Strijdom van der Merwe recently decided to walk away from a proposed project in Durban. The idea was to paint a blue line through the city to demonstrate the potential impact of global warming. Behind the scenes, Van der Merwe clashed with Durban City Management about the colour of the line. Media reports have hinted that the reason for the disagreement was the association of the colour blue with the DA. City Manager Michael Sutcliffe denied these allegations.
Naomi Meyer spoke to Van der Merwe about his decision to step away from this project.
Strijdom, please tell our readers about your original project in Durban. Was it commissioned? Why did you want to paint a blue line?
It wasn’t a commissioned work; I/we Lesley Perkes and I) went to them with the proposal.
I wanted to paint a blue line (one metre wide) that runs on the contour line all along the shoreline where the ocean level would be if the ocean should rise by one metre. All this information I gained from the Durban City Council.
Visually this line would have made people aware of the dangers of global warming and that would have made them see that a large section of coastline property would not exist anymore. A visible line would have made much more impact than all the statistics that you read in the newspaper. Also, for me it would have been an artwork as I would have drawn a line that is loaded with content and meaning.
In a time when people are concerned about freedom of information in South Africa it rings alarm bells when a colour which is not considered appropriate is used in a work of art. But when is art art?
Yes, that’s a difficult one. One answer to your question may be that if an artist makes it with the intention for it to be an artwork then it is art. But the real problem is when a non-artist begins to tell an artist how he must make his art and which colours to use as a political weapon to achieve his own goals. At no point did the Blue Line address any political issues.
What is the outcome of this Blue Line project?
The “concept” of the blue line was walked on Sunday morning by many VIPs, including the Deputy President. This was the first real reported news from of COP17 and for those that participated the message came across very strongly what the impact of the rise in the sea level would be. And I’m glad about that. But as an artwork as I visualised it, nothing came from my intentions. A line is the very first mark you make to start an artwork. This painted blue line would have been a line-drawing as in an artwork and visually as it runs through the city, dividing roads, buildings, parks, etc, but the added benefits to this would have been the message that it holds. This was a missed opportunity for me to make a very large line-drawing in blue that would have raised awareness among the COP17 delegates, and it is a missed opportunity for the Durban City Council to have a large non-permanent artwork.
Why did you walk away from the project? Was it your own decision, or was it a forced decision?
I walked away because the artwork would not have looked as I imagined it. The concept was taken by members of the City Council and changed according to their likes and how they would rather see the artwork. It was not mine anymore; it became theirs and their visualisation. With the input from Lesley Perkes, who was the project coordinator in Joburg, we both took the decision that it’s not worth continuing anymore. I did, however, give my permission to Jenny Cargill, who had to deliver the “Blue Line” on Sunday morning, to continue with the project without me.
Who owns a piece of art? And why? What about the public, anybody participating in a piece of art by looking at it: do they have ownership in any way? Or do they have the right to view anything an artist sees fit to display?
Once you start to work in the public domain you have to realise that your work will be exposed to people that are not always appreciative of the arts. That’s your choice and you have to adapt. The original concept/artwork will always belong to the artist, put out there to be enjoyed by everyone and hopefully to become part of the work and to become public art. Of the public it is expected that they will respect the differences of points of view. This doesn’t mean that an artist can do/say anything and everybody has to respect it, no. If it’s in a gallery then you can have warning signs, but if you work in the public open space then yes, there must be some control over what is exposed to the public. Agreed. But the problem with the Blue Line came when they started to tell the artist how he must paint his painting. They had no problem with the concept – all agreed on that. The decision I had to make was: Does the artwork still belong to me even if I don’t agree with the execution of choice of material, colour, etc? It was then that I realised it’s not me anymore – I own the concept but not the execution. It’s paint by numbers, but somebody else chooses the numbers, then just sign their name. No.