Of dust and traces: Two residencies in the Cradle of Humankind contemplate our immense past

Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Visual Arts
An abstract brown and black image
Artwork by Stefanie Koemeda © Yusuf Essop

The Nirox residency is located on the grounds of a rambling sculpture park in the “Cradle of Humankind”, the world-renowned paleoanthropological site outside of Johannesburg. Over the past few years we have supported two Swiss artists in residence, Stefanie Koemeda (2023) and Claudia Kübler (2021), who were each drawn to this unique location to develop projects that contemplate our material legacy and deep time.

What geological detritus will reveal our existence in the distant future? Stefanie Koemeda speculates

Artist Stefanie Koemeda is working on a round ceramic artwork.
Stefanie Koemeda © Yusuf Essop

During her residency, Stefanie extended her practice of taking clay imprints of found structures and forms from which to build sculptures. At the same time, she continued her painting and drawing, experimenting with ways to combine all three mediums. “My interest here at NIROX lies in the archaeological sites around the residency and the speculations that surround their role and purpose, as well as in contemporary terra-human sites of interaction, such as mines,” she explains. This interest extends her thinking about the “material legacy” of contemporary human societies along geological grounds. Her practice asks what kind of sediment we will leave behind, and which objects will reveal our existence in the distant future. “The ground, the soil, and the terra of my workplace interest me and how we humans interact with them,” she adds. “My focus lies at the interfaces between humans and terra, the machinery involved, and the infrastructures resulting from this co-existence.”

A ceramic slab is receiving the imprint from a rock in a forrest setting.
Making ceramic reliefs © Stefanie Koemeda
An abstract ink painting that resembles and animal.
Ink painting © Stefanie Koemeda
Flat ceramic artworks are drying on a table.
Making ceramic reliefs © Stefanie Koemeda
A glazed ceramic artwork that resembles an animal has been placed on the ground outside.
Ceramic relief © Stefanie Koemeda

I was 20 when I first visited the Lascaux caves. That’s when I realised an interest in long time-periods: what remains and the level of mystery that comes with it. We don’t know why people made these cave paintings or engravings, just as they may not have been aware that we would find them 17 000 years or so later. The traces we leave behind are often unconscious. Today that might include mining activities, the infrastructures that we build, or the materials that we use, which create new materials.

A relevant aspect of these findings (and geology generally) that connects to my sculpture practice is this back-and-forth between negative and positive space, or this succession between the two. You often see this with petrified things, where the object or body is degraded and refilled with another material – petrified. One might only find the leftovers or “moulds”, which ultimately define the structure.

The reliefs that I’m making have something to do with being here, in the Cradle of Humankind. I really wanted to walk around, to be in the hills and see what happens to me. The animals here became very important, and of course, they’re widely represented in rock art around the world. So it has something to do with trying to understand these animals, how I see and interpret them. There’s a lot of projection happening. I project my own psychological thinking on them, or ask all these questions about them. When I do for a walk and look at the giraffe and it looks back – that’s an important moment for me. There’s also a connection here to the quartzite slabs that were found in Namibia, in the Apollo 11 cave. They are some of the oldest so-called mobile art objects found in Southern Africa and are estimated to be 26 000 years old. There’s this debate about whether it’s art because it’s a painting on a stone. I’m fascinated by that.

from a conversation with Sven Christian. Read the full text here.
Stefanie Koemeda is kneeling on the floor of a sculpture studio crushing rocks with a hammer.
Stefanie Koemeda working at the Villa-Legodi Centre for Sculpture at Nirox.

Dust and absence: Claudia Kübler contemplates deep time

The artist Claudia Kubler is crouched on the ground grinding red rocks into a fine powder for her artwork.
Claudia Kübler working on You Are Here © David Knuckey

Claudia’s artistic practice centres around the exploration of the phenomenon of time. Her residency at Nirox extended her contemplation on “deep time”, the ultra-slow timescale that goes beyond the human time horizon to the geological and the planetary, a supra-human time.

In what ways did your time in the Cradle of Humankind add to and influence your general interest in the phenomenon of time and especially supra-human timescales in your work?

In the laborious and somewhat pointless manual work of crushing stones, I often thought about speed. From a human perspective, the work was slow, inefficient and therefore somewhat questionable (someone once remarked if there wasn’t a machine that would do the job for me quickly!). From a geological perspective, my work was racy – erosion would take decades to achieve the same result.

Maybe it’s just the knowledge of what has been found in this region, but it puts things into perspective, as it so often does when you consider the grand geological scales. The conversations about a specifically South African understanding of time, but also the observation of how people handle, manage and shape time, made it clear to me once more how strongly I am influenced by a Western, linear, progressive and monochronic understanding of time. Time here was, according to my first impression, handled more fluidly and flexibly; understood closer to the periodic, cyclical, closer to a time as it appears in natural processes. Time here seemed also more interpenetrated and interwoven. This was visible to me, for example, in the care, awareness and relationship to the past, to the Ancestors.

The huge desire to set a beginning, to determine the origin, to locate oneself as human beings in time and place, is exemplified in the self-definition of this region as the “cradle of humankind”. But it is, as so often, more complicated and complex. Far across the region, hominin fossils of the same age, or in some cases even older, have been found and it is not always clear to distinguish the human from other species. Donna Haraway’s quote that I read at the Origin Centre in Joburg resonates a lot with me:

“The human story is never finished, neither in the direction of the future, nor of the past… The origin (…) is ever receding, not only because new fossils are found and reconstructed, but also because the origin is precisely what can never really be found; it must remain a virtual point, ever reanimating the desire for the whole.”

In the “Cradle of Humankind”, I also often asked myself the question of what a non-human perspective of the concept of deep time carries. And even though this remains speculative, I am fascinated by the question of what a stone or termite mound’s perception of time would be.

A split image. To the left is a drawing of wavey letters that spell out "now now". To the right is a neon tube light that spells "now now".
Claudia Kubler, Now Now

How did reflecting on our most distant past influence your perception of the present?

I came across the South African expression “now now” and was fascinated by its ambiguous use and elasticity. I asked various South Africans about the definition and context of the term and each time I got a slightly different answer. Inspired by this, I developed a drawing for a “now now” neon. I think I still haven’t fully understood the term.

I believe that in the attempt to perceive deep time processes, on the one hand there is a sensitisation and appreciation for all possible life forms, existences, developments and conditions of this planet. On the other hand, of course, there is a relativisation of the human era (it is only so young!) and above all of our own existence in the face of such aeons of time. One becomes extremely small through these considerations. The danger then perhaps lies in the fact that in the awareness and foreshadow of supra-human timescales, one can lose courage and the drive to act – it might be hard to still find something important, worth fighting for.

Claudia Kübler, You Are Here

The work you created while in residence replicates quasi-geomorphological processes of erosion and seems to engage with themes of temporality and permanence – being lost and found, displaced and located. Can you tell us more about You Are Here and the concept and creation of this work?

Yes, these are exactly the aspects you mention which interest me in the work. The installation You Are Here consists of red sedimentary rock that I found in the “Cradle of Humankind” and ground up by hand. With this stone powder I formed the icon of online maps, which claims “you are here”. The work is conceived of to be ephemeral and cyclical, it is distributed around the space by the visitors movement and reformed by me from time to time. This fragile baseline of the installation questions the claim of “You are here / This is here” and the accompanying longing for (self-)location. The work is heterochronous, the rock refers to and stores an immense past, the icon represents our digital age. Now Now does not mean now, but rather “soon”, it refers to the future, although this “soon” is not precisely defined. So “Here and now” erode, expand.

I was also interested in transferring a symbol of the virtual space into physical space, playing with size and orientation. Observing what it becomes, in the new context.

In classical sculpture production, the use of stone has an old tradition – it guarantees the sculpture a quasi-eternal life. In my work, the stone is chiselled until it becomes ephemeral. Is this an iconoclastic act? Perhaps just an interrogation of duration, presence and absence. From a stratigraphic point of view, any sign, no matter how carved in stone, is ephemeral. In my research I have read that the era of man inscribes itself rather through the pollen of monoculture farming, through the displacement and extinction of species than through urbanism, for example. Dust and absence will remain of us, what fragile witnesses of our era.

Red rocks are being crushed into dust with a hammer on a wooden plank.
Claudia Kübler working on You Are Here © David Knuckey

More on residencies

Application deadline for residencies: 1 March 2024