Wim and vigour: Seeing the artist in a different light
Botha distorts and refracts themes from his storied past and his present, more free and spontaneous, state
Wim Botha has visitors to the Norval Foundation in Tokai, Cape Town, talking about his new exhibition, Heliostat, which explores the transformation of light and brings together key works of his career.
The theme that unites the work is refraction, the transformation of light by splitting into a visible rainbow spectrum or distortion through glass or a prism. Botha uses it literally by applying dichroic filters to glass surfaces, and metaphorically to transform and manipulate canonical artworks and symbols of Afrikaans identity.
Heliostat is a collection of all your other works, bound together by the theme of refraction. Can you tell us how that works together and why it’s relevant to you?
Heliostat is partially historical, looking back on works that were done in a very different time in the history of the country and when I was in a different place. So it is interesting and complex to reframe those and to see the relationships and contrasts with where I am now, and the kind of work I am doing now.
Things used to be very severe, very finite, very specific, very much conceptually motivated, and complete. And in this period encapsulated by the show, I have moved to a much more free and spontaneous way of making work. It still has theoretical and conceptual underpinnings but the making itself has become free and spontaneous, searching for a way to make spontaneous forms that could be contained in a sculpture.
And mostly just not to be bored by the work you’re about to make before you’ve made it because you understand it already. I’m trying to find works that I don’t understand, that I don’t know where the impetus comes from, and without fail it reveals itself and it starts to make sense as time goes by.
The works I’ve been making in this fashion, in this new approach, play together very well with the old works. There are fantastic similarities. And despite myself, there are lines that trace through all of them that tie them together, so the underlying themes are still there. And I think it’s still me, there's still a certain character, there is still a certain upbringing present.
So if we take a work, like commune: suspension of disbelief, that would be complete and encapsulated in and of itself. But now putting that right next to the new work you’re doing, does it almost reframe that work as well? Or does it draw similarities that you didn’t see happening before?
I think the new work opens up the old work for me, looking back. The resonances of the old works in the new works, it allows the preconceived grip of the old work to loosen a little. Inevitably, looking back on things, it is like time travel for me. I encounter my earlier self, decisions I have made that I can remember making.
I wonder if you could touch on growing up in Pretoria and your links to Afrikanerdom and how that influences maybe the old, maybe the new and maybe both?
A long time ago it was important and it had fundamental influences on me and the way I was brought up and the way I was shown the world and taught to see things. It was fundamentally important to realise as a kid growing up in that ideology to discover reality for yourself later on – how wrong things could be, or how convincingly systems can manipulate people.
And where we see it again now, that’s the interesting thing. Elsewhere in the world we see exactly the types of manipulation, media manipulation, truth manipulation that can influence people. It is immensely powerful.
I learned that things are not to be trusted at face value. Things are not always what they seem. The same thing can have vastly different meanings to different people. And so that part has definitely been fundamental to a lot of work that I do.
But as you say, now your work has evolved and it is not all about that anymore because you have grown and learnt from those experiences?
There was a time when these concerns were really important because I was trying to understand things, the way we have all been introspective and searching to find out who we are, and what now? But I think those things are now less important to me personally, and it is now an exploration of what it means to make things.
What is the value of making things in the first place considering that value has such different meanings to different people? And just allowing the object to be what it wanted to be, and facilitating a process instead of enforcing it. It is no longer even about enforcing a meaning on it, certainly not a shape, but allowing the shape to evolve.
Is it important that artists are given the opportunity to show their old work in relation to what they are producing now, and what could be possible for the future?
Maybe it is a conceit, and maybe there really is value in the older works and value for other people to see it, not just for me. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to almost bookend a period.
I trust this is not a retrospective [laughs] or soon to be posthumous. Some of the works are in the school syllabus and they have been in storage for the last 15 years, so nobody could see it, and it’s really a valuable opportunity to see things in context.
The title for the exhibition is Heliostat. Please explain the meaning of the title and its significance to you?
I wanted something that speaks to a lot of the themes in the works. The older works used to be more sociopolitical and gradually it has become more cosmological and philosophical. Works that deal with bigger questions, such as what it means to be human and what it means to seemingly be at the mercy of the gods. Also looking at something being a moment in time, a frozen moment, a snapshot moment.
A heliostat, I discovered recently, is a fantastic device that is used currently as a very high-tech application but also in the old clockmakers’ skills, whereby a mechanical device tracks the movement of the sun, or the perceived movement of the sun as the Earth rotates. And the object tracks the path of the sun and reflects that light onto a single point. By moving in sync with the cosmos, it singularly focuses that ever-changing, ever-moving element onto a single idea.
It is huge in the sense that you make the sun stand still. A heliostat makes the sun stand still, effectively, and it is a beautiful thing trying to understand the things that shape us, and for a moment to put a spotlight on a single idea.
So as a capsule of all the works on this exhibition, not just because they span a certain period of time looking back at it, but many of the works deal with the travails of humans in the face of forces that are bigger than us.
There’s the Pieta, and we know the story of that. There’s Lacoön, which is an amazing story. The entire altarpiece is based on images from art history, which are potent reminders of humans beings at the mercy of forces that are shaping us, that we need to contend with and accept and learn to become in sync with.
So, in the light of that, in the light of all these really big forces, the idea of having a moment where you can make the sun stand still is quite wonderful. It stands in for some of the frustration and impotence that we can feel in the light of things happening to us and around us.
And again, we’ve lived through an enormously long period of peace, or relative peace, on Earth. The longest period of prosperity in the history of humankind; it’s not always going to be like this. And so it is interesting to take a moment and tame the universal forces.
But for me it really speaks to what they imply, not to literally what you see. And because of all the refraction of light, and fragmentation of images by means of varying reflections, because of that optical effect, I felt a title that alludes to something more than just what you will encounter visually anyway, is necessary. Otherwise it is too easy to understand, it’s too literal. I think we really have to be sceptical of things making sense. It does not mean that it is wrong but it really should cause you to enquire.
• Heliostat: Wim Botha is on at the Norval Foundation, Cape Town until January 22 2019.