IN THE early 1990s, when personal computers were just becoming mainstream, programmer Tom Baccei and artist Cheri Smith teamed up to create what was to become a pop-culture phenomenon, “Magic Eye”.
This was a series of books and posters created from repetitive computer-generated images or patterns, which when stared at with a squint and an enormous amount of patience would eventually morph into a 3D image of a peace sign, a dragon or something suitably psychedelic (it was the 1990s after all).
I mention this only because I had exactly that kind of revelation recently while watching artist Hannelie Coetzee clambering around a scaffold with a chainsaw and a team of workers, knocking and carving pieces of trunk, branch and stem from an enormously stacked woodpile of steaming wattle.
Coetzee draws on her many years’ experience as a photographer when creating her works, as well as a deep understanding of light, when choosing the location for her pieces.
She begins with a photographic image and then reduces the resolution to a point where it is only just readable. She then works out a schematic grid of pixels on paper to map out how she will construct that image on a large scale.
“I started off as a photographer shooting on film,” she says, “and so I really understand contrast and how each of the tiny particles, if placed in a specific way, will reflect and be seen by the eye. So when I select a site I choose it as a photographer would and place the work for optimal view.”
The construction process in this instance is fascinating to observe, with Coetzee orchestrating the exact slant and cut of each piece of wood with military precision. The aim of this isn’t entirely clear until you take a number of steps back and the confusion of textures, organic shapes and individual parts morph into a readable image. In this case, it’s a damselfly, Glinsterjuffertjie uit Swartwattelboom / Glistening Demoiselle out of Black Wattle (Phaon iridipennis out of Acacia mearnsii), built for the Nirox Winter Sculpture Fair.
It is in a sense an act of “stepping back” that landed Coetzee in the world of contemporary art. She began in about 2008 with a deeply personal investigation into her family’s history, which culminated in a series of street art mosaics. Her early works, such as Oumagrootjie (Fordsburg) and Oupa Florie (Rissik Street Post Office), mosaicked out of waste stone, helped her to express a sense of belonging and to establish her place as an Afrikaner in Johannesburg.
While working in the city she began speaking to people and saw that she had to take a further step back and incorporate those stories. She needed to look at how social and environmental issues affect the landscape, be it urban or rural, and had to create a dialogue around these issues.
“I see the arts as an effective way to change perception,” Coetzee says. “I want to use it to address the things I’m passionate about.”
Coetzee soon realised that if she was going to fully engage those passions — particularly around urban planning, history and environmental issues, and how human decisions affect the landscape – she was going to have to broaden her gaze. So she began talking to architects, town planners and scientists. In 2013 she completed the Social Entrepreneurship Certificate Programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, which helped her cement her thinking around how her work could be applied effectively towards environmental change.
The main thrust of Coetzee’s work these days is a pragmatic investigation into specific environmental issues, which she looks at in partnership with scientists.
“During my conceptual research I work to find the clearest authentic way to communicate the most pressing environmental issues so that the message is emotionally accessible,” she says.
Most of her pieces are resolved in partnership with scientists, so by the time they are constructed they already have sound scientific principles behind them.
Coetzee insists that these are partnerships, not collaboration, because the artist and scientist aren’t working together, but side by side, exchanging skills and knowledge to highlight important issues.
“The work gets its strength from partnerships outside the arts world. This inquiry could be academic, but I’m not a writer,” she says. “The biggest challenge for me is for the conceptual [to dovetail] naturally with the academic and the tangible. I’m a translator of sorts; [the challenge is:] how do you visualise an urgent issue and present it as a tangible message? I don’t want to make work that is irrelevant or a waste of time.
“I think there are two ways of making art. The one is where you criticise, and the other is where you participate to [attract] awareness. That differentiation is important to me. It’s more important to be part of life than to be part of the arts scene.”
One such example is Eland and Benko2015, a “controlled burn” done in partnership with Wits associate professor of animal, plant and environmental science Sally Archibald, whose research looks into whether small, managed fires can create more diverse and productive grassland communities by altering how antelope use the landscape.
The burn took place within a carefully mapped-out silhouette of an antelope and a boy, combining the skills of the artist, the scientist and a team of firefighters.
It explores our relationship as humans with nature, particularly the way it evolves for the younger generation.
By creating a theatrical spectacle out of the process — which was filmed and made into a short documentary piece — Coetzee effectively turned a scientific practice into something relatable, opening up dialogue and interest in a topic most people might otherwise ignore.
“The fact that these works are ephemeral is [the result of] a conscious decision,” she says. “The intention is for them to be impermanent, because then they become a permanent fixture in your mind. The memory of a moment is as valuable as the most expensive art work.”
Which brings us back to Glinsterjuffertjie. The glistening demoiselle is an indicator species, present in healthy ecosystems, particularly those with clean water.
Coetzee’s decision to build the sculpture using invasive black wattle serves to highlight yet another human decision that has had an adverse effect on our environment. Black wattle was introduced to SA by the British in the 1880s as a resource for wood-poor areas. But the wattle is a highly invasive species, forming thickets that replace indigenous vegetation, sucking up vast amounts of scarce water in the process. It therefore comes as no surprise that the damselfly won’t be found in areas with wattle.
“When I get the opportunity to create these large-scale works, I absolutely maximise it and push myself to my boundaries. With logic and an applied, functional approach, I make works that contribute to change. For that I need to snowball each decision, tick all the boxes ...
“With Glinsterjuffertjie I wanted to work with something that the Brits had brought in. Wattle is an invasion in the way colonialism was an invasion.
“At the time, building mines [where logs of wattle were used] was more important than the impact on the environment.
“It’s not just about people — we have to change the decisions people make.
“We need to become attuned to the effects our decisions have on the physical environment and draw that back into current thinking. We’ve got to start thinking about the in-between things, not just money.”
• For more information on Coetzee’s work visit www.hanneliecoetzee.com
Glinsterjuffertjie can be viewed at the sculpture exhibition A Place in Time at the Winter Sculpture Fair. It is curated by Helen Pheby from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, at the Nirox Sculpture Park, Krugersdorp, and runs throughout winter. It is open on weekends.
Coetzee’s solo show Water Mense (Water People) opens at the Lizamore & Associates gallery on June 2 and runs until June 25.
Join the artist on walkabouts to the Johannesburg waterways, where the work originated in an attempt to understand water in a different light.