Wim Botha

Ceremonial bodies inside-out | looking with Wim Botha’s speculum

Frederik Eksteen
Frederik is an artist and writer who lectures in multimedia, fine art and art history subjects at the University of South Africa.

Coats of arms originated as European codes for identifying authority, country and clan. These insignia first appeared with medieval military customs as a way of identifying opposing armies during battle. But with the passing of chivalry, heraldic crests became ever more symbolic, and acquired significance away from the battlefield as signs of power and wealth. Surprisingly, it is much the same in the present day. In contemporary visual culture the coat of arms serves as a blueprint for the design of the imposing corporate logos that surround us in our daily lives.

Regardless of their sustained significance, heraldic insignia – like the other classes of stately objects included on this exhibition – tend to be read visually at face value and not critically. They impart an immediately recognised official flavour that implicitly halts any need for further scrutiny. In their overused and derivative imagery, we see the filigreed complexity of designs before we notice the components. Obligatory shields, portraits, animals, flags and weapons, ostensibly charged with mythical significance, are secondary to comprehending an immediate imposing effect. Instead of allowing the viewer to focus on parts, decorative surfaces produce instinctive reactions, tempting comparisons with elaborate animal attributes that are flaunted during power and courtship displays. The image of a peacock burdened by an awkwardly decorative tail keeps coming to mind.

With Wim Botha´s first gallery-based solo exhibition at Michael Stevenson Contemporary, the stock motifs of power are subjected to an invasive screening. He assembles a collection of official-looking props centred around coats of arms which serve as a conceptual template for the exhibition. Formally sculpted busts take in their new surroundings numbly, and marble surfaces, polished gold, mellow stained glass, ornate detail and ceremonial plaques stand as disempowered elements of power. It may appear superficially as another exhibition of important objects in a city that is indelibly entwined with the settlement of European history on South African soil. But Botha´s tableau of richly overstated elements is more than a frivolous homage to colonial mascots, thanks to the artist´s inventive staging of the scene.

Botha´s take on the ceremonial showcase is, significantly, neither a tribute to past glories nor their outright denouncement, but less forcefully, an intent and active look at how power and identity have been embodied in the objects we associate with office. While maintaining an appearance of authenticity, which continues to be the foundation of many stately representational traditions, the artist skilfully simulates what is already a simulation, and in so doing, refracts what we know about officialdom. He achieves this by discreetly substituting canonised materials, distorting and dislocating symbols, and dramatizing the setting with cautious irony. In short, the strategy is one of selectively faking it; of presenting a scene that gives the appearance of seamless dignity, but with more than a few unexpected ruptures disturbing its placid surface. The title of the exhibition, moreover, puts the focus squarely on how the artist suggests we may look at imperial images; and less patently, for viewers unacquainted with Botha´s work, comments on what has become a signature strategy of wringing unlikely meanings from venerated cultural types.

As an optical device, a speculum is one of two possible things: it is a reflector – more specifically, an antique metal mirror – or a tubular instrument that is inserted into body passages for the purpose of medicating or inspecting. (My dictionary suggests two entry points, nasal and vaginal, but I can imagine a few other possibilities).

As a reflector, the first designation draws attention to surface, to the particular exterior we have come to associate with stately aesthetics. The decorative reflection that Botha captures is – like all mirror images – both a facsimile and a reversal of the original. We should see the gilding, embellishment and drapery not only as gaudy baroque accoutrements that somehow manage to signify unquestionable splendour, but also as inverted devices that anxiously screen a fear of losing face. By adopting this focus, the flamboyant exterior becomes both a ceremonial spectacle and a protective disguise.

The second intimation of the word speculum suggests that we look beyond the obvious symbolism. To this end, the artist subjects the assembled cast to strange conflicting forces. With poltergeist-like results, some insignia collapse inward as others are frozen in a state of exploding. By implying both an inside and outside pressure they are shown to be empty, hollow, without substance, easily misshapen. The tactic draws attention to the fact that these objects are not ordained but made, both physically and ideologically.

It is important to note that what we see here is no mere parody or some dispassionate form of social commentary, but an investigation that is also inwardly critical of its own aims. Inasmuch as the artist comments on the hackneyed uses and origins of stately regalia, he can´t help but celebrate their forms by adapting their awkward flourishes to his own purposes. This kind of double-jointed forgery has two inevitable outcomes. In the moment of dismissing the legitimacy of national, corporate and individual badges of authority, the strategy turns on itself and enforces the value of the original by bringing something of its initial significance into view.

With this exhibition the artist doesn´t propose more suitable alternatives to ceremonial acts of blazoning, doesn´t insist on renaming or reclaiming older types, doesn´t try to medicate after looking into the contaminated depths of identity, but questions the convention´s ability to stake out some kind of legacy for its bearer. As the artist himself states in response to a renewed interest in heraldry among naturalised immigrants: ‘Sometimes existing does not seem to be enough in itself´. With this existence, some kind of official evidence is sought. Charged traces of vigour and importance have to revive a narrative about lives lived purposefully. It is along this line of thinking that this project was conceived. What Botha achieves here is not only to reveal something about the dubious ambitions of celebratory mechanisms but, in so doing, reactivates the poignancy of the long dormant cliché.

It seems needless to point out that in the case of our particular past, the stuffy ornamentation of imperial signage fails to answer to the unevenly adorned history that it seeks to represent, but this exhibition adds a serrated edge to the fact. As convenient badges of alleged solidarity, official regalia continue to fall short of what they claim to be, and can only have real significance in terms of what they can´t accommodate. Identities are boundless and refuse to be subjected to simple cattle branding tactics; today, maybe much more so than before, as time and space keeps on shrinking. Localities and symbols cannot keep up with what we are, and even less so, do justice to what ‘we´ once were.

© 2005 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.