The first impression of Conrad Botes’s mosaic art installation, The Wayfarer (2013), commissioned by Telesure and installed at Steyn City, Fourways, Johannesburg, is that it clearly references Lemeul Gulliver, the famous character of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire, Gulliver’s Travels, in the land of Lilliput. One stands in awe of a giant figure, a veritable Botes self-portrait, who emerges barefoot and all, out of what seems to be a battlefield of human torture and slaughter of ferocious variety and gross intensity, akin to Hieronymus Bosch’s famous Garden of Earthly Delights (1500) a mysterious, allegorical painting with macabre symbolism and monstrous, surreal detail. The figure, seemingly oblivious of his environment and the human tragedy underfoot, writes or draws enigmatically with a sword-like instrument in a notebook, or a sketchbook. ‘Gulliver’ has clearly ‘escaped’ the ropes used to tie him down by the Lilliputians and has shaken them off his body. The figure is posited against a glorious display of the rays of the sun. The halo-effect this creates is, strangely enough, not emanating from behind his head – something often encountered in large-scale mosaics in Early-Christian art of the 5th and 6th centuries – but from a position that can roughly be located at the heart of the figure.
Returning to the Swift novel, one reads that the roles are reversed when the fictitious Gulliver takes on the size of an insect in the second part of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, set in Brobdingnag, the land of giants. (The moral is fairly obvious; too big for ones shoes; or too small to fill somebody else’s shoes, and so on.) Few readers, however, recall the fourth and final parts of the Swift satire in which Gulliver is a Yahoo, a despised human being among the Houyhnhnms, the land of horses, animals that are endowed with the faculty of reason. Gulliver, unlike the other Yahoos in the story who are more primitive, more openly filthy, suffering from more complicating diseases, capable of bad physical nastiness, crude behavior and generally more contemptible that the noble horses, is the perfect Yahoo because he appears to be more eloquent, cultivated and cleaner than his fellow human beings. What sets him apart from the other yahoos, is an indomitable sense of mischief, outwitting the Houyhnhnms by showing them that although they might have all the reason in the world, he has all the life. (Ditch the morality of shoe size altogether and go barefoot, Botes seems to suggest mockingly.)
Botes’ large-scale self-portrait could easily be indicative of a form of self-mythologizing, akin to the notion of the ‘genius artist’ of much of the previous century: think, for example, of the protean genius, Pablo Picasso; or the rugged, untamed, and inarticulate genius Jackson Pollock; or the shallow, celebrity genius Andy Warhol’s critique of consumerism; the performative genius(es) Gilbert and George; or the genius of disguise, Cindy Sherman. One can even go back as far as Albrecht Dürer in the Renaissance who depicted himself as a Christ-like figure in all the iconographic Christian poses and attributes of the time. Dürer conveyed a sense of the eponymous Renaissance man, independent, cultured, proud of his appearance and very sure of his talent and intellect, mixing with humanists and scholars of his day. Or to the well-known Byzantine mosaic of Justinian in the San Vitale church (526 – 547) in Ravenna. The gigantic figures of Justinian and his Empress Theodora flank the alter in splendid glory, signifying the union of the political and the spiritual of a divine kingdom on earth, embodied in the reflection of the light off the millions of mosaic tesserae.
Botes, however, is not so much interested in mythologizing himself in a modernist way as many of these artists have done in the past, but, rather, in defining what contemporary art is about. He seems to suggest that the contemporary artist has a good dose of irony, of self-mocking, than that of a tortured, tormented genius of a previous era. Art History, Botes seems to be saying, can explain why art exists at all, why art is a kind of theology, a temporary back-up system. Botes seems to have pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. In a large-scale work that precedes the mosaic, Origin, (included in the 2011 exhibition, The Temptation to Exit, at Stevenson Gallery) one encounters a similar, colossal figure among minute minions, but in this instance, crawling on all fours; redolent of William Blake’s watercolour depiction of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylon king who was ostracized and who purportedly ate grass like oxen, showing the bestial nature of human beings. The Wayfarer is first and foremost, Homo erectus, Botes seems to suggest. His journey on foot, however, does not follow the road mapped out for him. Rather, it is creative, even meditative in nature. He ‘makes’ his own life. In a previous Botes sculpture, Autographer (2007) the self-portrait figure writes on, or rather inscribes, his own body with tattoo-like motifs, and in a later painting, Cain and Abel (2008), the artist draws on the body of a similar, twin-like figure.
The inscription reminds one of the frontispiece in the famous John Bunyan allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The author is portrayed ‘writing’ his main character, Christian, in a book while the ‘real’ character is walking off in the distance of the picture, the story actually unfolding as we read the book. The story is about the religious conversion of Christian and his life as a pilgrim, travelling through the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, the Shadow of Death, the Town of Vanity, the City of Destruction, and the Hill of Difficulty, until he reaches the Heavenly City. Botes similarly ‘creates’ a context for his central figure by depicting him transcending the challenges the squabbling figures in the foreground pose, and by writing/drawing a new text in his notebook. In later editions of Pilgrim’s Progress, the frontispiece depicts Bunyan ‘dreaming’ the character as his eyes are firmly closed, while the rest of the image remains the same as the original. Likewise, Conrad Botes is ‘dreaming’, or envisioning the creative possibility of his art. “Using his own body as a surface to write things down and to record the contents of his head, the things he is obsessed with” Sue Williamson writes in South African Art Now (2009) “he accepts responsibility, perhaps for his own creations. But his pen is held like a sword, perhaps to run him through.” The act of drawing/writing is a form of redemption to alleviate Botes’ own dystopian view of the world.
The dystopian worldview was first expressed in Botes’ art when he, together with Anton Kannemeyer, founded the notorious Bittercomix – a ribald, pornographic, angry adult comic-book – in 1994. It held up for public ridicule an outdated Afrikaner value and belief system that was imploding in a chaotic world without socio-political and economic surety of the past, expressed in the sense of loss of power and identity experienced by Afrikaners under the new ANC led government. The figures in Botes’ work became drenched in tears and their tears seemed to have become embedded in the flesh of the weepers, like ritual scarifications.
“There is a dark humour at work here” David Brodie (2004) writes about Conrad Botes’ art, “play between the ‘preciousness’ of the objects and the degree to which they have affected their masters. These images speak of a distortion of value systems and the corrupted belief such systems instill. This sense, a somewhat grotesque disproportionality between the cruel inscription of belief and confined consciousness, goes to the very heart of Botes’s work. It is a though a sacrosanct cord has been cut here, where the artist offers us a decontextualized reimaging of the symbols and icons that are supposedly invested with the deepest codes of significance and meaning. And in their dislocation from both the language and form of their ideological masters, these symbols and icons become the ghosts of their former selves – the nightmarish pop monuments to the passing of power and belief.”
Ashraf Jamal, likening Botes to ‘the rat in art’ (2004), deconstructs the pop art nature of much of Botes’ art by maintaining that ”his art is not its easy digestibility; that is, its highly suggestive symbolic realm, its brute record of reality, its manipulation of the psychoanalytic and unconscious, or its striking pop urban vernacular, but, rather, its embrace of the posthuman; that ghoulishly regenerative moment wherein one survives the present without the need of a safety net of the past or future. Purged of such easy recourse to a pathological past or enabling future, Botes holds before us the most daunting and invigorating prospect of a life without guilt, without hope. This life, brought before us in a brazenly graphic and comic form is the signature of the present age. To understand the hopelessness of the human condition, and then to embrace that hopelessness, is not the route to nihilism, as it is commonly and mistakenly perceived, but the route to the radically dark-yet-affirming embrace of the eternal NOW. This is the greatest lesson that Botes’ art can give us. Botes’ art is not the tedious art of the comic strip but the art of comedy, the art of laughter that has been stripped of conceit, of well being, of crass opportunism, of fake grandeur. “
Grand in scale; rich in symbolic meaning, interlarded with irony, Conrad Botes’ The Wayfarer is after all the perfect yahoo full of life itself.
Wilhelm van Rensburg is Research Fellow at the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) research centre, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).