Ruining Ruination


Relic | 2021 | Studio detail

There is something guileful about Chris Soal’s work. It’s not just the repurposing of discarded and surfeit material — the excrescences of our culture — it is also the manipulable tactility — or the desire thereof — of his sculptures. The invitation is for us to imagine an easy dexterity with everyday objects; in reality, his work is anything but easy. The eye at first believes that it knows what it is looking at and then the slow cognition of the trompe-l’oeil; the eye fighting for its rationality in the face of deceit; the eye attempting to regain its equilibrium after the labyrinth of visual trickery. It’s all there to be apprehended; the timeless manner in which our eye is a thousand years old but our bodies are just born; yesterday’s bodies fighting with millennia of the eye’s education. Our visceral response is to revert back to what our brain is trained to do; parse, dissect, distance and deny. What is difficult to comprehend is why we return to the work and attempt again to elude the slight of hand; we try to outwit our mental gymnastics by looking again as if to confirm that it is only matter that is confronting us; it cannot be anything but an object that we can subdue and control with our volition. Yet, we fail again and the art work wins. In effect, we score an own goal since it is our curiosity, our imagination, our desire for completion that leads us back to ogle as if our eyes will reverse their judgement and unravel the mystery that is beguiling them.

“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul...” These lines, attributed to the Greek mystic Hermes Trismegistus, are what I limned when I read the title of Chris Soal’s 2021 exhibition. But, I had to search for the reference since in the age of social media and Google, it is best to check that you haven’t imagined a mystic where there is none. Soal’s inversion is perhaps a secular gesture; an attempt to imagine a soul that creates its own universe; an outside that creates its own inside and a ground that creates its own elevation, its own firmament. These are all speculations but the title could also be read as a metaphor for the act of repurposing with which he is engaged. He has taken the detritus of our existence — the objects that we associate with our exterior lives — and made them ethereal. The snaking, spiralling coils of his bottle top sculptures whisper to us about an otherworldliness that we have perhaps chosen to forget. This was in fact Trismegistus’ contribution to esotericism and hermeticism — if we forget that we are gods; we will duly forget that we are human. And so it goes. Our search for the eternal in the mundane is what Soal’s cascading tentacles and spinning vortices push us towards. We are denied the opportunity to doubt since we are unexpectedly and dizzyingly thrown into the centre of the gyre and we are trapped in its energy. There is therefore an inert dynamism and gravitational pull embedded in these sculptures; if they are not throwing you down, they are throwing you up. As below, so above.

When James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time (1963), he was reminding his readers of the African-American spiritual “Mary, Don’t You Weep” in which God’s promises — first, to liberate the children of Israel from Pharaoh’s bondage and second, to send Noah a rainbow as a sign that the flood waters had subsided — are re-interpreted as a warning rather than absolution. “The Fire Next Time” is that alarum; if there are no changes made then there will be hell to pay. Chris Soal’s “Speak the truth even if your voice shakes” (2018) echoes the Baldwinian fire in its title and in the art work. When understood as art tout court, Soal’s toothpick sculptures elicit the same responses as his bottle top ones — the journeying eye trying to find its centre. Even in their monumental size, these sculptures could still be superficially read as expressing charming ornamentalism. It is only when Soal introduces charring and blackening that the sculptures start to feel more ominous. The singeing with a flame in “Weighting on You” (2021) or “Phoenix” (2020) are light touches; they are dragon breaths that barely touch the surface. The seemingly buoyant soot is a gentle reminder of what fire can consume. But, it is not destruction; it does not give us the feeling of total evisceration. It is only when you look at “Speak the truth even if your voice shakes”, that you decipher what the composers of the African-American spiritual grasped; when the fire comes it will not be salvation, it will be annihilation. The piece of burnt wood from the 2017 Knysna forest fire metaphorically indexes our hubri — Nature is exhausted by our constant consumption and in a voracious conflagration, she destroys everything and only leaves behind sprouting thorns to remind us of what we have let slip.

When Nature is not taking vengeance on our wantonness, she is inviting us to copy. Chris Soal’s contribution to the Nirox Sculpture Garden’s “Margins of Error” (2021) exhibition picks up Nature’s gauntlet. Although it is possible to see “Relic” (2019-2021) as an apocalyptic prognostication; an advance vision of what is to happen to us. It is also possible to see it as the opposite viz. an attempt to compliment Nature and her unequalled permutations. From this vantage point, the concrete dowels are totemic; expressions of veneratio and exultation erected for discarded gods. The reliquary enchantment is heightened by the suggestion that these concrete columns are in a state of ruin; some keeper of the gardens has been dismissed from their job; the oracle who once spoke in the name of the gods has vanished from view. Here too perhaps Soal wants us to leave with a longing for tactility; we desire to run our fingers on the surface of each column as if reading braille. But, that want is also terminated by our fear that the relic is a reminder o our own mortality. Our mind contemplates the possibilit that if these concrete structures can lie in ruin, we too will one day return to the earth. Although Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” was the inspiration behind Soal’s relics; the deliberate erection of ruins in gardens was also once a craze beautifully captured in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia (1993) in which a hermitage is built and yet no hermit can be found. Similarly with Soal’s “Relic”, there is a gesture towards an absent recluse and perhaps the intention is for us to wonder whether this haunting and imaginary ascetic may have been some mad genius who tried and failed to build a concrete forest, or fake herbage, dedicated to our industrial past. The idea of a paradise ruined or a pastoralism revive is what drove the notion of an Arcadia but as the Romantics reminded us, even in paradise, the spectre of death hovered close by. In Stoppard’s play, the mourning for a bygone utopia is equated to mourning for the razed Library of Alexandria.

In consoling the precocious Thomasina who quantifies all the treasures lost, her tutor Septimus Hodge points out that, “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.” Thus, although Soal’s concrete jungle may be an invective against our industrialised age, it is also possible to placate our trepidation by thinking of ourselves as Septimus Hodge’s marchers; we can lose nothing because loss is only temporary whereas the march is perpetual. From within this duality of utopias lost and regained, Soal’s work could stand in for our own seductive relationship with ruins; our constant rummaging through the debris of history in search of our lost selves. In this sense, Soal could also be ruining our mania for ruins by exposing the fabricated nature of our idealisms. Revealingly, in our gorgeously peripatetic interview, Soal mentioned his admiration for two American artists, the sculptors Martin Puryear and Hugh Hayden both of whom use carpentry techniques to create monumental or politically charged sculptures. These sculptors, like Soal, are involved in the work of excavating or critiqueing many American ideals and mythologies and Soal could be said to be doing the same for our South African condition. However, even this observation does not do justice to the intricacies of his engagement with the history of ruination which extends as far back as the ancient notion of spolia (“spoils of war”) which functioned as evidence of conquest or victory and then used as architectural fillers in new buildings and structures. Thus, although Soal’s work is about reimagining our collective spolia, it transcends such symbolic display of power by making the spolia even more beautiful outside of their original intended use. Even in this instance, Soal is ruining our suppositions about what is spoilt and what isn’t.

- Hlonipha Mokoena, Ruining Ruination


Hlonipha Mokoena received her Ph.D. from the University of Cape Town in 2005. From 2006 to 2015 she taught in the Anthropology Department at Columbia University
in the City of New York. She is currently an associate professor and researcher at WiSER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her articles have been published in: Journal of Natal and Zulu History; Journal of Religion in Africa; Journal of Southern African Studies; Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies; Journal of African History; Kronos: Southern African Histories; Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies; Image & Text and Critical Arts. She has also written catalogue essays for Zanele Muholi, Mohau Modisakeng, Sabelo Mlangeni, Sam Nhlengethwa and Andrew Tshabangu.

Relic (Studio detail), 2021
Glass Fibre Reinforced Concrete ReliefsDimensions Variable, (a single column measuring approximately 6m high x 50 cm in diameter, installed into the landscape in multiple configurations).