Bottle Tops, Toothpicks and Tar: the Conceptual Sculptures of Chris Soal. Interview With the Artist

Detail from the Sleight and Subtance show at Montoro12 Gallery. Courtesy of the gallery.
Detail from the Sleight and Subtance show at Montoro12 Gallery. Courtesy of the gallery.

By Adam Hencz

“These ubiquous materials first imprint themselves upon me physically, and then over time —as I am abstracting and re-forming them— they start to imprint themselves on me conceptually as well. It is an organic cycle.

Chris Soal

Using conventional mass-produced objects extracted from their typical contexts, with each piece of work Johannesburg-based artist Chris Soal sets out on a discovery guided by materials that are omnipresent for an urban inhabitant and define the outlook and pace of contemporary city life: discarded bottle tops, scorched bamboo toothpicks in conjunction with asphalt, cement, rebar, and tar. He re-formulates these elements and substances, ultimately reflecting on the modifications he created with a minimalistic language that reveals sensitivity to texture, light, and form. Highlighting the stories embedded in found materials and challenging societal assumptions of value, his works are also a commentary on the structural impacts on urban living, a reflection on the individual in relation to the collective, as well an examination of the destructive relationship humans have with nature and the environment.

The course of Chris Soal’s career has progressed exceedingly fast. Graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts (Hons) at the University of Witwatersrand, Soal has already been recognized by multiple awards, invitations from art residencies from Dakar to Rome, as well as sculpture gardens, museums, and Haute couture brands like Dior collaborating with the young artist. With regard to his ongoing exhibition at Montoro12 Gallery in Brussels, Artland had a conversation with the artist reflecting on his fast-paced career, organic artistic practice and disciplined work ethic and talked about the remarkable power of habits.

What made you choose the path of taking on the endurance contest of the life of a professional artist?

Looking back on my life, I see that I have been engaging in the arts, or at least the creative thought process, throughout my entire life. In my childhood, I occasionally drew, painted and did “art activities” growing up. We did not have a TV, for example, so most of my time was spent either playing outdoors or constructing things out of LEGO or reading books. I had a rich internal life that was fostered through my family life, the structure of the home, and the platform for curiosity that my parents encouraged in me and my siblings. It was really after high school, in about 2013, when I was working and travelling in Europe, that my life started to revolve more seriously around art. I met a bunch of young, very interesting and successful people who were all doing things that they were exceptionally good at or things that they were passionate about and who, in essence, had found their niche. A common thread that I picked up amongst all of them was that after studying, they all took a job, then saw an opportunity somewhere else or had met someone and their life was fluid, and organic, where one thing led to another. I went to a very traditional high school that prepared people for typical “ambitious” careers in the world, like law, accounting, business or medicine. Therefore my time travelling in Europe was very important to me to break out of that way of thinking and to realize that my path is not necessarily going to be a linear one, but it is much more about my disposition and outlook towards the world. So I aimed at the most interesting thing I could think of to see where it takes me, which just so happened to be art.

Chris Soal photographed by Matthew Bradley. Courtesy the artist.
Chris Soal photographed by Matthew Bradley. Courtesy the artist.

How did you choose sculpting as your main medium to engage with?

In a sense, it feels like it chose me. The first two years of my art degree were foundational: I was given a broad range of different courses in photography, performance art, aspects of socially engaged practice and sculptural work. Then I was left to develop from there, and the last two years were about starting to form one’s own initial practice. From the start, I was pulled into a direction of working primarily with my hands, and building on tactile sensations of navigating through the world, and realizing how objects, unintended forms, strange compositions or just random outlines of assembled objects resonated with me. It probably goes back to my childhood again, which was much spent outdoors, very physical and at the same time an act of play. Also, my physicality plays a big part in it since engaging my body is a big part of what makes me feel fulfilled. It is not just a conceptual practice for me but a practice that engages almost my entire being, which I naturally gravitated to. It is also about starting to accept yourself and realizing that this is who I am and this is the way I experience the world.

How are found objects modified to express the ideas you have and evoke the concepts that you want to materialize?

I do not think it is as linear as that, as I don’t necessarily start with a concept. I believe it is a much more fluid process. It is very important to foreground that the material is the initial starting point and plays an integral part in directing the outcome of the work. All of the materials that I use, such as toothpicks and bottle tops and industrial materials like concrete, rebar, tar and asphalt, are all materials that I have personally encountered or physically touched. Either through the act of fiddling, or running my hand alongside a wall as I walk. These materials imprint themselves upon me physically, and then over time, they start to imprint themselves on me conceptually as well. When I bring these materials into the studio, there is a bit of an abstracting of the initial context and their purpose and then a reforming phase to assess their possibilities and the limits, often working until there is a breakthrough until there is a moment that forces me to reconsider what the ontological possibilities of the material could be. A part of that process is also about being aware that these materials have a particular position within the social fabric of our time. Being materials of ubiquity, the fact that they are mass-produced and that they have certain signifiers they already carry within themselves. While I am letting the material guide the process, I am also very conscious of what roles these materials play in society as well. When the singular disappears into the plural through the amassing of the material, I am led into thinking about concepts of transcendence that trigger research of different existential philosophers for example. The material formation inspires a specific observation of the work, which inspires research, which then again feeds back into the body of work. It is an organic cycle.

For example, I have been working with bottle tops for about six years now. The starting point for that practice as a student was the act of fiddling with the bottle top and bending it in half. This bent form started to suggest an interpretation of a cowrie shell, which is a pre-colonial form of currency and also a spiritual and cultural symbol in Africa. It was already a very loaded object, and I started to think about ways of positioning that and bringing that out in the work.

Through amassing bottle caps by collecting them from different drinking spots, taverns and bars around Johannesburg, bringing them into the studio and observing them, different ways of working arose. I punched holes through them, threading them together onto electric fencing cable, just to see what that produced. As I arranged these caps in certain ways, I noticed how the light reflects off them. From one angle, if the caps are laid in one direction the light reflects off bright and then another angle almost creates a contrast tonal shadow. It was both about arranging them in certain formats and about the position of the viewer in relation to the work. Therefore it became a question of phenomenology, which then opened up another avenue of research which then reinspired work. These acts and observations started to bring up notions of value and currency as well, especially since Johannesburg is a city that was founded on the gold rush and has a significant gold mining history. For me, it became a way of posing the question that if Johannesburg is ‘Egoli’, a nickname for the City of Gold, it is surprising that the only gold to be seen on the streets of Johannesburg are these thrown away, discarded bottle tops.

There is almost no material in my studio altered in its form. The toothpicks are represented simply as they are, I haven’t changed their nature. I don’t add color to the beer bottle tops or paint them. For me, it is also about the integrity of the material holding its own significance and then simply re-presenting them in a way such that it challenges our perception and our assumption of the value of that material. Although I’ll admit I do get a little sneaky when I burn the toothpicks, which for me is a way of adding color without adding color. These toothpick works look like a sort of animal skin: fur, hides, pelts, or biomorphic organic lifeforms, even corrals. I think that the suggestion of them hanging on the wall, splayed and stretched, is an act of violence. Burning is also a gesture of building into that narrative, positioning the viewer not only as someone in relation to the object but also someone complicit in its form.

Interview with Chris Soal / As below so above

How are these pieces installed in the gallery space and what are your tips for moving and taking good care of them?

A part of my job is also a sort of engineering so that all of these works can be made to be simply picked up and latched onto the wall. With the case of the toothpicks, the pressure is diffused across multiple points, so there is very little chance of any damage coming to them. Another thing to know is that we use a non-acidic, very flexible polyurethane sealant glue. You could actually walk up to one of those works, hopefully when the gallerist isn’t looking, and move the toothpicks around, to see how they all return to their original position. This glue is incredible, I have been using it for years and it essentially gives us plenty of drying time to work these toothpicks into form, to push them, to mold them, to sculpt them. It is also interesting how the material is guiding the process, with me sort of being a co-collaborator in that. It is not just the surface material but also the support material and the structural design. Those things all are coming together to create these often surprising outcomes in the works. That’s why I make sure to list all the materials that go into constructing a work in the details of the work alongside titles etc.

All in all, the works are incredibly strong, and it is important that they are properly secured. Some of these pieces are in multiple parts, and they come together to form one singular piece, to make shipping much easier. There are “invisible” handles that screw in to allow people to lift and hold these works up and latch them on the wall without touching the surface. There is a lot of engineering I’ve had to come up with, that goes on behind the scenes that sometimes also influences the form of the work, as I am starting to understand how these works hold themselves together in the face of gravity and other forces. The only thing I tell collectors to look out for is occasional dust. Then just take a little bit of compressed air and just blow it off. I once had a collector who was bald and used to joke with me every time he saw me that I was the only reason he owned a hairdryer in his house – so he could blow the work down.

“I have faith that if I do the best I can, those works will create ripples beyond what I could necessarily envision at the moment.”

Chris Soal

What do you strive for as an artist? What form of recognition is important for you?

Two or three years ago I did have a couple of little goals in my head, some of which I have achieved, some of which have become irrelevant or I have updated or modified. But during the lockdown, when all of the deadlines and opportunities were postponed, for up to eighteen months sometimes I started to ask questions like “Why do I need to go into the studio today?” and then “Why do I need to go into the studio tomorrow?” and eventually “Why do I do what I do?” During that time I shifted my approach from being less goal-oriented towards being more habit-oriented: so having reasons for doing what I am doing and actually just doing that every single day and every single week; putting the time into making sure I am constantly reading, constantly writing, constantly preparing new works, being in the studio, being hands-on; and forming the practice that ultimately I want to have as opposed to working in high energy sprints because of deadlines and simply doing projects that are on my goal/to-do list. This shift has had a very positive outcome on my practice in the last eighteen months since COVID hit because I feel that the quality of my work has improved due to the fact that I am now dedicating more time to the pieces.

I also put more time into seeing how different pieces interact with each other in the studio. I have time to make decisions, perhaps altering a piece after seeing it for months at a time, and then finally resolving something that I thought was maybe unresolved. All in all, my approach is the same, just to be faithful with what I have, to put in the work every day, and to let the outcome take care of itself because I actually believe it really will. That collaboration with Dior came about when two works of mine were exhibited in London. Two works were made out of my parents’ garage, working late into the night with my assistant. I have faith that if I do the best I can, those works will create ripples beyond what I could necessarily envision at the moment. It also foregrounds the studio as the space of genuine importance. External events are ephemeral in comparison to the work that really goes on in the studio.

For me, that gives me faith that I will still be practicing in fifty years as opposed to having goals that I might take off in five years and then what next? Whereas the work itself is the real reward. It has taken me some time to get there. I went through a couple of burnouts and a couple of frustrations but I think I am really happy to be in that space now and I am seeing it bearing very positive fruits.

Chris Soal, The Audacity!!, detail, 2021. Concrete and rebar with birch wood and bamboo toothpicks held in polyurethane adesive on ripstop fabric. Courtesy of Montoro12 Gallery.
Chris Soal, The Audacity!!, detail, 2021. Concrete and rebar with birch wood and bamboo toothpicks held in polyurethane adhesive on ripstop fabric. Courtesy of Montoro12 Gallery.

What advice would you give to young artists?

I have a whole list of advice for younger artists, but one that has come to mind recently is to go above and beyond. If you are given an opportunity, don’t just do that bare minimum for that opportunity, but look for ways to stretch the possibility presented to you creatively. Very recently, I have been able to unveil my first outdoor sculptural installation at the NIROX Sculpture Park entitled Relic (2019-2021). This was meant to be unveiled last year, so I have been actually working on this for almost two years and it eventually bred a whole new body of work. So what was a delay and an inconvenience, now turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Then, because I was spending so much time at the park, looking and taking in the surroundings, discussing installation, contemplating positions within the landscape, and dialoguing with the park managers, I got to know that a rammed earth exhibition space was being constructed on the site. It turned out to be a very different setting for exhibiting art, not only due to the colour and texture of the walls but also due to the one side being open and a beautiful olive tree growing within the space. Simply by being present in that space and open to new possibilities, I was then invited for a solo show, which we just opened, titled Elegy. I did much more than I initially planned because as the project developed, my understanding of the project became greater. It is eventually about seizing the opportunities you have, as well as being smart about what you commit to and what you don’t commit to. But then when you do commit, really just give it your best.

Installation shot for Relic, Mike Taylor
Installation shot for Relic, at the Nirox Sculpture Park. Image credit to photographer Mike Taylor, courtesy the artist.

It is almost like you are kicking stones off the top of the mountain and you don’t know which stone is going to cause the avalanche. But you have to kick as many as you can. Because maybe it is going to take ten stones and maybe it is going to take a hundred stones. Be ultimately faithful in what you are doing with consistent discipline, because when that avalanche starts, you need to be able to ride that wave. And if you don’t have the work ethic, if you don’t have the ability to manage stress, to manage sudden interest from people who you have never met, and all the fluffy “fame” that comes from that, if you don’t have the ability to manage the finances that come with that, it is going to overwhelm you. But in the meantime do not get too paralysed by the enormity of the avalanche, just realize that as it grows, you can also grow. I am also spending time learning about how to better manage my finances, how to be a better leader and a manager, or how to better manage my own time.

Installation view of the artist's solo show Elegy, at the Nirox Sculpture Park
Installation view of the artist’s solo show Elegy, at the Nirox Sculpture Park. Image credit to photographer Mike Taylor, courtesy the artist.

What is your next collaboration, commission or project that you are working on?

There’s not too much I can openly share at the moment, and with COVID, the future is still very uncertain. At this point, much of last year’s work has come to a bottleneck: I opened three solo exhibitions already this year, as well as the NIROX outdoor installation, so it has been incredibly busy in the last few months. My next plan and my next focus is moving the studio from Johannesburg to Cape Town for the next eighteen months and potentially longer. This is taking most of my time now, along with another body of work we are preparing. I’m dedicating some time to developing works on paper and I am very excited to show them because I have not really publicised that side of my work much yet. Then in August 2021, I have a number of works showing in a group show at Piero Atchugarry Gallery in Miami, along with artists Lungiswa Gqunta, Tariku Shiferaw, Ângela Ferreira and Daàpo Reo.

Learn more about Chris Soal

Chris Soal and Studio
Montoro12 Contemporary Art
Montoro12 Gallery on Artland
NIROX Sculpture Park