Robin Rhode’s animations are pure pleasure; there’s perfection in their simplicity. They are so perfectly tuned, so light on their feet, that one simply wants to enjoy them; but because they are multilayered, they offer more than momentary pleasure. Rhode was born in South Africa and, in many ways, he is the Banksy of Johannesburg. In the late 1990s he began using the scruffy walls of the city as a canvas on which to make drawings which he describes as a “dreamscape to the impossible”.
But whereas stealth is crucial to Banksy’s modus operandi – he disappears into the night, leaving his images to their fate – for Rhode drawing is just the beginning of a process which he records in stills or on video.
As a new boy at high school he was forced to perform an unusually creative initiation ritual; each fresher was made to do a drawing and then to interact with it. Rhode now uses this technique to turn graffiti into performance art, and so create a witty dialogue between fantasy and reality that reflects the aspirations, desires and disappointments of young black South Africans. On a dirty brick wall he drew a bicycle, for instance, and then tried to steal it; dressed like a hoodlum in a hoodie, he tried to break into a white chalk drawing of a car before pelting the image with stones in apparent frustration.
Rhode has since moved to Berlin and although he constantly returns to Johannesburg to make work on the street and in friends' back yards, his images have assumed a broader, less local frame of reference. Rather than appearing himself – the embodiment of South African youth culture – he now employs performers. Sometimes they are kids, but more often an agile dancer appears dressed in some kind of uniform, as though playing a role.
On show are five animations in which still photographs are combined into films whose staccato
beat reminds one of Charlie Chaplin’s
jerky gesticulations and the robotic athleticism of hip hop.
Starring in each film is a chair by Gerrit Rietveld
whose elegant, pared-down designs have become icons of modernity. Like so many Modernist aspirations, though, the chairs proved to be abject failures; they may look good and embody goals such as clarity, simplicity and ease of production, but they are unusable because their unforgiving angularity makes them extremely uncomfortable. So they have also become emblems of the failure of Modernism to deliver the utopian society that its advocates hoped to engineer by providing good design for all.
Rhode’s stylish videos are about ideology as well as design. The performers responding to these icons of European Modernism could be seen as personifications of post-apartheid South Africa toying with ideas imported from the West concerning social equality. That, at least, is the subtext – the spice that lingers to give the pieces continuing resonance long after the immediate pleasure has faded. But to think about them primarily in that way would be like analysing a Chaplin screen romance in terms of gender politics, rather than savouring the comic timing of his gloriously heroic pratfalls.
The star of Piano Chair (main picture above)
is not the geometric chair stencilled onto a white wall so much as the grand piano drawn in profile in front of it. In the past, the concert pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has "sat" on a Rhode piano stool and "played" Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
on the chalk keyboard, but although the performer in this film is dressed in black tie and tails like a concert pianist, he treats the instrument as an alien intruder. First he throws rocks at it, then attacks it with a machete, an axe and a pillow before pouring petrol over the image and setting it on fire. Next he lassoes one leg, tips over the chair and upends the hapless piano.
My description fails miserably to convey the film’s magic, which relies on the duality of fact and fiction – the charm of the spectacle coupled with the transparency of the artifice. The rope, for instance, dangles over a nail from where it appears to suspend the 2D piano leg. While watching a man interacting with a drawing as though it were the real thing may be delightfully absurd, it reminds one of the power of images to influence behaviour – something that stylists and advertisers exploit mercilessly.
Why, though, are the man’s face and hands painted black as though he were a performer in The Black and White Minstrel Show
? He, or someone like him, features in Arm Chair (pictured left)
standing in front of a white wall scumbled with red paint. With his painted face and grey lounge suit, he appears no more real than a cardboard cutout; attached to his head is a contraption resembling an instrument of torture that turns out to be a phonoscope, a device for measuring phonetics. On the soundtrack the word “chair” is whispered like a mantra as the stencilled chair to which the wires are attached multiplies like a freeze frame as it topples backwards. In other films the narrative unfolds through the beautifully choreographed actions of the performer, whether it be a pianist attacking his instrument, a soldier tossing a chair in the air or a child kicking over a stool. But this man stands stock still with his eyes shut as though concentrating all his powers of persuasion on the chair, which seems to succumb to his wishes – conquest by more subtle means.
The clothes worn by Rhode’s performers reduce them to cyphers; some also hide their identity beneath balaclavas, while others acquire anonymity by painting their hands and faces black. The combination makes them both sinister and ambiguous; while the uniforms confer status and imply belonging, the masquerade turns them into feral outsiders – gangsters. The idea was again influenced by a childhood experience. As a boy in Cape Town, Rhode saw the carnival processions parading through the streets. The "Coon Carnival" featured men made up to mimic the black face of minstrel shows, as though by expropriating the caricature they could exorcise its stigma. But with local gangs taking part, the disguises were also a form of power play, a way of instilling fear as well as showing off.
Whether toppling racist stereotypes or Western icons, subversion is fundamental to Rhode's work. Initially what grabs you is the humour and nifty footwork of these class acts, but what stays in the mind is the feeling that you have just glimpsed the first ripple of a tsunami, an upheaval of Western cultural values.