26 November 2008 – 10 January 2009
White Cube Hoxton Square presented ‘Through the Gate’ Robin Rhode's first exhibition with the gallery. Rhode’s practice, which incorporates performance, photography, film, drawing and sculpture, draws upon his upbringing in South Africa. For this exhibition, he tackled the historical relationship between Britain and his native country.
Britain’s imperial past provided the basis for a number of works in ‘Through the Gate’. Impis comprises a series of British police riot helmets rendered in coloured glass, which were placed in a ‘bull’s horn’ formation in the centre of the gallery. The Zulu army used this method of encircling the enemy as a tactic against the British army in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, when the Zulu nation won independence from colonial rule. In his sculptural installation, Rhode inverts this, implying that the British have appropriated the strategy that led to their defeat. Likewise, in works such as Ghost Dog, Rhode alludes to pre-colonial artefacts acquired by the British. A companion piece to Impis, this sculpture features a two-headed dog inspired by Kozo, a carved wooden figure found in the Congo in the late nineteenth century and now housed at the British Museum, London. Rhode’s version shows a German Shepherd, a breed he chose for its associations with police brutality in South Africa during apartheid rule as well as referencing those used by Belgian colonisers to control the native population in the Congo. Rhode attempts to exorcise his childhood fear of these animals in Ghost Dog. Dozens of knives pierce the dog’s two-headed body, with one head snapping at the other in an absurd, circular motion. This circular, or reflexive, motion is a motif that Rhode employed throughout the exhibition.
Rhode’s photographic works, presented in a sequential storyboard format, record scenarios in which the artist, or his alter ego, interact with two-dimensional objects loosely drawn with chalk, charcoal or spray paint on a concrete wall or pavement. Underlying these humorous improvisations is a commentary on the politics of poverty, race, national representation and individualism. In Monument to the Chairman, two protagonists attempt to construct a memorial. The identity of the ‘Chairman’ remains unknown, yet as the structure takes shape, echoes of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) building in London begin to form. Sun Up relates to symbols sketched by gang members during Rhode’s schooldays. This sequence of four photographs depicts a hand-held flick knife, its blade unfolded and seemingly used as an implement to draw the circumference of a blood-red sun on the grid-lined paper behind it.
A number of other works, such as Pan’s Opticon, cite the practice of the Russian constructivist El Lissitzky. The title plays on the Panopticon, the design for a prison building by British philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, which allowed constant surveillance of prisoners without their knowledge, providing, in Bentham’s phrase, a ‘mode of obtaining power of mind over mind’. Here Rhode’s doppelganger uses an architect’s compass as a tool of mass observation.
Robin Rhode was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1976. He lives and works in Berlin, Germany. Solo exhibitions include ‘Who Saw Who’ at The Hayward, London (2008) and ‘Walk Off’, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2007), and in 2009, he will have solo exhibitions at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio. Group exhibitions include ‘Prospect’, New Orleans Biennial (2008), ‘Stray Alchemists’, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2008), ‘Out of Time’, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2007) and ‘When Latitudes Became Form’, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2003).
A fully illustrated catalogue, with essays by Edith Hall and Ossian Ward was published to coincide with the exhibition.