2019 Machine in the garden

2019 Machine in the garden


Heidi Fourie, Allen Laing and Jaco van Schalkwyk

4 June 2019 – Gallery 2, JOHANNESBURG

In 1854, at the height of the Romantic Movement in Europe, Henry David Thoreau published his Walden in the USA – a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, resulting from a period of just more than town years he spent in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, amidst woodland owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In Thoreau’s Walden the narrator is telling us that he had a direct experience of nature at the pond, that he felt ecstatic as he sat in the doorway of his hut, enjoying the beauty of a summer morning “while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house”. He succinctly depicts his happy state thus: “I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”

But then his reverence is interrupted by the rattle of steam locomotive’s shrill whistle. He attempts to retain his state of reverence by contemplating upon the railroad’s value to man and the admirable sense of American enterprise and industry that it represents. But the longer he considers it, the more irritated he becomes, and his ecstasy departs. He realizes that the whistle announces the demise of the pastoral, agrarian way of life, the life he enjoys most, and the rise of industrial America, with its factories, sweatshops, crowded urban centres, and assembly lines. The easy, natural, poetic life, as typified by his idyllic life at Walden, is being displaced.

More than a hundred years later Leo Marx published a work of literary criticism called The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, using Thoreau’s experience as a metaphor to illustrate the relationship between nature and technology.

Half a century later Heidi Fourie, Allen Laing and Jaco van Schalkwyk present three bodies of work brought together under the title Machine in the Garden, exploring latter day notions of Romanticism, or notions of latter day Romanticism; formulating their reaction to significant changes in their world: a technological revolution; a changing social landscape; and growing urbanisation. They do this not by escaping from or rejecting the high tech life, but by employing their art to show us the contradiction of our commitments to both rural happiness and productivity, wealth, and power.

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Machine in the Garden 4 June 2019

“In 1854, at the height of the Romantic Movement in Europe, Henry David Thoreau published his Walden in the USA – a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, resulting from a period of just more than town years he spent in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, amidst woodland owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In Thoreau’s Walden the narrator is telling us that he had a direct experience of nature at the pond, that he felt ecstatic as he sat in the doorway of his hut, enjoying the beauty of a summer morning “while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house”. He succinctly depicts his happy state thus: “I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”

But then his reverence is interrupted by the rattle of steam locomotive’s shrill whistle. He attempts to retain his state of reverence by contemplating upon the railroad’s value to man and the admirable sense of American enterprise and industry that it represents. But the longer he considers it, the more irritated he becomes, and his ecstasy departs. He realizes that the whistle announces the demise of the pastoral, agrarian way of life, the life he enjoys most, and the rise of industrial America, with its factories, sweatshops, crowded urban centres, and assembly lines. The easy, natural, poetic life, as typified by his idyllic life at Walden, is being displaced.

More than a hundred years later Leo Marx published a work of literary criticism called The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, using Thoreau’s experience as a metaphor to illustrate the relationship between nature and technology.

Half a century later Heidi Fourie, Allen Laing and Jaco van Schalkwyk present three bodies of work brought together under the title Machine in the Garden, exploring latter day notions of Romanticism, or notions of latter day Romanticism; formulating their reaction to significant changes in their world: a technological revolution; a changing social landscape; and growing urbanisation. They do this not by escaping from or rejecting the high tech life, but by employing their art to show us the contradiction of our commitments to both rural happiness and productivity, wealth, and power.

To label them “neo-Romantics” would be too easy, too simplistic, since their work is far more complex than a mere shortcut in order for us to get a grasp on what they are doing. However, the parallels are there for all to see.

It is no longer the shrill whistle of the steam locomotive disrupting their Arcadia – the intruder might come in the form of a ringtone or a notification of sorts that the outside world demands to make contact, interrupting the idyll, as in Thoreau’s story.

Laing’s walks in nature – have a look at the photographs of him wearing his sculptural exoskeletons, his meticulously crafted extensions serving as armour in a hostile world – are indicative of how inextricably linked machine and garden have become.

In researching the negative effects of phones on our lives, and the absurdity of our enslavement to them, he spends hours glued to the little screen. He reads Bible verses about the armour of God on his holy, living Samsung, on some poorly designed website. He reads about the mediaeval romance of the Pre-Raphaelites and the simplicity of the Arts and Crafts movement on mass-produced devices.

Van Schalkwyk spends hours reliving a moment, recreating a single camera shot in brushstroke upon brushstroke on canvas or paper, revelling in the landscape as hallowed site. In his white edged paintings in oil on paper he acknowledges the camera. He presents monochromatic images as mementos of the travels in nature, of Wanderlust and misty climes and with Caspar David Friedrich in mind the Romantic sublime. Whereas Friedrich’s “Wanderer” was towering over the sea of fog, Van Schalkwyk’s wanderer is in the midst of the mist. We no longer possess the optimism of the 19th century….

From her studio Fourie is constantly watching the Magalies as her garden in the middle of the machine called Pretoria. This series of work she considers a tribute to the Magalies, a celebration of its rocks, plants, and occasional inhabitants, human and animal, the golden “dodder”, lichens, trees and charred grass.

“The countless hours we spent,” she says, “gazing at the Pretoria CBD in the grey distance against ever changing backdrops. Perfectly parallel to the stretch lies our apartment building. Throughout the day, I glance up from my easel and look out the window at the mountainside. Some late afternoons I look back at the building from the mountain top. A trans-seasonal back-and-forth. I often ponder the future of its state and accessibility and that of many places we are currently free to roam.”

Contributing to the success of this exhibition is the fact that Van Schalkwyk, Fourie and Laing – no doubt three of the most talented, committed and devoted artists  around – are  wanderers, in tuned with nature, in all her manifestations: in regarding a mountain range as a second home but at the same time a keloid, an overgrown pinkish scar tissue stretching through urban development; in an elegiac take on a landscape, knowing that in this Arcadia death is lurking; in a wooden air-filtering gas mask as armament, with little compartments filled with soft mosses and fragrant natural leaves, herbs and spices.

In closing. Inventive as they are, this exhibition also heralds a further development in their individual trajectories as artists. After banning the human figure from his Eden, his 2015 exhibition, Van Schalkwyk is no longer solely focusing on the landscape as portrait, but also on the person as portrait.

Fourie is tackling the fluid and turbulent nature of painting with solid and bold gestures, yet, her control and calculated use of her medium is purely astonishing.

And Laing’s  ambulatory prostheses have found stationary status, and sculptural peace. A brilliant development.

Machine in the Garden is a show that makes us think about and reflect on our place in the world, and to what extent we might be the machine in the garden….”

Johan Myburgh 2019