CAPE TOWN-based artist Stuart Bird has never been one to shy away from controversy. He first caused a stir in 2007 with his Zuma Biscuits, a group of sculptures in the shape of enormous Zoo biscuits, with the usual icing animals in the middle replaced by a machine gun, miniskirt, Zulu shield and showerhead. Now the popular provocateur is back in the spotlight with his first solo exhibition, Promise Land, currently showing at the Goodman Gallery.
Comprising sculptures and installation pieces, the exhibition explores “the position of the artist and the individual in contemporary SA”.
Discussing the thinking behind the title Promise Land, Bird explains: “I made some work for the MTN New Contemporaries show in 2010, which was titled Promises Promises and Empty Promise. At that time we were in the run-up to elections and I was struck by all the inevitable votes-for-promises nonsense which seems to be the norm in politics globally. So, on the one hand the title refers to all the unhonoured promises, which seem to be the fuel for people’s anger across the country. And on the other, it’s my expression of the huge potential that we have as a nation.”
This is obviously not the first time that Bird has played with the political in his work, but the artist is quick to assert that he doesn’t go out of his way to only criticise government polices: “I don’t really think of my work as being strictly political in its commentary,” he says.
“I perceive it to be more social in scope, and politics is only one aspect of society… fairly early on, I made a conscious decision to make work about things that effect and affect people broadly, but with a focus on South Africa because it is my home and my soul is formed by the psychosocial mud of this place, its people and its fractured history.”
These interests come across clearly in the exhibition, which includes pieces like Over the Rainbow, an arch made from broken pieces of glass. Another highlight is Chip Off the Old Block, where a noose painstakingly crafted out of imbuia is hung from the Goodman Gallery’s ceiling, while a small pile of wood chips is collected below it. In the sculpture Change, coins appear almost bulleted into the African mahogany Bird carved in the shape of the word “struggle”.
The violent undertones in these pieces recall Bird’s recent forays into performance art. During the years between his graduation from UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2008 and Promise Land, the artist ventured into more performative work in collaborative projects and group shows like 2010’s Vex and Siolence at the now defunct YOUNGBLACKMAN and the Goodman Gallery’s 2011 The Night Show: A Group Show in Three Parts.
“It might take months to make a detailed wooden piece, so I relish an opportunity to do something fairly quickly and aggressively,” says Bird.
“Firstly, the kind of performance I do is inexpensive (sometimes I’m broke) and allows me to push my body a little bit because there is always an endurance aspect, whether its digging a hole for five hours in 30-degree heat or jack-hammering a floor for three hours in an enclosed space.”
“It also allows me to give expression to the masculine side of my work in a different way. That is to say that often my work offers a critique or comment on aspects of masculinity, particularly problematic aspects of it, like violence, suspicion, sexual violence, power play, etc. I think that the painstaking carvings like Chip off the Old Block or fairly difficult work like Change (in Promise Land) offer a view of the other side of my art coin.”
While Promise Land bears the markers of Bird’s confrontational previous works, the careful craftsmanship of many of the pieces required skills acquired during his time as an apprentice church interior restorer in the UK.
When asked if he purposefully called on his background in restoration, which he left to pursue his studies at Michaelis, for the exhibition, Bird answers: “I don’t deliberately try to reference this period of my life in my current work, but it does come out on occasion. In Promise Land there are a couple of works that have some essence of the ecclesiastical about them.
“Particularly Present Tense, which incorporates a stained glass window, and in Over the Rainbow there is an arch which might be reminiscent of a Norman arch made 1 000 years ago.
“But I hope that the show as a whole has the same quietness and timelessness as an empty cathedral certainly has.”
With many waiting for a solo show by the popular artist since his graduation almost four years ago, Bird explains why it’s taken so long to put on Promise Land: “Well, I completed my MFA in 2008. I chose not to show that body of work again, as so many recent graduates do. I rather wanted to draw a line in the sand and reflect on some mistakes I had made with that show. I didn’t want to rush my production and produce work that I wasn’t completely happy with. And that takes time.”
The waiting obviously paid off, as the reaction to the highly anticipated Promise Land since its opening has been very receptive: “I’ve actually been overwhelmed by the response so far!” says Bird. “It really has been great. Some people were speechless and one person even showed me their goose bumps. I’m very happy.”
l Promise Land is on at the Goodman Gallery until February 25. See www.goodman-gallery.com