Metal as Medium and the Animal Form
Roberto Vaccaro is a South African artist currently living and working in the Garden Route area. He is represented by Candice Berman Gallery and predominantly sculpts wildlife common to the South African landscape, and works with scrap metals as a means of expression.
ART AFRICA spoke to Roberto Vaccaro about his art-making practice, the laborious challenge of using metal as his main choice in medium, and the organically mechanized relationship between man and nature.
Roberto Vaccaro. 2016. Archimedes (Owl). Mixed media metals. Image courtesy of Roberto Vaccaro.
ARTAFRICA: Your sculptures have a clear connection to South Africa’s natural denizens and the vulnerability of these creatures. Do ideals of conservation regarding the local wildlife play an important role in the formation of your work?
Roberto Vaccaro: Absolutely. In my works, I explore the connection – and dynamics – between human nature and nature itself – the medium I choose is the metaphor. The works are made from the by-product of the human experience.
What ends up in the scrap heaps – where you may often find me, rummaging through what we have thrown away, discarded, ‘never to be used again’ – the waste is a kind of ‘coupon’ from the past, ready to be re-purposed. As I understand it, the conservationist would have us forcibly confront the waste we produce – and in turn, confront the past.
Likewise, the works I produce force us to ‘confront’ what is forgone by placing it in the spaces we know as the ‘current’. Our impact on earth is craftily disguised, hidden and concealed in landfills, sewer pipes and invisible smog – but our impact will, and has already, determined our fate. In South Africa, we are constantly ignoring our impact, which is why I, quite literally, use our ‘impact’ as a way to show the viewer the predators, birds, and indigenous animals we adversely affect – I force viewers to see these animals in their human by-product, discarded state.
You have said your grandfather and parents inspired you to pursue metal work and sculpting – when did your love of the arts actually begin to manifest?
Firstly, I wouldn’t say I have a love for art – it’s more of a compulsive disorder. I become tense, frustrated, and I stay up at night if I don’t do this. It’s a hell of a thing! This urge to do art – as I’ve described it – was not really the result of any external influence, nor can it be said that someone (or something) ‘inspired me’ to start doing this.
I feel as if I am wired this way, and that at any given point in my life, in many ways, I was expressing myself and going through the creative process – even if it was as silly as doodling in a textbook in grade one, or spray-painting the walls of my house in grade nine.
Of course, this is not to say that credit should not be given to those who supported me along the way, and who gave me the skills, tools, and space needed to be myself. It’s more accurate to say that I’ve said that my grandparents and parents facilitated my love for art in their respective roles.
Roberto Vaccara. 2014. Thunder Cat. Mixed Metal. Image courtesy of Roberto Vaccara.
Metal seems to be your preferred form of expression – which qualities of the medium drive you to carry on using this material and have you faced any challenges working with scrap?
Pencils, paint, wax and clay are delicate mediums, and can be given to a child – it’s normally only the subject matter that creates that power and ferocity. But with my works, even if someone doesn’t know how it’s made, in their minds they’re guessing it involves melting, burning, respirators and steel-toe boots. Metal puts the viewer in a submissive state.
The size, weight and cold is overpowering. It invokes a feeling of might, heaviness, and awe that other materials just don’t often have. Remarkably, my sculptures are still relatable somehow. My metal items are tortured and distorted, almost beyond recognition, and embedded in the animal’s body. You’ll find familiar, everyday objects – a can-opener, golf clubs, a trumpet, a bicycle – once you’ve looked a little longer, you may come close to my sculpture, and find a watch you once owned.
Viewers can then talk about the work and the peculiar items in them. Theorise and interpret my sculptures if you can, but to the academics and the critics I say this: I choose metal because I know that no matter who you are, your body is soft and short-lived, and no amount of money and no degree will make you stronger than metal, nor more important than the animals they resemble. For that reason, my sculptures make all who view it equal.
There’s no worrying about breakages, cracks, miscalculations, dirt, or an expiration date. However, the challenge is turning the scrap intoa sculpture – everything about using metal is a laborious challenge.
In 2011, your work was present at the Grahamstown Arts Festival and has since been present at numerous exhibitions. Looking back to your matric project ‘Scar Tissue’ and the symbiotic relationship of man and machine – how did you come to conceptualise this idea of amalgamating the human form and scrap metal for a final year project?
The topic was “stranger in the village’’. I had been dabbling in street art and it was quite something to throw a mural in some public space and stay unknown. This formed the premise for my year work, ‘scar tissue’ – the stranger unnoticed, what they deal with, how they cope and what they are afraid of.
The mental image of the place this man lived in was a post-apocalyptic dystopian near-future. He was one of the nameless scavengers in the corroded and toxic wasteland, mechanised and built up with layers and layers of their surrounding environment, using it as ‘armour’ to get through the day.
This is the mental image and survivalist contemplation that inspired my nameless scavenger with his suit of armour – who in some ways was like me as a street artist.
Roberto Vaccara. 2016. African Stray I (Wild Dog). Mixed metal. Image courtesy of the Roberto Vaccara.
Of all your sculptures, which would you say is your favourite piece, and why?
‘Scar tissue’ – it started everything, and it greets me in my driveway every morning and evening. Sometimes dogs bark at it. At night, it’s silhouette is indistinguishable from an actual person, and so it’s a good security measure. It’s brings me good memories to see where I started. It’s also a reference point to measure all works up against; Scar Tissue is the benchmark.
For more information on the artist contact Candice Berman Gallery