MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Reigniting William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx’s ‘The Firewalker’

By Melody Emmett 14 July 2021

William Kentridge and Gerard Marx at the launch of The Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx

The Firewalker was commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) in 2009. More than 10 years later, it needs to be restored.

Melody Emmett

A 10m silhouetted image of a woman carrying a brazier on her head, the artwork is a celebration of the street culture of women cooking and selling mielies, sheep’s heads and other foodstuffs on city thoroughfares where there is significant pedestrian traffic.  

It is located across the road from the busy Bree Street taxi rank on the Newtown side of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, formally the locale of informal traders and taxi washers. When it was launched, a local newspaper lauded it as “South Africa’s Statue of Liberty”. 

The One Percent for Art policy was adopted by the City in 2006, throwing its weight behind an ambitious plan “to celebrate Johannesburg’s unique character and identity and enhance the urban environment through a vibrant, diverse, city-wide programme of public art”.

Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker; the Johannesburg Development Agency commissioned William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx in 2009, to create a public sculpture ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx

Lael Bethlehem, the director of the JDA at the time, said: “I think the whole notion of inner city regeneration has kind of fallen off the agenda, which is a great pity. The city doesn’t seem to have an inner city regeneration agenda any more. 

“The artwork in the inner city was very much part of an effort to revamp, reimagine, redevelop the inner city, and to make it a much more vibrant place. 

“You can only do that through a mixture of the right kind of capital and public space, and then on-going management and maintenance of the area. And I think that at the moment, we have none of these.” 

The Firewalker and other public artworks in the city have been badly neglected, in part because of the depressed economy and high unemployment. As a consequence, increasing numbers of homeless people living in the vicinity of The Firewalker have used the sculpture, which offers some degree of seclusion, as a urinal in an area where ablution facilities are almost non-existent. Because of this, the structural welds of the sculpture have deteriorated. 

“For the first three to four years, the sculpture was untouched,” Marx explains, “but the moment something starts to deteriorate, it escalates… I would assume that that moment has happened. 

“It’s at the ground level where the sculpture meets the site that it has really taken a beating, and that is essentially because of a combination of people sheltering around the sculpture, an accumulation of rubble and also the problem of urination. So it is literally about the interface between the sculpture and the public.” 

The damaged base of Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker sculpture; the . Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx
Marx explains that damages are “at the ground level where the sculpture meets the site… that is essentially because of a combination of people sheltering around the sculpture, an accumulation of rubble and also the problem of urination.” Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx
Graffitis seen on the panels of the sculpture. Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx

The panels of the sculpture are also badly scarred by graffiti. “We have to sand and repaint the whole sculpture so that it is nice and fresh again,” Marx says.

A 2014 JDA/Wits School of Architecture report quotes a story which is a metaphor for public art in the city. Evidently, during the creation of The Firewalker, the drawings and sheets of stainless steel needed for the mock-up prototype maquette were left in a bakkie, which was burgled. The thieves stole the stainless steel for its resale value, and left behind the infinitely more prized sketches by Kentridge and Marx. 

Stewart Bastow, the production manager on the project, acknowledged the “very difficult and contested space”, but he believes the work is important and appropriately located. 

“It is obviously not as valuable as some sort of basic amenities for the homeless community that lives there, and there is that sort of tension and contestation,” he notes. 

Marx adds that there is an expectation by society that a sculpture should be unaffected and treated with respect by its pedestrian community, and because of this, the contrast with what is actually happening is so pronounced. 

But, he argues: “The problems are due to the socio-political context; they are not inherent to the sculpture. And I think to an extent if an artwork can make something like that visible on some level, one should see that as successful. It is making the contrast visible between what we want and what we have.” 

Jennifer van den Bussche, whose company, Sticky Situations has been contracted by the JDA to evaluate the damage and develop a restoration and conservation strategy, says that in addition to the restoration of the artwork, “What we are hoping to do is to get permission to have open urinals in the park, where a lot of people are sleeping… you know, the kind they have in other countries where men are sheltered.” 

The restoration of the artwork – Marx explains that, “from the steelworker to the production manager to the structural engineers that we originally used… they are being pulled back in on the project to deal with it now.” Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx
Restoring the sculpture. Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx
The restoration process in progress. Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx

Van den Bussche has brought together the original team to restore the sculpture. 

“You can’t just engage with any structural engineer when you are working with an artwork. You need people who are sensitive and willing to engage with the particular project. And so it is interesting now, 10 years later, to see that we are falling back on that same ecology; that structure of production managers and people who understand the terrain and so forth,” Marx explains. 

“So from the steelworker to the production manager to the structural engineers that we originally used… they are being pulled back in on the project to deal with it now. It makes you understand it is about the ecology of people and workers – it is not about the singularity of the artist in a case like this.”

“The actual physical sculpture was erected in about six weeks. We were working with a small budget at the time. It was quite a feat of engineering. It was erected with the artists and a professional team that had to team together to make it happen,” Barstow says.

“The implementation of the policy and the resourcing of the policy was always conditional on partnerships because it was this whole model of a percentage of capital budgets that would be deployed towards arts and culture, towards public art. 

“And the funds were generally administered and controlled by the JDA on very tight expenditure deadlines and fairly uncertain outcomes as well,” former director of arts, culture and heritage for the City of Johannesburg, Steven Sack says.

“We’ve cleared and excavated the base which is not ready for the scaffolding to go up. After that we are considering casting the base in concrete,” Bastow explains. Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx

Maintenance budgets haven’t kept pace with infrastructure development across the city, including the growth of public art, but a maintenance budget has been allocated for repair of the ailing Firewalker.  

“I think maintenance of a sculpture is very much part of the sculpture. As a student I paid my way by sanding down, restoring and polishing sculptures in private collections,” Marx says. 

The area where the restoration of The Firewalker is taking place has been repaved twice. Marx adds: “Clearly paving is a very negligent element in that environment. It gets repaved frequently. If it gets repaved every five years, then that is not such a major problem. It actually seems to have been repaved fairly recently, which is part of the transportation hub across the road. And so we are in negotiations with them and our current plans are in relation to what is happening there.”

Making the city more accessible to pedestrians has been a large part of the city’s thinking for many years. 

“Pedestrianisation has been destroyed during the Apartheid era in favour of the car, and in fact those roads are very hostile to pedestrians; the way they’ve been designed and built, with narrow pavements and converging roads in multiple directions,” Sack explains, adding that the JDA planned to insert a pedestrian grid and allow for more human movement, but they have never had the money to do it properly. 

“The idea was to create a large urban park that took you from Sauer Street all the way through to Braamfontein, through a green lung. So the Kentridge piece would have been at the edge of that green lung.” 

Interpretive signage is being produced to make the artwork meaningful and engaging for a wide and popular audience. Kentridge and Marx’s Firewalker. Image: © William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx

With a tight delivery date for completing the restoration to the sculpture, the team has continued to entertain conflicting proposals about the future of The Firewalker before making a final decision.

“I think they should box it and on the outer surface of the box, run a sort of campaign about: Do we want it here? If we want it, we will take the box off and love it; if we don’t, we will move it. And it is boxed in order to secure it. Then you make a very strong statement about the problem.”

Sack’s proposal was debated but in the end, not supported by the team.

“It sounds to me that that would be something that is done to a work that is controversial and it’s not applicable to the problem we are having,” Marx says.

The team also discussed moving the artwork. Alternative sites which have similar qualities to the existing location were identified for investigation: somewhere around the new Jewel City development in Maboneng, and the park across from where The Firewalker is now. 

“Those remain as possibilities,” Itzkin said. “But the reality is that we are working with a limited maintenance budget now, and we have to see the present project through. Important work to preserve the sculpture is in motion and we have to bring it to conclusion the best way we can.”

Marx says for conceptual and optical reasons, he did not support moving the sculpture. “The sculpture, both conceptually – in terms of dealing with the brazier women – and also physically, in terms of how the opticality of the sculpture works, cannot be moved so easily. The opticality of the sculpture won’t work if it moves to a different site. It was built for that site,” he says.

“For now the site will be made good for years to come, hopefully,” Itzkin explains. “There are going to be changes in the area with that transport interchange development. It might bring improved visibility and security… When the new interchange is opened and there is space, the brazier women will come back,” Van den Bussche says, adding that this has been confirmed by consultation on the ground.

“We’ve cleared and excavated the base which is not ready for the scaffolding to go up. After that we are considering casting the base in concrete,” Bastow explains. 

“We are lifting the bottom section of the sculpture so there will be less shelter provided by the sculpture, and less privacy, so that ablution won’t happen that easily. We’re lowering the base for that reason. So where we had a slightly distant, dome-like base, the base will now be level with the environment around it. 

“We are also talking about providing more light onto, not so much the sculpture, but the area; sort of ambience light, which will increase the safety of that area in general,” Marx says.

Interpretive signage is being produced to make the artwork meaningful and engaging for a wide and popular audience. 

“Maybe we were too obscure… maybe we weren’t generous enough at the onset around signage and communicating it to its immediate audience,” Marx notes. 

“And the fact that we can remedy that will, I think, increase the value of the work. But the value of the work lies in its relationship to the context, and not as something separate from it.” DM/ML

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