Q&A with Emerging South African Artist Chris Soal
With him being named the overall winner of the PPC Imaginarium 2018 competition, Chris Soal is gaining much-deserved attention on the local art scene.
This weekend, the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2019 took the Mother City by storm and offered art lovers a wide range of works to admire from various artists. One of these talents was Chris Soal, who has been making waves in the industry over the past few years. Using found materials as the departure point for his works, Chris Soal creates sculptures that are foremost driven by formal concerns such as texture, light and form expressed in an abstract minimalist language. We caught up with Chris Soal to find out more about his work and his career.
Did you always want to be an artist? If not, what did you want to be when you were growing up?
I know that I was an incredibly curious child growing up and so I was captivated with many ideas. I probably went through about 20 different career phases. Some of the different dreams that stand out for me is wanting to be a geologist, a robotic engineer, a professional sportsman and - probably the most intriguing - I wanted to be a long-distance truck driver for a while.
What’s the most memorable piece of art you’ve ever seen?
There’s this piece I made right at the end of my Fine Arts degree at Wits University. I was making frames out of supawood for a large work, and while cutting the wood for the frames, I noticed that the friction of the blade running through the wood was creating circular burn marks. Once I’d finished the frames, I started playing around with the offcuts and made a work titled 'To the one who contemplates, life is a distraction', (2017). It was just a great moment because something came from something else, something that I didn't expect, and it made me aware that gestures create ripples. This is why the role of the artist is a sensitive one, as you have to be as conscious as possible of the ripples your gestures will create. I gave the work that title because it reminded me of a quote by someone, (potentially John Lennon) who said, 'Life is what happens when you’re busy doing something else.'
What is your earliest visual memory?
I’ve often reflected on this, and one of my earliest memories is of me building an ant house with my dad in the back yard when I was about four or five. We made little bricks in empty match boxes, putting mud in them and drying them in the sun. And he would disappear with the mud mix every now and then. He somehow managed to convince me that he was adding magic to the sand so that the bricks wouldn’t crumble. I believed him (mainly because every time I tried this on my own, the bricks would crumble.) It was only years later that I realised he was adding flour to the mix to make it hold together. But this moment stands out in my memory and I’ve often pondered whether this led me to work with materials the way I do, trying to imbue them with something wondrous.
Why have you chosen found materials as the departure point for your work?
The decision to work with found materials was one that seemed to arise organically for me through my process. As an art student, I quickly realised that art materials for traditional approaches (such as oil painting and many sculptural processes) were very expensive. So I began to collect objects from my daily experience: from walking through the city and seeing what lay on the streets, to noticing the beer bottle top I fidgeted with over a drink with friends. As I reflect on this way of working, I see more and more how using these materials has something to do with the social fabric of our times, and this allows me to position the work I do and the things I am trying to say in the contemporary moment.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
When I get it right, and when I’m in Johannesburg, I like to get up early, between 4-4.30am. I usually do some reading, meditating and reflecting for the day ahead. I then try get some exercise in from 5-6am; this could be weights, trail running and, in summer, even swimming. The whole family then gets together for breakfast at 6am, which is great because we’re a family of six, all with busy lives, and this helps keep us on the same page and involved in each other’s lives. These first few hours are the only consistent in my life. The rest of the day varies dramatically. But typically, I spend about 2 hours on admin-related issues and 6+ hours physically working on artworks in the studio. I try and keep time open daily for reading, writing and research. I also often have meetings, which I like to have over lunch. Then I usually have art openings or social engagements in the evenings. However, deadlines have a way of making you prioritise certain things over others and so sometimes, I’ll spend a whole day working on an artist statement for an upcoming show, or the whole day working in the studio (with reminders in my calendar to take breaks and actually eat).
Which single place should every serious art-lover visit?
I’ve spent a year in London and so that city has a special place in my heart. There’s so much to do and see there. The Tate, Hayward Gallery, White Cube, Gagosian and Pace, among many others, allows you to see the best of historic, modern and contemporary art. Next on my personal list of places in which to spend time exploring art is Madrid (especially the Prado Museum), and then it has to be New York.
Do you have special ‘favourites’ among the artworks you’ve created?
I think the work that won me the PPC Imaginarium Award ('Imposed structure to the detriment of its members (Deflated)' 2018) is special to me because of the many, many technical issues I ran into when making the piece. The fact that it was completed was a miracle in itself. I had created so many different moulds for the ball, and so many had failed. Time was running out with the submission deadline approaching, and I made a last ditch attempt with a once-off plaster of Paris mould. And it all came together and worked in the end. I was so exhausted with the piece when I submitted it that I didn’t think much of it at that point. So it was really a great surprise to receive the award for that work. It’s made me very aware that small gestures done in the privacy of one’s studio can have a major impact in the world.
What do you hope people will get out of your work?
I hope that people will really see. I work with common, everyday materials without altering their individual form, but I try to do so in such a way that they become unrecognisable to the viewer. One has to look again, and in doing so, I hope that one realises how they first looked without seeing. My hope is not only to shift perception, but to make the act of perceiving more conscious: how we perceive shapes, how we live and engage with the world and with others around us. It is for this reason that I’m very interested in phenomenology. I guess, simply put, I once (perhaps naively) said, 'If I can change the way someone looks at a beer bottle top or a toothpick, which they didn’t think of as potentially valuable, perhaps we can change the way we look at one another.'