualised venture. I was trying to work with my own body in this process mostly, and some of my best friends who shared these same concerns. I think Ryk is quite singular in this regard, and it is precisely this pin-up kind of representation that makes me queasy. So I interrogate an unhealthy cult of the body. My collection is one of disgust.
But, it’s disgust and attraction at the same time – especially with the Walk on Water piece – it’s incredibly sexy, whilst repelling. And it does it twice.
Abri: What is sexier than Art History? Also, cutting into these magazines for my costumes and the collages, collecting samples, and editing was a way of enacting control over these things that seem so untouchable. Cutting was the cathartic act.
I suppose it always is.
Abri: Yes, Ophelia for me was important in this regard. She was the link between Narcissus and Marat in the work.
And she’s the one woman in the show, who is defined by her “willingness to submit”, a kind of antithesis to the masculine ideal of domination.
Abri: Yes, yet she has a type of power as well. I was trying to link her with Charlotte Corday who assassinated Jean Paul Marat, the French revolutionary, in the painting by Jacques-Louis David. Corday stabbed Marat with a knife in the chest while he was bathing, and he in turn became a martyr, he was referred to as “the people’s Christ” in the press after his death. After she has washed Marat’s feet in the film (here as Mary Magdalene), he discovers stigmata on his hands…