Words Can't Express What The Eye Sees
Grolsch Canvas interviews Ronél de Jager
- July 2014
Ronél de Jager is a visual artist who experiences life through what the eye sees and words cannot express, crossing the mediums of painting, video and public art. Of her inspiration she says: “I knew the creative path was not going to be an easy one, and I learned to avoid people who did not understand or appreciate my true self. The despondency experienced in many of my interactions with others has been one of the driving forces behind my creative dedication.” We find out more…
Ronél de Jager. Here we are, where are we. 2014. Oil & mixed media on board, 40 x 50 cm.
How does the city of JHB inspire you?
How can one not be inspired by the city of one's birth! My feet are solidly grounded in this culturally diverse place on the planet. I’m inspired by its people and by the notion of their interaction with and movement within this space; the changing states of reflection and emotion that arise as one moves through its vibrantly different neighbourhoods. A Sunday evening drive home from a day spent with my family stimulates my curiosity about the lives of the others inhabiting this place we all call home. It is as though Johannesburg and its people have become a physical part of me - ingrained in the synapses of my brain, in the pathways where memories are created.
Your work crosses between the mediums of painting, video and public art. How did you choose these mediums?
I have always been a painter. Painting is the medium through which I experience the world at a standstill, even if only for a second.
One of my earliest memories is of a primary school teacher having us paint a table cloth which portrayed our personality. I went home and enthusiastically immersed myself in painting a bold and colourful mushroom design which, for me, depicted a blooming and marvellous future. (Much later, I realised that this was a direct manifestation of my future journey as an artist, and very much what I experience in my daily art making practice). The following day, I excitedly presented my artwork to the class - only to have it immediately dismissed by the teacher who said my mother must have painted it for me …
Growing up and later as a student, my inability to articulate myself was impossible to ignore. I realised that my peers and lecturers did not find my protracted explanations as engaging as I did, and I often felt misunderstood as once again my concepts and ideas were dismissed. As a result, I soon found myself withdrawing from conversations and even classes, preferring to explore my creativity and engage in conversations with myself in my studio at home.
I knew the creative path was not going to be an easy one, and I learned to avoid people who did not understand or appreciate my true self. The despondency experienced in many of my interactions with others has been one of the driving forces behind my creative dedication.
Despite my lack of engagement as a scholar, I found myself excelling in three art subjects, achieving awards at school and winning numerous art competitions. This reclusive way of reaching for success was expressed in the presentation of my third year body of work 123blokmyself!. I deceived the lecturers into thinking that I was (once again) absent on the final day of evaluation while my multi-media exhibition was in fact 'hiding' from them in the upstairs girls bathroom. With marbles and used art materials spread across the bathroom floor, I lured them in. After my third and final year in 2006, I quit my studies, obtaining distinctions in my practical exams but walking away without a qualification because my Art Theory paper was written in Afrikaans prose.
I believe that the creative process will always steer us into the direction or medium which will best communicate our desired intention - and which will also often push us out of our comfort zones. For now, these are the media which have chosen me.
You’re currently busy with your solo exhibition A.M. After Midnight, a three part series. Please tell us more about it?
My debut solo exhibition (2014 – 2015) forms part of a larger ongoing project exploring the transformative power inherent in the constantly shifting presence of cast shadows and filtered light. Based on the Oxford Dictionary definition of A.M. as 'between midnight and midday', shadows become a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of reality, a world both present and absent, simultaneously formed and diffused by the play of light in the hours extending across night and day.
This multi-media, multi-spatial exhibition unfolds in three parts spanning in a series of divergent spaces. As the second and third elements of the project are unveiled, its previous incarnations exist in memory. Over this evolving body of work, recording and capturing light is used to register moments of silence, movement, flux, transition and metamorphosis. As the works develop over time and across locations, images might trigger recollections of the experiences, images and spaces gone before. In this way, my artworks, like the traces of light from which they evolve, become fragments of a greater whole – chance encounters that either resonate and linger, or are seen and forgotten.
My experimentation with projecting shadows onto canvases also underwent a shift - from an initial interest in capturing shadows observed in the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens to a greater awareness of the play of light everywhere. I began to experience light and shadow as an integral and unnoticed expression of the passing of time which barely filters into our fragmented everyday consciousness. I started to vigilantly observe the shadows on my bedroom walls as I fell asleep at night and then the shadows cast by the morning light when I awoke. The reflection of light through windows and trees has always been a kind of gateway of wonder for me. Once I became aware of the ever changing yet pervasive presence of shadows, I came to see this diffused and filtered world as an echo of the thoughts, emotions and movements that run beneath the surface of our lives.
A Prelude, the first exhibition in the three part series, was hosted by ROOM Gallery in Braamfontein during the month of June this year, and to my surprise was very well received by both public and media. As an entry point to this extensive new body of work, A Prelude explored the transient qualities of time, space and memory.
An interactive video installation is combined with paintings, and imagery combined with music, to capture the elusive quality of time. On entering the darkened space, one is confronted by the text visual 'Sit.' projected onto a grid of panels, prompting one to sit down on the seat placed opposite the projected installation (and in a way recreating the cinematic experience of sitting down to watch a film). As one takes one's seat, the video starts to play and the panels, with details of interior and exterior scenes, come to life through the staggered choreography of an illuminating projector and video footage of light shimmering through leaves and branches. The blocks of light projected over the panels appear at first to be light boxes, but when observed more closely, reveal themselves to be oil paintings. The 'cadence' of the appearance of these - slowly, then quickly, then slowly again - follows the rhythm of a delicate piano piece (composed as accompaniment by Marelize Koch).
At the 2014 Turbine Art Fair from 17 to 20 July, An Interlude is the second instalment of the exhibition, unfolding in the darkened basement of the Turbine Hall. By means of a specialised rotating camera mount (created in collaboration with my partner and cinematographer Thomas Pretorius), a video projection capturing the circular motion of a "sky view" film scene is projected onto a layer of luminous material overhead. A soft, echoing soundtrack enhances a simultaneous sense of immersion and isolation as the viewer is drawn upward into an endless sky.
An Interlude follows the sense of transience, movement and flux evoked by A Prelude with a ‘pause moment’ for reflection, solitude and silence. The final episode, A.M. After Midnight, draws together the contrapuntal tenors of the two preceding shows. This last exhibition will be hosted by Lizamore & Associates Gallery and is scheduled to open in February 2015.
You also installed your first public artwork located 10 meters north from the corner of Jan Smuts Ave and Sussex, Parkwood entitled 'WOORDE ONTGAAN MY'. Can you please tell us more about it?
In this artwork, light and shadow are both content and medium. The work consists of a section of blindingly white wall, which acts as a blank canvas for the play of shadow and light, - with the text 'WOORDE ONTGAAN MY…' as a framing device.
Johannesburg has long been undergoing a process of transformation – from urban decay to cultural hub. Its concrete structures are visually interspersed with trees whose shifting shadows provide a constant play of projected shapes. But this is just one element of the urban landscape as a whole, which is constantly traversed by people intent on their daily business and ‘seeing’ only selectively. The very act of seeing has become increasingly compromised in an image-saturated world, in a world technologically mediated - seen and experienced through screens rather than through the physical experience of ‘looking’. All public art is a form of interlude in the living spaces in which people move and work.
In this work, framing the shadows serves to refocus the viewer’s attention - to arrest the flow of time, however briefly. Framing is a device for containment; it encloses that which exists within its boundaries. But a frame is also always more than a containing space. The framing of the 'painting' of the shadows (which are emphasised by their inclusion in the cityscape) also draws the viewer’s attention back out of the frame to a sharper awareness of the concrete and organic structures that are being projected onto the wall. This how light itself becomes both the medium and the content of the work. The frame is preceded and followed by other adjacent frames, frames drawn and extended by both the context and the perspective of the individual viewer. The text, which is of personal significance to me, remains open-ended, allowing levels of meaning to arise from the inner perspective of each person who experiences it.
WOORDE ONTGAAN MY is part of a five-year public art project, which will have several public installations happening every year.
What was the inspiration behind the project?
The project is aimed at providing a contemplative space and inviting a pause in the flow of time. As a fast-forward kaleidoscope of shadow and light, the works counteracts our everyday experience of the passing of time. The fleetingly merging encounters within and outside the frame in WOORDE ONTGAAN MY are a Spectral re-enactment of the pace of the city in interaction with the fragility of life; of the viewer caught up in the very process of transformation that follows the inexorable movement of time.
Where do you feel your art is going?
Our creative industry is moving towards a dialogue between inextricably intertwined disciplines, and within such a scenario, the possibilities are endless. I’ve always wanted to work with performers, composers, cinematographers, dancers, technology, reflective material, sound, and especially light - lots and lots of light; in fact, anyone and anything that is able activate a space and transform it into an environment that stirs and engages.
With my partner working in the film industry, I’m fascinated by the 'motion picture' as medium, or the notion of pictures in motion. Who knows, I might just have the opportunity to direct my own film one day.
My visit to last year's 55th Venice Biennale triggered the wandering voyager in me. I have since promised myself a trip abroad every year to acquaint myself with the many art events, festivals, Biennales and Fairs elsewhere in the world and to help me envision and expand my future internationally. This year I plan to visit the London Frieze Art Fair and to take the opportunity to explore that city's monumental art world.
As Van Gogh said, 'One must always try to know deeper, better, and more.'
What art do you most identify with?
Here we are, where are we. 2014. Oil & mixed media on board, 40 x 50 cm.
All art, that is true to its creator, although I am particularly drawn to the work of artists who combine traditional media with multi-media elements in a contemporary context.
I greatly admire the work of South African artists Wim Botha, James Webb, Willem Boshoff, Stefanus Rademeyer and Marlene Dumas. Internationally, I have been inspired by Marina AbramoviĆ, Kimsooja , Chul Hyun Ahn and Hamish Fulton, to name but a few. I tend to draw inspiration from individual works rather than a particular artist's oeuvre as a whole.
Theatre director and actor Nicola Hanekom finds innovative ways of exploring space as a medium in contemporary theatre; it would be an honour to work with her someday.
And then there are the visionaries such as Ismail Mahomed, Michelle Constant & Warren Siebrits whose inspirational behind-the-scenes work empowers everyone in the South African art industry.
What themes do you pursue when working?
The transcendental qualities of time, space, memory and our existence entice me. My work has always been about the fleeting – the rushed and fragmented nature of our disconnected lives. Recently, I have focused on registering moments of silence, movement, flux, transition and change by capturing filtered light as it moves across a blank canvas and translating it into paint. The painted image becomes a ‘trace of the real’ - refigured and retraced, yet at the same time reflective of a conscious moment when we become one with our surroundings.
What’s been your scariest experience since you started this journey?
The journey of the creative process itself - the need to trust uncertain things beyond my control. I believe that fear tells us what we have to do. The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that it is what we need to do. The job, the plight, and the unexpected joy of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it.
And the truth is that most of us only discover where we are headed when we arrive.
What is your artistic outlook on life?
We are merely fragments of a greater whole. Fragments that either resonate and linger, or are simply seen and forgotten.
What do you like most about your work?
The power of my creativity and the freedom to create what I want, when I want – even if it is merely a thought. The intangible ability to understand and trust that my uncertainties will become powerful manifestations. The priceless gift of seeing my most profound ideas, once only imagined, become a part of other people’s lives.
What can we expect from you this year? Any latest projects?
As mentioned earlier, An Interlude, the second instalment of the A.M. (After Midnight) exhibition, will be hosted by this year’s Turbine Art Fair (17 – 20 July) in the basement of the Turbine Hall. My second public artwork RUS/H is also due later this year. Other than that, I am working on my first publication for the A.M. project which will be launched at the final exhibition in February next year. Following that, I plan on taking a sabbatical - to recuperate and to entice the creative senses anew.
I was hiding from winter all along. 2014. Oil & mixed media on board, 40 x 50 cm.
An Interlude. 2014. Video stills from multi media video installation.
All things must fall. 2014. Oil & mixed media on board, 40 x 50 cm.
Installation view of An Interlude at the 2014 Turbine Art Fair, Newtown Johannesburg.
Installation view of A Prelude at ROOM Gallery, Braamfontein Johannesburg.
Form is dead II. 2014. Oil & mixed media on board, 40 x 50 cm.
Installation view of Onrus / Unrest. 2013. University of Johannesburg Art Gallery.