Thoughts on “Hanging Piece”
1993 was one of the most volatile in the history of South Africa. A period of transition, it was punctuated by the fears and hopes of a country in transformation, a moment of intense anticipation. Apartheid, and its constitution had officially been disbanded in February 1990 but until the results of first democratic election in April 1994 were in, nothing was certain. The old National Party, the architects of Apartheid, believed that they could change their spots and even get re-elected to lead the Post-Apartheid government and so made no attempt to lead the country for fear that their actions might later be held against them. In the wings, political parties from every extreme, every ideology and every political persusion all believed they stood a chance. All hell broke loose as the country attempted to grapple with the birth of democracy on soil that for so many generations before had been stained with blood and our imaginations clouded by psychological warfare.
Belonging to the wrong political party, in the wrong place, at the wrong time was reason enough to be killed. On the 19 July 1993, gunmen wielding AK47s stopped a minibus in the early hours of the morning, demanding to see each persons political party cards. The gunmen were from the African National Congress (A.N.C.) party and in roadside executions eliminated every member of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (I.F.P.). That very day I joined both the A.N.C. and I.F.P. and over the next six months infiltrated and joined every single serious political party, from the neo-nazi Afrikaaner Weerstands Beweegen (A.W.B.) to the black consciousness Pan African Congress (P.A.C.) whose motto “one settler one bullet” should in theory have been reason to have me executed. It would take me another six months to complete the performative work “Untitled (ANC, AVF, AWB, CP, DP, IFP, NP, PAC, SACP)” that, by its nature, was impossible to document.
Across the country violence flared up as the A.W.B. planted car bombs in busy city centres. The I.F.P. threw members of the A.N.C off trains commuting between Soweto and Johannebsurg. On the 28 March 1993 Nelson Mandela instructed his supporters to use force, if necessary to defend the A.N.C. head quarters against a protest of 20 000 I.F.P. members, killing 19 people. On the 10 April 1993, Communist leader Chris Hani was murdered in front of his home by renegade Polish immigrant Janusz Walus.
This was context in which I made “Hanging Piece,” in a country being ripped to pieces and in which peace was hanging in the balance. The work was originally produced for an exhibition in Durban, a popular holiday city on the warm Indian Ocean. Growing up, my dysfunctional working class family would join thousands of other white South Africans every year on their 600 kilometre pilgrimage to Durban for Christmas and Easter holidays. It was the playground of endless sandy beaches, fun fairs, candy floss and the veritable stick candy. Durban’s South Beach was world famous for its waves and attracted the world’s best surfers from across the globe in their search for the perfect wave.
This was however, a pleasure reserved for “White’s Only” and the police were never far away to ensure no breach of any laws upon their sacred white sands. Even as a child I found it rather ironic that black people were denied access to the very same beaches where the most racist white people would spend hours trying to darken the colour of their skin. The laws of race were as strict as the laws of decency for that was the backbone of the Christian Fascism known as Apartheid. I vividly remember the police handcuffing topless German tourists on the beach with as much passion as they did black South Africans protesting their right to enjoy the same sand, sun and ocean as their white countrymen.
Once through the towering Drakensberg Mountains, the N3 freeway between Johannesburg and Durban opens up and winds its way through the beautiful green hills and valleys of the former Zulu empire. It was here, that militant young Anti-Apartheid freedom fighters would suspend rocks and bricks from bridges in the dark of night hanging at the height of the speeding car windscreens. It was a very effective weapon given that drivers would inevitably speed up in anticipation of that last stretch of road before holiday bliss. A piece of string and a twenty cent brick were as effective weapons on the fight for freedom as the state’s million dollar military engineered tanks and jets.
In reflection upon the American dominance of late twentieth century art history woven together with the socio-political realities confronting South Africa. I had been working with the brick as a motif since 1988 in works like “Brick,” “Title Withheld (Brick),” “2 Objects Suspended,” “Hung,” “Suspended,” and “Title Withheld (Vitrine).” In itself, the clay brick is nothing more than fired earth and yet at the same time charged with connotation, allusion and symbolism. In a museum or gallery it obviously quoted Carl Andre but at the same time, it was also a powerful political symbol representing the aspirations of millions of homeless black South Africans living in shantytown shacks that would blow down with every storm. In the hands of a young militant it was a missile to be thrown in the faces of the white establishment whereas in a gallery or museum it was an icon of the Avant Garde. The complex and contradictory cultural, social and political connotations of the brick were well illustrated by a full page newspaper advertisement that the old National Party ran that year in which 2 bricks were reproduced, one broken, the other not, asking the question “Are you a builder or a breaker ?”
The bricks of “Hanging Piece” are suspended at regular intervals throughout the installation, caught in motion, midway between heaven and hell, a shoulder’s width apart. They are pregnant in anticipation, neither builders nor breakers, neither weapons nor walls, frozen in their fall. The red ropes they hang from are like the fuses of dynamite sticks or the chinese red string of fate pre-determining our destinies.
The world has changed since 1993, as have I, and whilst “Hanging Piece” drew inspiration from a very specific context, the installation is no less relevant today. Back then I believed in politics as a strategy and method of transformation where I no longer do for the world’s leaders have demonstrated that they would rather bail out banks than make any effort to save the planet from a total melt down. Today I am convinced that the cold war political materialism of protesting with a brick in the hand is empty without something more to believe in for a revolution without love is bankrupt. The planet stands today at a crossroads, similar to that where South Africa stood in 1993 as profit wages its war against prophets.
We have denied, for too long now, our own nature and raped the planet of its natural resources, harvesting it to the brink of collapse. In the far northern reaches of Ilulissat, a town in Greenland, the sun sets for good on November 29 every year and doesn’t rise again until January 13. Or at least that was the case until 2011. This year, to the shock of locals, sunlight broke over the horizon on January 11, two days ahead of schedule. For some, this is due to a shift in the earth’s axis or rotation, whilst for others, it is the consequence of global warming as the melting ice has caused the horizon to sink. Either way, the planet is changing as a direct result of our persistent presence. The aggressive “Survival of the Fittest” approach towards nature and ourselves may once have served the needs of our species but that is no longer the case, for if we do not find a way to live more gently and in greater harmony with the planet and all the life it supports, we are unlikely as a species to survive at all.
The bricks in “Hanging Piece” are caught midfall, locked in between the natural laws of gravity and the delight of human engineering. Gravity is one of the four fundamental forces of quantum nature, along with strong interaction, electromagnetic and weak forces. I love the metaphor of quantum physics, for the single electron, proton or quark, is not unlike a work of art. In themselves and alone, they are seemingly inconsequent and insignificant, but in context they perform like the ripples that are caused by the fall of a brick as it drops into the pool of our imagination, creating waves of consciousness that continue to slowly ebb and flow, backward and forwards until they have touched every boundary and limit. Where, in 1993, I conceived of “Hanging Piece” as a cultural weapon, I now think of it more as the revolutionary embodiment of the alchemical mantra, “as above, so below", a magikal talisman between the future and the past.
The clay bricks, fired from the very same “prima materia” that according to the Bible, we were created from, hang motionless and in harmony. Suspended on red chords, like spiritualised veins from heaven, they are at peace in a passive meditation. Once the viewer enters into their domain, this changes for they begin to swing, backwards and forwards, marking the passing of human presence. Once in motion, they are animated into something potentially threatening, something likely to hit somebody in the face or stomach if you push too hard. It is not however the first person passing through that is likely to get hit by a swinging brick but those that follow. The more aggressive and assertive the first person moves through the space, the more likely their successors are going to get hurt, a very poetic embodiment of the condition of our planet today as we try to defuse the climatic time bombs created by the short sightedness of our ancestors.
Kendell Geers, 13 June 2011