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Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
19 January – 15 February 2017
How to represent the horror without re-inscribing it?
After seeing ISIS propaganda footage of gay men thrown from rooftops in Syria and Iraq and then publicly stoned, Clive van den Berg needed to “make good” these violated lives.
In A Pile of Stones, van den Berg exercises this reparative impulse, composing a body of work that protests against the actions of ISIS by “inverting the gaze” from voyeuristic propaganda, whose intention is to paralyse the viewer, to an empathetic and responsible act of looking.
His vision: to commemorate the lives of nameless men who are “wiped” from the ISIS regime for exhibiting the “wrong” kind of masculinity and to attribute dignity to these “ungrieveable” victims whose relations, friends and lovers cannot mourn them without implicating themselves.
Van den Berg’s solo exhibition straddles two central desires: to “carve out” a language of grieving in an increasingly intolerant global context where nonconformist masculinities are under threat, and to represent the horror of the ISIS killings – to re-construe the mechanics of the gaze – without re-inscribing the violation.
In his sculpture and painting, the artist pulls us closer to these surreal, barbaric scenes: from masked human bodies frozen in mid-air to crowd members grabbing stones to throw. At the same time, van den Berg highlights rare moments of reluctance in the crowd, interpreting them as possible silent protests.
Van den Berg reads the complicity with ISIS brutalist masculinity as a cloak of personal protection not to be judged, but to be understood within a repressive context. In these carefully “re-enacted” pieces, he asks: “In a society of coercive masculinity, is picking up the first stone an act of protection for some people?”
The centrepiece of the show, A Pile of Stones, is an intricate three-metre-high hand-carved wood sculpture that pays tribute to these faceless victims and demonstrates the scope and depth of the artist’s “redemptive gaze”.
By engaging with the ongoing violence towards gay men in Syria and Iraq, van den Berg narrows his gaze to an extreme version of the homophobic intolerance that increasingly pervades societies across the globe.
In South Africa where alternative masculinities remain repressed, this exhibition addresses the need for a nuanced conversation on gender and sexuality. “Race is rightly the dominant narrative”, he says, “but there are additional prisms through which we can understand who we are and what we need to do to become a caring and responsible society.”
Van den Berg’s exhibition is a call to sharpen our gaze to recognise and value, rather than repress and disguise, the “masculine other”.
Clive van den Berg is an artist, curator, designer, writer and teacher, who lives and works in Johannesburg. His core projects include the exhibition design at Freedom Park, the artwork integral to the Northern Cape Legislature buildings, the museums at Constitution Hill, as well as several Mandela Foundation exhibitions. This wealth of experience positions van den Berg as a key player in defining the structures of remembrance in post-apartheid South Africa.
Van den Berg’s work has garnered major awards and features in public and private collections, including the Smithsonian Collections. Recently, he was the recipient of The Rockefeller Foundation residency in Italy, which supports artists to generate innovative work that engages with global and social issues. Concurrent to this residency, van den Berg delivered a lecture series in Venice, Bellagio and New York in which he addressed the horror of these killings by ISIS in relation to his new body of work.
All work on A Pile of Stones forms part of van den Berg’s ongoing Men Loving series, which queries what bodies are deemed “legitimate” to mourn and memorialise in societies around the world today.
Clive van den Berg, artist, curator and designer, works on his own and in collaboration with colleagues in a collective called trace, whose primary activities are the development of public projects. He has had several solo exhibitions in South Africa, and his work is regularly exhibited abroad. His public projects have included the artworks for landmark Northern Cape Legislature and, since he has joined the trace team, museum projects for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Constitution Hill, Freedom Park, the Workers Museum, The Holocaust and Genocide Centre and many other projects.
Van den Berg has much experience working on large-scale institutional projects with teams representing diverse constituencies: urban planners and policy makers, architects, landscape designers, museum curators, historians, community liaison officials and representatives of local and national governments. In the Northern Cape, for example, where he worked with the Luis Ferreira da Silva architects, he pioneered a new strategy for integrating forms of the local landscape and indigenous aesthetics into the overall building design, while also training local artisans as part of a skills transference project aimed at long-term sustainability. The result is a world-renowned and uniquely South African state edifice: a monument to the people of the Northern Cape.
At Constitution Hill, his design ethos strove to fuse old materials with new curatorial strategies: to preserve individual and collective memory about the prisons and experiences that people had in them, while also educating future publics about the place of the prisons in South African history, and creating aesthetic forms appropriate to the institution.
In contemporary South Africa, much public institutional design is aimed at the cultivation of memory and the memorialization of the past. Van den Berg’s integrative approach to art, design and architectural construction has allowed him to produce spaces in which previously unheard or even suppressed narratives can be articulated. His design work on the exhibitions for the Mandela Foundation have been oriented toward this end: in showcasing materials from the Foundation’s archive, he has developed exciting new formats and vocabularies in which to reveal a past that had hitherto remained largely unknown, making it accessible to a new generation of South African citizens.