‘Green­peace mem­bers with paint­brushes’

Stri­j­dom van der Merwe stuns with his beau­ti­ful but fleet­ing art­works, writes Vivien Hor­ler

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - WORLD IN PICTURES -

MUCH of the art we ad­mire has en­dured for cen­turies; some, like mar­ble sculp­ture, is set in stone. But the work of Stri­j­dom van der Merwe is ephemeral: based on light, shadow, wa­ter, wind, leaves and sand.

Van der Merwe is a land artist, a man who uses the ma­te­ri­als of his cho­sen site to create ge­o­met­ri­cal forms that speak to the land­scape in which he works. Some­times he im­ports ma­te­ri­als to com­ple­ment a site, such as red rose petals in a beach in­stal­la­tion, or scar­let flags in a field of wheat stacks.

He will also create essen­tially man-made shapes and su­per­im­pose them on a nat­u­ral site: saw­dust crosses on a for­est road, a huge, red cot­ton cross be­tween two trees which seems to con­sti­tute a for­mi­da­ble bar to en­try. One piece, worked in Nieu­woudtville dur­ing spring flower time, is a field of or­ange and yel­low daisies, bi­sected by an un­nat­u­rally straight line of white daisies stretch­ing into the dis­tance.

We of­ten take for granted what we see in na­ture, yet by out­lin­ing the rayed roots of a tree in pale leaves, or edg­ing the trunk of a tree in con­trast­ing coloured bark, Van der Merwe makes us see the el­e­gance of the nat­u­ral shape.

And then there are the more del­i­cate in­stal­la­tions: small stones bal­anced on sticks re­flected in wa­ter, bam­boo cross­bars be­tween stalks of dune grass, cre­at­ing tiny wav­ing lad­ders, or reeds made into square pat­terns on a beach pond.

It is all about shape, light and re­flec­tion. The in­stal­la­tion on the cover of the book would work only at first and last light, when the shal­low calderas, if I can call them that, are all shadow and depth.

In a piece about Van der Merwe’s work writ­ten in 2003, art critic Melvyn Min­naar refers to the artist as the lat­est it­er­a­tion of a line of shamans or !gitens (in the lan­guage of the San). Min­naar writes:

“It is the an­cient land of

Africa that speaks and that he di­rectly or in­di­rectly evokes. Wher­ever he goes to make his ‘in­ter­ven­tions’ in na­ture (and the artist is work­ing widely and in­creas­ingly in­ter­na­tion­ally) he will bear the sym­bolic mark of his an­ces­tral !giten.”

Work by land artists, says Min­naar, is based on their ob­jec­tion to “the ma­te­rial and the su­per­fi­cial preva­lent in so-called western cul­ture. Many find them­selves in the or­bit of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists”, and he de­scribes them cheer­fully as “Green­peace mem­bers with paint­brushes”.

Im­por­tant to land art is the pho­to­graph of the piece, be­cause the art­work it­self can­not last. But Min­naar in­sists that while the pic­ture is there to ver­ify the cre­ative process, it is not the art­work it­self. What you see in this book is an im­pres­sion, but not the vi­tal, of­ten liv­ing, piece.

This is the sec­ond edi­tion of Sculpt­ing the Land. The first was pub­lished in 2005. It is not clear when all the works rep­re­sented here were made, but the pub­lish­ers tell us this is an up­dated edi­tion. Some of the work was just “som­mer”, some was com­mis­sioned by or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Klein Ka­roo Na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val in Oudt­shoorn.

Most of the in­stal­la­tions were made in South Africa, some abroad, par­tic­u­larly in the Czech Repub­lic, where he has been able to use ma­te­ri­als such as snow to en­hance a leaf­less shrub.

The work is chal­leng­ing, in­spir­ing and sad­den­ing in that we know it can’t last. But it makes us look at our world in a dif­fer­ent way.

See this and other re­views by Hor­ler’s web­site The Books Page (the­bookspage.co.za).


Scar­let rose petals are used to form a spi­ral be­side the sea. Done at Koeël Bay in the Western Cape. An in­stal­la­tion in pine trees in the snow, in Kracerov, Czech Repub­lic.

At first light Stri­j­dom van der Merwe sculpts cir­cles in the sand at Sos­susvlei in Namibia.

A spi­ral is in­ter­sected by a line of straight stones at Eer­steriv­ier, South Africa.

Nas­tur­tium blos­soms are tied to a tree with strands of grass in Stel­len­bosch.

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