Gerhard Marx / Cumulus / 2011
This January, in his first exhibition with the Goodman Gallery, Gerhard Marx presents new works that are born out of his own self-designed processes, which involve skillful manipulation of materials collected as part of an engagement with the artist’s physical urban context. As a Cumulus cloud constantly verges on collapse, Marx’s subjects border between form and formlessness, always rich in associative and connotative density. Dried plants, seamlessly embedded into paper, become a twisted composition of skeletons. Abandoned garden refuse is delicately grafted into a ribcage and then cast in monumental bronze. Fragments of a South African atlas are fashioned into the elaborate structures of discarded plants and weeds. A gathering of black plastic rulers form a cloud on the verge of saturation, right before the Cumulus ruptures and it starts to rain.
“Most of my works,” explains Marx, “are incremental accumulations of small things… I am interested in forms that border on formlessness – unstable, shifting, growing, permeable forms.” Titled Cumulus, the exhibition’s namesake is in this light highly symbolic for Marx. When the Cumulus cloud was named, along with other basic cloud forms in the early 1800s, Marx says, “suddenly these allusive shapes were determined, fixed by name and description.” The cloud’s shifting nature – its aggregatious build-up, coupled with a constant threat of collapse and ultimately, its transformations – becomes a central allegory within a body of diverse work. Marx elaborates on this by saying that “beauty relies on a determined sense of form, but the sublime inevitably involves formlessness.”
The form or formlessness that his works take always begins with a process – usually a highly intricate one – that Marx devises over time. “I tend to develop a technology every time,” he says, explaining that the etymology of the word technology comes from the Greek tekhnē, which also means to reveal. “You develop a technology and it reveals something.” Through these processes that Marx refers to as “evocations rather than determinations”, he works with an object that is either intrinsically or associatively indexical. Each object or material used “denies its own physicality or presence by pointing at something else, in the manner in which a map incessantly points at the territory, or in which remains imply a lost whole.”
In a new series eponymous with the title of the show, Marx uses dried plant matter as his medium, using it to draw parts of the human skeleton. “The relation between the parts are in disarray,” writes Marx, “collapsed into palimpsest, drawing reference to the composition of skeletons when excavated from archaeological sites.” In the sculptural work, entitled Scion (upon scion), Marx uses discarded plant matter from the streets of Johannesburg – scavenging on the curatorial compost of the gardener – in order to graft from selected parts of branches a ribcage that is finally cast in bronze. “In this manner,” he says, “the matter expelled from various gardens finds its way back into the body.”
Marx shifts from using plant matter to denote the body, to using man-made products to represent natural structures, all the while intimating human physicality. Hortus Siccus (for Luca Ghini) is an ongoing project whereby Marx sets out to create a Herbarium from the wilderness inherent to, or created by the urban landscape. In this project, Marx collects weeds from the edges of roads – instead of pressing the weeds, a Herbarium is created by drawing or mapping the plant specimens using fragments from a hybrid collection of road maps and atlases. Marx has used a similar process in order to map a discarded rose bush in Hortus Siccus: Bush. “Roses have been cultivated by humans for over 5000 years,” he explains. “This intimacy is embodied in the histories of grafting, selection and pruning evident in the plant’s structure.” In his Weather series black plastic rulers are layered onto each other to create a dense, self-referential system that alludes to the image of a cloudburst. Despite the ruler’s seeming objectivity, Marx explains, “it is a tool that measures the world in relation to the human body… The forearm, the thumb, the hand, the distance between fingers, the foot, and of course the footstep have all played a part in the development of the standardised measurements. The calibrated, objectified abstraction that the ruler brings to the experience of space is radically negated by the fact that it relies on a particular intimacy to function: the ruler cannot measure without touch.”
In each of these multifaceted works, the gaze of the viewer is central. “The viewer seeks to read a cohesion between fragments; to read gesture, to read relation,” explains Marx. The works swivel on the ambiguities of the bounding line, the boundary fence and periphery – a fragile skin that coheres through distinction, but is always in touch with context, threatened by trespassers, risking cohesion to collapse, lured into integration and even disintegration.
Cumulus is Gerhard Marx’s fifth solo exhibition, and his works are featured in public and private collections. Marx is well known in the cultural world for shifting across disciplines, regularly working in theatre, film and public sculpture. Recent theatre productions include REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony (directed by Marx, interactive film by Marx and Maja Marx, composed by Philip Miller), performed at the Royal Festival Hall, London, The Market Theatre, Johannesburg and the ’62 Center, Williams College, Massachusetts. Other productions include They Say (winner, Bravo Award: Most Memorable Moment) and the multiple award-winning Tshepang (scenography by Marx). The film And There in the Dust, animated by Marx and co-directed with Lara Foot Newton, has been screened at more than thirty-five international film festivals, and has won several awards, notably Best Animated Film and Best International Short Film (Bird’s Eye Festival, London), Best Short Film (Latin, African and Asian Film Festival, Milan) and three Golden Horn awards (South African Film Awards). Marx has collaborated on public sculpture projects to create The Fire Walker (Queen Elizabeth Bridge, Johannesburg), in collaboration with William Kentridge, and Paper Pigeons (Pigeon Square, Johannesburg), with Maja Marx. He is a fellow of the Sundance Film Institute, and the Ampersand Foundation.