2015 Eden – Indra Wussow

In Search of an lnner Eden

Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus. (Marcel Proust)

To set foot on an Island is perilous. All expectations and preconceptions must withstand the brutal test of real experience.

Islands are distant places; an effort must be made to reach them. Their remoteness evokes the idea of travel, of passage; “a system of openings and closings” that makes an island isolated and yet penetrable at the same time.

It would appear that an Island – perhaps because of its very insularity and far-away-ness – is preordained to be a projection surface for literary content, and has been just this more or less continuously from early mythology right up to the utopian, exotic and adventure literature of modern times. Linked to the paradigms of the travel tales of Antiquity and the Kelts, to idyllic places of longing, to the idea of the utopian state and to Robinsonade, the island space represents neutral testing ground for idealistic concept and poetical fantasy.

Ulysses’ islands are a series of disappointments as his projections are shattered one after the other. Although he finds his home in the end, his journey is the epitome of futility and human disenchantment.

Gauguin´s South Sea remains the essence of the exotic; his vision of the noble savage sharpens our sense of eroticism and still nourishes our ideas of a paradise on earth – a Garden of Eden full of beauty, abundance and innocence.

In the early twentieth Century, the German writer Christian Kracht wrote „A Small Empire“, a novel about a man´s search for paradise in the Bismarck Archipelago, which is now Papua New Guinea but was once a German colony. August Engelhardt (who really did exist) intends to start a coconut plantation on the Archipelago and found a colony of cocoivores. On arrival he takes possession of Kakabon Island for an exorbitant fee, strips off his clothes and undertakes to nourish himself entirely on coconuts and sunshine. Engelhardt’s affinity with nakedness, sunshine and the coconut is pure philosophy: he writes a tract on the benefits of sun worship and cocoivorism, and sends enthusiastic letters to vegetarians back home, encouraging them to join him. Needless to say, his idea of the Garden of Eden, where mankind lives like Adam and Eve, fails.

Kracht is plays with the protagonist´s wish for salvation and exposes the idea of the island-as-paradise as a half-truth only. The remote reservation could easily become a laboratory of the „anti-civilized“, the regressive and, yes, of the infernal.

The starkness of prison islands such as Robben Island, Chateau d´If off Marseille, Tito´s prison camps on Goli Otok or the slave lodges of Goree and Zanzibar was greatly valued as it facilitated surveillance. Islands that are far away and out of sight are useful for nuclear tests such as those on the Bikini Atoll or Mururoa. More often than not there are reasons to long to leave the longed-for island. Life in the supposed paradise can be grim. The insularity, the “insular state of emergency”, encourages murder, breach of international law, cannibalism, and rape.

When we look at the imaginology of islands, Sylt is a very interesting example of how parameters can shift. Whereas islands like Bali or Tahiti have always been seen as places of longing, Sylt was a remote little island in a sea defined by disaster and uncertainty.

The North Sea, a force of nature too strong to control, and the storms of winter, called der Blanke Hans have always brought destruction and death to the local people. A very famous legend goes that der Blanke Hans swallowed the impious city of Rungholt and the romanticist poet Detlef von Liliencorn wrote his best-known long-poem about the power of nature and what it means for the people living in and around the North Sea. Some scientists even presume that the imagined island of Atlantis can be found on the floor of the North Sea.

The islanders of Sylt, who were poor throughout the centuries and earned their living through subsistence farming or on board whaling ships, became renowned for felonious deeds. They lit huge fires on their beaches to lure ships to the rocks to shipwreck. The islanders then looted the ships and killed the sailors or took them hostage.

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau postulated his famous “Back to Nature” there was still a long way to go before tourism was to become the major source of income for the island of Sylt. During the period of industrialisation the idea of a summer retreat became popular among Germans and a shipping line from Hamburg to Sylt was established. Today, tourists come to the Island in droves and although they may perceive the island as a paradise, the reality is very different.

The dichotomy between imagined and real space is Jaco van Schalkwyk´s point of departure. On Sylt, he was fascinated by the seascapes and by the forests of the island and its appropriation by so many artists before him.

The power of the sea and its destructive force juxtaposed with the perception of holiday makers on the beach who are have come to Sylt to live in a dream and deny reality.

The power of the wind wreaking havoc on the trees of the island juxtaposed with the perceptions of holiday-makers picnicking or walking through the woods.

Many of van Schalkwyk´s paintings appear reminiscent of Romantic painting. The forest scene with its ruins, for example, is a direct reference to Caspar David Friedrich´s “The Abbey in the Oakwood” (1808-10).

It was Friedrich who first felt the wholly detached and distinctive features of nature. Expressed in terms of music, Friedrich reduced the composite chord to one single basic note. Bare oak trees and tree stumps are recurring elements in Friedrich’s paintings, symbolizing death. Friedrich’s symbols of redemption counter this sense if despair: the cross and the clearing sky promise eternal life, the waxing moon suggests hope, the growing nearness of Christ. In his paintings of the sea, anchors often appear on the shore; these also hinting at spiritual hope.

It is the iconography of this master of landscape painting that van Schalkwyk pays homage to, and, interestingly, it is by doing just this that he transcends romanticism and paints about today.

In contrast to Friedrich, no people inhabit van Schalkwyk´s spaces. They are deserted and lonely and reflect the vanity, futility and destruction of modern man.

These paintings are a magic mirror into our souls and the deceptive landscapes of our dreams. When scrutinized with searching heart rather than sober-minded eye, these seascapes and forests take us into the gloomy fairy-tale landscapes of our souls. These intense images are haunting and deeply moving.

These magic mirrors of our souls are also mirrors of our actions. By focusing on the island, on these insular dream-spaces of mystery and trepidation, van Schalkwyk not only emphasizes the destruction of our ecological environment by man but also makes us aware of what this destruction does to our dreams and conceptions.

Where Romanticism celebrated the idea of nature as both refuge and dream, van Schalkwyk reveals that this very nature is being neglected and abused, is no longer a haven, a Garden of Eden, but a place of utter devastation.

In the visitor´s imagination the natural beauty of an island like Sylt can be enjoyed and is safe during the holiday time. Any damage done is by the storms and floods of winter – that is, by nature itself – and happens in the absence of the guests.

That nature is being destroyed by our own actions and ideals is a fact often ignored. The delicate ecosystem found on an island is more prone to suffer from man’s irresponsible exploitation of nature.

And the price we are paying for this can be seen in van Schalkwyk´s paintings. Trees without leaves due to acid rain, a beach swallowed by the sea, dunes eroding away, creeks running dry.

We are struck by the paradox of the beauty of these vulnerable natural spaces and the inability to protect them so deeply rooted in our condicio humana.

Van Schalkwyk´s landscapes are real landscapes that become symbolical and allegorical manifestations of our dreams and illusions. They play with our ideas of nature: forest as resonance-space of our soul, forest as place of danger and threat, forest as place of piousness and salvation. In his seascapes Schalkwyk invokes the lascivious atmosphere of a remote place of perfect eternal monotony where we can experience the unbrokenness we so desperately long for.

All these places are the epitome of our own troubled inner self and hint at the fact that the Garden of Eden is always somewhere else.

“….one can surely bet that mankind will disappear like a face in the sand of the seashore” (Foucault)

Indra Wussow is literary scholar and curator.

2015 Eden – Johan Myburgh

“Given Jaco van Schalkwyk’s preference for allegory as a vehicle of expression, first in commenting on the values of a community of people, as in Just a Matter of Time (2012, his first solo show); or about an apocalyptic world vision as in “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things…” (2013, his second show at the Barnard Gallery); one feels compelled to apply the same hermeneutics to his latest exhibition, Eden.

There is an enduring trace of the allegorical narrative in his latest body of work, namely that of Eden as the eternal paradise: both lost and found. In this current exhibition there remains the contextual reference to the apocalyptic vision and imagery emblematic of different emotional states of mind, yet here devoid of human figures.

The absence of human figures signals the first major difference between the work in this exhibition and his previous exhibitions’ work. Whereas the human figure introduced some form of reference to cultural action and or activity, the new works refer to the results of human action and intervention on the landscape. He blurs the line between culture and nature through his choice to paint in monochrome. With the slightest hint of military or even gangrene green, he comments on the abuse and neglect of human stewardship of the natural world.

Other than in his previous work, here he postulates an allegory of paradisiacal transitoriness. In the new work he enters the domain of the transitional: from the abandonment of the yard of demolished buildings in his hometown, Benoni (BNI 2014/07/01, 14:49), to the swamps of the Everglades in Florida, USA (FL 2015/02/22, 17:43), to the windswept Sylt Island in the North Sea off the coast of Germany (RTM 2014/04/21, 18:39). Impressions and imagery from these locations, places where he resided the last two years, form the basis of this exhibition called Eden.

The Everglades he visited earlier this year, drawn particularly by the growth of cypress swamps and mangroves in this complex system of interdependent ecosystems. Systems that shift, grow and shrink, die, or reappear within years or decades.

After winning the Merit Award sponsored by the Sylt Foundation in the 2013 Absa L’Atelier, Van Schalkwyk had the opportunity to take up an artist’s residency on the Sylt Island. “A time of introspection”, as he refers to the just more than two months he spent on the island in late winter last year.

It is the transient state of erosion and reclamation of these familiar and foreign places which forms the common denominator in his use of these three location as reference. A view of “paradise” worn away, weathered and eroded yet always in the process of re-establishing its original existence.

The Afrikaans equivalent would be “om te verweer”. But “om te verweer” has a homonym meaning to defend, to fight back, to resist. The diametrically opposing meaning of the two Afrikaans words could be seen as a possible hermeneutic key to interpretations of Eden: the biblical garden of God with the tree of life; the cursed wilderness sprouting thorns and thistles; and perhaps Eden as a form of eternal hope. Seen against Van Schalkwyk’s religious background the defending, fighting back and resisting would be in order to attain something, to enter an eschatological Eden.

His own life was undergoing similar structural changes. The Sylt residency came after the euphoria of a second exhibition at the Barnard Gallery, but also initiated a change in lifestyle. Whereas he had had a ten year association and excellent professional working relationship with artist Marie Vermeulen-Breedt, in which she was one of the initiators and contributors in his development as an artist, time had come to carve out his own niche in the art world.

On the one hand a career taking a new course was beckoning and yet, on the other, Van Schalkwyk experienced the loss of the familiar. An ambiguity that translates well into his reading of landscape as both “paradise” and “paradise lost”, as a continuously shifting phenomenon.

A residency on an island (sans tropical palms and sultry breezes) was more than what he bargained for.

The island of Sylt, constantly under threat by forces of nature, is constantly shifting its shape. Measures of protection against the continuous erosion date back to the early 19th century when groynes of timber poles were constructed at right angles into the sea from the coast line to stop the encroachment of the sea. The only effective means of stopping the erosion caused by crossways currents seem to be flushing sand onto the shore. Dredging vessels are used to pump a mixture of sand and water ashore where it is spread by bulldozers.
Van Schalkwyk’s Eden becomes indicative of human endeavours to keep the notion of paradise afloat, of plantations of alien trees to stabilise shifting sand and of establishing a sense of self in terms of the place one inhabits.

He appropriates “foreign” landscapes and his experience through the lens of his camera as a way of claiming the landscape and feeding the creative subconscious in a prelude to painting.

More than mere representations of nature (as in his imitations of wild life and farm animals prior to 2011) his time-consuming process of eroding the photographic quality of immediate recognition introduces the lens of self-reflection to the instantaneous experience captured in the photograph. He aids the concept of erosion of the photographic image by crumpling the photograph and then paints it as an object (HRM 2014/06/12, 15:45) and not as a landscape. He would bring an open flame close to the back of the photograph, capture the lingering smoke with his camera and then paint that as an object (RTM 2014/04/08, 13:45).

By negotiating the tension and fine balance between “erode” and “resist”, the two poles in this body of work, the artist ensures that his Eden does not collapse completely into a dystopian reality. Instead of focusing on yet another explanation of what we have lost, he would rather opt for an exploration of what we may yet find, as Van Schalkwyk paraphrases Simon Schama in his Landscape and Memory.

Transient as these depictions of paradise might be, with all the references to transitoriness of the reality of the now, brought on by natural developments such as global warming and the negligence and unbridled selfishness the human race, there might be a possibility of regeneration. Van Schalkwyk argues: “The Ice Age seemed to herald the end of all life on this planet … and yet after that there was a new beginning. Perhaps we are now witnessing a demise, but something new might come in its place.”

In this context the austere installation work (HRM 2011/04/04, 2014/04/17), in collaboration with artist Stephan Erasmus, could be read as an altarpiece, especially within the Christian tradition as an allegory for salvation.

The structure suspended from the ceiling above a sea of sand enveloped in an alcove depicting a minimalist landscape, is possibly the closest one could come to the picture of an idyllic paradise with pristine beaches … or an Eden with a tree of life.”

Johan Myburg