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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

In defence of lost causes: giving the devil his due

Abri de Swardt - 2011-11-01

Untitled Document Despite being at best a contested figure within the canon of contemporary South African sculpture, Dylan Lewis somehow manages to perpetually show his works in public. Abri de Swardt traverses exclusive golf courses, millionaire country estates and numerous botanical gardens, and most recently the Rooi Plein of Stellenbosch University, where he settles to probe the sizeable matter of public art within a student community, only to realise, much to his surprise, that Lewis has merit.


Dylan Lewis's Male-Trans Figure II on the Rooi Plein

Not since the 2006 outcry against Angus Taylor’s Positive in the Strand has a public sculpture in South Africa created such a fundamentalist furore as Dylan Lewis’s Male Trans-figure II, currently installed on the Rooi Plein at the heart of the Stellenbosch campus , where its “nude awakening” (to cite Helen Walne of the Cape Argus) has spawned a storm in a teacup. After the Student Representative Council posted a photograph on Facebook of the sculpture subtitled “Wat dink jy van hierdie standbeeld? Please share your thoughts - the SRC wants to hear your voice!” the networking site has been abuzz with contested perspectives on the work, already triggering over 170 comments in less than a day, indicative of the quite troubling attitude certain students have towards art in their unabashed appeal that the work should be confiscated.

Most astonishingly, early commentators were not aware of the greater project Lewis's statue forms part of, namely 20stellenbosch, which launched last week, featuring the work of over 30 sculptors installed across town. This is symptomatic of the (Victoria Street) bubble most students find themselves in (let alone the obliviousness most students have to contemporary art in general as, by all means, I would go so far as to call Lewis’s sculpture conservative), erroneously believing that the university had commissioned Lewis to install this work permanently on the Rooi Plein.

Although I do concede that the sculpture is an imposition, as it is somewhat haphazardly placed near the Rooi Plein’s library steps , and that Lewis in particular is culpable of making and showing works that are not site responsive and therefore quite “random” and “confusing”, to deem the work “satanic” or linked to the “illuminati”, as some students do, is at best naïve, and at worst utterly vapid and ludicrous. Lewis’s statue is far removed from the “unashamed immorality” it purportedly incites: what Lewis calls a “celebration of the vital energy, life force and spirit of all that is truly ‘wild’”1 and is read by some as a regressive obstacle towards our “enlightenment”, speaks more of the repressive and exclusionary practices that seem to constitute some of the social realities on campus than the work itself. Of course, to censor this work would be to move towards what one student deems the university’s “purpose” of “beskaafdheid, die aanname dat die mens 'n verhewe wese is wat streef na die ontdekking van waarheid en orde, en daardeur ook vryheid”? As another histrionically jibes: “Ek wil nog graag hê my kinders moet eendag hier kom studeer.”

Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a schism between the artist’s ostensibly good intentions and the effect of the work in situ on certain students (whether this faction is the majority of students or a vociferous minority is unclear, but I hope to think the latter). It is a case of misguided metaphors that are at odds with the sculpture’s environment: What does an archaic being predicated on the simplified nature/nurture dialectic say about Stellenbosch at large? Not much – it resists engaging in the particularities of place and histories, using visualisations predominantly alien to its public(s).

Lewis here unfortunately falls into the same trap of the didactic and dualistic as his adversaries, his work latching superficially on to pressing geopolitical debates. An effigy premised on the forces of nature, Male Trans-figure II is a representation of dubious sincerity. The totemic male nude conjures Lewis’s “wild twin” 2, with its attendant spirit of rampant instinct. “Grappl[ing] with what it means to be human” 3 through pantheist tropes and invocations of primitivism the work attempts, somewhat feebly, to collapse the hierarchical nature/nurture binary through a mythic incarnation: masked in a buffalo skull, “subservien[t] to the personage of [its] animal mask” the figure “temporarily become[s] more than ‘human’” 4. It is an unworldly Avatar-like being becoming one and other, a Gauguinesque return to origins that decries the decadency and obfuscation of civilisation, while inadvertently pointing to the Eurocentric, Westernised, Modern model as teleologically evolved and therefore always superior, ahead of its time. Here the bronze birthed from the thunderous inferno of the foundry is imaged in archaic elation, the monstrous physique arching foetal in dance. Bare, the colossal figure is Adam before the Fall in a relapse of original freedom, the lustre and tangibility of his craggy façade doubling his virile primordialism and otherness. Yet it is his cranium, the trans-historic memento mori, that implicates him in ancestral ritual evoking Khoisan folklore and the Satyr.

Buoyant, its rapture is a transcendence from self to other, as animal, nature, earth. It is a submission to Thanatos, the Freudian death drive, embodied in the chaos of Nature, perilous, menacing and reckless, a Dionysian propensity that lapses into sublime terror. An experiential phenomenon, this feeling, and its radical potentiality, becomes lost and static sculpturally. Lewis inexorably reiterates green clichés through a generalised pedagogy that does not speak site-specifically, locally or contemporarily. Preferring to articulate himself through universalisms, in the permanence of bronze, a matter sans inherent meaning, he succumbs to touristic kitsch, dishing up picturesque essences as a diluted Rodin.

Yet, aside from the fact that the work is as tame as the cultivated greens, lawns and beds Lewis’s art usually populates, and that he fails to make work “in and of the city”, (requisites that Alexander Opper demarcates 5), it is in its manifest embodiment as a catalyst for what one student deems a “healthy debate” about the very nature of art itself that this work momentarily redeems itself, should be permitted, and, alas, supported. Given that a predominant strand within the Facebook dispute indelibly concurs that:

  1. Art should be relegated to the space of the gallery where it can be enjoyed by those who do care about it.
  2. Art should not be read in relation to the artist’s intentions (even though they may be obscure), but instead according to doubtful, if not invented, details of the artist’s biography and through an overtly literal lens.
  3. Art should be measured according to a fundamentalist Christian ethos, and if it does not fit the bill, it should be removed at once, as “freedom of religion” entails the subjugation of all other perspectives except the, again, seemingly universal and singular “Christian” perspective.
  4. All art should be accompanied by interpretations to provide the viewer with a clearly delineated exposition of the work’s sole meaning so as to obliterate any potential ambivalence.
  5. “Evil” has a singular face (and genitals).
  6. The visibility, and subsequent recognition or knowledge of the representation of the (male) sexual organs is indelibly a catalyst for sexual promiscuity and moral degeneration writ large.

The work’s mere conservative presence has, involuntarily, pressingly, and I would even say miraculously, become a menace to rampant cultural conservatism, making this folly, or perhaps extreme (in)sensitivity, detectable in a democratic fashion.

Subsequently, although this work is not wholly successful where it is currently and temporarily displayed, the organisers of 20stellenbosch discerned that they could situate work around the library to engage students in debates around aesthetics, ethics and space, and any such effort is commendable. Despite that not all art in public is public art, Lewis has created a stumbling-block in campus reality that acts like a pebble in the shoes of those that perhaps would not ever have bothered to look.


  • Abri de Swardt is an artist and writer currently completing his honours in Visual Studies at Stellenbosch University.

1 Explanatory text on Lewis’s sculpture plaque in the US Botanical Garden.

2 Lewis, D. 2010. Artist Statement. [Online].
Available: http://www.dylanlewis.com/
[2011, March 23].

3 Explanatory text on Lewis’s sculpture plaque in the US Botanical garden.

4 Explanatory text on Lewis’s sculpture plaque in the US Botanical garden.

5 Opper, A. 2010. The Art of being Public. Art South Africa 09(2), Summer: 44-49.