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Difficult Crossings

Following his death in 2013, artist Neels Coetzee was honoured by Parliament for ‘his contribution to one of our most extraordinary and rich periods for the imaginative arts, the 1980s and 1990s, when apartheid was dying and a democracy was being built.’ Two years on, his wife Koulla Xinisteris has curated an exhibition of his work, which opens at CIRCA on 3 September.
By all accounts, Neels Coetzee was deeply empathetic, a sensitive and thoughtful man, one who grappled continuously with the suffering, injustices and trauma of life, a preoccupation that infused his art and led him to both philosophy and theology. In the words of Koulla Xinisteris, who lived with him for 30 years, ‘He was always fighting with his own faith in some way… It’s not as though he spoke about it all the time and nor was he religious in any one tradition; he was quite quiet and private about these things. And sometimes very angry.’ This awareness of pain, the suffering implicit to the human condition, and the violence perpetuated by ‘brother against brother’ – both in the specific context of his home, apartheid South Africa, and beyond, as a universal theme – plays a central role in his work, evident in the upcoming show at CIRCA.
The exhibition takes its title from Coetzee’s Crucible, a work created from melted down AK47s and drawing upon many of the artist’s preoccupations, in particular, ‘the passage between life and death,’ says Xinisteris. ‘Entrances and exits that are difficult to get through, from one place to another. How to negotiate life, and how to negotiate death… The atrocities that can happen with weaponry, with guns.’ Crucible was Coetzee’s peace monument, one that he dedicated to all those suffering ‘abuse, deprivation, incarceration, for whatever reasons.’
‘I think that it is a culmination of a lot of his life’s work,’ says Xinisteris.
‘There are these two levels in Neels’ representation,’ comments artist Bronwyn Lace, whose work will appear later, in the same gallery, in response to Coetzee’s visual utterances. ‘There’s always an acknowledgement of the very physical: the literal meat and bone of our bodies, as in the skull… and then there’s that which is not physical, which he manifests as physical, but which is quite clearly the symbolic: the levitation… the spiritual.’
The Crucible exhibition will include pieces drawn from four periods of Coetzee’s oeuvre, beginning with his Space Frame series, which dates back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he experimented with the largely formal qualities of two figures interacting. Aspects from these continue to thread their way through his later work: the suggestion of trauma, figures engaged in struggle, the dance. Such elements are easily evident in his Skull series, which he began in the ‘70s. Coetzee selected a female skull from the medical school, choosing it ‘emotionally’, he once noted; ‘the skull because the head is vulnerable, anatomically the most essential, and the most revealing of the emotions.’
The skull he chose had a slight abnormality, recalls Xinisteris, thus invoking ‘the idea of being born into this world flawed, or somehow different.’ From the skull, Coetzee created a mould, which he manipulated, giving form ‘to pain, struggle, torment, sensuality – the dance,’ she says. ‘The emergent works are not just skulls; they’re also figures. They are sensual forms; they have a fleshiness to them.’
Coetzee’s Avçilar series took its name from a Hittite shrine that he encountered on a trip to Cappadocia, Turkey. This fascinated him, as did the centuries-old natural erosion he found in the landscape there. ‘He was very interested in the residue of things. The remnants,’ notes Xinisteris. He also drew extensively from the idea of a door, or gate – Rodin’s Gates of Hell formed a rich source of inspiration for Coetzee. Such portals signified a point of transition, a crossing from life to death, or movement through life. He experienced these crossings as arduous, filled with pain and struggle. And yet, says Xinisteris, ‘there was always much uproarious laughter in the house – irreverent laughter, laughter at the absurdity of it all.’
Also included in the exhibition are works that Xinisteris refers to as the Measure series. Still underway at the time of writing, these sculptures are, in effect, the posthumous realisation of Coetzee’s vision, encompassing ‘new’ work, curatorial decisions and stated intentions that could not be fulfilled within his lifetime.
Some of the Measure works return to Coetzee’s skulls, which were created as more or less life-sized sculptures. ‘Over the years, Neels expressed the desire to enlarge these works to three or four times their size,’ says Xinisteris, and by means of digital technology this became posthumously possible.
The result is as yet unseen. ‘I think it is going to be close to what he wanted. The sadness is that he is no longer here to judge this, but people can judge for themselves,’ says Xinisteris. ‘It’s fascinating to see something that Neels imagined taking shape now – it makes me feel that he is palpably here.’
Some of the Measure work is informed by Coetzee’s sketches, which Lace describes as ‘incredibly successful drawings and artworks, in and of themselves’ that ‘indicate his thinking very clearly, when it comes to what was always, I think, his final purpose: to make sculpture… Neels was really able to articulate space in his drawing.’
‘He understood space, and in his sculptures, the space between is as important as the actual physical form, in the same way that the symbolic and the reference to the spiritual is as significant as the actual bone and meat and body. That is always a beautiful tension. In the Avçilar works, it’s incredible to see how these sculptures have enormous weight and physicality, and yet they are balanced – levitating on their bases… There’s something transcendent… In his drawings, there’s a luminosity, always. They’re both very practical drawings towards a sculpture, and simultaneously symbolic. You can see his thinking.’
Coetzee’s drawings first captured Lace’s attention at the Durban Art Gallery, where she encountered them as a final-year student in 2006. Coincidentally, she and Xinisteris happened to work together some time later, and they became ‘close colleagues and friends,’ as Lace recalls. When Coetzee returned home after his hospitalisation in 2007, he was bed bound, but like that of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, his bed had a centrality of place, so he was part of the everyday comings and goings of the house in Melville. As a friend/colleague of Xinisteris’s, Lace came to know him well.
Coetzee’s illness was a very difficult six-year journey, says Lace. ‘There were moments of wonderful conversation where I gained more and more understanding about what it felt like to be somebody who was somehow trapped in his bed, but also living a very rich mental life.’
Present at the moment of Coetzee’s death, Lace was struck by the intense intimacy of the transition. ‘It was a very peaceful and beautiful way to go. But the last breath was also very clear; it was obvious that that was it.’ These visions played out in Lace’s mind, ultimately compelling her to create Ascension, ‘a sculpture that strives to convey transcendence by means of vertical light, which shines from below through lines of iridescent gut that stretch upwards. When the reflected rays settle in the structure from which they emanate, they seem somehow less fragile, offering a liminal sense of continued light/life,’ says Xinisteris. This, along with other works created in response to Coetzee’s oeuvre, will go on show alongside re-curated elements of his work during a second exhibition, which opens in October, soon after Crucible draws to a close.
‘Mystery and the presence of the unknown are ongoing in our lives,’ says Xinisteris. ‘They keep us in a state of observation and questioning, searching for what may or may not make sense. Work and creativity are the best articulations of this, which is what makes this exhibition momentous for me’. Xinisteris.

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