The Light Bulb Moment - The Artist's work
|Strijdom van der Merwe wanted to make as big an artwork as possible, and something that gives people enjoyment when they look at it, that is playful and intriguing, evocative of children flying over the crouched bodies of their playmates in a game of leapfrog.
|Picture: Araminta de Clermont © Sunday Times
Memories of childhood and boys' adventures informed Strijdom van der Merwe's thinking as he developed the artwork concept to commemorate the first trans-Africa flight from London to Cape Town.
"I had several ideas, one slightly more abstract than the other, and the Sunday Times chose this one," he says, explaining his choice of two figures, arms outstretched, and one sitting on the shoulders of the other.
"I'm the youngest of four boys and over the weekends and on holidays when we were on the farm, we had to pick fruit in the garden, and one would get on the shoulders of the other to reach high enough to pick," he recalls. Then reading the story of the 1920 flight and looking at pictures of the biplane in which they flew with its "double-decker" wings, further inspired Van der Merwe.
Van der Merwe also remembered an image from a movie of a child sitting on someone's shoulders, arms outstretched, pretending to be an aeroplane and says the combination of ideas gelled into the playful concept he finally developed.
"People usually think of my work as not permanent," says Strijdom, referring to other pieces he has done which often depend on whatever elements are at hand - collecting sticks or stones, or pouring water on dry ground to create a design which disappears as it dries. "But when you get a commission to do something, obviously you need to think in another way," he adds.
The sculpture is located not directly outside what is now the Youngsfield defence force base but nearby on the extension of Rosmead Avenue. This is a busier main artery that passes the William Herbert sports grounds, a well-used venue for school and amateur sports. In the days before highways cut through the open ground, the land extended into Youngsfield.
The higher volume of pedestrian traffic, especially children, outside the sports grounds fits well with Van der Merwe's more playful choice of concept.
Van der Merwe also has a personal connection to Youngsfield; however, it is from his days as a young conscript and remains an experience he'd rather forget.
"When the Sunday Times told me the piece was for Youngsfield, it was a nightmare. I thought, 'I never want to come back to this place.' But it helped me realise that there was something more romantic about this place. When those guys [Van Ryneveld and Brand] landed there, it must have been totally different."
Creating the artwork
The challenge was how large could he make the sculpture within the given budget; how to ensure it was as "vandal-proof" as possible; and what would be the best materials to use.
"Obviously, you can't safeguard it from everything," says Van der Merwe, "but we tried our best. We've tried to make it high enough so people don't hang on the wings, and we laser-cut it from the thickest metal sheets we could use - 20mm."
Van der Merwe has worked with large metal sculptures before that were laser-cut and he relied on the laser cutters to advise him what was possible in terms of the construction.
Because of a concern that the piece might be top heavy and could bend at the bottom, it was decided to create an additional support base extending from the rear of the sculpture's "legs", to safeguard against any instability.
"Visually it might be a bit disturbing, but we'll see," says Van der Merwe.
The sculpture was painted with an oxide to give it a camel-brown colour and a rusted look to evoke a sense of the past.
The final product
The sculpture is 3.5m high and stands on top of a 600mm base, making it both prominent and very solid. The wingspan is 3m.
"It's quite big," says Van der Merwe of the piece. "I like the size given what we could fit into the budget. A sculpture doesn't need to be big to make an impression, but I think it's great if you can make something nice and big standing here, especially on this road. If it were small on a pedestal you would not notice it."
Van der Merwe's work is different in that it's not an "ordinary" three-dimensional sculpture.
"From the one side it's flat, but from the front it works," says Van der Merwe. "You might find people saying, 'What's going on here?' But I find it interesting that it's flat metal that has been bent or twisted like that and it works from the one side, although from the other side it's strange."
"I think the sculpture works best when you view it from the front, or a little to the side," says Van der Merwe.
He says he wanted to make something that gives people enjoyment when they look at it; that is playful and intriguing, evocative of children flying over the crouched bodies of their playmates in a game of leapfrog.
Hopefully [people will look] and realise there are two guys on each other's shoulders, and they'll look some more and say, 'Oh, their arms become wings, that's funny.'
Van der Merwe hopes that those who pass his sculpture see more than a black metal square. "Hopefully they look and realise there are two guys on each other's shoulders, and they look some more and say, 'Oh, their arms become wings, that's funny.' That's what I'd like."
"When you read about it, Van Ryneveld and Brand crashed twice," Van der Merwe says, referring to the forced landing of the Silver Queen near the Egyptian-Sudanese border and the near disastrous take-off of Silver Queen 2 from Bulawayo because of adverse atmospheric conditions. "I know it was a serious mission, but it's also funny for me. [Prime Minister] Jannie Smuts sent them a new plane each time and they kept on going."
Van der Merwe is a strong supporter of public artworks. He says the more there are in cities, on street corners, outside sports arenas and along the waterfront, the better.
"The more people you can get interested in art, the better. An art critic recently wrote in one of the newspapers that we should remember that the  World Cup would be over in a month. There must be other reasons why people might want to walk around a stadium or along the [Sea Point] promenade. It's an investment in art and landscaping which bring people to a city."