Notes for ‘Faustus the African’, a series of artworks by Johan Thom 2014-2015
‘Approach the brink serenely and accept the risk /of melting into nothingness’
(Goethe’s Faust, 57)
‘I look upon myself as a reasonable temple of God’
(Faustus of Milevis, Numidia, North Africa circa 350-400 AD)
Almost all the works from this series are casts drawn from a 19th century French ceramic bust of Faustus.
I fall in love with this bust of Faustus almost a decade ago. This Faustus is a wall-mounted ceramic in the kitchen my friend Guy Du Toit. Guy tells me that the sculpture has been in his family for as long as he can remember. His mother was frightened by it as child and so too it is with him and with his children. The bogeyman in the hall. But for reasons wholly unclear to me I am drawn to it. This attraction is the starting point for this series of works now known as ‘Faust the African’.
Two interrelated questions. First, why am I drawn to this devilish figure? And, then what does this attraction say about A. the artwork (this particular bust of Faustus, its formal and material properties) and B. about me?
Of course it is one thing to answer these question by speaking or writing about them and completely another to make series of artworks through which to consider and indeed process the answers to these questions. With this caveat in place I turn to a discussion of the working process.
Throughout the working process is more or less the same. First I make a silicone mould of the original ceramic Faustus after which I proceed to cast copies thereof in ordinary builders foam.
Builders foam sets in approximately thirty seconds and expands approximately fifteen times its original size. This makes for a rather unpredictable casting process, one in which artistic decisions have to be made in a split second. It is like drawing, or to be more precise like making a quick sketch of a moving figure. If you don’t get it exactly right in the moment, catch the gesture, the form or the movement, no amount of work after the fact can ever fix it.
I enjoy this game and refuse to tame the material. Each time I cast another copy I add however much of the mixture I feel is appropriate. When I add too much the foam bulges and bubbles out of the formal constraint imposed by the mould. The same gaping hole into which the mixture is poured is also the very same cavity from whence the rapidly expanding foam leaks back into the outside.
2. Frozen moments
The whole process of casting with builders foam is a game in which the process itself is captured as something like frozen three-dimensional moment. Again the builders foam sets in a matter seconds – even as it continues to gurgle and expand it coagulates and stalls seemingly mid-movement.
I turn the mould around as I pour the thick gooey mix into it. When I de-mould Faustus’ neck and shoulders appear stretched far beyond the limits of ordinary flesh and bone. This Faustus’ plasticky foamy porcelain-like body is presented as if in process of being pulled apart, of oozing, of putrefying and/or of reconstitution itself anew. Over and over again.
A note in my studio reads: “Is this hell? No, there is no hope after hell. This body is being reanimated, given a new lease on life. Besides, I am not the devil”.
3. On character.
Each foam Faustus is unique. Some of the cast heads are smaller, others much larger, clumsy even. But perhaps more to the point, once mounted the different size and shape of each cast lends a particular character to the face of Faustus.
This one seems devious, another withdrawn, one more feminine and others meaner, delirious even evil. But as it is in life so it is in art. Each millimeter matters. Nudge a bust forward by only a fraction and loses its balance, it begins to fall. Suddenly the eyes appear drawn into the skull, the shoulders hunched and somewhat unsure. From a self-assured chin raised high to figure huddled in conspiracy in five millimeters. Add a dash of pink and blue and play havoc with Faustus’ gender.
Each millimeter another gesture, each gesture another world.
Whilst playing with a deck of cards I realize that if I combine these foamy Faustusses with other objects the difference between the casts can be explored with even more depth and complexity. In this case, I create a Janus-type head that resembles a figure from Victorian English Royalty: the Victorian ruff collar made from a spread of cards, one side Dutch blue and white, on the other, red and black figures (numbers, kings and queens and so forth). I laugh when I mount this obscene two-faced-figure on an ice cream bucket. Presto! The ruff collar is transformed into a sail for a tub. But where to? (The colonies is suspect).
For “Faust the African: Health and Sanitation” the bust is coupled with a wooden toilet, an antique potty trainer. This a tongue in cheek ode to Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ of 1917 but also to the ‘History of shit’ (1978) by Dominique Laporte, a little known but rather amazing book about the sewers of Paris. To be more specific, Laporte chronicles the history of sewage in Paris and how, after completely re-building the city in the nineteenth century as the modern French capital, residents are finally forced to take ownership of their waste.
This game with found objects and meaning seem to me closely analogous to way in which I relate to the objects that populate my material surroundings and how in turn, these surroundings exercise a very real influence on my identity as an individual. Put two or more seemingly disparate elements together – a paintbrush, a speaker and a head cast in foam – and soon other things start to happen. ‘Other’ as something in between them that is really irreducible to any single element or predetermined causal structure.
This is some kind of magic, one found in the particular way surfaces rub off on one another. To use a metaphor, we are attracted to our mates because we desperately desire to be close to them. If this is so it is because there is always a fools hope that the magic that so imperceptibly draws us to them may rub off on us. But only if we can get close enough, for long enough.
And what of objects? Are we immune to their charms? I think not.
5. Performative relations
My meaningful relationship with the objects included in this body of work is time and place specific. That is to say this relationship is indelibly shaped by the experiences, ideas, discrete histories and even the presence of the other objects that I may encounter in a particular moment.
During a breakfast at a small restaurant in Queenswood, Pretoria I discover standing beside my chair a wooden potty trainer for sale at the antiques shop next door.
Whilst browsing through a second hand bookshop, I read about erstwhile leader of the South African Communist Party Chris Hani’s disgust with the armed struggles’ military training camps during apartheid. In brief, Hani was infuriated by the fact that the exiled comrades and military trainers were living a life of luxury whilst the new recruits were dressed in rags, semi-starving boys with guns.
And Faustus? Well let me just say as a product of Afrikaner Calvinism I applaud the man that shunned superstition and chose reason, no matter what the final outcome.
In this way the foam casts of Faustus exist as the very material embodiment of my performative relationship with the original object and its varied meanings. Faustus has a meaningful history and I cannot neatly extrapolate my attraction to the object from those meanings.
But still, the object also exists in the here and now, and so it would be utterly foolish to pretend that all I love is its history, the story of Faust if you will.
To only love history, received narrative is to be trapped in a loveless relationship that will never be consummated in the here and now. And how could it?
To love a ghost is to love nothing but your own nostalgia.