Cape Town-based artist Rowan Smith is interested in endings, and what comes after. His recent solo exhibition at WHATIFTHEWORLD / GALLERY explored the literal and figurative ruins of the here and now that is post-apartheid South Africa. He is also interested in the idea of post-modern consumerism, the accumulation of ‘stuff’ to the extent that it becomes not anything; no everything. Rowan’s work is characterised by deep critical enquiry and exceptional execution.
What are the salient themes and concerns in your recent exhibition, No Everything?
Currently, in my work and research, I’m very interested in interpreting the complex and illusory socio-political and cultural landscape that is contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa. I’m interested in what has changed versus what has been made to appear to have changed versus what hasn’t changed at all. So subjects such as the massive economic division that is very much present in contemporary South Africa; and the kind of systemic white-middle-to-upper-class complacency that seems to accompany this. I’m interested in self-criticism. I’m also interested in the subtleties of how South Africa has rebranded itself as both a post-colonial and post-apartheid state and how a multiplicity of individuals might or might not identify as citizens of such a State. So concepts such as nationalism’s failure within a hyper-modern, super-capitalist global economy; dead myths and delayed symbols; the politics of labour versus the politics of vacations; and the appropriation of international ethnic identities.
Is this a development from previous work? If so, how so?
I’ve always viewed my practice as a continually evolving body of research. So while the content or imagery may seem quite different the process through which I arrive at a body of work is still very much the same and I see this as a continuous development.
What’s in the title, No Everything?
Exhaustion. But also this idea of owning things – what I have begun to call ‘bad property’. It’s not nothing; it’s no everything. It’s nothingness accelerated to its very limit.
Where your previous work appeared concerned with universal existential experiences, your recent body of work seems far more grounded in lived experiences of here-and-now. Can you tell us a bit about this…
My previous work was less about ‘universal existential experiences’ than about space travel as this neo-colonial grand narrative that began occurring at the same time as the collapse of Modernity. So my previous bodies of work were very much concerned with how this global narrative may or may not have had a societal or cultural impact in South Africa. The idea of extending humankind’s geographical reach is very much political. The very masculine obsession of reaching the ‘next frontier’ has been a constant throughout our global history and I was interested in undoing that or reinterpreting it.
Please tell us more about the dialectical tension between deconstruction and construction that exists in No Everything…
I’m interested in endings and what comes afterwards.The end of Apartheid brought with it various necessary forms of dismantling and collapsing as well as re-building and unification. Whether it was the re-branding of sports teams, the creation of a new flag, or the concept of the Rainbow Nation; when a crime is committed one needs a symbolic equivalent in order to fill that void. In No Everything I was imagining various alternative instances where this idea of collapse and rebuilding or dismantling and re-branding revealed speculative metaphors, situations, or nuances to however one describes the contemporary condition in South Africa. I was also quite influenced by Mudimbe’s idea of “…modernity’s illusion of development…”; the myth of development and how this is used to meet the hopes of the masses; as well as Michael Taussig’s idea of negative labour, which describes defacement (of monuments) as a revealing act.
Your work is highly conceptual yet always expertly executed. How do you understand the relationship between concept and practice?
In art theory, conceptualism has always been tethered to this idea of dematerialization. It has never been clear to me why a strong concept or a good idea cannot be well executed materially.
What place does humour have in your art?
I don’t see it as outright humour. Perhaps dry sarcasm, or as one writer put it “mordent wit”. I think sometimes it’s necessary to lighten the tone of very heavy subjects in order for them to be more easily digested.
What similarities and/or differences have you notice between the local and US art scenes?
It’s hard to generalise either of these scenes. There are very diverse and brilliant artists in both places. Perhaps if I were to zoom out completely I could say that within both scenes artists tend to be focused on their localities.
What works will you be exhibiting at the upcoming FNB Joburg Art Fair?
I will be showing a new series of demolition paintings as well as some of the bronze melting driftwood pieces titled “Fuck Your Beach House”.
What are the advantages to having work at an art fair?
I think art fairs have the potential to attract larger international audiences because of the sheer density of galleries and artists.
What’s next for you?
Back to work in the studio.
Find out more about Rowan’s work via WHATIFTHEWORLD / GALLERY