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Five Minutes With Artist David Brits

In anticipation of the launch of his first large-scale sculptural work, we chat to artist David Brits about his Ouroboros series.

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David Brits | House and Leisure

Joburg Art Week is in for a big jolt of massive-scale artistry this weekend. And, when we say big, we mean BIG.

Cape Town multidisciplinary artist and Michaelis alumnus David Brits is using this jam-packed week to launch his much-anticipated Ouroboros sculptures, colossal serpentine forms have been three years in the making. 

He’s doing it in grand fashion, too – displaying work across three different fairs. Visitors to SculptX 2019 at Melrose Arch (which is on for the entire month of September) as well as LATITUDES Art Fair and FNB Art Joburg in Sandton (both 13-15 September) are all in for a giant treat as they get to be the first viewers of these freestanding, twisted carbon-fibre forms that stand up to 3.2 metres tall.

Informed by Brits’ fascination with snakes (his grandfather John Wood, who inspired this interest, was known as The Snake Man, and was one of South Africa’s foremost reptile experts) Ouroboros continues the themes he has been investigating since his solo show at Cape Town’s Smith Gallery in 2015.

Titled The Snake Man, that show paid homage to his grandfather, while solidifying the curvaceous visual identity for which Brits has become known. 

David Brits | House and Leisure
David Britis at work on one of his sculptures.

Ouroboros is the next iteration of this subject matter, and transforms his drawings into colossal 3D forms, following years of experimentation and prototyping.

No matter the complex shape, each sculpted form – first realised as a 3D-printed maquette – reflects the series’ title: 'ouroboros' refers to the ancient symbol of the snake devouring its own tail.

Brits resonates most with psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s interpretation of this image: a sign of integration and assimilation of ‘the opposite’.  

‘Images of snakes that were burned into my psyche from an early age have taken on new meaning and embrace new possibilities as my journey of artmaking expands and unfolds into diverse territories,’ says Brits.

These optical forms, viewed differently from every vantage point, portray a sense of weightlessness as they lean and flow in various formats, their curved lines never touching.

Exhibiting neither a beginning nor an end, the work that makes up Ouroboros feeds itself with a unique kinetic energy that Brits has spiritfully mastered. 

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David Brits | House and Leisure
Artist David Brits with a maquette of one of his Ourobouros pieces.

5 Minutes With Artist David Brits

What sparked the interest to move from drawing into sculpture three years ago?

My move to sculpture started with a peculiar and unexpected stroke of inspiration. Three-and-a-half years ago I was visiting an old school friend when I noticed an interesting object nested inside a pot plant in his garden.

It was a small, five-sided platonic solid [a geometric shape with 12 flat pentagonal faces] cast in bronze. He had made it while working for a furniture designer.

As he told me more about the origins of this metal dodecahedron, a thought flashed through my being like a strobe: I need to make sculpture. 

The last time I had made anything that could be called sculpture was in my second year at art school in 2007. For some years I had the faint inkling that I should take my serpentine drawings and transform them into three-dimensional objects. So that is where I started.

David Brits | House and Leisure

You're working with carbon fibre as your chosen material. What made you pursue this route?

Working with carbon fibre and other materials came about after a three-year cycle of intensive prototyping. At the outset, I desired to make these works on a colossal scale but had no idea how.

There is no precedent for making a sculpture of this nature and this size in South Africa. Only a handful of artists globally have dared attempt to create freestanding tubular forms that twist in the air without ever touching. 

I tried every material I thought would make a freestanding serpentine curve twist in the air – all manner of foams, ducting, tubing, wire, insulation pipes, hoses and steel rods. But because of their groundbreaking properties that combine strength and lightness, I landed up primarily using advanced composite materials in my work.

These include carbon fibre, polyethylene foam, various resins, a variety of fibreglass weaves, as well as coatings that are a mixture of quartz crystals, resin and pigment. The unique combination of materials and method that I pioneered have been the key to unlocking the door to making these gigantic, weightless forms. 

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Your original experimentation even included pool noodles! Was there a lot of trial and error along the way?

Yes! In the pilot phase, I’d go into the warehouse sections of industrial suppliers, showing the sales managers a picture of the sculptures I had in mind.

They’d scratch their heads and smoke cigarettes as they followed me patiently around the huge, dirty stock rooms while I investigated and took photographs of anything I could use to make large serpentine sculptures. 

I’d bring a few metres of a new material back to the studio feeling victorious, sure that this bit of foam/pipe/rope was the answer to my technical prayers. I’d do a new experiment: filling the ducting with expanding foam, covering the insulation tube with resin and carbon fibre, skewering mooring rope with a steel rod, twisting water pipes into curved shapes. 

Always, the results were the same – each experiment was a new failure. The things I made looked nothing like the sculptures in my mind. But I knew that this was not a bad thing. I got used to failing and even got quite excited by the next flop. Slowly narrowing down the possibilities, I was making my ignorance about creating objects more precise. And I discovered the most important lesson of all: innovation requires a high tolerance for failure.

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David Brits | House and Leisure

You always work with curves rather than straight lines. Why is this?

I was lucky enough to grow up very close to nature, and since I was a child I’ve been absolutely fascinated by nature and pattern. The plethora of form, scale and variation is so great that it is almost wholly unfathomable to the human mind.

Words like ‘beauty’ and ‘infinite’ are the closest things in language that we have to describe these ineffable phenomena.

Working in curves aligns one’s practice to the fractal patterns that are the basic building blocks of the visible universe. As I create, these forms allow me to tap into a state of being aligned to that which is unbound by time, pre-rational and non-linear. 

Is it true that you're colour blind? Is this why you stick to black and white in your work?

Yes, I am red-green colour blind. This means that my eyes struggle to draw a distinction between certain colours. I can’t see red roses against a green bush, for instance, or tell ripe bananas from unripe ones.

But with a lack, comes compensation. I have discovered that certain complementary colour combinations are uniquely electric to my vision. In recent years, I seem to have focused on form, shape and symmetry and, as you have pointed out, worked predominantly in black and white.

Your first brush with death was at the age of eight, when you came across a puff adder during a mountain walk. How much of an impact does that have on your work?

That experience was the first time I was confronted by my own mortality. Nearly being bitten by a creature I knew to be very deadly introduced me to the concept of death in an abrupt way. My dog attacked the puff adder just after it lunged at me. It all happened so fast, but I ran down the mountain having the sense that I had escaped with my life, and also that I owed my life to my dog. 

That was the first experience that opened the gate to my letting go of the great archetypal fear of death. If art is an emanation of who one is in the world made physical, then certainly that experience – and the experiences of near-death that followed – are embedded somehow in the work. 

Your work is also very much informed by your grandfather being ‘the snake man’. Is there a story he shared with you about snakes that resonates more than any other in your work?

My grandfather lived a long and rich life of adventure, curiosity and joie de vivre. He was a great man and an equally great storyteller.

My favourite stories of his were what he called his ‘narrow escapes’, a set of a dozen tales of his harrowingly close shaves with death. Many of these stories took place in England during WW2, where he survived the Blitz, and fought in the Battle of Britain and Battle of the Atlantic with the Royal Navy.

During his four-decade career as a snake man, he was bitten by Cape cobras on four separate occasions and survived. 

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You've called your sculptures things like Ouroboros 1.2.1 and Ouroboros 3.3.1. Why the numbers?

This convention of nomenclature was widely employed by artists during the Modern period. But it’s also highly functional. In my case, each number represents the sculpture in the set, its size and the material with which it is made.  

What usually spurs you to produce great work: fear or trust?

Trust, unequivocally. Aged 19, while visiting the Tate Modern, I saw my first Jackson Pollock painting. It was an experience that moved me to tears and awoke in me a profound awareness of the power of art.

Drawing has been my most obvious talent since age four, and seeing Pollock’s 'Summertime 9A' (1948) conjured in me a conviction that pursuing that talent was a path far more worth taking than any other. 

What are you most proud of with this series?

That it is groundbreaking, globally innovative and a first for sculpture in South Africa. 

What's next after Joburg Art Week?

My focus now is to take the work to an international audience and have it in every major sculpture park in the world within the next 10 years.

Locally, I am working on a number of public sculpture projects in Cape Town, Joburg and Durban.

And later this year I will be going on an art residency in Luanda, Angola, to produce a body of work that will be shown at the Havana Biennale in 2022. 

For more information, visit the David Brits website.
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