Landscape art focuses on SU’s contribution to agriculture

The land art installation by Strydom van der Merwe, depicting crop circles, on the farm Boontjieskraal in the Overberg, next to the N2.

A landscape art project focusing on agriculture is taking shape in the Overberg in the Western Cape.

This land installation art project consists of two giant circles that have been planted with wheat and canola. Each circle is 100 metres in diameter.

South African landscape artist, Strijdom van der Merwe, explores the fragile interaction between humans, nature and agriculture in this project titled “The Earth”.

Mr Van der Merwe developed this concept as commissioned work for the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University (SU). This unique project is part of the faculty’s centenary celebrations this year.

The circles were planted among wheat fields on the farm Boontjieskraal in the Overberg, next to the N2, in the direction of Riviersonderend when travelling from Cape Town. It can be seen from the highway and is increasingly visible due to the crops growing well after recent rains.

Professor Danie Brink, dean of the faculty, says the landscape art contributes to the conversation about the contribution and relevance of agriculture and the faculty in society. “We wanted to display this visually with Strijdom’s help.

“Since SU’s early days at the old Victoria College, the faculty has been at the forefront of research and training. Our efforts support producers with collaboration and research.”

It is also of historical significance that the faculty’s first doctoral degree, awarded in 1927, was for a dissertation focusing on local wheat production, he points out.

Mr Van der Merwe, who grew up on a farm near Johannesburg and studied at SU, says he has been looking forward to creating such an artwork for a while. “I have always wanted to create my own crop circles among wheat fields. The faculty made this dream possible by helping to prepare the soil and sponsoring the seeds.”

Mr Van der Merwe used an ancient symbol that appears in many of the world’s ancient rock engravings in this artwork. “The symbol – a circle with a cross in it – is considered one of the earth’s oldest known symbols,” he explains.

This artwork was especially inspired by rock engravings at Driekopseiland near Douglas – south of Kimberley in the Northern Cape. Thousands of rock engravings, including this symbol, are visible at this particular site. The almost 4 000 engravings documented on a rocky outcrop in the Riet River at this site, are mostly abstract or geometrical petroglyphs (art that has been chiselled in rock). These engravings are only visible when the water level is low.

Scientists and artists have been trying for decades to unravel the meaning of these petroglyphs, Mr Van der Merwe explains. “Some say that people from other continents were the engravers. Others reckon it had something to do with the mythical water snake, or rituals related to when young girls reached puberty. Whatever the meaning, this open-air gallery is probably one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.”

The circular symbol has also been used in the Constitutional Court’s coat of arms, Mr Van der Merwe says.

“We have now used this symbol in a modern-day agricultural context. This living installation will change colour with the seasons, turning from green to yellow and brown. This represents the cycles of nature and life.” The quarters of the symbol also represent the natural elements of fire, water, air and soil. “These elements are central to agriculture and the landscape artist’s work,” Mr Van der Merwe says. “In agriculture, everything relates back to the soil, whether you have livestock or plant wheat.”

Professor Brink agrees with this view. “The artwork in the form of this iconic symbol represents our relationship with the earth and agriculture’s connection with the landscape,” he says. “It takes careful planning, determination and patience to farm with the elements.”

Mr Van der Merwe’s work has been included in many international and national exhibitions. He has also received many international accolades for his art. Most of his work captures a moment in time because it is deliberately left to be weathered by the elements.

Mr Van der Merwe says he is always reminded of just how fragile the landscape is in which he creates this kind of installation. “I like creating something that will eventually disappear again. As a land artist, I do not want to superimpose my ego on the landscape. Nature is the most important element I work with.”

Mr Van der Merwe says he is very excited to see how the project unfolds over time. “Land art, like farming, harnesses the earth and the elements. It involves a long and patient process. It all depends on nature. We will only be able to see the entire picture in September when the canola will hopefully have an extravagant display of yellow flowers. If that does not happen, it is also part of the process.”