WWF Art Auction

Live Auction, 17 September 2013

Evening Sale

Sold for

ZAR 150 000
Lot 2
  • Karel Nel; Piltdown/Taung, two

Lot Estimate
ZAR 30 000 - 50 000
Selling Price
ZAR 150 000

About this Item

South African 1955-
Piltdown/Taung, two

each signed, dated 2011 and inscribed with their respective titles on the reverse

engraved dust panel with site specific dust
35 by 150cm each


Taung and Piltdown signal a different power struggle. The presence of the Taung fossil now undeniably locates the origins of humankind in southern Africa. But the Piltdown fossil ‘discovery’ for many years was seen as the keystone specimen in the model that placed hominid development firmly within Europe, and particularly in England. Despite its questionable idiosyncrasies, the fossil was nonetheless given much credence among the scientific community, indicating how neatly it fitted Eurocentric presuppositions about human evolution at the time. As humans, we are indeed so mesmerised by our own suppositions and projections that at times we are unable to see an alternative view. Although the Piltdown man eventually turned out to be a palaeoarchaeological hoax, its history is a fascinating example of the struggle between that which one does – and doesn’t – want to know.
Raymond Dart’s discovery and description of the Taung child was to radically challenge the significance of the Piltdown specimen. Its announcement was thus understandably greeted with hostility and then largely ignored for several decades.
The breccia dust collected from the Buxton Limeworks at Taung is laid down side by side with theatrical dust, a product made specifically for illusion on stage. It is literally fake dust.
The two panels of dust in Taung/Piltdown distil an enormous global power struggle – between the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ of knowledge, between the ­‘civilised’ and the ‘primitive’ – in laying claim to our topographical origins.
It is always easier to consider two things than one, to compare and contrast, and to find the intersections and insights that comparative looking and thinking yield. These four new works embody this strategy: each one represents a pair of ideas, and displacements, which direct our attention to significant moments and insights into human behaviour and impulses, across time and place. Each of these works, which edit out almost every aspect of the visual to focus on the mental, the conceptual, ­nevertheless functions as a contemporary memento mori. The works serve as memorials, comprising the dust of places made significant by the death of one or many.
The displacement between two ideas, or two places, or matter out of place alerts the eye/mind to act on knowledge and thought to create meaning in the material world. That these four works function in this way renders them simultaneously explicit and implicit. They are images of absence and presence. The plain dusty panels prompt a complex tracery of mental impressions and associations, unleashing an unbounded response, liberating the mind to create a series of connections in a non-linear matrix. The works challenge the idea of the work of art as a window to the world, allowing the viewer to enter only mentally. This abstract process of viewing enables us to excavate the pertinent relationships between one idea and another, one place and another, one time and another. In this sense, each work also functions as a momento morum, a reminder of the impact that our human actions – considered and ill-considered – have upon ourselves and the planet.
1  Cosmos: Carl Sagan. 2002. DVD. Cosmos Studios. Produced by Richard Wells.
2  Shakespeare, N. 1999. Bruce Chatwin. London: Harvill Press in association with Jonathan Cape. p. 3.
3 ibid.
4 ibid. p. 5.
5 Mandela, N.R. 1995. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston, New York, London: Back Bay Books. p. 368.


Brenner, Joni; Burroughs, Elizabeth and Nel, Karel. (eds.) (2011) Life of Bone: Art meets Science, Johannesburg: Wits University Press. Illustrated in colour on pages 20-21.

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