Palimpsest: Chris Soal’s Sculptures Reveal Many Meanings
By Drew Haller
The City’s Echoing Voice
About 40 minutes away from the centre of Johannesburg, you will find a gated park. Unlike the sprawling liveliness of the country’s urban hub, this park is quiet, curated and composed. The only audible noises are those of laughing children, picnicking families, and chirping birds. Nirox Sculpture Park is a landscape of reprieve. Sitting at the border of what is known as the Cradle of Humankind in Kromdraai Rd, its meandering visitors are presented with an opportunity to remove themselves from the polarized chaos of the city, and contemplate the transient world of art in nature.
But the park’s close proximity to urbanity holds room for great tension. The outside world calls out loudly, asking for recognition, reminding us that its suffrage was the impetus for many of the exhibitions’ genesis. Alongside creators like St John Fuller and The Real DMZ Project curated by Sunjung Kim, Chris Soal channels the voice of the cosmopolitan world into the space. Soal, a renowned South African sculpture artist, is the youngest artist to have been exhibited by Nirox Sculpture Park. His installation, forming part of the Margins of Error exhibition, reflects this dichotomy between the organic landscape and man-made infrastructure with a prophetic sense of awareness.
These looming installations are a palimpsest: an object that bears traces of its earlier form, a piece whose identity is defined by its nostalgic precursor and its present reality, a work defined by its history. As you stroll through the start of Nirox’s maze, Relic (2019- 2021) is one of the first pieces to catch your eye. Made of glass fibre, concrete and rebar, it stands 25 feet tall, with small breakages surrounding it. The grass grows slowly around the heavyweight of fallen fissures. Weaving through the fractured concrete and the long-standing poles, the visitor will initially believe that the totemic structure has collapsed. But on closer observation, one wonders about the intentionality of the striking installation, whose brutalist figure disrupts the softness of the natural world.
Relic. The word’s Latin root means remnants, leftovers, residue. In Roman Catholicism, the word is associated with the venerated objects that a holy person has left behind. The sculpture appears venerable too, sanctified by human ingenuity. This mysterious Stonehenge-like monument alludes to the debris of the cosmopolitan Gauteng valley, where the boundaries of our homes are defined by high walls and metal frames, all outlined by tarmac and accompanying potholes. Except, in this scenario, the concrete is overwhelmed by the neighbouring flora. The installation appears as evidence of humanity’s frail and unsustainable legacy. Soal understands them as a “future prophecy of human hubris, overconsumption and neglect. It’s this kind of warning that we’re on a path to destruction”.
The looming concern of human heritage comes at a time when South Africans, and all global citizens, are being forced to consider humanity’s impression on the environment. The dynamic, urban nerve-centres — which once characterized our unimaginable capacity to engineer new livelihoods, control the economy and manage development — now represent the cause of rising temperatures, accumulating waste, poverty, and unprecedented materialism. It brings the visitor to consider the impending decay we leave in our wake — how consolidated power can too be dismantled and eroded. Relic is a quiet demonstration of our disposable attitude to existence, that seems to ask “Are our legacies expendable?”.
Accidents, Residue and Resonance
In explaining the origins of Relic — which Soal deems the “Petrified forest of the future” — he recalled the omnipresence of concrete in his childhood and adolescence. “There’s been this history of me working with concrete as a way of feeling my way through the city.” Having grown up in the tar metropolis, he identified the city in correspondence with the industrial fabric, which he named a “defining medium”. During his studies at the University of Wits, Soal made sculptures where he instinctively combined concrete and rebar. The first was a figurehead of his friend’s image; the construction of a corporeal human presence using inorganic material fascinated him.Later, in his submission for the 2018 PPC Imaginarium Award,the brutalist material reminded him of his childhood playing soccer in concrete ‘parks’ where he would scratch his knees to bits, and the soccer ball would take on the shape, colour and texture of its harsh playing field. This resonance with concrete seemed clear in these pieces, but Relic was different. Soal became more interested in the remains of the concrete structures, rather than their substance.
“It started as a very happy accident in the studio. I’ve been working with these concrete and toothpick combination works, and there’s one particular piece titled In the Face of Overwhelming Opposition (2019). If you look carefully, you’ll see this little discoloured patch of toothpicks where a section of concrete had broken off. I remember freaking out that this had happened to the piece — and then I saw the texture on the back of the concrete that the impressions of the toothpicks had left behind. The texture was fascinating. I felt like one of the ways that I could extend my thinking around the use of those materials was through their absence. I cast these three flat, concrete panels and poured them over a bed of toothpicks, and then I removed those toothpicks and actually pulled them out of the surface. I titled those three, The Haunting of Our Age (2019), and I was thinking about the impressions that maybe shape the ideologies of our time, or our experiences as a culture. These are like haunting impressions that we are maybe not even fully cognizant of, but they still exist.”
Reimagining the Discarded
Soal commonly works with discarded materials, drawing attention to the invisible objects which exist in mass but remain unseen. At the Nirox Foundation’s indoor gallery, The Covered Space, Soal also exhibited Elegy, a series of works that resolve to engage public perceptions through the unlikely and imaginative use of disposable ephemera. In Paniki (2021), Soal reorganizes used beer bottle-tops to create threads of interconnected spirals, connected by electric fencing cable. These circular structures drip towards the ground, like a burning candle whose tactile wax condenses and coagulates at the will of the weather.
For Requiem (2021), Soal uses bamboo and birch wood toothpicks to compose a mounted wall feature that conjures your touch. Soal transforms these futile objects by reinterpreting the discardable dregs of human comfort into sensory replicas of stirring environments. These abstractions can reference several points, each piece being widely open to interpretation. But for Soal, each piece has a prolonged and incidental origin story which led to the breathing motifs that surprise visitors today.
Soal’s gold bottle-tops presented themselves to him unassumingly, as did most of his materials. At a dinner party, Soal picked up a bottle-top that immediately reminded him of the city streets, littered with souvenirs from the consumption of yeast, barley and hops. In Braamfontein, a glint of gold would catch Soal’s eye, and he would find himself thinking of the bars where bent beer bottle tops resembled cowrie shells, whose forms were associated with beach walks and ancient trade routes, even pre-colonial forms of currency. In modern times, these bottle-tops were like a celebratory personification of a “cheers!” shared between friends over a beer. The gold colouring and metallic content also held connotations to Gauteng’s mining history. The toothpicks, much like the bottle tops, were features of the dining table too. Soal picked up the holder of sharpened timber and birch wood spears, and contemplated the circular shape that poked out of the plastic bottle. In it, he saw Fibonacci sequences, repeated forms in nature. He snapped a quick picture, and after two years, the image returned to him.
“And then I saw this box of toothpicks, and they arranged themselves in this perfect spiral, a beautiful form that you see aloes growing out of, or in the inside of a sunflower. And it just kind of struck me. I took a little photo… and I literally sat on that photograph for two years. I dismissed it, because it’s a material that we all dismiss. So I had to go through this period of letting it sit, until I could take it as something worthy of becoming an artistic medium. I had to overcome my own biases towards the material — which is interesting, because one of the themes that I try to address throughout my work is this idea of perception and the value we attribute to things.”
It wasn’t until a certain experimental group show that Soal felt inspired to play with the materials again. That single image he took 2 years ago would inspire Requiem and other pieces, whose biomimicry draws the viewer to consider its similarities to natural formations. Soal says, “I basically wanted to take what I’d seen in that little box, that beautiful swirl, and replicate it on a larger scale… But I couldn’t control these toothpicks. They just had a mind of their own. I remember being so frustrated by them, that I stepped back — and it was only after I’d gained a little bit of distance from what I was working on, that I saw it actually taking on a different form. It became soft and warm and enticing. It almost looked like a field of wheat, or something that the wind was blowing through, like a patch of fur.”
Playfulness, Experimentation and Community
There is a paradoxical relationship between Soal’s choice of material and the intellectual narratives to which they allude to. Pieces like Requiem and Paniki create more biological illusions, imitating the natural world with the unnatural, reflecting the beginning with the end. Each piece truly is a palimpsest. Although many eyes recognize the ecological concerns which his works of human waste allude to, such as “barren landscapes, extraterrestrial terrains, dead coral reefs, rough, aggressive tree bark,” he notes that his creative process is informed by his somatic relationship with his materials, first and foremost. With continuous, long-term experimentation in-studio, Soal balances the instinctive with the intuitive. It is a self-sustaining cycle where play informs research, research informs theme, and theme informs the ecosystems which he cultivates so considerately. Soal does not dominate the material, he unearths it. His non-linear interaction between hand and material allows for the abstract works to be recreated, remade and reconstructed in a plethora of ways, as determined by the light, the sensations and the orientations of the viewer. This meditative and reflective skill is something that Soal learnt over time, and it is a practice he hopes to share with others.
“It’s going to be time-consuming. Lean into that, embrace that. Because there’s a slowness of thought that lingers longer than quick realizations. I’ve had many off-the-cuff brilliant ideas, my walls are plastered with sparks of brilliance. But there’s something about the slowness of something embedding itself into your consciousness that manifests into a work years later. Relic started so small, so insignificant, so slow — from a breakage. Don’t be too concerned with trying to produce something as opposed to enjoying that space of making. It doesn’t always need to be resolved. And don’t be afraid to get help… I arrived at this conclusion after lots of headbutting and late nights of working myself to the bone. I used to smuggle friends into the studio at university to assist me, and before I knew it, this had become an active part of my process. Collaborating with people has become as natural to me as sitting down and doing it myself… There’s this idea of an artist being an island, and it’s completely nonsense. There’s a real beauty in pushing your process as far as you can take it yourself, because there’s an understanding that seeps in through the doing. But you’re going to need to bring other people into the process, and that’s a skill worth polishing, in any arena.”
Within this supportive community, Soal offers thanks for the other artists and mentors who have helped him along the way. He nods to his formative years as a graduate student interning at The Centre For The Less Good Idea, a foundation by William Kentridge. What began with coffee runs and chair-stacking, ended with an entryway into the discursive, playful portals of a tight-knit network of practising artists. He says, “That was really special. I learned the importance of a community. And William’s work in general… he wrote this book, Six Drawing Lessons, which I also read as a student. One of the things that he proposes in that, is that the studio is this safe space for stupidity. It’s like this metaphysical space that he allowed himself to play in, because he felt like play, for him, was an important feature of overcoming self-consciousness, overcoming ego, and engaging.”
Another formative moment in his career was his time spent in Senegal, Dakar, as a resident artist at the Raw Material Company, founded by Koyo Kouah who now directs the Zeitz MOCAA. During this fellowship programme, Soal also had the opportunity to learn from Otobong Nkanga, a Nigerian Visual Artist and performer addressing environmental change and the socio-political value of land. This community immersed him further into the everyday habit of creation. He said, “I think it’s super, super important that artists are making and thinking and responding and working and supporting each other. Because unless we have as many people active and participating in the cultural discourse, we’re not going to have the full spectrum of voices to respond to the situation as is needed.”
Looking to the Future
After an incredibly busy year with 3 solo shows open in the first 4 months of the year — including exhibitions at WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery, MONTORO 12 Gallery at Galila’s POC in Brussels, and Nirox — as well as a relocation to Cape Town, Soal seems eager to regain a sense of equanimity and balance in a new space. After much time spent producing, managing gallery shows, installing sculptures, and scheduling his time, Soal is excited to get back into the nitty-gritty of creating again. He finished our conversation with an allusive nod to the work on his shining horizon. He said, “I’m really excited to be an artist again. I’m developing a series of works on paper. They are very fragile and tentative and they could be a great failure — which is a beautiful thing because something always comes out of that. So, you could look out for that. But for now, I’m taking the time to appreciate where I’m at. I’m stepping into new bodies of work that I’m trying to create far away from prying eyes, until I (hopefully) surprise everyone.”
If you’d like to support Chris Soal, you could keep an eye out on his upcoming works or visit his exhibitions. Otherwise, if you’d like to support Chris’s creative vision for South Africa, you can donate to Bag Factory Art, a platform which provides for young and emerging artists as a means to sustain the legacy of contemporary South African art and culture. You can also donate to KRUX, a non-profit organisation that facilitates dialogue between production and spirituality, while fostering community care.
Many thanks to Chris Soal and Nericke Labuschagne for making this article possible. Installation images courtesy of the artist and WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery. Photography by Mike Taylor.