Robin Rhode (b. 1976) is a South African artist based in Berlin. His works are inspired by myriad sources: from anti- Apartheid poetry to science fiction novels, youth street culture to Duchamp. Rhode is perhaps best-known for images that turn the lens on painted murals and democratised spaces, blending a range of forms and genres with pop-colour triangles and circles, step ladders and ropes. Rhode has exhibited across the world at renowned institutions such as Haus der Kunst, Munich; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; MoMA, New York; and the Venice Biennale. His most recent show at Lehmann Maupin, London, is a departure from street- based aesthetics into more personal realms, reflecting on the emotional and spatial restrictions enforced by the pandemic.
A: One of the guiding principles behind your practice is to consider the landscape of a democratic post-Apartheid South Africa, and to examine the tangible presence and legacy of segregation. How do you translate these early experiences into your day-to-day practice, and how do you think they affected your formative years as an artist?
RR: My artistic practice was formed many years ago because of my early childhood experiences growing up in South Africa – not that these experiences were overly traumatic. These were also lived experiences filled with humour and innocence. I believe that one’s personal history is intrinsically linked to the creative spirit and productive output. I do not overthink it, nor do I want to be the flag-bearer for a post- apartheid South Africa. I am just really focused on making work that allows me to free my soul. My ideas jump from various sources, whether it be the Bauhaus-Archiv, or even the Gutai Art Manifesto. I might come from a geography that could seem peripheral, but my sources are global.
A: Beyond a strong sense of history and social imperative, your work also uncovers a plethora of cultural references, from Sol LeWitt’s kaleidoscopic wall drawings to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s neo-expressionist figures. What are some of your favourite artists today? Where else do you find your wider inspiration and idea generation?
RR: One of my favourite artists is Francis Alÿs. I love the poetic urban interventionist nature of his practice, as well as his ability to draw animations and produce paintings that seem almost like sleight of hand. I find the work of Kerry James Marshall to be absolutely masterful, especially in terms of technique and studio practice. This takes an enormous amount of dedication and commitment to one’s craft. The concept of depicting a body – overlooked by history – is a poignant step in re-writing the canon. I have also been hugely influenced by the surrealist movement, and adore the work of Max Ernst. Marcel Duchamp, too, remains influential for me as an artist that rejected and questioned aspects of labour in the production of the art object / image. This I find completely fascinating, especially now as we live in an art market completely saturated with two-dimensional imagery. Over the last year, I have been inspired by literary sources, from South African anti-Apartheid poetry to Black consciousness poetry in Germany by May Ayim. In many ways, poems are like drawings: fluid, organic and rhythmic.
A: In many of your series, such as Principle of Hope, lone individuals take the role of “the artist” – propped against murals, holding paint-rollers or performing in front of the geometric shapes. How important is this sense of detachment – from yourself as the artist – and in offering this role to someone else entirely?
RR: Principle of Hope takes its aesthetic inspiration from a public sculpture by swiss architect and designer Max Bill, titled Endlose Treppe (Endless Steps, 1991) situated in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The sculpture, comprising 19 winding steps of granite at nearly 10 metres, represents Ernst Bloch’s philosophy, the “principle of hope.” The sky-blue painted walls heighten this sense of freedom as the spiral painting evolves upwards towards a yet undiscovered utopia in the background in suburban Johannesburg. Offering the work to performance collaborators allows me to shift the owner- ship of the artwork from one of exclusivity to one of communal inclusivity and connection. However, not all my work is community-related. I find it quite intriguing that African artists must always be community-orientated in their work in order to achieve credibility and criticality. Regarding my working process in Johannesburg, I have no option but to be inclusive there as many people require social support. I have tried (and failed) to support where possible. And if that aid comes through my artwork, then by all means.
A: A signature street-based aesthetic – pop colour murals realised through concrete, graffiti, chalk and paint – pairs with wider socio-political and conceptual concerns and philosophies surrounding the lived experience. To what degree is your practice inherently interdisciplinary?
RR: There is a phrase “Low-fi Hi-def” that I subscribe to. I’m interested in “low fidelity” in terms of production and pro- cess, versus high definitions in terms of meaning, criticality and engagement. Even when the outcome isn’t completely realised, the attempt is also what counts. I try to explore the impact fiction has on reality and vice versa – with real performers acting as barometers to which the audience can relate on both physical and emotional levels.
A: Your work has been defined by Lehmann Maupin as “strategic interventions, transforming landscapes into imaginary worlds.” How far do you diverge from realism?
RR: Living in the African diaspora creates a platform to interrogate western vs non-western worlds. I embrace the mystical elements set in a concretised reality, in order to question truths and belief systems. These systems are predicated on philosophical foundations rooted in western modernity. I create fantastical scenographies, partly inspired by the Venezuelan intellectual Arturo Uslar-Pietri, who described “man as a mystery surrounded by realistic facts.”
A: Though the characters are often alone, they exist in an inherently social realm, visible to the outside world on street corners, pavements and outside buildings. What is the significance of harnessing public locations – city environments and “free” spaces? To what extent do you build up locations to subvert their connotations?
RR: I try to democratise the public environment in which I work, but in a sense we are never free. We’re governed by our ideas. In terms of my photographic approach, I see the walls as my canvas, baked in autonomy. For example, with the work Frustum (2017), I envisage geometrical forms as inhibiting a soul or wider spirituality, with my point of inspiration coming from the literature of Polish science fiction and author Stanislaw Lem, notably the fairytale novel The Cyberiad (1965), which is about a mechanical universe inhabited by robots. In my work, the geometric form – a frustum embodying an emotional urgency – and a desire to be completed, or fulfilled, can also apply to the human condition and our emotional status within the world we inhabit.
A: Your new show at Lehmann Maupin, The Backyard is My World, moves into the private, domestic space, with yards, jumpsuit-clad characters and snaking cables, mostly cast against muted concrete. These pieces are more stripped back than your brighter, graphic instal- lations. How did the method for this new series begin? RR: Working with restriction means that you must be more inventive, more intuitive, with the materials at hand. I’ve been creating in domestic spaces for many years, transforming the backyards of my neighbours and friends into sites for artistic production. It’s more about working in a safe, comfortable environment, and then trying to transform the mundane into something magical. It’s amazing what one can encounter in a backyard. With my latest work, Proteus (2020), I wanted to test myself by going back to a location I started producing in almost 20 years ago. It is a space filled with childhood memories; innocence of the imagination is a powerful tool to probe. The process in the backyard is also a form of measurement, exercising restraint with materials and embracing restrictions. Here, I also play with Greek mythology, with Proteus, the God of elusive sea change and water bodies.
From the name Proteus comes the adjective “protean,” meaning “versatile” or the capability to “assume many forms.” The adjective “protean” has many positive connotations and can relate to one who is exceedingly variable, prone to mutability and adaptability. These are all traits that we require to navigate and make sense of living in a Covid-19 world.
A: These images are also more personalised, calling less upon found objects or other protagonists, but looking inwards, and evoking a sense of play, security, repetition, and at times, an intriguing banality. How did the images take on a new resonance during the pandemic, as we contemplated the concept of “home” with renewed curiosity? Do you feel there’s been a shift in your focus?
RR: Recently, the shift has been on the reductive – to simplify and streamline ideas since we are all closer to the domestic with months of lockdowns and quarantines. I have been unable to travel and really explore locations as I used to, so the safer option is home – whether it be in my studio in Berlin or a backyard in Johannesburg. This has allowed a deeper focus on what it is that defines the “personal.”
A: How will your schedule change with lockdowns lifting?
RR: My solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin is being followed by a mid-career exhibition that opens at Museum Voorlinden in the Netherlands in the first week of June. Other than that, I generally have a quiet rest of the year ahead. I’m in the process of selling my studio space in Berlin, which will be a massive change for me personally. Just when I thought I would settle down, build, and root myself to one space almost eight years ago, I find myself having to recalibrate entirely.
Words: Kate Simpson
1. Robin Rhode, Paradise, 2016 (detail). C-print. 8 parts, each: 23.07 x 28.58 x 1.5 inches / 58.6 x 72.6 x 3.8 cm;
overall: 48.11 x 120.24 x 1.5 inches / 122.2 x 305.4 x 3.8. cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
2. Robin Rhode, Paradise, 2016 (detail). C-print. 8 parts, each: 23.07 x 28.58 x 1.5 inches / 58.6 x 72.6 x 3.8 cm; overall: 48.11 x 120.24 x 1.5 inches / 122.2 x 305.4 x 3.8. cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
3. Robin Rhode, Principle of Hope, 2017 (detail). C-print. 10 parts, each: 22.05 x 27.56 inches / 56 x 70 cm;
overall: 48 x 150.5 x 1.5 inches / 121.9 x 382.3 x 3.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
4. Robin Rhode, Lavender Hills, 2016 (detail). C-print. 3 parts, each: 21.69 x 28.58 inches / 55.1 x 72.6 cm; overall: 21.69 x 89.76 inches / 55.1 x 228 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.