‘I became a mirror of society’

Controversial German/South African artist Manfred Zylla and Filmfest director Trevor Taylor examined the position of ‘art’ as a method of resistance to coercion by structures of state, religious, financial, censorial and corporate power. Zylla is presenting an exhibition of new work entitled 120 Days of Sodom & Waiting For …, which is inspired by the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who was murdered in 1975, the French philosopher/writer the Marquis de Sade, Dante Alighieri (the author of The Divine Comedy) and Milton, author of Paradise Lost.

Manfred Zylla by Niklas Zimmer 2014

Cult Cape Town-based artist Manfred Zylla will be keeping things fierce at this year’s National Arts Festival with the launch of a new book of hard-hitting images that pays homage to Pasolini’s last film Salò, writes ALEXANDRA DODD

Lewd, crude and packed with fervid social and political critique, Manfred Zylla’s new art book, 120 Days of Sodom, was launched in Grahamstown on Friday, hot on the heels of recent launches in Munich and Rome.

Featuring commentary by a transnational mix of renegade voices – including Aryan Kaganof, John Peffer, Nomusa Makhubu, Andrea Dicó, Niklas Zimmer, Ivor Powell, Pablo Cesar, Ludmila Ommudsen Pessoa, Ashraf Jamal, Hofmeyr Scholtz, James Matthews, Garth Erasmus and Cheng Qian – the book showcases a series of small-scale works on paper made by Zylla in homage to Salò, the last film by Pier Paolo Pasolini. An Italian socialist polymath and controversial player of the ideological wildcard, Pasolini was murdered in 1975 – run over several times with his own Alfa Romeo.

The book launch is accompanied by a special Pasolini focus as part of this year’s Film Festival, which has been billed as the ‘Magna Carta of Film Festivals – Supporting the Liberties’ – and when Film Festival curator Trevor Steele-Taylor tests the limits of liberty, he doesn’t mean 50 Shades of Grey. Pasolini is not for the faint hearted, so if you’re squeamish, bring along your blindfold and gag bag, and prepare for a full visual buffet of lust, sin and carnal depravity: Salò – The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), The Decameron (1970), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974).

One of Pasolini’s films is quite hilariously described in true all-American fashion by the Harvard Film Archive as ‘nothing less than a cinema-vérité Kinsey Report – with occasional Godardian touches – on Italian sexual mores in the 1960s’. Some might call that an understatement – or even, if you happened to be a hot-blooded espresso drinker, say – an insult.

In the 1980s, German-born Zylla became known for hard-hitting drawings that critiqued the brutality and violence of apartheid. His 120 Days of Sodom paintings had their genesis in 2012 with a pack of paper, the small paper size of which stimulated the idea of producing a series as a homage to Pasolini’s last film. It is a non-sequential series, with each painting presented within the frame of a television screen.

“We sold the series in 2013, to a collector in London,” says Zylla’s gallerist Heidi Erdmann of Erdmann Contemporary. “It was never shown in South Africa, sans one night, at Zylla’s 75th birthday party on 1 March 2013.”

There is also an exhibition of Zylla’s latest series of drawings, Waiting For…, in which he interprets Pasolini’s instructions, in his directors’ notes and anecdotes, to his cast and crew.

“We took our time with the book,” says Erdmann. “Manfred and I met each Saturday – it took four months before we finally settled on a basic structure… After a long meeting and no firm idea as to whom to approach for the lead essay, we went downstairs to the bar [Blah Blah Blah Bar on Kloof Street]. Carsten Rasch, my husband, suggested Trevor [Steele-Taylor]. I have known Trevor since my 20s and Manfred had met him in the 1970s. I went back to my office and wrote to Trevor, who was then still based in London, and with Trevor on board, we took the thread of cinema and invited the various other contributors,” Erdmann explains. “The idea was to focus on the contemporaneity of the three main influences, Pasolini, Dante and De Sade.

“Both Zylla and I did not want another art book, so we focused on very different kinds of voices. I asked a student, a commercial diamond diver… I wanted a film script, an actor (I had seen Lugwig Binge in [Heinrich] Müller’s Quartet), academics, journalists, poets, filmmakers, friends and colleagues,” Erdman says.

Steele-Taylor suggested a few more contributors and secured the rights to use English industrial music group Coil’s lyrics. “Manfred and I watched the music video online. Zylla, himself a musician, just loved the experimental nature of Coil, and we said yes – we want the lyrics. Producing this book has been one of those projects where everything just fell into place.”

One of the book’s most original features its transnational spirit and multilingual text. “Once we decided on mother-tongue submissions, we could throw the net wider in terms of submissions,” says Erdmann. “Editing was a bit of a nightmare with so many languages, but we managed.”

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