“The world is rich with possibility it just depends on our perspective”
AT: Where are you from and how/why did you start engaging with art?
CS: I am from Johannesburg, South Africa. Looking back, I can now see how I began engaging with art throughout my entire childhood. I occasionally drew and painted and did “art activities” growing up, but I think that it was the curiosity, playfulness and love of reading that my parents encouraged in me, that set me on the path to being an artist. Thankfully I’ve just carried that curiosity and playfulness with me through life.
AT: When did it become serious?
CS: It became serious after high-school, in 2013, when I was working and travelling in Europe. I met some really intriguing young and successful people in the next stage of life who were just doing what they loved and it inspired me not to see life as a linear path defined by a university degree. In many ways I was incredibly naive in believing that it didn’t matter so much what you studied, as it did your disposition and attitude to life, but it seems to have worked out alright so far.
AT: Are there any person who has been significant in your breakthrough as an artist?
CS: Definitely my parents, and not only for the wholesome childhood they provided me with, but also for the support that they gave me in the early years of setting out as an artist. From the beginning of 2018 until the end of 2019 all the works I made were produced out of their garage. They put up with a lot of dust, noise and late nights from me. Artistically, I’d have to say that a big influence on me was William Kentridge’s open approach to a studio practice, the way he posits that “the studio is a safe space for stupidity.” I encountered this as a student in his book 6 Drawing Lessons, and I think it really helped me find my feet as a young, and incredibly uncertain, artist.
AT: What is your first approach to the work? How would you describe your practice?
CS: The starting point for me is always the material. I work with materials that I have a physical resonance with – they’re very often materials that have left their imprint on me physically (I fiddle with things a lot), and then have started to become conceptually imprinted in my thinking. I’ve often said to people that I don’t think I’m necessarily an artist who has good ideas, but rather that work comes from work. So it’s incredibly important to be present through the process of making, being alert to new suggestions and observations that arise in the making. It also happens to be the case that what surrounds me in my daily life, are very much products of mass consumption, embedded within the social fabric of our time, and then through reworking these materials in the studio I’ve found a way to engage with contemporary issues that are in many ways specific to our time.
AS BELOW SO ABOVE, 2021, Discarded beer bottle top threaded onto woven steel rope held in polyurethane sealant on board, 370x260x240 cm | Courtesy the artist | Photo Matthew Bradley
AT: What do you aim to reach with your work?
CS: I think that it’s incredibly rewarding having an undetermined practice. In this way the process guides the outcome and not the other way around. I’m responding as opposed to dictating, and this makes me a participant, a co-collaborator with the materials. I think that my desire is to include the viewer in the process, to acknowledge their own agency in relation to the work. Hence why I work in a sculptural manner, so that it’s a relationship between bodies in space, with each movement from the viewer changing their relationship to the work. It’s a very phenomenological approach to art. A quick example: the fact that my work with toothpicks results in biomorphic forms has raised ecological questions through my work, this has then inspired research and that research has then made me rethink some aspects of my process which then impact the work – so it’s a very circular process of material inspiring work inspiring research inspiring process inspiring material inspiring work, ad-infinitum.
AT: What are your favourite tools and materials for working?
CS: We have a few custom tools that we’ve created to achieve certain things in the studio. Some that come to mind are old drill bits we’ve re-shaped as handy things to reach hard to get spaces, as well as some medical pliers that are most useful to gripping and holding things in place. But along the lines of processes of working, I’ve found the ability to communicate my vision with my assistants to be one of the most important things. It’s definitely a skill I’ve had to learn and refine.
AT: What do you feel while you work? Do you usually think about the final outcome beforehand?
CS: I think that because of the repetitive nature of many aspects of the production I often seem to enter a meditative-like state when working. I’ll keep a notebook near me and often end up writing down some interesting thoughts and observations. I’ll always start out with a very faint outline of the work and then from there it’s just a matter of staying on my toes, being alert and making decisions as things unfold. We work on most pieces horizontally and then hang them up vertically. Sometimes I’ll leave them hanging in the studio for months while I make changes and decide whether I’m happy with the composition. However there’s many aspects to what I do, from planning and technically conceiving the works, to managing the studio, negotiating and planning with galleries, writing and liaising with the press or curators and collectors. There’s many hats that I wear and I find that the meditative moments of working actually help to bring clarity to many things that are happening around me.
AT: How do you understand that a work is finished?
CS: I’ll just know. When there’s no more work to be done then the work is done. Having said that though, I work in series so I’m less concerned with perfecting a single work as I am consolidating a body of work. Often I’ll take moments that interest me from one work and push them further in another, and so on.
MOTHER, 2021, Bamboo and birch wood toothpicks, held in polyurethane sealant on ripstop fabric and board, 400x270x35 cm | Courtesy the artist | Photo Matthew Bradley
AT: Where does the inspiration for the work come from?
CS: From the material. From other works. From the process. From my research. From comments from viewers. The world is rich with possibility it just depends on our perspective. However the job doesn’t finish there, you still have to manifest that inspiration through work.
AT: Are there any artists who influenced your works? Why?
I’m always discovering artists with whom I feel a sense of “camaraderie.” Many of the Arte Povera and Mono-ha artists have influence my thinking around materiality. The kinetic and Op-art movement (with its legacy stretching all the way to Olafur Eliason and other contemporaries today) has encouraged my research into phenomenology. South African artists such as William Kentridge, Nicholas Hlobo and Gerhard Marx are amongst some who have inspired my approach to developing a studio practice. And then there are the artists I continually return to again and again: Francis Alys, Gabriel Orozco, David Hammonds, Doris Salcedo, James Turrel, Michael Rakowitz, Carol Bove, Alicja Kwade and so many others.
AT: How important is the role of social media for you?
CS: I’m not sure. I’m trying to actually assess the value of it for myself right now: weighing the benefits against the distraction that it poses. I think it’s useful for engaging with a large public and for keeping an interactive online archive of works and activities, but I’m very strict with my usage on it and how much time I allow on various platforms. I do think that for me I constantly have to remind myself that the real work happens elsewhere, for some though, social media may be their primary exhibition space, but it’s not that for me.
Surrounding all my surroundings, 2021, Discarded beer bottle tops threaded onto woven steel rope held in polyurethane sealant on timber board, 1850x2300x700 mm | Courtesy the artist | Photo Matthew Bradley
LOST IN PLACE, 2020, Discarded beer bottle top threaded onto woven steel rope held in polyurethane sealant on board, 6×178 cm in diameter | Courtesy the artist | Photo Matthew Bradley
AT: As an artist, what is your point of view about the contemporary art system?
CS: I feel that I’m still figuring out what the “system”, or what the “art world” is. I think I haven’t so much encountered a homogenous singular as I have a multitude of different “art worlds.” From my perspective it’s all relational, and it can both be a hindrance and an opportunity to have to interact with people in order to make things happen, but I see it as something to relish and appreciate.
AT: What do you find to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art? What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?
CS: The most challenging thing for me is juggling all the different facets of having an art career while not losing focus on what is truly important. The most rewarding thing is probably the work, and how it gives birth to more work. Sometimes I have the fear that I’ll stagnate or run out of ideas or not be able to make something compelling, and yet when I just show up and do what I can with what I have, things always manifest beyond the expected.
AT: What do you do besides art?
CS: I think most of my life is aligned to benefit and enable with my artistic practice. I exercise and play sports to make sure I’m fit and healthy, eating and sleeping well. I love to read works of fiction. I have friends and family I care about. I try and educate myself about things in the world that I feel I don’t know much about. I have a pretty full life right now and I think it’s only going to get more full.
AT: What are your goals and expectations for the future?
CS: At this present moment I’m in a space where I’m less concerned about where I’m headed than what I’m doing along the way. The slowness of the lockdown period shifted my thinking from goal-orientated to habit-orientated, in part because all external motivations and deadlines disappeared during that time and all that was left was to ask myself why I’m doing what I’m doing and if I’m doing it as well as I can. And I’m just continuing to ask those two questions.
ALL THAT WE CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND, 2021, Glass fibre reinforced concrete relief cast, steel, Dimensions variable | Courtesy the artist | Photo Matthew Bradley
Chris Soal (b. 1994, South Africa) is an award-winning, emerging artist living and practicing in Johannesburg. Using unconventional found objects, such as toothpicks and bottle caps, in conjunction with concrete and other industrial materials, Soal negotiates structural impacts on urban living and reflects on ecological concerns, while considering the philosophical and psychological notion of the “self.”