SCP: Who are you?
JT: The guy your mother meant to warn you about but instead pinpointed someone else with a funny hairstyle. Seriously though I am a performance, video and installation artist born in Johannesburg South Africa, 1976. I make things that entertain, poke fun at, question and generally rip apart our society and its history in a constructive manner.
SCP: What are you all about?
JT: Questioning everything: I am merciless in terms of taking things apart and ever-hopeful of discovering something out of the ordinary. The pun is intentional (one often takes ordinary things for granted without realizing how ingenious, wonderful and complex they are).
SCP: What inspires you?
JT: In no specific order: the resilience of ordinary people, our rituals and social customs, philosophy, my partner and family, good films, fine food and traveling.
SCP: Who do you aspire to?
JT: The list is long and somewhat contradictory so I will only add a few people whose names come to mind immediately: Willem Boshoff, Salman Rushdie, Werner Herzog, Rosa Parks, Tom Waits and Guy du Toit.
SCP: What was the biggest challenge you faced/still face as an artist in SA?
JT: The relative insularity of our art-scene and the low opinion most South Africans have of the finer nuances of their culture. I mean really: Wie de hel is nou n kunstenaar? There is so much of real value, depth and insight if we are only willing to look a bit more carefully and a little longer. This also means that we may end up challenging ourselves and the society we live in on a daily basis. But every adventure has its risk and rewards.
SCP: What’s your opinion of “Art” in JHB? Or the “artists” in JHB? – Firstly in relation to South Africa and then to international trends. In relation to where JHB art is going? (Please relate this specifically to the field of Architecture)
JT: I honestly believe that South African artists (designers, fine artists, jewelers, architects, authors etc.) are brilliant and rank amongst the best in the world. South Africa is a bit like a global crucible where everything comes together – in the process releasing incredible energy and generating countless new possibilities. Its like a real magic trick happening before your very eyes. Of course, its also painful to see things that we value (our culture, language and so on) slowly melting away but its wonderful to have that momentary realization that they could become just about anything. My only worry here is that South Africans have become very wealth obsessed and often this means that it’s no longer a question of ‘ergonomics’ but purely of ‘economics’.
As regards the field of architecture I sincerely hope that we can break away from the somewhat colonial idea that there is always more land available. We need to repair and transform the cities, existing suburbs and infrastructure without expanding horizontally. My thought here is twofold. First that we think about the long term sustainability of newly designed structures or even old ones that need replacing. A hundred years is too short a time frame. This will cost money but in the long run it will benefit us all. Secondly, we must protect the land. It is our lifeblood and we all fought so damn hard for it!
Globally I believe that contemporary art needs to discover a sense of urgency again. To paraphrase from a talk by designer Paula Scher, this does not mean that art needs to become ‘solemn’ but rather that it is a ‘serious’ activity. Serious art playfully takes things apart and offers new possibilities. Solemn art entrenches the status quo and accepts its limited place in the world (accordingly politicians and all kinds of bureaucrats simply love solemn, monumental art).
Regardless, Johannesburg has the possibility to be a global leader in terms of contemporary architecture as long as it does not become solemn. There is incredible wealth, a vast amount of people in need of architectural expertise (the wealthy and especially the poor), a general sense of optimism and real hope for the future. Certainly things should be ‘made better’ (a higher quality product and a overall social improvement) than they were under apartheid. Ons kan mos.
SCP: What’s the most insane Architectural design you’ve seen?
JT: Take a look at almost anything Acconci Studio is doing (http://www.acconci.com). Simply fantastic, insane stuff. And then of course the Lost City comes a close second but for totally different reasons.
SCP: How does one go about globalizing him/herself as an artist/ architect?
I want to make a blunt but necessary first point here: its not necessary for everyone to strive towards becoming global. We are part of the global picture whether we like it or not. But if one wishes to expand your vision of the world the easiest way to begin is to read. If you have money, travel into the world and go and see it firsthand. Be mindful when you encounter things on your journey (whether you are reading or physically traveling) and trust your instincts. Much of what constitutes global culture is not really interesting or exciting at all.
But there are real exceptions to this rule and knowing what they are can make a real difference to your practice as an artist whether you are a painter, architect, sculptor, designer ceramicist or whatever. Ignorance is not bliss.
SCP: Is there a future for you in SA (JHB)?
JT: Yes of course. The question is not whether one has a future in South Africa or not but rather what you will do about it. I will always carry South Africa in my heart, no matter where I am in the world. In that sense, the future of South Africa or the city Johannesburg for that matter extend way beyond its immediate confines. As I travel I make connections and think of possibilities for South Africa too.
SCP: The diversity of Africa is, in many instances, informed by traditions, common themes, and of course our history. Does that diversity lend itself to a specific South African style of architecture, or are we using imported architecture?
JT: Contemporary South Africa really is a ‘patchwork’ culture – something like a madcap quilt. This is in fact quite good and liberating. We can take the best from other cultures and incorporate it into our own without feeling cheated. This is a fairly uncommon occurrence in the history of most world cultures where people really get bogged down by grandiose conceptions of their culture and its so-called ‘purity’. Certainly some aesthetic forms are more suited to our socio-cultural and economic context. Our natural environs play an important role too (no-one wants to stay in a typical block of English flats in the middle of the Kalahari). South Africans have always been bothered about their ‘heritage’ and I wish they would realise how conservative and morally prescriptive an idea this is. Heritage is alive, it is happening as we speak! And no, we cannot arrest its development. If you absolutely have to arrest anything make it a politician.
SCP: What is local? Is local really global?
JT: Local is knowing your neighbor and the shopkeeper around the corners first names. Global is drinking a soft drink that is always the exactly same no matter where you are in the world (same name, same taste, same problem).
SCP: Colour – what does it mean to you?
Every color has a taste and every taste a texture and form. So color is part of a vast interconnected web of sensations that connect us sensibly to the magic of an otherwise chaotic, un-knowable universe.
SCP: What are the external versus internal influences?
JT: I do not make a distinction between the two and consider them part of a conversation between many entities that comprise our sense of self.
SCP: What about sustainability? How are ‘green buildings’ and other environmental, cultural, and societal issues influencing South African art and architecture?
JT: I honestly believe the whole world is still only in stage one of the green issue – treating the symptoms. The time has come to progress to stage two and really consider how we (the human population) are part of the problem. We can try to make greener vehicles or buildings but that is still just treating the symptom. Heaven help me when I say this but there simply are too many of us and one or two great examples of green architecture is not going to change that. We have to change our conduct and our very understanding of our place within the world as a productive species. We cannot not simply change our products.
SCP: Do you feel there still exists a somewhat lingering misconception that art in SA/JHB is not as cutting edge/forward thinking/progressive as what is happening overseas? Why? How do we change this?
JT: Its really just our own fears and insecurities playing tricks on us. As stated earlier, I the think South African art is fairly insular (a state of affairs for which its own snobbery is also to blame). In some ways we are ahead of the pack and in other seriously lagging. But I am not certain that we know which is which, and that is a real problem. A bit more critical thinking, honesty and international exposure would do us all good. Paradoxically I think South African artists are quite arrogant and often when our pretense to superior knowledge fails, our broken wing routine prevails. So we walk around proudly strutting our stuff in Johannesburg and the rest of Africa, safe in the knowledge that we are the political, cultural and economic powerhouse in Sub-Saharan Africa. Then, should we go to Paris/ London / New York and be challenged, we can always fall back on the fact that we are still part of the third world (and don’t forget about apartheid!) Its time to grow up and to enjoy the bounty of treasures adulthood has to offer. Fortunately quite a few South Africans have done so already.
SCP: Do you think the lack of resources / funding has limited artistic progression? I.e. things like installation art and land art – will we be seeing more of this in the future?
JT: I certainly hope we will see much more of it in future. Resources are always a problem but one should also remember that both the wealthy and the poor complain about money – we always seem to need a just a bit more. Great art is best viewed as a guerrilla warfare style activity. You use what is available and remain mobile, thus also retaining the strategic advantage over the workings of the larger institutions that cannot capitalize on the moment. When art only happens at ‘sanctified’ institutional spaces (including museums or art galleries) then you can be certain that what you are looking at is in fact something fairly innocuous and sanitized. So to say something really contentious: If anything, the availability of public funding through various institutions has really been detrimental to the capacity of art to accurately and with real insight reflect on the here and now. Put in another way, if institutional funds were only ‘supplemental’ and not ‘instrumental’ to the production of art then this problem would not exist. As it stands now, most artist are absolutely dependent on various governmental or corporate funding agencies to continue producing work. Or they become total slette vir geld and then forget about the simple pleasure of making something. I honestly do not know how to resolve this problem. For now, I suggest one just ignore the lure of huge institutional shows and productions that have all the money behind them and rather look towards the smaller independent or off-beat spaces.
SCP: Where do you go from here? What can we expect in the year to come?
JT: At present I am a Commonwealth Scholar busy completing a PhD in Fine Arts at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. I continue to make work and participate in exhibitions amongst a variety of other activities around the globe including: ‘Dystopia’ a traveling group exhibition curated by Elfirede Dreyer and Jacob Lebeko (October 8 – November 15, 2009: Museum Africa, Johannesburg; June 10 – August 8, 2010: Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Mangaung; October 17 – November 21, 2010: Jan Colle Galerij, Ghent) ‘The Heart of the African City’, a group exhibition held as part of African Perspectives (24- 28 Sept 2009) held at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. The Britto New Media Arts Festival, a group exhibition of international artists held at the National Art Gallery, Dhaka Bangladesh (October 2009).