I stared at the life-sized emerald green bicycle lying on the floor juxtaposed next to a metal bucket of water, a sculpture called “Soap and Water,” in the Ahmanson building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I knew that the bike was made of soap, but suspended in illogical disbelief, I still wandered around the bike to inspect the accuracy of the design. A hard, uncomfortable-looking seat? Check. Consistently smooth spokes on the wheels? Check. Pedals that seem as though they would spin effortlessly? Check plus.
I thought to myself how nice and freeing it would feel to ride that green bike. Unfortunately, that would be a very, very bad idea: not only would the soap dissolve under my weight, but the little security lady watching me would have thrown a fit. So I contented myself with examining the realistic-looking bike from behind the security tape.
The next work I came to was called “Kite.” Rhode printed a picture of his hands up to his arms, but faded at the elbow, flat against one wall and a large sideways diamond that contained a digital clip of trees flying by at rapid speeds on the perpendicular wall. To connect his hands to the kite, Rhode used a simple string tied from one wall to the other, from his clutching hands to the corners of the diamond. The position of the hands, one fist over the other, arms slightly parted, gave the piece a sense of pulling and speed. Mental images of childhood arose. There were pictures of little kids running forward through parks, with their hands behind them tugging on the kite strings and eyes focused on the tops of trees as they whizzed by. It made this piece fun. I kept thinking that the bicycle should have been placed in the corner of this work, under the kite strings for even greater playfulness.
Another flat-out entertainingly fun piece was “Juggla.” Like a lot of his other works, “Juggla” comprised of 20 black and white digital prints 20 x 14 inches each in five rows, showing an anonymous black man wearing a baggy pinstriped suit and top hat doing some type of performance. In this work the man was interacting with juggling balls, but the balls were painted on a street wall. By playing with shading, light, varying body positions and motion, Rhode made the flipbook-like scenes come alive. One instant he was sideways holding a “ball” out in front of him and the next frame his back was toward the viewer making it look as though he was about to toss two balls in the air and so on.
The most striking things were the man’s unusual clothing and the use of black-and-white photography. Background on this artwork stated that these elements alluded to the old practice of minstrelsy, which was when white men, usually comedians, dressed up as black performers and presented jokes and songs. The use of this allusion revealed Robin Rhode’s interest in not only theater and art, but also politics and history.
Robin Rhode was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1976, but lived most of his life in Johannesburg and then moved to Berlin, Germany. Growing up, he benefited from a childhood initiation rite, where older students would force younger students to interact with objects drawn on school lavatory walls. This influence inspired him to try to get the public to engage with his wall illustrations, as if they were real objects.
After living in Johannesburg, the bicycle had a special meaning to Rhode. Initially, Rhode chalked the bike’s image on public walls. By drawing that image on the bathroom walls in the poor city of Johannesburg he could give those kids who couldn’t afford a bike the opportunity to imagine for a moment the freedom and the sense of ownership of that object. Similar to graffiti, these works could be washed away, or drawn over. In “Soap and Water,” by placing the bike in such close proximity to the water the same impermanence was suggested. Likewise, Rhode showed the dissolvability of the “Kite” by taking the digital clips of the forest and making them speed up into blurriness and then vanish into darkness, and in the “Juggla,” the first and last photos were simply empty walls. Every detail in Rhode’s art has a purpose, a meaning and a journey.
The theatrics of Robin Rhode’s collection can be viewed at LACMA until June 6th. Check it out before it’s washed away!