When the land becomes art



sculpting the land

Scarlet rose petals are used to form a spiral beside the sea at Koeël Bay in the Western Cape.

Review: Vivien Horler

Sculpting the Land – artistic interventions with the landscape, by Strijdom van der Merwe ( Protea Book House)

Much of the art we admire has endured for centuries; some, like marble sculpture, is set in stone. But the work of Strijdom van der Merwe is ephemeral: based on light, shadow, water, wind, leaves and sand.

sculpting the landVan der Merwe is a land artist, a man who uses the materials of his chosen site to create geometrical forms that speak to the landscape in which he works. Sometimes he imports materials to complement a site, such as red rose petals in a beach installation, or scarlet flags in a field of wheat stacks.

He will also create essentially manmade shapes and superimpose them on a natural site: sawdust crosses on a forest road, a huge red cotton cross between two trees which seems to constitute a formidable bar to entry. One piece, worked in Nieuwoudtville during spring flower time, is a field of orange and yellow daisies, bisected by an unnaturally straight line of white daisies stretching into the distance.

We often take for granted what we see in nature, yet by outlining the rayed roots of a tree in pale leaves, or edging the bole of a tree in contrasting coloured bark, Van der Merwe makes us see the elegance of the natural shape.

And then there are the more delicate installations: small stones balanced on sticks reflected in water, bamboo crossbars between stalks of dune grass, creating tiny waving ladders, or reeds made into square patterns on a beach pond.

It is all about shape, light and reflection. The installation on the cover of the book would work only at first and last light, when the shallow calderas, if I can call them that, are all shadow and depth.

In a piece about Van der Merwe’s work written in 2003, art critic Melvyn Minnaar refers to the artist as the latest iteration of a line of shamans or !gitens (in the language of the San). Minnaar writes: “It is the ancient land of Africa that speaks and that he directly or indirectly evokes. Wherever he goes to make his ‘interventions’ in nature (and the artist is working widely and all the more internationally) he will bear the symbolic mark of his ancestral !giten.”

Work by land artists, says Minnaar, is based on their objection to “the material and the superficial prevalent in so-called Western culture. Many find themselves in the orbit of environmentalists”, and he describes them cheerfully as “Greenpeace members with paintbrushes”.

Important to land art is the photograph of the piece, because the artwork itself cannot last. But Minnaar insists that while the picture is there to verify the creative process, it is not the artwork itself. What you see in this book is an impression, but not the vital, often living, piece.

This is the second edition of Sculpting the Land; the first was published in 2005. It is not clear when all the works represented here were made, but the publishers tell us this is an updated edition. Some of the work was just sommer, some was commissioned by organisations such as the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in Oudtshoorn.

Most of the installations were made in South Africa, some abroad, particularly in the Czeck Republic, where he has been able to use materials such as snow to enhance a leafess shrub.

The work is challenging, inspiring and saddening in that we know it can’t last. But it makes us look at our world in a different way, and is often stunningly beautiful.

  • This review has also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on January 7, 2018.

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