Walking the Roadby Linda Stupart / 06.09.2011
When I asked my photographer friend, Rose Kotze, if she’d accompany me on a sunset walk on the Sea Point promenade to photograph “Walking the Road” the new public art generally referred to as those “damn dragonfly things”, our conversation went as follows:
Rose: Dude, I hate those fucking sculptures. What do they even mean?
Me: They’re about democracy apparently. A fledgling South Africa reaching out…
Me: It was her masters project for Wits.
Rose: I thought they were just for pedophiles to jerk off to.
Of course, since this is the standard response to these sculptures from any human being with an ounce of criticality in their consciousness it might seem unnecessary to even acknowledge their existence, placement and pervasiveness. However they have just been given a further two year lifespan and are markers of a much bigger issue of the protocol and processes for commissioning, placing and reception of public art in Cape Town, and throughout the country.
For anyone who hasn’t seen these sculptures and isn’t suitably underwhelmed by the impressive photographs – “Walking the Road” is a series of 18 concrete sculptures on the promenade showing a sweet little arian-featured girl in an adorable red striped bathing costume reaching plaintively towards a dragonfly, and then, eventually, touching it, holding it, and becoming it. Twee, meaningless and awkwardly placed in the middle of the path, these little sculptures would be mostly harmless or, at least, only visually offensive, if it weren’t for the remarkable “artist’s statement” available on both the “Walking the Road” website and written in some cheap faux-cursive font on the plaque adorning the first sculpture:
It is a great privilege to tell this story to my fellow South Africans as a homage to all who in their daily civilian life make the choice to “Walk the Road” and in so doing build a nation that is able to fly.
The Little Girl in my fable-like interpretation thus represents a young South African democracy and the Dragonfly visualises a dream of freedom, equality and hope that we as a nation persue[sic].
On a personal level, it is also a reminder to each of us of the hope that we individually live for and of the dreams that mark our lives, our own story.
Of course, I don’t feel I need to point out to readers how ridiculous this is; offensive, even, to anyone with any knowledge, let alone those who actually lived the experience of political struggle in South Africa. That this project is apparently a “live experiment” testing the basic tenets of artist Marieke Prinsloo-Rowe’s Wits Masters thesis about contemporary manifestations of tableaux vivant is certainly no comfort, and also leads to serious questioning of the tertiary education system in South Africa. These plaques and the sculptures’ huge plinths, which borrow from the language of the monument and memorial, also force the sculptures outside the realm of innocuous decoration, into the world of “art”, and very bad art at that.
It should also be pointed out that even when considered as mindless décor, the massive, already crumbling concrete plinths disrupt the very functionality of the boardwalk, intervening physically as opposed to critically in the everyday usage of the promenade making jogging and walking in pairs very difficult.
But all this aside, the real issue about these sculptures is how they got there in the first place.
Unlike other public art there was no consultation with any arts governing body (yes they exist, and function even), rather the sculptures were offered at no cost to the city by the artist and accepted without consultation, with the agreement that they are on temporary loan for a year. Said year, however, has passed and the sculptures are still there, again with no consultation with arts bodies or for that matter, the broader public (whoever they may be).
When asked for comment, Jonathan Garnham, of the Visual Arts Network South Africa (VANSA) was democratically silent about the sculptures, but did comment that: Cape Town, with a population of over three million people, and aspirations of being a world- class destination, does not yet have a public art policy in place. Such a policy would put public art on the agenda whenever a government building is built by allocating a small percentage to art. A public art policy would put mechanisms in place that would deal with unsolicited proposals from artists, and would, ideally, lead to more art in the public sphere which would enhance the quality of life of the city’s inhabitants.
However, when I contacted the Sea Point Ward Councilor, Beverley Schafer, about the processes for erecting the sculptures, she responded that at a Sea Point Ward Forum the Sea Point ratepayers were “happy with the decision” to keep the sculptures there for another two years. “I must add,” Schafer continued, “that the artist paid for the sculptures herself and invested over R300 000 in the sculptures. She also, at her own expense, maintains them.” This, then, seems to be the crux of the matter: That Prinsloo-Rowe is provided considerable space in the public sphere because she has the money to produce and maintain (albeit very shoddily, the works are already falling apart at the ankles) the work herself, in essence buying exposure and ownership of public space. Councilor J.P Smit, who was responsible for the sculptures’ erection (as well as the recent controversial “clean up” of the Sea Point area) had not responded by the time of publication.
In a city with such a dearth of public art, and a gaping schism between artists and the public, are these girlflies, and their ridiculous pseudo-political rhetoric really what we should be offering up to the country as exemplary of our artistic production?
Of course it’s also very easy just to keep them forever. I mean people like them right?