The innocence of childhood is under siege

Robin Rhode found inspiration for his latest work in a scarpyard. His installation of reworked playground equipment will form the temporary stage for an interactive performance

03 September 2017 - 12:18 By TYMON SMITH

When Robin Rhode was asked to be the featured artist for the 10th Joburg Art Fair, he began traipsing around the city visiting scrapyards. He initially had an idea of a sculpture made of two smashed cars.
It was during one of these visits, to a yard in Westdene, that he saw a whole lot of jungle gyms stacked on the roof. "I shifted my idea in a second and switched paths and I thought, this is it!"
In the pile of lonely, coloured remnants of schoolyard and public-park jungle gyms on the scrapyard roof, Rhode started to see "a maze, an installation. I saw minimalism in this, so I bought the whole f**king lot. That's how it should be sometimes, you should just be open and go with the flow - there's a vibe and you have to just go with it."Interactive performance
Those jungle gyms have now been painted white and arranged into an installation in Rhode's temporary studio, in a corner of what was until recently the Museum of African Design in Maboneng.
The sculptural installation will be moved to the Sandton Convention Centre this week to serve as the stage for an interactive performance choreographed by Rhode in collaboration with two performers that will exist only for the duration of the art fair.
Rhode, who was the featured artist at the fair's inaugural iteration back in 2008, was born in Cape Town and lives in Berlin.
His return to the art fair has provided him with an opportunity to demonstrate the development of his practice since the interactive wall-drawing performances that he became known for more than a decade ago.Those works propelled him on a meteoric rise through the ranks of the international art world that has seen him exhibit constantly throughout the world, establish his own studio in Berlin, run a record label, work with skateboard designers, paint using a BMW Z4 as part of the motor company's art advertising campaign, and stage a performance of Austrian avant-garde composer Arnold Schönberg's piece Erwartung in Times Square, New York.
For his latest work, Rhode wants to interrogate the idea of "performance in the context of an art fair, which I find very interesting because it allows the public to question the notion of commercialisation - what's the currency, and if there is one, does it allow for such forms to coexist with other more traditional forms?"
Unlike many of the works that will hang on the walls of exhibitors' booths next weekend, this one can only be seen, not bought.
The space, on the border of Newclare and Westbury, where Rhode used to work with a large crew of about 18 former prisoners producing his art, recently received unwarranted attention from gang members, leading his "army" to be reduced to just four young men who, as we talk, are painting boards against the wall for Rhode to paint on.
Like Rhode, they're all wearing army camo jackets and when the artist suddenly shouts "Standby two chairs! Standby ashtray! Standby Marlboros!" the required items are dutifully brought to him. For Rhode, his army is an example of "using art as a means of social rehabilitation".
He says: "It's about access to life, access to the dynamics of culture, access to the processes of art, understanding the city and to understand how the world operates. Whatever you've seen in the media has all been made with my crew, my army."
Plagued by conflicts
As he lights his Marlboro, Rhode looks at his jungle gym assemblage and observes: "The fact that it's jungle gyms means that it speaks about the purity of imagination, the innocence of childhood, but these ideas are plagued by other conflicts in society because at the same time society is under enormous strain from physical abuse, from violence, and there've been many youth protests as well. So the idea of youth orientation has been a massive talking point in our society."

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