Extra Safe

Solo Exhibition
23 October - 27 November 2021

Exhibition Opening: Saturday 23 October 2021
Exhibition Closure: Saturday 27 November 2021

WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Extra Safe, Ben Orkins’ second exhibition with the gallery, following You told me… in 2019.

Recess: a cavity, enclave, or hole. A space that holds associations of infestation and decay; of being empty, inactive, and apathetic; of being vulnerable and easily penetrated; waiting to be entered, filled, or stuffed by a ‘thing’. If recess is a belly button, an ear canal, or an anus, then protrusion is the tongue. It has the quality of being soft, hard, and mobile. Or, with the body in focus: flaccid, engorged, erect, jabbing, gyrating, or slowly and steadily directed in-and-out. There is multiplicity in the exchange between ‘protrusion’ and ‘recession’: Giver and Receiver.

Divided into two parts: Extra Safe begins in the main gallery, with a collection of ceramic sculptures produced in 2021. The second room hosts a body of work made in 2020 for Orkin’s graduation from the Michaelis School of Fine Art (University of Cape Town).  At the top of the gallery’s ramp, two introductory clay vessels, Extra Safe (2021), stand alongside one another. Although they do not touch, they edge close to it. Surrounding both pieces is a reactive wall made from swelling lumps of clay, a reference to Orkin’s earlier work I built these walls (2020). The torsos of these alien objects vary: One is filled with holes, the other, with cellular masses to fill these. They represent ‘protrusion’ and ‘recession’ respectively. Both of which move between active and passive: ‘protrusion’ is active in that it fills ‘recession’, but it is also passive — instinctively, or indirectly, forming a barrier to safeguard itself against harm. Here, Orkin reveals how reactions can be unconscious, while a response holds intent. 

Made from a more groggy clay, Orkin’s sculptures’ finish is porous, sealed only by a thin transparent glaze. This glaze acts as a safety blanket or wall guarding the clay from being harmed by intrusive particles. These coats range from translucent, to reveal the natural quality of the clay, to chartreuse, oxblood red, and fleshy dark browns and bone-white. These glazes function as a metaphorical condom, as suggested by the exhibition title, Extra Safe — Durex’s range of thick-walled latex condoms. Orkin’s reference prompts his consideration of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s; its impact on queer psychologies and the positioning of the gay community both internally, and as a stigmatised Other; as well as how this has transformed across time, history, and medicine. The condom holds significance as a personal tool for connectivity and protection, while also holding a communal, theological, and medicinal stake.

In an interview with Ross Bleckner, artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres described his work: “It is sentimental, but it’s also about infiltration.” This is much the case with Orkin’s practice, where experience and history meet to inform a present. While some sculptures appear child-like and playful, such as the installation How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach (2021), others hold more consequential and sentimental titles: What already happened changes how things happen again (2021); The only way I could break the walls was to see how they were built (2020); and Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards (2020). Theorist Walt Odets categorises the “Tripartite Communities”: three generations of gay men characterised by their psychological and social differences in relating to the AIDS epidemic. From the ‘older group’ who were directly affected, experiencing the death of friends and lovers before the introduction of antiretroviral therapy in 1996; to the ‘middle-group’ who have not personally been affected by the epidemic, but have seen the effects of it on the gay community and navigate the stigma of HIV/AIDs; to the ‘younger group’ who have more sexual freedom due to medicine and awareness of safer sex practices, and have more social and psychological commonalities with pre-epidemic gays and the Gay Liberation years between 1969 and 1981 (Odets, 2019). Orkin’s body of work from 2020 and his subsequent offering in 2021 reveal this passage in time.

Orkin’s 2020 show is personal — it is about being faced with an unknown fear and having it become reality; about negotiating a ‘middle-group’ mentality, while also navigating love, care, protection, and harm. And having to consider where ‘harm’ in fact sits in the age of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis: a preventative medicine taken by people at risk of HIV infection); ARVs (Antiretroviral treatment protects the immune system and health of HIV+ people), and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis: a short course of HIV-preventative medicine taken soon after exposure). This collection considers questions such as: Can social exclusion, reactive stigmas, and ostracisation cause more harm than the virus itself? And, does “protecting oneself” further an individualist, rather than a communal empathetic approach? In Orkin’s vessels Who is being protected? & Who is being hurt? (2020) he explores the relationship between pushing away and pulling closer. One organism expels, or reaches out, while the other internalises or opens up to create space. There is a duality in these forms that is further exemplified by their abstraction. Although they reference bodies — Orkin’s practice began with looking at the symmetry between the conjoined bodies of two boys or men in love, or in an act of intimacy — they are not explicitly figurative.

Orkin shares how he perceives these objects as more dead than alive: “I think of ceramics like I think of bones. Bones form the foundation of our body. We stand upright because of them. But bones are a fluid. When this foundation breaks, it will heal itself back together. Clay is fluid. It can be manipulated and it can be built. The fluid in clay is lost after it is baked. It turns to stone. When we die our flesh disintegrates, but our bones remain. They dry out and turn hard like stone. I like to think of the ways ancient Egyptian or Greek tombs are found. We often see someone’s remains, in the form of their bones, and a clay vessel in close proximity. Both have survived centuries and tell so many stories of the civilisations they belonged to.” They are personified forms, and although they may not be human, they are definitely feeling. They attract and repel from one another like magnets.

Works such as The only way I could break the walls was to see how they were built, Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards, and Will we ever feel safe and secure? are further examples of personified objects. These totems can be visualised as sex toys: anal beads, butt plugs, and vibrators; as extensions of the sexual body. These are recognisable symbols, ones which as an audience we are either familiar with, or which seem foreign, confronting, and uncomfortable. However, the forms are not sexually explicit, rather, they whisper: giving access to the body, in a non-figurative and more abstract way. Orkin approaches the AIDS epidemic, and its aftermath, with abstracted sensibility and sensitivity. Drawing us into this conversation through his sensual, organic forms. This is at times disrupted by bursts of acidic artificial colour: Please don’t do that again is a bile-coloured chartreuse. It screams QUEER! PRIDE! DRAG! There are patterned inclusions such as the ribbing and pointed spikes that grow out like spears from the sides of the form. A threat to the natural order and status quo.

This is what Orkin does so successfully — he effortlessly orchestrates moments of both clarity and chaos. Saturated abnormalities blossom between Orkin’s otherwise natural palette and symmetrical forms are unsettled by odd numbers. These, rather than offsetting the viewer, act as visual ‘breathers’. While his practice began with formal considerations of symmetry between the bodies of two boys or men in love, it has now expanded to consider how these boys and these moments come to be historically. By considering the politics of sex, safety and community.

Text by Lindsey Raymond

Artist Biography

Ben Orkin is a sculptor based in Cape Town, South Africa. His ceramic vessels reflect queer intimacy, oscillating between moments of nourishment and dependency, validation and resistance, love and separation. Their textured finish is evidence of the hand-builder’s careful touch, imbuing the the sculptures with a sense of the tactile and, at times, the erotic.

Orkin graduated in 2021 with a BFA from Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2019 he held his first solo presentation, You told me… with WHATIFTHEWORLD. He was awarded the Simon Gerson prize in 2021 and won best new talent at the 100% Design Fair, South Africa in 2018.