27 June 2013 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Down-to-earth art

Simon Max Bannister is no ordinary artist. You generally won’t find his art in galleries because it is best appreciated where it’s made – out in South Africa’s most wild and beautiful places.

Simon Max Bannister's award-winning giraffe sculptures

Based in Sabi Sand Game Reserve in Mpumalanga, near the Kruger National Park, Johannesburg-born Simon Max Bannister creates art from found objects, landscapes and transitory elements like fire and water.

Simon Max Bannister's evocative land art is best viewed in situ Simon Max Bannister's evocative land art is best viewed in situ

'Land art asks you to be resourceful, think laterally and be aware of your environment,' says 31-year-old Bannister, who quit his job in the graphic design industry in 2008 to work on his art full time. 'While I was working in the industry I had no time for my own creativity. I made a decision to change that,' he explains. 

During a road trip along the South African coastline, 'things I came across, like litter, steel and plastic, got my attention. I started wanting to tell the objects' stories,' he says. 

I can only get so much pleasure from other people appreciating my work. What I like even more is seeing nature and my art interacting.

Used to communicating in a visual way, he was able to work with the forms, colours and symbolism of these found objects and transform them into works of art. 'I have had a really interesting history with plastics. It is like our modern fire, something that’s powerful, which can get out of control. There is this pervasiveness to it.'

He began to explore this idea in various ways, even joining a research vessel collecting water samples from the remotest parts of the ocean. There were traces of plastic in all the water samples they took. 'I have seen how life can cling to it, but also how it can kill. There is this incredible duality to plastic.'

Compression burn by Simon MaxBannister Compression burn by Simon MaxBannister

The idea that 'even in the furthest parts of our oceans there are remnants of our culture of consumption' has had a lasting effect on Bannister, who is very aware of his own footprint. This informs the sometimes temporary nature of his work. 'Working with water in a bottle with a hole in its top and writing on sand was an incredibly seminal form of creation with zero impact. And in the greater time scale, what is eternal? Nothing lasts forever.'

Working with natural processes also affirms the idea that life, like creation, is impermanent. 'Through my art, I like to investigate time scales relative to my life. It’s interesting going back to creations and seeing how they have developed and grown.'

In this way, some of his work becomes a conversation with nature: 'I can only get so much pleasure from other people appreciating my work. What I like even more is seeing nature and my art interacting.' He gives an example of a rock agama sculpture in the Tankwa that has become more than a work of art. It’s also now a niche or abode for other agamas, worked on by and subject to the elements.

At Londolozi he has 'found a wonderful niche. They see value in what I’m doing and are making space for me to work and explore.' 

Stone agama by Simon Max Bannister Stone agama by Simon Max Bannister

While he would like to populate more reserves with this low-impact, non-invasive art, he is also trying to condense this thinking into something others can experience. Later this year, he will be co-facilitating an Ecological Land Art Walk from Nature's Valley to Keurbooms Beach on the Garden Route. The field guide will provide the factual interpretation, while Bannister will expose people to the idea of creatively interpreting their environment.

As well as giving people a better idea of what land art is, the whole trip will be documented as a process of learning, exploring and creating in the wild, 'a combination of all the things I enjoy'.

Bannister recently won the 2013 David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s Wildlife Artist of the Year for his piece Long Journey from Londolozi, described as a large sculptural group of giraffe made from offcuts of eucalyptus wood. 'I was inspired by ladder formations and the movement and form of broad brush strokes made from wood,' says the artist. It took him five days to reassemble the work in London. 'It was interesting that my pieces found their way into a gallery, because that’s usually a space I avoid,' he says.

This is partly ideological, and partly because his art is most effective in the environment in which he creates it. 'I’m looking for that moment when you come across my work. We think we know so much about them, but natural processes are mysterious and inspiring,' says Bannister.  

This belief infuses all of his work, allowing him share his 'immense sense of awe and wonder' for South Africa’s precious, pristine spaces and, in the process, stimulate new ways of seeing and appreciating them.

Long journey from Londolozi by Simon Max Bannister Long journey from Londolozi by Simon Max Bannister
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