Gerhard Marx’s solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg – Lessons in Looking Down – takes its name from a chapter in Jules Verne’s book A Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the book, two geologists discover a potential route into the centre of the Earth, and prepare for their decent by taking ‘lessons in looking down’. They visit Copenhagen in order to climb the corkscrew spire of the Church Of Our Saviour, which has steps that spiral on the outside of the spire, offering extensive views of the city. Five days are spent on the tower, looking down from that height until they can do so without being frightened, without their heads ‘swimming’.
Geology, like drawing, is an exploration largely bound to the surface. Verne describes a rehearsal in which the geologists attempt to overcome the fear of falling by staring down onto the surface of the earth. Even as they stare themselves out at the vastness of their vista, they are also imagining themselves as piercing the crust, as entering the map. Instead of reading the earth’s surface as a boundary, they anticipate the depths of what might lie below.
Marx’s Lessons in Looking Down explores representations of the structures that the bare eye cannot see. He focuses on the structures that hold or shape the fluid aspects of existence; the ribcage that holds the soft, near shapeless interior of the body, the city structure that funnels and facilitates the flows of lives lived together. Marx literally brings the informational abstractions of aerial views, maps, and anatomical illustrations into his physical world by using plant material from his immediate environment as medium. The techniques that Marx develops to do this are at once practical, poetic and conceptual strategies by which he draws the world with the world. His works are labour intensive reconstructions that rely on fragments to construct intimate immensities, works that meticulously scratch at the surface to reveal an ecstatic vastness beneath.
Garden Carpet: Johannesburg is a series of six canvasses, which together depict a road map of central Johannesburg as represented in standard map books. Marx fragments and redraws this map over the six canvasses using wispy bits of plant material and roots, replacing the decisive graphic style of maps with a wavering organic density in a manner that is evocative of weaving. The maps are without text, lacking the sense of orientation that street names, the names of suburbs and other information gives the ‘reader’. When representing the map without text only the warp and weft remains; the grids and networks that cohere disparate places and sites. These are the structures that shape the landscape in which we live, the way we live within that space, and ultimately also moulds our relation to others, giving form to our lives together.
In Vertical Aerial: Johannesburg (Square) an aerial view of central Johannesburg is carefully rendered in stone. Mosaic is employed to striking photographic effect as each tessera comes to depict an element in the densely built environment of the inner city. The mosaic tradition speaks directly to the modular logic in which a city tiles the surface across which it grows. InVertical Aerial: Johannesburg (Square) a single diagonal fold runs vertically through the mosaic and disrupts the flatness of the aerial view. With its sides leaning forward or receding at ominous angles as it hinges around the diagonal fold, the structure has been carefully engineered to let the sculpture stand independently, but looks precarious like it might collapse at any moment. This sculptural and structural dimension adds significantly to a sense of Johannesburg as a space that constantly negotiates the relationship between development and collapse, between thriving metropolis and ruin.