Shelley Sacks (supplied):
WAKE, RICHARD Born Cape Town 25.10.1935. Died Osnabrueck, Germany 17.02.2016.
Richard Wake, who has died aged 80, was an artist and teacher who enabled huge shifts in artistic practice in South Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s. Following a move to Germany in 1973 he continued to work prolifically into the 21st century producing permanent public works and influential exhibitions.
Born in Cape Town in 1935, Richard Wake was part of a generation educated at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town in the 1950s by artists such as Lippy Lipschitz, who were working in the European tradition.
By the time he inherited Lipschitz’s mantel at Michaelis in the mid 1960s, addressing the largely unexplored question of ‘how to teach new forms of art’ was foremost in his mind. Richard led by example and interventionist actions, unfamiliar materials and participatory installations were by then already part of his own artistic practice. His innovations were radical for their time. Some may recall him floating life size plaster cruciform figures into the sea at Milnerton around this time.
Students of Richard’s teaching in Cape Town and those at Bill Ainslie’s ‘Art Foundation’ in Johannesburg found themselves exposed to different radical approaches. Bill was creating opportunities for Fine Art making beyond white privilege; Richard was creating opportunities for entirely new conceptions of art. Radical in their own ways they both contributed to a milieu of artistic thought that challenged the status quo in South Africa and beyond.
Richard explored ways to share traditional artistic knowledge alongside new ways of engaging with situations, materials and places. On one occasion he asked 40 first year students to each bring enough ‘material’ to cover one square meter of the sculpture studio floor in Michaelis’ ‘Eqyptian Building’. Materials included hair offcuts from a local barber, green cabbage leaves, rich black soil, cool, fine beach sand and metal bottle tops. The students were then asked to crawl or walk barefoot and blindfolded over this giant grid of unfamiliar ‘materials’ and be aware of the different qualities, sounds, smells and sensations. Two students in the group were Handspring Puppet Company’s Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler.
Although he faced opposition Richard was determined to widen the field of sculpture through his own work and his teaching and to share the experimental work he encountered in Europe when he visited Germany. Whatever did not fit in other disciplines had a home with Richard: from video performance to political manifestos; from walking actions in the streets to baths of blood and melting ice figures. This approach to sculpture was liberating. Students could still use traditional materials and Richard’s own grasp of these was masterful. However, just as American and European experimentalism had been nurtured by interdisciplinary schools so the Egyptian Building became a hub for experiments, debates, actions and events that could not be categorized.
Richard was also instrumental in creating another experimental hub: the Space Gallery linked to Cape Town’s Space Theatre. Here Richard and the Space Gallery’s other founders – Kevin Atkinson, Dimitri Nicholas, Gerrit Hillhorst and Shelley Sacks – could share actions and installations with audiences coming to see the plays of Athol Fugard and the radical performance experiments of Tessa Marwick, Bill Tanner and Alex Mavro. Richard’s impact was widened beyond Cape Town when, Richard Demarco, the curator of Joseph Beuys and Tadeus Kantor, showcased Richard’s work with Kevin Atkinson and Dimitri Nicholas, at the 1970 Edinburgh Festival.
Richard moved to Germany in 1973, conflicted about leaving South Africa and yet uncertain about the contribution he could make with his work to the liberation struggle if he remained. In Germany a network of galleries, museums and art-writers enthusiastically supported his work, which included actions with participants in public places that would have been impossible in 1970s and 80s apartheid South Africa. Into his seventies Richard continued to be a prolific and experimental maker of interventions of many kinds: performances, street processes and installations as well as monumental public sculptures. One of his last works extends over the entire city of Osnabrueck –with 100 eyestones placed all over the city, including in rivers. Another compelling later work that in some sense also relates to South Africa is a skinned sofa. Having carefully removed the outer cloth covering, and hung it on the wall above the sofa, the innards of the skinned sofa are exposed. By poetically investigating and making visible the ‘furnishings’ of our lives Richard reveals the silent violence and realm of fear that is the backdrop to the world of passivity and consumerism embodied by the sofa.
In his practice and teaching, in South Africa and Germany, Richard was committed to enabling each person to discover their own relationship to the world, to respect its wonder and to shape their own agenda. This kind of freedom was the hallmark of the artistic situations, events, and installations he created.
Richard’s art was driven by a passion for the possibilities inherent in an object or a situation: a respect for what could be revealed if one truly looked and listened; a respect for the poetic encounter. In this way he enlivened not only objects and situations, but perhaps unknowingly transformed many people’s lives. Although Richard Wake’s work is in many prominent South African collections he was not essentially a gallery or museum artist. Much of what he created was unsalable and took place on pavements, in forests, and on beaches, enabling us to come closer to the sufferings and wonders of the world and to meet ourselves in this poetic encounter.
He is survived by his wife and their two daughters.
Shelley Sacks –Oxford, 6 March 2016
Image: Richard Wake, 1997. Photo: Thomas Osterfeld