According to Soal, La Peau de Chagrin suggests a dried and cracked riverbed, a scab or skin, and ties in to what he sees as the ecological concerns at the heart of this exhibition
The core of Chris Soal
The starting point for Chris Soal is the material. He works with materials that have a physical resonance – «they’re often materials I’m in contact with, that have left their imprint on me physically, and then through an observation or a reconsideration have started to become conceptually imprinted in my thinking as something to explore. ’I’ve often said to people that I don’t think I’m necessarily an artist who has good ideas, but rather that work comes from work».
To be present through the process of making, being alert to new suggestions and observations that arise in the making is what Soal does. It happens to be the case that what surrounds him in his daily life, are products of mass consumption, embedded within the social fabric of our time. Through reworking these materials in the studio he’s found a way to engage with contemporary issues.
«My work is investigative rather than prescriptive, allowing the material to lead me forward, and I think that by working in abstraction I allow many points of entry and engagement with what I do, while the use of familiar objects, on close inspection, in my work gives every viewer a sense of affinity», Soal states.
Materials native to the environment – bottle caps in South Africa
There seems to be a lag between input and output, which Soal has come to understand as ideas filtering through the sedimentary layers of his unconscious before manifesting into something his consciousness can grasp. «I think of my initial relationship to materials almost through the act of fiddling, and then the fiddling becomes a type of conceptual or psychological fiddling in which I’m challenged to reconsider the object and the confines within which I’ve been interpreting it. My work springs from these moments of half-possibility, or of something unexpected unveiling itself», Soal shares.
Some ideas, such as La Peau de Chagrin – the sandpaper piece on show at Eduardo Secci, he has carried with him for years before finding the appropriate form of expression. «In most instances I think I’m actually the blockade in the process, inhibiting the material from expressing itself as it sees fit due to a particular agenda I have. In such instances, it’s really a case of trying to get out of your own way».
He shares that here are always new things happening in the studio with new materials. «I’ve given myself permission to take as much time as each project demands. I work on multiple pieces at once, which in many ways takes the pressure off of getting a single piece or single idea right».
Anthony Caro: If you want to change your work, change your habits
Chris Soal has done a residencies over the last five years which have taken him away from South Africa for a few months at a time. He found this to be beneficial and have seen breakthroughs come into his practice as a direct result of the research, writing, making and thinking he gets to do during those times. According to Soal, travelling and living abroad has exposed him to a broader understanding of the history of art, considering the particularities of each place and who is celebrated where.
«My view of the world will expand the more I see, along with my possibilities, references, and considerations, which will all have a direct impact on the work that I do, shifting it gradually or more substantially depending on the impact it has on me as a person».
Gender Based Violence in South Africa
Soal had been working with bottle tops for five years already by the time Covid-19 came around. From the beginning, he observed how they would writhe and twist around the floor of the studio as he was threading the caps onto the electric fencing cable. However, it was only in 2020 that he decided to act on this observation.
«Perhaps there was something about the uncertainty of controlling the material that made me hesitate all those years, but perhaps it was also that during the period of lockdown in South Africa, I couldn’t collect any bottle caps as there was a restriction on the sale of alcohol by the government, so I was looking back at what we had in the studio. It was also during this time that it was observed how the reported GBV cases had substantially diminished, and the direct correlation with the ban on alcohol was made. I think all of this was stewing in my mind as I went to make the first ‘intestine’ piece».
Remains To Be Seen: an exhibition by Chris Soal at Eduaro Secci Gallery
The visceral disgust, the writhing violent potential coiled up in the piece speaks to the fury and hurt that has so scarred the country of South Africa for Soal. «To spill your guts means to tell the truth, I think that in the material there is this reckoning with the ugly truth of alcoholism and the drinking culture which needs to be addressed, particularly amongst men in South Africa», Chris states.
Pieces like Gorgon and Spolia, which are included in Remains To Be Seen, exhibit this form of work well, and in these he has stretched the concept to consider the serpentine connection to Medusa and her Gorgon sisters. A mythological tale of rape and violence which has many interpretations, Soal was intrigued by the embrace of Medusa as a feminist icon by writers such as Hélène Cixous, Mary Valentis and Anne Devane amongst others.
«For myself, while the works have various layers of significance, one that I have explored through the twisted bottle top works, is the interpretation of the myth of Perseus and Medusa as a metaphor for the role of art in society. While the direct encounter with the Gorgon transforms the individual into stone, I believe that art can be the medium – the mirror or the shield – through which we can face complex issues without becoming paralyzed by them».
Sustainability on the level of the individual, the communal and the environmental
One way Chris Soal has approached sustainability is by realizing that his work with beer bottle tops leaves an impact on the viewer. Not just because of the deceptive camouflage of the material at first glance, hiding in plain sight, or simply of the feeling of transcendence that is evoked, but also by the realization of the vast quantity of the material and work that went into creating such a piece.
«I wanted to be careful while working with an object that is so prevalent and mass-produced, that I didn’t simply contribute to the system of demand that enables such production». Chris Soal has never paid for a beer bottle top but has collected them ‘used’ from bars, taverns and shebeens, or ‘discarded’ by the factory, intercepting them before they are sent for recycling.
«To consider that some works contain almost one million threaded bottle tops on electric fencing cable, and weigh close to one hundred kilograms, and yet what we use is a mere drop in the ocean of the one point six tons of beer bottle tops marked as faulty by the factory and sent to recycling daily –from one factory in the south of Johannesburg alone», he points out.
One positive in this process is the employment such work creates and the financial opportunities it allows to those involved at each layer of the process. Perhaps that’s one role of the artist, to circle the outlying areas of what our society doesn’t consider valuable and of worth, and bring it back into the centre for reevaluation.
«I’m interested in how these artefacts of over-production challenge us as viewers to reconsider how we might begin to escape the infinite resources illusion, this spiral of demand which is taxing our environment so much».
La Peau de Chagrin
La Peau de Chagrin is his first exhibited ‘work on paper’. It is an idea he have had for close to seven years and one that he wrestled with to find a form to adequately express it. After noticing how sandpaper will take on the impression of the wood block it is wrapped around, Soal decided to experiment with making ‘prints’ with the material.
These experiments resulted in this work, which is an act of frottage combined with woodblock carving. «After placing a sheet of sandpaper on top of a carving, I erode the top layer of the sandpaper until only the paper remains. It was only after experimenting with many kinds of sandpaper that I was able to find one that allowed me to consistently ‘lift’ the image from the woodblock carving and creating a small edition».
According to Soal, the work suggests a dried and cracked riverbed, a scab or skin, and ties in to what he sees as the ecological concerns at the heart of this exhibition. «I settled on the title, drawn from Honoré de Balzac’s book of the same name, which tells of a man gifted with a magic skin, which grants his wishes. The skin however shrinks every time it grants a wish and as all tales of unbridled desire seem to end perilously, it does not go well for the protagonist of the tale».
Chris Soal x Dior
The collaboration with Dior was not something that Soal expected to happen in his careers. «I was invited alongside nine other contemporary artists to participate in the fifth edition of the Lady Dior Art Project. It was a year-long process, a year of keeping a secret and liaising with their Salon to bring my three Lady Dior bags to life. It was a bit daunting working with an international fashion house with a seventy-five-year legacy, but I simply tried to look at my own work, trust my instincts, and bring what I felt only I could to the collaboration».
Two members of their Salon flew out from Paris in February 2020 to show Soal the range of samples created off the initial sketches he had provided. He states that he felt like he was transported to his childhood where he was playing with Lego and where the possibilities of any gestures were limitless.
Despite the playfulness, there was also a consideration behind the material choices regarding the bags, drawn from his own practice.