Balancing Heaven and Earth

University of Johannesburg Art Gallery
7 - 28 September 2011

In a contemporary world struggling to deal with the grotesque consequences of spiritual disintegration, Diedericks' investigation of abjection appears to be clear and direct. The vision of abjection was well established in modern art and literature long before glamorized it in poems such as The Flowers of Evil. An inspiring fantasy of abjection is also to be found in the surrealist filmmakers Cocteau, Dali and Bunuel. The artist's ongoing fascinatin with spirituality and a deep suspicion about religion in general, and his reading of texts such as Balancing Heaven and Earth by Robert A Johnson continually fuel Diedericks' work.



A major new exhibition of works by prominent contemporary artist Christiaan Diedericks will open at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery on Wednesday, 7 September 2011, at 18h30. It includes a riveting new series of works entitled Balancing Heaven and Earth, as well as from previous collections Beautiful World, Cold Sweat and others.

A desire to transcend a dystopian world was hinted at in the artist’s previous collection. In the intriguing objet d’art of the present collection entitled Muse, the central figure, personifying both artist and muse, is portrayed without a mouth. It is given voice, however, through the transformative symbol of an overlying butterfly, alluding to the artist’s own ongoing transformation.

Balancing Heaven and Earth absorbs the viewer’s attention at the outset and is presented in a variety of mediums, including colourful Lyra pencil, water colour, gold, silver and copper leaf, glass engraving and thread. The ubiquitous use of the latter medium in stitching in this collection is a poignant illustration of the artist’s attempt to fix or to heal (as depicted in Elementary Values, where a nurturing mother figure stitches a broken heart together). The threading, of course, also alludes to the “slender threads” that “weave a remarkable tapestry”, as observed by Robert A. Johnson in his extraordinary memoir Balancing Heaven and Earth and the inspiration for the title of this exhibition. They are often loose, indicating that no true work of art is ever quite complete and that its interpretation is an infinite process.

Opposing Saturn (process)

Opposing Saturn (process)


The myriad of interpretations that is inherent to a Christiaan Diedericks work is illustrated nowhere better than in the pivotal work of the collection, King of Fools. The striking central character wears a crown of chicken feet, the latter alluding to foolishness and perhaps, obliquely, to voodoo. He is neatly attired in a business suit, but his intense frustration and anger threatens to burst out of his clothes and drive him to the edge of chaos. It appears that he is incapable of expressing his anger and suppressed emotions and obsessions adequately.

This inability to voice one’s true desires, and ultimately one’s true self, is further portrayed in Across Capricious Boundaries. The main figure symbolizes the quintessential masculine figure and holds in his hand the skull of a proud animal. His scream is primal, an element referred to in some of the artist’s previous work, and silent. An antique Victorian anti-masturbatory device is clasped around his muscular shoulder, rendering him impotent to express himself. Other than Hamlet’s deliberations while holding the skull of Yorick in his hand, he can not express his vital nature, his inner soul.

An aspect of the central character’s emotional complexity in King of Fools, namely the violent patriarchal dominance of society, finds further resonance in the work World Without End. In this instance the frustration and need to dominate is expressed disturbingly in the abuse of the youth. Whether physical, sexual or emotional, this violence is unleashed upon a defenceless young man like the ravenous pack of dogs that dominates the background of the work. The victim’s face has the appearance of a mask. He presents this mask to the world to hide his shame, but as the title of the work suggests, his traumatic experience will be etched onto his mind for the whole of his life. World Without End communicates timeously with the groundbreaking Afrikaans film premiered at the Cannes Festival recently called Skoonheid (Beauty), which comments unflinchingly on the topic of male rape.

A variation of the latter theme is the discrimination against gay men in all aspects of society. In Ceremony of Innocence the main character defies the protesting crowds.  The tattoo on his side says I won’t surrender and contains a subtle reference to the wound sustained by the Christ figure on the cross. But progress is slow, as illustrated by the snail moving laboriously across the work. Sharp surgical needles hang from the work: hurt and bruising abounds and much healing needs to take place.

The male figure in the top left corner of King of Fools re-iterates the concept of the defiant gay, or individual, man. He is claiming his own body and taunts society by turning a traffic cone into a phallic, taunting object, thereby using a symbol of society’s artificially imposed order, turning it around and pointing it back at them.

The female figure to the right of the abovementioned work symbolises commercialism, the obsessive quest for eternal beauty and the falseness behind it all. With closer examination, however, her vulnerability is apparent, but she is incapable of finding comfort in her external environment.

From the bare feet that dangle indifferently from the top part of the work, hangs a hand grenade. An almost palpable and anticipatory tension is thereby created and the allusion to war is clear. The futility of war is manifested movingly in the work Vexed to Nightmare, based on the true story of an American soldier deployed in Afghanistan. An extract of the last letter he wrote to his family forms part of the work. In this he wrote about the effect that the surrounding atmosphere of death was beginning to have on him and how it permeated every aspect of his life, much like the blood red skull that looms ominously over a large part of the work. He was killed in action the  day after he wrote the letter.

In King of Fools, as in the entire body of work that forms the basis for this new collection, Chris Diedericks explores the tensions between the individual’s true nature and the masks he wears, between the individual and society and, finally, the tensions that exist in the space between Heaven and Earth. He guides us through a unique creative world that exists between these opposites, towards a hopefully more utopian place, and he does so undauntingly and with consummate skill. 

dr. eugene vorster 

Eugene Vorster is a qualified psychiatrist in private practice in Cape Town. He obtained the degrees M.B.,Ch.B. and M.Med. (Psych.) from the University of Stellenbosch. He is an avid collector of contemporary art, with a special interest in gender studies.