Pretending to be Flesh is a further exploration of Dystopia and dystopian society by Cape Town artist Christiaan Diedericks. In this body of work the artist’s specific interest in Vanitas still-live paintings and skulls and the varied meanings attached to the latter are self-evident. The relation of Vanitas to the larger concept of Dystopia is specifically explored in most of Diedericks’ works in terms of mortality, ageing, decay and ‘emptiness’. In Diedericks’ works even rotten human body parts are employed in his alluring still-life works. These works becomes timeless and difficult to label as ‘contemporary’ with only the digital medium in which the works are executed as evidence of a specific period or time. However, many other contemporary cultural references are at play in the artist’s work. Contextually, specific influences may be contributed to contemporary artists such as the filmmaker Peter Greenaway and the photographer Joel-Peter Witken.
Diedericks often uses the same disturbing voice used by Francis Bacon and others before him; his works on this show “establish an almost erotic territory of majestic sacrifice and sacrament, the meaning of which, for him, lies somewhere between the unspeakable suffering of the Jews under Hitler, the atrocities of the ongoing war in Iraq, the genocide in Sudan and the ongoing public hangings of gay men in many Arabic countries”.
In the arts, Vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The word is Latin, meaning "emptiness" and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. Works executed in the vanitas style are meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of attractive objects.
By the Dutch artist Peter Claesz, 1630
Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death and rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay like ageing. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject in Diedericks’ work is in conflict with his conceptual message.
“Nothing in my images should be taken literally, which should go without saying. This often is a problem for those confronted with figurative work. Specifically chosen people/bodies/objects in my images are merely signifiers for another meaning/reading for the work. I am a firm believer in the fact that any work of art always remains open ended – never completely ‘finished’ – there are multiple layers of meaning and thus multiple possible readings for the same work. The ‘actors’ in my work act only as representatives of my specific concept.”
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.
“In my work, time and space appear to dissolve, and an air of conflict erupts. This is often a direct result of a personal aim to calm and disturb at the same time - drawing parallels between the two extremes of utopia and dystopia. There is always a secondary narrative in my work. The primary narrative has symbolic authority and aesthetic promise, although the mysterious secondary narrative exists in order to provoke thought in the viewer.
In many ways I aim to ‘rewrite’ history in my work and the dominant sense of self-awareness that informs most Western art practices. I am trying to present contemporary issues such as Difference as timeless, by situating my vocabulary of images and themes in an organic flux of dreams, history, news, commercial detritus, hyper-reality, and unvoiced feelings and forces of biological nature/desire.
In Pretending to be Flesh I am trying to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable driving forces of contemporary consciousness – the desire for Otherness and the fear of losing autonomy. Herein lies the connection between my seemingly random imagery – borrowed images from contemporary culture, digital images, my own photographs and autobiographical imagery. I am always aiming to juggle these sometime disparate images to make them correspond without collapsing into one particular style, mode of thought, emotion, or art-historical reference. Through the juxtaposition of Self and human nature I am attempting to create a new language of images appropriate to the psychological realities of our age.
I am aware that my current Dystopian subject matter could evoke unexpected emotions, however, on a more personal level, I value the way that I often don’t “fit in” and it is my own uneasiness with persistent mainstream patriarchal heterosexual ideas about the world which mostly inspires me to make art. This is especially true of the context in which I work and live, and I am aware that the situation elsewhere might be different. It is my goal to fundamentally challenge my viewers not only about art, but also their personal (dis) comforts about gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, body politics, desire, geography, place and memory.”
Pretending to be Flesh will be my second solo exhibition at Focus Contemporary | Fine African Art in Cape Town and will also see the launch of my book The Feather Room. This publication by Focus Contemporary features a selection of my work since my student days to the current day. Franci Cronjé writes the contributing text, with an introductory essay by Hayden Proud and portraits by acclaimed photographer Merwelene van der Merwe. The first print run of 99 books is a collector’s edition and includes an original signed artwork.
Other works on the show include drawings, engravings, lithographs, Giclée prints, linocuts and ceramics.
Cape Town, August 2010