Brenden Grey on the Sasol Wax Art Awards 2007
I am always a little suspect of artists that buy into corporate awards, studiously avoiding such opening events at which one can inevitably expect to see the sponsor pat itself on the back for its cultural benevolence in the company of disgruntled and ecstatic artists and their various fan clubs.Sasol Wax is probably the most exceptional in its vulgarity, exploiting the names and signatures of mature and established artists as a vehicle for their own corporate advertising -artists are actually asked to produce work that is associated in some way with a product the company produces, in this case: wax. You would think that such a trite and juvenile approach to supporting the visual arts would be more suitable for the junior Sasol New Signatures, or perhaps most fitting for some corporate community engagement programme with underprivileged school kids: maybe Sasol Wax Crayons 2007, or Nature and Us with kindergarten kids in Sebokeng in which they are asked to recycle non-biodegradable plastics artistically to make the world a better place. The question is why are artists so willing to have their work cheapened by the branding strategies of their corporate sponsors and enter into such zero sum games? They are prepared to have their work marked by the patron, and as such strategically design their responses to such competitions. All of the works on the Sasol Wax Finalists exhibition are clearly competition pieces and to my mind attempt to outdo each other on who can use wax in the most interesting ways. Last year we saw Diane Victor’s smoke drawings, this year we see a predominance of wax paper as a motif in the artists work. It would be interesting to hear how the judges disentangle themselves from balancing out the novelty value of works from the integrity of artistic style. Anyway, the show itself is clearly a branding opportunity, hijacking JAG and Africa Remix for its cultural capital to bring some gravity to its cheap advertising. Sasol typography and branding language invades the exhibition space, corny politically correct soundbites by the selected artists are enlarged at the entrance, and just to make sure that their benevolence is not missed the viewer enters and leaves the space seeing Sasol’s Jewellery Outreach programme. Much to my disappointment Walter Oltmann won the award, but this is to be expected given his position as doyen of corporate foyer art. His work is supremely consumable from an aesthetic, political and formal perspective given the emphasis on the handmade, crafted element, its interest in African pattern, form making and yes, post-apartheid themes and issues. It just looks great reproduced in annual reports and company brochures. The piece entered, and installation of gold hands protruding from the gallery wall holding a series of gold objects associated with the subterranean reads as corporate kitsch, symbolically flat, cliché, poorly crafted, and generally what someone would expect from a second year sculpture student. Usha Seejarim and Wayne Barker’s entries, by far outstripped Oltmann in concept and execution (I won’t even mention Williamson’s docu-ethno-feminist multiculturalism or Verster’s cheesy skin/wax paper/tatoo metaphor for national reconciliation and healing thematic). Barker’s work, despite a heavy reliance on Beuys’s evangelical eco-theory, and a tendency toward sentimentalism is sensuous and rich, risky, rough and participative with the artist working in a number of contexts and through various processes (children and bees to produce elements of his work) to produce the final product. There is a chaotic process embedded in this relational approach to art making and building up of surfaces that subverts the inclination to design a competition piece for a sponsor and competition which is refreshing and powerful.