Dan Halter’s works: images, maps and transactions
Francesco Tedeschi 2008
(translated from Italian)
The geographical and cultural location Dan Halter lives in is both peculiar and specific, with a direct influence on the spirit of his work. Even in a world where everything appears to be connected economically and culturally, no one can fully understand the art of Dan Halter (30 years old, born in Harare, Zimbabwe and working in Cape Town, South Africa for the last couple of years) without linking it to characteristics of the places in which he has lived. This can be seen in the works recently showcased at the Joao Ferreira Gallery in Cape Town – where he had his first solo exhibition in 2006 – now shown in part in Milan.
The profile of the artist becomes clear through works that display, as often today, a wide range of techniques, materials and themes. His work shows the ability to interpret some of the social and economic problems of his native country, without treating them too didactically.
It is the starting point of elaborations showing a symbolic and reflexive approach to the world we live in. It aims to activate the possible cathartic function of the art object, moving from the descriptive to the representative. Among the subjects of his work, particular attention is devoted to some aspects of a “local” reality, which properly reflect matters of a “global” nature. The reorder of the national organization through the measure and reinterpretation of land assignment, the surrender to an unbearable inflation, and the continuous presence of the HIV virus: problems that determine the lives of both individuals and the community of the country. This is combined with the aftermath of a difficult post-colonial period.
Such subjects would be enough to induce judgement on the degree of influence the “political” sphere may have on the works which, in this way, meet a sensibility typical of the most recent art¹. Considering Halter’s work as a product of today’s aesthetic models, and being able to foresee that it may soon draw interest on an international basis, one still needs to take account of its level of originality. Important in his corpus are maps of Zimbabwe that are made by weaving together shredded documents such as the country’s banknotes, telephone directories and books chosen for their content. The theme of geographical maps, among the most intriguing in the artist’s work are based on linguistic and rhetorical, as well as formal meanings of possible representations. This often blends with an implicitly critical judgement on the way the interpretation of the territory is linked to strategic and political agendas, in a set of rules that readily displays the effect of power.
As shown in the studies of a French geographer who devoted himself to studying the meaning of the demarcation of borders, Claude Raffestin, every form of border or territorial subdivision is more or less directly connected to a form of control or possession, and as the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar underlined in one of his works of 1989, which compared images to the life conditions of the inhabitants of a village in Nigeria with the world routes of oil, in an immediate comparison between “Us” and “Them”, speaking about geography is the same, in some sense, as speaking about war. (“Geography = War” was the title of that work, presented at the “Centre Pompidou” in Paris in the famous exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre”).
Even Dan Halter’s maps, with their textual indications, show forms of subordination to an order imposed from on high, but also suggest different possible meanings linked to the phrases embroidered on them, quotations from popular culture and local proverbs. The internal boundaries, marked by the colours of the different areas delineate different farming regions. Every form of description contains a comment or a judgement and there is no neutral denotation, particularly in geography. Whether or not he posed such questions based on theoretical reflections about the geographic discipline, Dan Halter still gives a version that joins the exterior and visible element with an internal discourse, explicitly given by the fragmentation and combination of lines and letters that form the fabric of the map. Observing them directly, in fact, these maps show a refined skill in the process of weaving, that combines linear, vertical, and horizontal arrangements, according to the virtual structuring that is superimposed on each geographical representation to determine a form of orientation, in a unique and fragile tapestry of magical consistency that is reminiscent of Alighiero Boetti’s maps. This technical aspect is differently and personally resolved by Halter.
Along with the maps, and confirming a passage through practices that in the artistic field recall conceptual typologies, we then have the print and video elaborations that show without comment the names of the farms that underwent government siezure, a sort of horizontal map, produced by the nominal information, that will become temporal sequence and writing seemingly with no target, monotonous and occlusive. This form of description is also part of a “geographical” attitude that moves towards a proposition, at the image level, of motifs that illustrate the characteristics of a place. Among these there is the use of currencies of a certain kind, and money which forms the fabric of some of his maps, and also provides the theme for further works by the artist, beginning with the two supermarket till receipts. These are from purchasing monochromatic objects, only black or white, interpreting the transaction in a symbolic way, that naturally brings us back to the problem of coexistence of populations with different skin colours, after centuries of colonialism in that part of the African Continent. Putting money at the centre of the aesthetic operation is, in a way, like a form of manifestation or confirmation of an relational aesthetic taken back to its most immediate level, as if through objects, things that are bought or sold, are traces of lost gestures, that are visually recorded, like mental images. One could confer to the artistic object a scope that goes beyond its immediate impact, to inscribe it in a metaphoric dimension, raised above the banality in which the use confines the object. The little stylized statue in fibreglass, that shows an embrace between a black maternal figure and a smaller white child, represents the union and coexistence of different ethnic roots, but its repetition raises it from a banal object of example or decoration to a different connotation, where it is considered as an instrument of communication, more for its function than its meaning.
At this level, the modus of interacting with things and images is based on the observation of the conditions of daily life perceived by the inhabitants of a region of the world that the artist interprets, joining the inevitable sense of empathy with what happens in other parts of the world, within a geography of communication efficiently represented by his plastic mesh bags, which are the object in which his writing through a process of sewing is not far from the one of another African artist, Ghada Amer. For the Egyptian artist the procedure of sewing and using it to produce messages regarding the feminine identity is an essential way of working. Halter uses this modus operandi in a way peculiar to some of his works, following a dual approach: technical in the manual aspect that distinguishes a part of his production, and conceptual, using it along with other ways of image communication. Words become images, for example, in a neon sign, like the word “pefection” instead of “perfection” is enscribed out of a cursive- type script in Black Light, or in the matches and matchboxes forming his original typeface “Font for a Revolution/Zimbabwe”. Often an African proverb is used as a sign of communication based on correspondence between images and words.
Halter uses different techniques and forms of elaboration, often poetic, that focus on certain themes derived from reality to convey a sense of precariousness and at the same time vitality in every image that becomes representative of a collective experience perceived and recorded through extremely personal eyes.
¹Dan Halter said in a statement that he is not interested in expressing a specific “moral judgment” in his work, even though he’s deeply interested in representing the conditions of life he observes around him. It’s obvious that a strictly “political” interpretation of his works would easily limit its comprehension to the most immediate denotative level, ignoring the all important formal and symbolic aspects.
Know Thy Enemy, Know Thy Self
Khwezi Gule 2006
I don’t like Dan’s art. In fact there is a lot of art I don’t like. But that is not to say it is bad (aesthetically), misguided or insincere.
Fortunately my profession demands that I must engage with art that is not necessarily to my taste and art that promotes ideologies that aren’t consistent with my own and to understand its origins, the contexts in which it is produced. I am also required to take into account the technical and visual acumen that informs its production.
Unfortunately, all this does not make me like the work. So what is it that I don’t like about Dan’s work? In the first place it is too nice. I have used the word nice for all the innocuous connotations that come with it. I find it as innocuous as some of the terminology that is used these days to describe murder of civilians such as “collateral damage” and “extraordinary rendition” to gloss over kidnapping.
A while ago I received an email from a friend with a link called Fallujah Pictures. What I subsequently saw was the kind of thing that messes up your day and makes you lose your appetite but at the same time there was a sense that at least this kind of information was getting out there so it was good because these are the kinds of things that the embedded media finds too inflammatory to screen. Having said that however I had to wonder what I expected to see when I clicked on that link. It is not that I thought that the siege on Fallujah was without casualty or that it would not be bloody. So what is it that made it remote until I saw those pictures?
The point about this story is that there are many things in the community of nations that are vile. What do these images of other people and their suffering really tell us about who they are and the places they live? How do you make sense of the conflicting reports that come from those places beyond merely identifying those who look like us and sound like us? What has been interesting in the many discussions that have happened since 9/11 is in trying to define who and what the enemy is. How far in the hierarchy of the world’s victims do white Zimbabweans fit in and how far in the hierarchy of perpetrators do they fit in? What about South Africans and all those nations who think they are oh so good?
So when Dan asked me to write for the catalogue it was important for me to understand his work and where it was coming from. Because, in my thinking at least, I have abandoned the desire to write about art in such as way that my text is an elaboration of the artist’s statement. This piece of writing is less about Dan and his art than what I bring with me to the conversation. Not that I have been completely insensitive to what Dan is trying to say but that my engagement is as loaded as the work themselves nor do I expect his work to answer any of these questions. But I do expect him to ask himself and those who are close to him some hard questions and maybe that is precisely what he is trying to do.
You see, in light of the very complicated “challenges” of coming to terms with sheer scale of human tragedy that is unfolding around us there was no way that I could write about Dan’s work without bringing all of that luggage with me to the writing process. It is precisely because his work delves into these unsavoury territories of fear, paranoia, race, power, farm attacks both those perpetrated by employees on farmers and by farmers on employees that I have to go beneath the surface of his work. It is like when my friend Joe says there is contempt in the eyes of black people even as they bow and smile and rub their hands. It is that same look of contempt that I see in the eyes of white blue and white-collar workers even while they are calling me “Sir”.
But it is necessary for people to take the sting out of what they are experiencing or to lessen the pain of their memories. Dan’s life is replete with the contradictions of being a white person in the world today and if you look closely, behind the lines so does his art. You see from where I stand it is easy to dismiss Dan’s work as the anxieties of a white Zimbabwean bemoaning his paradise lost and to reduce his experiences here in South Africa as a spoilt rich boy who does art to titillate himself and his Michaelis-trained friends. And so I dislike the fact that his art is cool.
It is also the thing I detest I a lot of South African art. How can you aestheticise horror? Perhaps to do so is the only way to deal with it without letting it consume you. To stare at it obliquely lest you be blinded by the sight, to understand it, to come to terms with it. Maybe not to make peace with it but at least to come to terms with it and ultimately to confront it. So maybe I have spoken too soon.
There are of course many other things that are implicated in the subject-matter that the artist is delving into: the machinations of the liberal press, the viciousness of the attacks, arbitrary state power, the besieged settler mentality and its gun culture that is so aptly described in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and one that afflicts many a community including many white South Africans, large sections of the Israeli population. There is also embedded in discourses about Zimbabwe many of the same assumptions that frame the way people talk about African societies which is to look at contemporary African society solely in terms of what has been lost instead of what has been gained as well as the possibility of what can be achieved.
In all fairness though there are no spaces in the chaotic world that we live in that do not in some way compromise us in some way even less when you are trying to earn money from the art industry, so I can’t judge. But I do judge. Because what is art other than something to be sold. An artist once said that his paintings are like his children. Well you don’t go selling your children, I thought. But then again we do and a whole set of other gruesome things as well.
These are all the kinds of things that happen in which we are implicated in one way or the other. And for those of us who chose to do or say something about them have to take some responsibility for what we say. Our motto should be: let me judge so that I too may be judged.
So what is to be done? The one thing that can be done is that we can take responsibility for the person that we are or have become. For instance Dan is white and that’s not his fault but he still has to take responsibility for it. The same applies for the fact that he holds a Swiss passport, that he is an ex-Zimbabwean living in South Africa and a man that lives in a Capitalist society that demands he sell his produce. It is a terrible feature of contemporary society that you have to be accountable to a society that you had no hand in creating.
But he is also as artist and on that score he has tremendous power to determine what he produces. I don’t know what his art would look like if it was to bring all of these issues to the fore. I certainly do not want to see blood-splatters and severed limbs. That is something for Dan to solve as his career develops and as he delves ever deeper into these murky waters. A conciliatory note to Dan is that he could do no better if he was a flower painter. No one could. It is unfair to expect another Guernica but the video of toyi-toyi/rave video starts coming close to exposing that raw nerve but it still panders to being cool.
In the end to know your enemy you have to also know yourself and one of the ways you get to know the enemy is by looking at his art. If Dan’s work is able to make South Africans and Zimbabweans look at themselves with the disgust they deserve, maybe then I might like it a bit more.
Good luck Dan. You have your work cut out for you.
See the exhibition mentioned in this article.
Woven Into The Stuff of Life
Andrew Lamprecht 2006
Imagine a jaw so strong, or possessing through frustration or anger such strength, that it can crush stone. In breaking stone this way would it not also shatter teeth? And what would the shards so broken do? Would they not lacerate and embed themselves in the palate, the cheeks, even the throat itself? These pills cannot be intended to be chewed. Should the mouth patiently wait for them to dissolve? How long would saliva take to reduce these and have them absorbed? One year? Two? A lifetime? But thinking like this is folly: these pills are far too large for human consumption — they are not pills at all but stone inscribed — tablets bearing signs, such as are borne by oracles and prophets. If we read we find nothing profound, however. These signs are merely the graphics that are commonplaces on pills that used to be taken to induce euphoria and escape the everyday. A paradox then: an ecstasy tablet that cannot be consumed. Its material indissolute, its fabric threatening violence. These pills are not for healing, nor are they for inducing euphoria; neither do these tablets convey secrets or set down precepts. They will not be carried from the mount to the people; rather by their shape and size and weight they would be better suited for the same people’s hands. These stones then are for throwing.
Imagine for a moment that you are guilty; that you have been the cause of a terrible calamity. That the world has changed due to your hand. Not your hand exactly; not you as such but rather due to actions of your parents; their parents even: the spirit that you have lost but which drove them. You are guilty by proxy, if you will. By your inaction then you are guilty. This is a double blind: to be inactive is wrong; to act is wrong. How then do you act? Maybe act free.
Rozalla said this: ‘Everybody be free.’ But what then? Free to be free? That surely is not enough.
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down, yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom
in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Rase it, rase it,
even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
thy little ones against the stones.
What are we to make of trauma? Simple, explicable trauma that we experience every day of our lives. Let me help you start: ‘I have a friend….’ Start with that sentence and now complete it with a traumatic ending. It is easy. Say ‘who died of cancer after a long struggle’, or ‘who is a car guard on Long Street’ or ‘who has been unfairly dismissed from her job because she is pregnant’ or ‘who has never really known love’. These are but the simple variations. What does freedom mean here?
The works of Daniel Halter often seem to exude a sense of the irony at such freedom, it would seem to me. It would appear that they celebrate our freedom to be unhappy, to be disappointed, to be cheated, robbed, hurt or displaced. His works shower us with their subtle melancholy, a melancholy so subtle that others see it as mirth. There is undoubtedly humour here, a solicitude expressed in wit, but nonetheless sweating unease and anxiety. Halter is careful with his materials: hard wood and soapstone, both authentic; coins and banknotes, demonetised on the eve of this exhibition; maps and till slips, acquired from the land of his birth, Zimbabwe. And yet somehow the materials do not hold their form: the soapstone chips, the hardwood might be a veneer, the till slip fades and the map distorts under pressure from its interweave. And still, somehow, as if through the pressure of the will of the artist the whole exhibition holds its form exquisitely. Perhaps its form holds as if through a lament, straining from the natural tendency to break, like the voice uttering the dirge.
Renew our days as of old!
Or hast thou utterly rejected us?
Art thou exceedingly angry with us?
Perhaps when speaking of his works, we should ask if it is rather that Halter really seeks a freedom to make free. As free as a white-owned farm liberated; as free as a dollar demonetised. Maybe this is the sort of freedom here celebrated.
His works are deeply labour-intensive, yet not usually overly-laborious. They do not dwell on their hand-crafted nature and even, as in the case of Mother and Child, hide such information. In this we see the hand of the artist as the reverse of that of the stone-thrower. That last-mentioned hand is one that in a casual, thoughtless act puts out an eye, smashes a cranium, takes down a child. The artist takes days and hours and weeks to express a gesture that passes us by; gives a fleeting smile and allows us to file out of the gallery to our next appointment. It is a gesture that allows us to be free to be free.
Lastly, he is bound tenderly to life by the thought of his friends; or shall we not say rather, that by their thought for him, by their unchangeable solicitude and love, he remains woven into the very stuff of life, beyond the power of bodily dissolution to undo? In a thousand ways he will survive and be perpetuated.
(Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque, London: Thomas Nelson, , pp. 156-7.)
Andrew Lamprecht is an art theorist and curator who also makes art sometimes. He teaches at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.
See the exhibition mentioned in this article.
Ed Young 2006
The art world constantly attacks itself for friends writing about friends and so on… It is time that we acknowledge this kind of incest as something that our little art world is cheerfully based upon. And even the big boy international art circuit operates like this. It’s pretty pointless to sit in your studio and wait for a good write-up. It’s time to get your ass out there and shag some critics and curators. And this piece does exactly that.
I have been a good friend of Mr. Daniel Halter for a good eight years now. Although we have not yet shagged, one can only ponder what the future may hold…
Dan Halter and I have shared many a girlfriend, dodgy apartments, studios, cans of John West tuna, hospital beds, bad DJ sets, three-day hangovers, a bit of literature as well as numerous and regular memory lapses. It is for this reason that I feel comfortable, capable and honoured to describe his somewhat offbeat process of art making, one that I have had to put up with for far too long, as well as the overtly loud music he is playing in my studio as we speak.
The epitome of Halter’s practice can be found in a formal analysis of a work currently hanging in Jo’burg bar in Cape Town. It is a large-scale self-portrait made from bar trash, cigarette butts and packets, beer cans and expired pharmaceuticals (the majority of which was generated from the same bar where it has now found its temporary home). While I feel strongly that an analysis of this portrait is essential, I couldn’t be bothered.
Daniel’s process is far more interesting.
I first met Halter on the steps outside a lecture theatre at UCT. I was in a predicament as my perfect domesticated life came to a sudden halt when my then current girlfriend picked up my still vodka-addled head by the hair that morning. She told me she was leaving me for good. I thanked her and was dropped back into my comfy pillow, resulting in a peaceful morning’s rest. I arrived for class to find Halter in an overly crouched spastic standing position (one I have now grown accustomed to). He was talking very fast about needing a place to live: “Now!” (A term I have also grown accustomed to). I said he could move in immediately. Cameron Platter advised me that I was mad and that Dan would turn my place into a squat.
He did. I vaguely recall memories of more Carling quart bottles than floor space. The little space that was left was for the most of our time covered in a thin veneer of beach sand. As I was using my matchbox-sized room as a darkroom at the time, combined with Halter’s adamant refusal to share a bed with me, I crashed in the lounge. This put a serious damper on any prospective and definitely missed copulatory or cunnillingual opportunities I might have encountered at the time.
Dan and I had a few bad paintings and a lot of bad evenings. The most memorable being the night that Dan got burnt, badly. It was one of those easy evenings after we had performed a relatively mediocre DJ set at the bar, resulting in a aerial launch of lemons to our fragile heads by a disgruntled audience. As we had very little money at the time, we needed the cash from the DJ set for any valuable recreational drinking and unwinding before our final year art school assessments. The cash made us very happy. We did not want to leave the bar. We were physically removed around 4am and Daniel was reprimanded for trying to leave with the disgusting nicotine stained cushions from the back of this fine establishment (we owned very little furniture at the time).
‘Gay night, it’s all right, don’t get uptight. Uh!’¹
We stumbled toward the gay strip in Green Point where we knew the clubs were still in a happy state of bump and grind. We had a great time. Dan was spotted dancing on one of those pole thingies. At one point in the evening he came up to me laughing, showing me evidence that his polyester sweater had been melted onto his shoulder. It was very funny at the time. We left the club in the early hours of the morning, accompanied by a hot dyke and a fat chick, as they apparently had nowhere else to go. I crashed on the couch with the fatty and was awoken about an hour later. Apparently I had agreed to drop her off in the morning, which it now was. It turned out that her house was an hour away by car. Upon my return to the city I decided to pop into the art school to get some video editing done. After a huge argument with lecturer Johan van der Schijff, I realised that I was in no state to work and made my way to the corner shop for a big bottle of OJ. I received a text message form Halter stating: “Help, I am burnt, badly.”
I rushed back over only to find that the polyester had indeed been fused with his delicate skin. After some discussion I rushed him off to hospital. Being Zimbabwean and all, he was unable to produce any formal evidence of medical aid. The nurse made me watch how to scrape of the skin. I was overcome by a feeling of terrible nausea.
For the next week or so I was allowed the opportunity of scraping Dan’s wounds while taking a shower with him. I also had to learn how to dress the wounds. After about a week of this homoerotic experience I realised that the wound had become a beautiful shade of syphilis green. I rushed him back to hospital. It turned out that the first degree burn had now developed into a third degree, which meant that they had to take some skin from his ass (explanatory of his now hairy shoulder) and hospitalise him for a few weeks. This gave us some grace from Andrew Lamprecht in order to get our theory project in on time. Months later, Stacy Hardy wrote and performed a play in which it turned out that I had set him alight. Because we can’t remember a thing from that night he, to this day, threatens to undergo hypnosis therapy in an attempt to find out if I had indeed done it. This remains a possibility.
Dan spent a few weeks in hospital.
I moved back into his disgusting flat and tried to clean the dirtiest carpeting in the world with spray-on carpet cleaner. Apparently it was art critic Zachary York who dirtied it (something about Tracey Rose or something). It took about three cans. The smell was so intense that Dan accused me of smoking crack cocaine, a substance that I have never encountered. My then current girlfriend and I were evicted.
But, it is Dan’s obsessive nature, combined with his necessity for utmost perfection in his work that is derived from this somewhat crazy individual. I have never had a doubt that he would rise as one of South Africa’s most influential artists. And that he might somehow find his niche. As this book firmly marks the first of his solo exhibitions, and a definite launch pad for his career, I strongly believe that we have not seen the end of Dan. And I acknowledge his potential of becoming one of South Africa’s top exports.
Dan’s work used to fucking funny, although still predominantly political. As a student he produced some Robert Mugabe portraits with gay flags as a backdrops. He also played with stretching some canvasses with car guard florescent fabric and interesting word play. Dan seems to have an affinity for refugees and the like (his current assistant, Bienco, is a car guard and refugee from the DRC). Dan himself does not have South African citizenship. He is currently seeking refuge within the South African art world.
Not too long ago, Dan’s family suffered a brutal attack in Harare by intruders in search of Forex. Here I will not go into specific details. His parents were tied up and beaten with golf clubs for many hours. Most readers will have little or no comprehension of this kind of torture and abuse. As we read about these attacks in the papers almost on a daily basis, these stories become not only familiar, but to some extent fictional. His family immigrated to Germany. If this show does nothing else, it combines this fiction with the reality that many individuals face on a day-to-day basis.
I have no doubt that this has had immense impact on Halter’s production. Although the seriousness of his project might now be amplified, one must not overlook his playful subtleties. And it is this, combined with Halter’s sense of Swiss-Zimbabwean legacy, which is augmented in the work. I urge the reader to take this seriously.
I will not describe any specific works at this stage as I am sure that the other authors in this publication may have already covered most of it, and quite frankly, I don’t feel like it. But as many might argue that Dan’s work is about the over-clichéd theme of identity in this country, I see this pinpointing of easy themes far too easy. Although one cannot deny this as a part of Halter’s production, I would rather here specify that Dan is primarily preoccupied with freedom. It is not purely a political freedom. It is a personal freedom.
‘Every body’s free… to feel good.’²
See the exhibition mentioned in this article.
¹ From the song Bump by The Fun lovin’ Criminals.
² Semi-famous Zimbabwean pop star Rozalla