Surface Tension

Solo Exhibition
3 February - 16 March 2024

Exhibition Opening: Saturday 3 February 2024
Exhibition Closure: Saturday 16 March 2024

WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Surface Tension, a solo exhibition by Chris Soal. 

My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed to bodies new and strange! 

– Ovid Metamorphoses

Chris Soal’s latest body of work, Surface Tension 2024, is a development of his practice of the transformation or metamorphoses of quotidian objects and materials. Soal is well known for his, almost compulsive, interest in how everyday objects and materials can be rendered into uncanny yet familiar forms. Soal’s work has always engaged in the process of what Viktor Shklovsky referred to as ‘defamiliarization’, of rendering the familiar and prosaic into the poetic. Toothpicks are metamorphosized into the gestures of fur and movement; bottlecaps into writhing serpentine forms. Soal engages in the form of art that renews our perception of objects while evoking an intriguing formal dialectic or double voice.

His latest exhibition is a further exploration of his established practice with a new focus on the material of sandpaper. Soal first began to see the possibilities of using sandpaper as a medium of expression when he was a student sanding down wood. He noticed that the image of woodgrain had transposed or printed itself through the sandpaper.

In Surface Tension, he explores the possibilities of image making via this unique method. The images rendered (or in many senses, ‘printed’) through sandpaper, of the movement of water, create a sense of disorientation for the viewer. Works such as The Expanse (2024) and Index (2023) ask the questions: What is the material being used? What has been removed or applied to create the images? The works draw the viewer in, to establish answers, only for the viewer to have to retreat to view and consider them anew. 

The images break through the surface, as if passing through a membrane, revealing the coloured backing of the sandpaper via a process of sandpapering. The partly absurd and abrasive practice of sandpapering the sandpaper to achieve the image of the fluidity of water has the resonance of a Greek myth, of an absurd Sisyphusian  task. 

In some ways, it could be considered a reflection on his (now) local Cape Town environment. The sea and its wavering, rippling, and wearing repetitions have become an important part of Soal’s everyday perceptions.

Soal’s process of degrading the sandpaper to reveal the lurid industrial blues and yellows of the membrane evokes a sense of our contemporary industrial and environmental crisis. The fragility of the corroded surfaces, however, remains dialectally opposed to the imagery produced, arousing notions of a contemporary Romantic sublime — the mixing of the fear of environmental degradation with the delight of the image of nature’s beauty.

But where the sea and Cape Town have influenced his thinking in many of these images, it is his hometown of Johannesburg that has inspired several of his other works. The form of Joburg’s mine dumps, with their eroded kranses, enter the exhibition in the shape of the sculptural work The Things that Only Time Will Teach You (2024) and Facet (2024). Again, Soal uses sandpaper, this time in the form of thousands of sandpaper disks, to create the rippling cylindrical effects of Joburg’s most iconic eroding structures.

Within the work, there is a double voice. The disks, like the dumps, are discarded industrial waste — Soal has collected them from workshops and factories. The colour variation of the sandpaper’s membrane also becomes the simulacra of the dumps, reproducing the veins and strata of these man-made mountains. Like the dumps, The Things that Only Time Will Teach You (2024), in a sense memorializes the notion of homo labourans, with all its attendant tragedies and triumphs.

To invert an idea from one of Soal’s influences, Francis Alÿs (who argued that something can create nothing), Soal suggests that what we consider to be immaterial can create something. Embedded in the exhibition is the notion that the tension of the surface, which we overlook, creates a tremulous cadence that erodes to reveal underlying forms. New, strange, poetic, and latent forms emerge from the ordinary and prosaic.

Text by Matthew Blackman 


Artist Biography 

Chris Soal (b. 1994) is an award winning, emerging South African artist. 

Soal’s studio-based practice is sculptural in its output, working with objects and materials in ways which show not only a conceptual engagement with the contexts and histories of the objects, but that also re-enforce the body as a site for knowledge reception and production. 

Soal’s works seek to make a poetic statement through the simplest of means, engaging the viewer’s spatial awareness and perception while challenging societal assumptions of value. 

Through his use of discarded and mundane ephemera, such as toothpicks and bottle caps, along with concrete, rebar, electric fencing cable, sandpaper and other industrial materials, Soal’s work intuitively develops the familiar to the point of the uncanny. Soal’s works can be considered as a social abstraction that is deeply rooted and reflective of having grown up in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

In 2017, Soal graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts (Hons) at the University of Witwatersrand. He was awarded the PPC Imaginarium Award in 2018, alongside being named the winner of the Sculpture category. 

He has been awarded residencies by the RAW Material Company in Dakar, Senegal (2019); by the South African Foundation of Contemporary Art in South Africa (2018), and Brussels (2022), and by the Nirox Foundation, Cradle of Humankind (2021). Recently Soal has held solo exhibitions with Piero Atchugarry Gallery in Miami (2023), Eduardo Secci Gallery in Milan (2022), and with WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery in Cape Town (2021). He held also a solo booth at Art Brussels with WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery (2022). Notably, Soal was selected as one of ten contemporary artists to participate in the 5th edition of the Dior Lady Art project, in 2020/2021.

Soal’s work forms part of significant private and public collections both locally and internationally, including the Brooklyn Museum (USA), MACAAL Museum (Morocco), LAM Museum (Netherlands), the Bunker Artspace (USA), Galila’s P.O.C. (Belgium), Arsenal Contemporary (Canada), The Braunsfelder Family Collection (Germany), the Mona Museum (Tasmania) and the Cloud 7 collection (Belgium), amongst others.