If the purpose of art is to help us see the world in new and interesting ways, what’s the point of a sculpture that stands still? Especially if it’s an investment piece that’s going to be the focal point in your garden.
The problem with sculptures in the landscape, says Muizenberg-based artist Etienne de Kock, is that they tend to fade into insignificance.
‘When you have a bronze in a public space, a man sitting on a horse, say, or a statesman on a throne, it becomes invisible in a way because it’s not doing anything. ‘By the third time you’ve walked past it, you don’t notice it any more.’
His solution? Make kinetic art – art that moves.
It’s a relatively new idea that stems from Impressionists like Monet, Manet, and Degas, who experimented with movement in their painting in the late 19th century. The first sculptures that actually moved, though, were made by the Russian artists Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, in the early 20th century, and the American Alexander Calder, in the late 1930s.
But in terms of art that moved, and that was specifically designed to inhabit outdoor spaces like public parks and private gardens, the godfather of the form was undoubtedly the American George Rickey (1907–2002), who said, ‘I’m convinced that, in the end, art is not for the artist but for their fellow man.’
Rickey incorporated his love of engineering into his works, whose geometric components respond to the slightest currents of air – moving either randomly or in repetitive patterns. (Do yourself a favour and check out ‘Four Open Rectangles Diagonal Jointed Gyratory V’ on YouTube: bit.ly/GeoRickey.)
In South Africa, of course, we’re used to seeing movement in our landscapes because we’ve always had (or it seems we’ve always had) windmills: from the familiar Mostert’s Mill (1796), a quietly elegant exclamation mark alongside Cape Town’s frenetic M3 motorway, or the iconic metal wind pumps that’ve been turning slowly, clanking, and splashing water from deep inside the earth into the cracked and ageing, circular concrete dams of the country’s farms since the mid-1800s, to the minimalist, seagull-white elegance of those enormous wind turbines on the coast, serenely generating megawatt after megawatt of electricity.
So you’d think that locating South African artists whose work is designed for gardens and public open spaces would be (if you’ll pardon the expression) a walk in the park. Mass-produced, supermarket-ready whirligigs in the shops and online you’ll find by the hundreds – but work that’s been carefully thought through, and that is unique, and uniquely South African? Those pieces are rare indeed.
Fortunately, though, there’s Etienne de Kock, and the artist-engineer, Mark O’Donovan.
Etienne de Kock
Although they’re of a similar age, Etienne (etiennedekock.co.za) is the ‘younger’ of the two, having spent 15 years working on large-scale corporate sculptures and museum models, meaning that he’s only relatively recently started exhibiting his work on the gallery circuit.
His pieces range from a relatively small, hand-cranked, steel rower paddling away on his quirky little boat atop a mechanical tower of no known provenance (all jerky movement and hypnotic style), to the country’s largest kinetic sculpture, a 12-metre-high wood-and-metal rolling ball machine (18 balls, more than a kilometre of track, two motors driving two chains each 23 metres in length) that was built for Wesbank’s head office in Sandton, and which now stands ‘out in the desert, waiting to come alive again when we roll flaming balls through it during next year’s AfrikaBurn.’
His works may be amusing, but that’s the whole point: ‘I’ve always liked the idea of engaging the viewer, and holding them for a certain amount of time – because time is big for me.
‘It’s not sufficient that someone glances at my stuff: they have to stop and think, “What’s going on here?” or take time to activate one of the things that make it move – and then I’m doing my job.’
In his latest creations – arrangements of pendulums that he calls, ‘metanomes’ (metanome with an A, as in meta = beyond, and nome = measurement) – he, like Rickey, has striven for randomness of movement.
‘We use a metronome to give us a steady beat when we’re playing music, so the word “metanome” is a play on that – and the time it takes for people to figure out that they can’t figure out what’s going to happen next [with the sculpture] is one of the things I’m trying for.
‘It’s about creating a relationship between the viewer and the piece,’ he said. ‘Because if I make a beautiful fire grate, it’s not art, it’s just a beautiful fire grate: the only way a piece can become art is to have no requirement other than that it speaks to someone’s sense of themselves.’
Cape Town-based Mark O’Donovan (markodonovan.co.za) studied engineering at university, but he wasn’t made for the profession: instead, he took to fine art (which he studied by correspondence), and became involved in performance art – first with a Dutch group, and then with his own group: the Odd Enjineers, which he founded with working partner, Geert Jonkers.
‘We played all the major festivals in South Africa, did a range of projects in Cape Town, and toured in Holland in 2001, taking our audiences on adventurous journeys of the imagination,’ he said.
It taught him that the appeal of kinetic art is ‘the very fact that it moves’.
His kinetic sculptures include machines that pump water from nowhere to nowhere (but many of those have been taken down in response to the prolonged drought in the Cape) and some that make music. ‘I’m not interested in making a racket,’ he says. ‘I far prefer to mesmerise people with sound.’ He’s also done a remarkable series of turnstiles for a playground in the Mitchells Plain Public Transport Interchange. Each of these structures is crowned by a number of sculptures of flying vehicles that were inspired by local children, and that turn whenever the kids play on the roundabouts.
‘The children were asked to draw “Transport in the Year 2020”, and then the designs were copied from their drawings as closely as possible.
‘I particularly like the “Granny with parachute on a jet-propelled skateboard”.’
For Mark, the viewer’s imagination enhances the attraction of a piece. ‘Everyone always wants to figure out how it works,’ he said. ‘Kids are just naturally drawn to it, and older people really like to explain it – even if their explanations are way out.’
He said, too, that moving art gets attention from unexpected audiences. ‘We once did a street show in Oudtshoorn involving a tower with cogs, and the farmers – who don’t usually have much time for art – were commenting on it and trying to work it all out.
‘They would hang around for the show so that they could see it in action.’
So what should you look for if you’re planning to commission a sculpture for your garden or your estate – to enhance your entrance, say, or to create a focal point in a public space? The answer, it seems, is as simple as it’s infinitely complicated:
If you want to move anyone who uses your space, you should probably install a sculpture that moves.