Sunday Times 4 November 2018 (Page 45)
The Ordinary Stuff of Art
by Andrew Miller
Joburg artist Vivien Kohler will be making his presence felt in the UK arts world this week. His solo show, At the still point of the turning world, opens at the Sulger-Buel Lovell gallery in London on 30th October.
Forty two year old Kohler is one of many talented cogs within the booming Jozi fine art sector, widely recognised for the unique way he plucks images, objects and materials from the city and turns them into something new. His work for the London show consists of cast sculptures that re-imagine, re-shape and re-present discarded cardboard, a ubiquitous South African waste material and a crucial component of street life, especially for the indigent and homeless.
“We all know and recognise cardboard, it’s part of the fabric of city life,” he says. “But we also don’t really see it that well. We struggle to hear the stories it tells us about the people of the city, and about the structure of the city itself. I enjoy playing with this idea in my work, which offers a different perspective on the hidden stories and patterns of the city. It’s exciting to be able to share this with an international audience. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Kohler was born in the 1970s, in the heart of apartheid. Sometimes his art reflects this heritage and reads as deeply political, but at other times it simply offers the viewer a new story about a part of life they might never have considered before: a piece of cardboard, a corner of the street, a shack.
In his late teens, having been a “lazy A student” at school, Kohler studied graphic design and secured his first job. But, instead of going to work, he spent the next year in his bedroom, painting, figuring out, discovering. He emerged to study at the Roth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town, and then moved to Jozi, where he started his career from scratch.
Like millions of other South Africans, Kohler has navigated the social geography of a racially turbulent society his entire life. This essential experience informs how he thinks, and the art he chooses to make. His mid career work, for example, featured sleeping human forms surrounded by their cardboard, their mattresses, their stuff. The forms look like they’re resting on the literal cardboard Kohler has found in the throwaway corners of the city, but the pieces are actually realistically painted, carefully rendered sculptures of these city finds. As such, they offer viewers powerfully re-contextualised snap shots of the shrouded figures, shapes and materials we all encounter in our peripheral urban vision.
Kohler grew up in Lansdowne, in Cape Town. “Cape Flats light,” he calls it, laughingly referring to the centuries deep complexity of Cape Town’s racial geography. “We were a middle class family, but to the left and right lived other classes, and peoples,” he says. “We were all linked, yet also very separated by our apartheid geography. A lot of the formative experiences of my childhood involved becoming aware of just how different people’s lives and economies were from my own. Especially people who lived only a block, a street or a suburb away.”
Today, Kohler lives in the suburb of Centurion, but has a studio some 60 kilometres away at Nugget Square, in the heart of urban Johannesburg. The contrast between his sedate home geography and the toughness of Jozi city mirrors his life journey, where social divisions have always been clearly staked out by roads, houses, streets, trains and, ultimately, stories: those told and also those hidden, lost or forgotten.
Our personal stories are profoundly shaped by our daily experiences. In South Africa, a country with a strange and traumatic history, this is a challenging process most citizens have no choice but to go through, again and again. This uniquely South African dynamic drives Vivien Kohler’s creativity forward as he identifies patterns and stories in the ordinary stuff of daily city life, and turns them into art. This ritual of perpetual storytelling is an important process for him personally, given the complexity of how his own family story has unfolded.
“As I was growing into life as an artist, I discovered that most of my relatives had no knowledge of our family story at all,” he says. “This was a difficult reality to process, because my great-grandparents were forcibly removed from their home and business in Paarl during apartheid. Their life was taken away in a single moment that left them literally on the street, before they re-established a life in Lansdowne.”
In Kohler’s family, like so many other South African families, a crucial shared story has been almost entirely erased by the pain of trauma. Through his art, he offers viewers an opposite experience to the one endured by his kin: the chance to explore, discuss and share the internal and often isolated dream-scape of ordinary South African life. His creations tap into the hidden thoughts of the millions of people moving through our cities and towns, stepping over, or on, stray cardboard, marching from one socially stratified place to another, wrapped up in their personal universe. No matter if you’re seeing the work in London, Cape Town or Jozi, it’s a compelling, engaging experience.
Image credit: Vivien Kohler Discerecloth 2018 Oil and cardboard on canvas 160x99cm