Interview with Hansolo Umberto Oberist, Johannesburg, 2019
HUO: Lets begin at the beginning, who were your early influences and how did you become an artist?
MS: I was more of a science nerd at school, was going to study medicine like my mom, but I decided to rather take a gap year in London working as an electricity salesman. With the savings I went backpacking and bought myself a camera to document the trip. My biggest early influence was my uncle, the photographer Gideon Mendel. I was inspired by his amazing photographs of the South African struggle against apartheid and the HIV crisis of the 1990s, and I dreamt of emulating him.
I came back from my travels thinking I would start winning prizes with my pictures but Gideon just flicked through the prints saying that most of them were shit, and he was right. A part of me wanted to be a documentary photographer like him, but I also wanted to study at university, so I was considering art school, or and architecture which seemed to be a safer bet. I chose art in the end because I thought that my girlfriend at the time would think it was cooler. I had painted at high school, mainly influenced by my sister, who is an amazing painter, and Odilon Redon. When I tried to paint at art school they told me to stick to photography.
HUO: You came of age with your graduation project at UCT, Die Vier Hoeke (2004), can you tell me a bit more about your thinking behind that project and how it entered into the artworld?
MS: I grew up in a suburb of Cape Town called Constantia. We lived right next door to the Waldorf School where my father was a teacher and where I went to primary school. Back then, Constantia wasn’t the very upmarket suburb that it is now - of course we were firmly middle class, but nowadays I’m embarrassed to tell people that I grew up in Constantia in case they assume I come from a super-wealthy background. It so happens that Constantia is just five minutes away from Pollsmoor Prison where I shot the majority of Die Vier Hoeke. I would spend the days working in the prison but sometimes had to go out to download the photographs. I lived in student digs in the city centre, so it was much closer to do this at my parents’ Constantia house before returning to prison. This was 2004 and my father had just impregnated his mistress and moved out, so it was kind of weird to be hopping between the empty ghost-filled family home and the jam-packed prison that seemed like the seventh circle of hell, where the most extreme and violent manifestations of South Africa’s extreme and violent past were crammed into a compound which is literally across the road from idyllic wine farms. There’s something about my life in that, but also something about Cape Town as the archetypal split-personality post-apartheid city. I recently heard a rumour that the only reason I got access to the prison was because my father was a warder there. If I was smart I would pretend it was true.
HUO: The first work reproduced in your 2012 monograph Retinal Shift is a smashed photograph of your father, George (2011), and three of your recent paintings are based on portraits of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf Schools. Do these works refer back to that period?
MS: Actually, the first work in that book is a photograph of an anonymous white man which is a still from my 11-channel video work Who’s Who (2011). This work confronts the viewer with a slideshow of “importance” - an endless parade of over forty thousand photographs of (largely) white men who have been featured in The Who’s Who of Southern Africa from 1911 to 2011, the year I made the work. But yes, you then cut straight to a smashed portrait that I took of my father right when he was starting his physical decline with Motor Neuron Disease.
HUO: I saw your first film installation, Moses and Griffiths (2012), when it was presented at Palais De Tokyo in Paris in 2013. The divergent narratives on four screens reveal the psychological splits within these two men who are forced to hold two very different histories in their heads. Hearing a bit more about your background, that form makes sense, but I’m wondering if this film was also channelling a kind of absence. Am I right that Moses and Griffiths are both around your father’s age?
MS: They were both just a little bit older, but yes, you could say they are the same generation. Moses, like my father, has passed on since I made the film. Griffiths is currently fighting cancer. One of the things I hate most in life is seeing how the effects of political and economic expediencies often infantilise older men who are not white and privileged. Griffiths is a 70-something year old man who I look up to and respect. Yet the layered residues of apartheid legislation, “bantu education”, job discrimination (all of which he describes with piercing clarity in the film), as well as the power dynamics of filmmaking and my own economic privilege, distort that relationship in ways that I find very difficult.
HUO: Would it be fair to say that the jump to fiction in your next film installation, WYE (2016), has to do with these discomforts?
MS: Yes. WYE seeks to get inside the colonial mindset and collapse it from within, rather than describing its effects. It does this by foregrounding the gaze of three (essentially) white male characters, and it posits the act of looking at the landscape as the first step in taking ownership of it, stealing it.
There were a number of reasons for writing WYE as a fictional film. It was a kind of revelling, I guess, in the expanded opportunities the fictional form gave me in terms of the malleability of narrative time and space. At the same time, threads of continuity seem to bleed between the different of forms and mediums of my work. The one character in the film whose mind - and gaze - we don’t get inside is Hermanus, another older man who I first met and photographed in 2005 as a part of Umjiegwana (the follow up project to Die Vier Hoeke which focused on ex-prisoners). The real Hermanus has become a friend over time and, in the film, he operates as a keystone around which the projections of the colonial characters are stacked.
My older documentary work attempted to engage and empathise with “the other”. But in WYE, ten years after I first photographed Hermanus, it became so important that we (the audience) don’t get inside his mind as we do with the white characters, that his thoughts and feelings are impenetrable. I guess it is a kind of admission of previous failure on my part, and it means that he has this incredible power in the film, a power that fights against the documentary impulse to speak for “the other”.
HUO: All three protagonists in WYE are searching for something in the landscape, beneath the ground, but I get the sense that your interest is as much in their bodily relationship to the land as it is in their gaze. For the third character, Feio, you imagine a discipline of the future (Psycho-Anthropology) and a scientific technique (Deep Enactment) that allows this future-colonialist to experience embodiment for the first time. This imagined science is just as fragile and prone to failure as the contemporary (the metal detector of Hare) and the 19th Century occult (the dowsing rod of Lethbridge). Does this interest in the limitations of science take us back to your childhood as a science nerd (as you put it), and the “spiritual science” of Steiner?
MS: As you speak I’m making another connection to my memories that I didn’t even see when I was writing WYE, perhaps where all the digging comes from. When I was a kid at the Waldorf School they were building a new hall, and on the excavation site they found buried human bones, and one tibia had indents right above the ankle from metal shackles. We were literally building on the graves of slaves. Of course, there were many, many ghosts around because most of Constantia had belonged to coloured farmers who were forcibly removed in the 1960s, and I later came back when I was at art school to do a photography project on the Muslim graveyard that was right next door to the Waldorf School, and our house.
I’ve recently been working my way through my dad’s old Anthroposophy books and reading Steiner’s lectures online, and I’ve come to wonder whether instead of a slave having been buried there under the school, it might very well have been Prometheus, the shackle marks from Zeus’ chains, not the colonialists’. I’ve brought some of these with me, can I read them?
HUO: Of course.
MS: Steiner writes:
This is the exoteric saga of Prometheus. In it lies the whole history of the fifth root-race, and in it real Mystery-truth is hidden […] There is a great difference between the leaders of the two preceding root-races and those of our fifth race. The leaders of those races too were united in a White Lodge. But they did not undergo their earlier evolution on our earth planet, but in another environment. They descended to earth already mature, descended as human beings of higher development, in order to instruct men who were still in their infancy, in order to teach them the first arts which they needed (I).
HUO: You know that Josef Beuys was obsessed with Steiner, who was also a mentor to the amazing visionary artist Hilma Af Klint who just had a survey at the Guggenheim. We can assume that they did not take his use of these terms like “race” and “White Lodge” so literally…
MS: They might have made themselves believe that, but his use of these phrases certainly was literal when you read them in context. Here, in The Occult Significance of Blood he writes:
This is the question of colonisation, which crops up whenever civilised peoples come into contact with uncivilised peoples. The Question is: To what extent are uncivilised peoples capable of accepting and absorbing new forms of civilisation? How can a negro or savage become really civilised? How should we behave towards them? And here deadly serious and far-reaching problems of life are involved, not just the feelings of a vague morality. Those who have no knowledge of the conditions governing the existence of a people, whether it be on the up-grade or down-grade of its evolution, whether one feature or another is conditioned by its blood, will not be able to find the right way to introduce culture to an alien people. All these issues are raised the moment the all-important question of blood is brought into focus (II).
Steiner’s writing on racial hierarchies and reincarnation was directly influenced by the proto-theosophist Helena Blavatsky’s texts, where the “fifth root-race” is explicitly Aryan, and he too uses this term in other writings about the root races. Steiner believed that souls could reincarnate through the different races and that ultimately a future race would include all humans, but that some races were so barbaric that they could not be uplifted into it and would die out. He was writing about this in the first decade of the Twentieth Century during the Herero and Nama Massacres in the German colonies, and it is not unreasonable to link this form of occult thinking with a political context that fostered these genocidal colonial policies and later the rise of Nazism.
HUO: And the connection that you make between these race theories and Prometheus goes beyond the shackled bones and speaks to the history of whiteness?
MS: Yes. We know from the plays of Aeschylus that Prometheus was chained to the Caucasus Mountains. The American art historian Nell Painter has written about the crazy story of how the white race was imagined and constructed, and how randomly it was named Caucasian, I’ve brought her too:
Whiteness now takes its place in racial classification, reorienting the science of human taxonomy from Linnaeus’s geographical regions to Blumenbach’s emphasis on skin color as beauty. Once Blumenbach had established Caucasian as a human variety, the term floated far from its geographical origin. Actual Caucasians—the people living in the Caucasus region, cheek by jowl with Turks and Semites of the eastern Mediterranean—lost their symbolic standing as ur-Europeans. Real Caucasians never reached the apex of the white racial hierarchy; indeed, many Russians call them chernyi (“black”) on account of their supposed wild troublesomeness. Somehow specificity faded while the idea of a supremely beautiful “Caucasian” variety lived on, eventually becoming the scientific term of choice for white people (III).
HUO: The German thread extends into art history of course. In school I read Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art , which is still taught in art schools today. It was Winckelmann who wrongly assumed that everything that is ancient was colored white. How does revisiting this history translate in your current work?
MS: What I’m trying to do in my work right now is to pull apart the normalization of whiteness, to make it look strange, to re-racialize it and to represent it as the ridiculous construction that it is.
I believe that my parent’s generation saw their participation in the Cape Town Waldorf scene as a kind of refuge or refusal of apartheid. Waldorf schools talk proudly about their racial integration in the 1980s but I only remember a few black kids being around and many other private schools were integrating too. It was only recently that I’ve discovered how the curriculum is built upon the ideology of a deeply prejudiced man. The education was full of contradictions - in the early years I was discouraged from reading because I was “ahead” of the correct stage of development that Steiner had designated for my age. My parents moved me from the one Waldorf School to the other, but…
HUO: Are these very personal histories only finding form in your work now, or were you engaging with them through the early documentary projects?
MS: No, that’s the crazy thing, no. In retrospect, of course, it is clear from a psychological point of view that that was exactly what I was doing - looking to the world around me to express internal violent feelings through the representation of exterior violence. But in my mind at the time, all I wanted was to be a good documentary photographer who, through his work, could contribute to social justice.
HUO: When you later started smashing those “good documentary photographs”, was that your conscious mind catching up with the unconscious?
MS: Yes, exactly. And it had to be a violent act, both because there was internal and external violence that needed to be represented, but also because the separation of the two - the split-ness - was violent in and of itself. It was also an attack against the documentary impulse, the rationalised response to injustice that I see as a typical “lefty” white male instinct to describe the effects of violence on the other, rather than being vulnerable and reflecting on one’s own complicity.
HUO: And the violent act, or the performance of smashing, was extended in your Sticky-Tape Transfer works which began in 2013?
MS: Yes. But these actions weren’t just about this internal / external violence dichotomy, they were also very much about images and representation, and a formal attempt to understand my own relationship to “how images work”. By pulling images apart with the tape, I felt like I was disabling their erstwhile representational function and then putting it back together in a more honest and imperfect way, reflecting my attempts to understand both the image, its original representational function, and hopefully something new.
HUO: You did something similar with video at Okwui’s 2015 Venice Biennale in Pixel Interface (2015). The work you reference in the title, Paul Sharits’ Shutter Interface (1975), is one of my favourite works of experimental film from the 1970s and I’m wondering how you formed this connection.
MS: Its funny, I just “saw” and sketched the form of Pixel Interface before I was aware of Sharits’ work, which I learnt about in the Palais De Tokyo bookstore, just after I saw you there in 2013. I was trying to make a work that, like you say, pulled images apart, but in relation to the very difficult videos that I had made for Retinal Shift – CCTV (2011) and Don’t even think of it (2011). So when I discovered Shutter Interface, I obviously wanted to pretend that I knew all about it and was referencing it all along.
Learning about it belatedly actually did help me focus and crystallise what I was trying to do in my piece. With Shutter Interface, Sharits tries to make visible the mechanisms of film projection in the form of the movement of the shutter, and now with reference to this, I designed Pixel Interface to be a contemporary attempt to visualise the mechanisms of digital video – the flicker of the pixels of the screen itself. But for me it was also about representational violence, in an almost a reverse Blowup sense, wondering what happens when you amplify representations that you already know are violent. What happens to that violence when it is reduced to the abstraction of its elemental representational forms? Is it anesthetised, like television violence, or does it somehow seep right into the elemental particles that form the representation? God, this is sounding like homeopathy, I’m sounding like an anthroposophist myself!
HUO: By breaking it down like this, are you asking if this violence can ever be repaired? Sometimes the tape in your Sticky Tape Transfers repairs too?
MS: Yes, it’s a constant flux between ripping and repairing. There are also different kinds of tapes. The J-lar tape starts off perfectly clear but then becomes more and more opaque with the pieces of ink and paper that “transfer” to different degrees, depending on how hard I press with the bonefolder. Then there’s Micropore tape that I started using to secure the pieces of J-lar that had lost all their stickiness. The Micropore went on to become layers of thicker strips onto which I print and paint directly. Micropore is a surgical tape and a bandage that covers and protects like a temporary skin where the body has been opened, but it also constrains movement. You can use these various forms of tape to cover somebody’s mouth or eyes to mute them, blind them or bind them like Zeus did Prometheus.
HUO: Many of your materials and the images on them look like skins or membranes. I’m looking at three paintings of ships which appear to ghost through the linen.
MS: I’m trying to express how these forms are both the instruments of power and at the same time highly vulnerable bodies. The sails of those ships are relatively insubstantial objects, but they were harnessed to provide huge amounts of kinetic power - enough to conquer lands and move millions of bodies across oceans. Likewise, on the inside, a lung can be so easily punctured, but it can also expand and contract constantly to sustain eighty years of life. Achilles, the greatest warrior we know, can be killed by a single arrow to the heel. I don’t think we can fully understand the exercise of white masculine power without exploring its vulnerability too, both within the body and in the instruments that we developed to allay this vulnerability and exercise power.
HUO: And it was these tall ships that brought your ancestors here to steal the land?
MS: Yes! It wasn’t literally my ancestors because they were Lithuanian and German Jews, but that’s the thing about whiteness, its violent privilege has been homogenized to the point where I genuinely feel like I carry both the burden – call it guilt or shame - and the unearned privilege of that history. That itself is a huge irony because so much intellectual effort in the 19th century went into classifying the “white races” and differentiating them. Jews, like the Irish and the Italians before them, didn’t have any divine right to being included in whiteness, but once we were in, the benefits flowed.
HUO: So, is this work confessional?
MS: It is confessional. But it’s not just me who’s doing the confessing. When the circus clown makes a fool of himself, he’s really just soothing the foolish part of all of us who are watching. When my parents moved me to the second Waldorf school they put me in the class of a wonderful teacher who took us on amazing camps and outings and taught the whole class how to juggle. A few of us were so good that we joined the circus for our summer holidays, and for a while we were seriously considering running away from home to travel with the circus full time.
I found out later that the wonderful teacher was grooming and sexually abusing some of the kids in the class. Obviously that isn’t something that is unique to Waldorf schools, but it is my abiding sense that, as Michel Houellebecq describes so perfectly in Atomised, there’s something about all of that alternative bluster about specialness and doing things differently that seems almost designed to provide a screen and refuge for darker violent things.
HUO: My final question is usually to ask what are your major unrealised projects. You mention running away with the circus, do you regret not doing so?
MS: Absolutely, “The end is where we start from.” (IV) I would definitely describe that as an unrealised project. Perhaps though, being in the proverbial circus is what my work as an artist has become. When I draw a line between all of my current heroes, the ones who really inspire me, they all have this shapeshifting quality, this restless need to start again every time, knowing nothing. The studio feels like a safe space where I can make a fool of myself, unbound from the rules of gravity, the rules of physics and vision.
Of course, claiming that space puts me right at the centre of a long lineage of privileged white men, acting like the heroes of the piece, with their oversized paintings and well-worked mythologies. But I hope that my attempts to be vulnerable and self-reflexive in this space, in these words, and in the works themselves, will contribute in some small way to the deconstruction of white masculine power, rather than reinforcing it. All around me I see amazing black artists who have been reconfiguring the canon, and I really do believe that white artists need to step up too, to take whiteness apart, and by doing so to meet them in the making of something new.
With apologies to Hans Ulrich Obrist
(I) Rudolf Steiner. “Greek and Germanic Mythology in the Light of Esotericism”, translated by Schmidt, Schmidt Number: S-0897. Rudolf Steiner Archive & E.Lib, last accessed 2 April 2019, https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA092/English/UNK2003/19041007p01.html.
(II) Rudolf Steiner. The Occult Significance of Blood. (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1967) 9-10.
(III) Nell Irvin Painter. The History of White People. (New York: W.W.Norton & Co.) Kindle Location 1406-1408.
(IV) T.S. Eliot. Collected Poems 1909-1962. (London: Faber, 1963) 221.