Mark Rautenbach: the alchemical fire of art

In 2012, at the age of forty-eight, Rautenbach first harnessed the constructive power of fire through his artwork titled “p[h]i(re).” This aesthetic fire made from crocheted flames symbolized Rautenbach’s personal breakthrough from the bad habit of burning his artwork. He had learnt the destructive behavior from his father, a Springbok model airplane maker, who would regularly burn his airplanes.

Rautenbach explained, “Fire is a symbol of transformation. Fire changes the state of a material. There is an actual fire and an alchemical fire. The alchemical art fire is the energy which transforms base-matter into art.”

In 2010 Rautenbach began working with liminal matter – the stuff that exists between worlds. He had taken his minimalism and environmental consciousness to the extreme by not throwing anything away for a full year. The stuff that could not be recycled or composted began to represent the waste in his psychological matter. In a grueling process of “pulling myself together,” as he termed it, Rautenbach patiently and repetitively threaded and bound all these different objects into little cocoon shaped packages called Noonoos.

“Stuff often has symbolic, nostalgic and sentimental attachment. It carries the burden of representation, giving it irrational, superstitious, fetishist attributes. It ultimately reflects inner psychological burdens and things that haunt me internally. By making art I am able to process the matter-actually and figuratively,” he explained.

Betti Marenko, philosopher and design theorist at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London added: “The artist who wants to make an impact on the world is akin to an alchemist, gently working with matter of his/her most direct and lived-in contexts so to transform it in bold interventions that speak out, or whisper, about change.”

Hundreds of sculptures make up the Noonoos series which have been catalogued and recorded into an artists’ book by Lunetta Bartz, who makes books for a number of artists including William Kentridge.

Rautenbach taught for a few years at high-school and lectured design at the Cape Peninsular University of Technology [CPUT]. He responded to the turmoil he experienced in the state of education by taking to the streets.

The piles of educational documents he had collected were torn into strips and repurposed as yarn. This was knitted around Cape Town and Johannesburg, on busses and trains, in public parks and on the steps of the City Hall in a performance project titled The Educator’s New Clothes.

“Art is a powerful tool to impact on people, start conversations and wake people up."

Rautenbach noted: "A granny activity, like knitting in a public space has a disarming and jarring effect. Education is everybody’s concern. People were curious and encouraged to engage. Though conversations, participants were empowered to find that they had something to contribute, that the situation included them and they had possible solutions to offer. They tapped into the gold inside themselves.”

Rautenbach’s series of “craftivist” public performances continued with projects such as Yarn of the Marginalised which knitted rejection proposals together. Craftivism explores the relationship between artist and audience in a style known as “relational aesthetics.”

Marenko describes: “Any artwork generated in this way is exquisitely relational. It is profoundly embedded in its cultural and socio-political environment, and, crucially, it constantly feeds back into its own contexts as a force of subtle change. It initiates deep-seated transformations of the status quo by allowing shifts in the audience’s sensorium and by enabling processes of re-empowerment.”

Rautenbach uses the Freudian term Unheimlich to describe this deliberate use of materials, objects, activities, practices and spaces in ways that they are not usually used. Through a process of distillation and purification he reduces this material to its essence.

In 2013 Rautenbach began burning the off-cuts from specific art projects into shapes. When he assembled these shapes, they took the form of flying insects. One day woodborer appeared through the frame of this work, literally bringing the insects to life. It was a symbolic metamorphosis of his cocooned Noonoos.

A commission to create an installation for the feature wall of the Shortmarket Club in Cape Town allowed Rautenbach’s life size insects to make their celebrated transformation into butterflies. He invited the people who worked in the restaurant to contribute the raw material for the artwork. They selected discarded papers, menus, documents and photographs. The papers were burnt and suspended on fine threads appearing like the hovering wings of a butterfly. These were framed like entomology boxes and named “Butterfly Wall,” which was nominated for the Design Indaba Most Beautiful Object Award 2017 by Jo-Ann Strauss of Top Billing. She said, “At first glance it looks pretty but when you delve deeper you realise that this is someone’s heart, soul and energy that has gone into this.”

Through letting go of old papers and other memorabilia and having this transformed into beauty, people have been able to process their grief and other emotions. This has been witnessed in various commissions such as the butterflies made from love letters presented on the occasion of a 30th wedding anniversary, and the butterflies made from photographs and journal entries of a friend’s deceased daughter.

Rautenbach explained, “This blurs the relationship between artist and client / viewer. They became as much artist as I am. I function as a shaman as a technician, in that I can go through these processes to make something beautiful out of something that is problematic and holding painful memory.”

The beauty of the piece makes a crucial contribution to its change effect in people’s lives. “Beauty is very important. Beauty opens the space for emotions to come out. A photograph laden with meaning holds a lot of nostalgic value. Putting the image into a different shape keeps the traces of the nostalgia but alters it. It is almost a new imprinting, and that visually helps us,” explained Rautenbach.