"This is Charlie Oscar Echo Tango Zulu Echo Romeo"
by Sean O'Toole

Over the past year or so artist Jacques Coetzer has been commuting between his eccentric Danish-styled home in Riebeek Kasteel, north of Cape Town, and Moshi, a town in Tanzania's Kilimanjaro region. The reason: coffee. For much of the past decade Coetzer, aka the lone guerrilla aka the reluctant sculptor aka boetie from Pretoria aka the man without medical aid, has been a consultant designer and source of amusement for Martin Fitzgerald and Dale Mazon, the enterprising duo behind TriBeCa, an independent coffee company and supplier to Woolworths. One of TriBeCa's suppliers is the Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union (KNCU). Founded in 1930, KNCU is Africa's oldest co-operative; it claims a membership base of around 61000 smallholder coffee growers in the Moshi region. Coetzer has been lending his technical know-how - he designed and built his cantilevered home - to the construction of a coffee shop in Moshi. The idea is to give the town's residents a place to hang out, chat and sample their export commodity.

Getting from Riebeek Kasteel to Moshi is a bit of a mission, explains Coetzer when I drive out to his "sustainable middle class home", which he has also dubbed a "white man's shack" because of its use of corrugated iron cladding. Typically, he has to fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg, connecting from there to Nairobi, with a further flight to Moshi. Arriving in Johannesburg on one of his now routine great treks north, Coetzer realised that his guitar was missing. He asked a lady at the airline help desk to find out where it was. The uniformed woman picked up a handset and called someone in baggage services. "I have a customer here looking for a bag," she said. "His name is Jacques Coetzer." Silence. "Coetzer." More silence. Exasperated, she still managed to flash the tall man with grey-blue eyes a corporate smile. "Coetzer!" Silence. "CHARLIE OSCAR ECHO TANGO ZULU ECHO ROMEO," she shouted into the receiver, using the phonetic alphabet to spell out Coetzer's name. More silence. And then the fatal answer: "Nothing."

A few days later, Coetzer, dressed in military fatigues made to measure by a tailor in Moshi, headed into the lush growth at the border of the Kilimanjaro National Park with a military radio. "This is Charlie Oscar Echo Tango Zulu Echo Romeo. Do you copy?" he enquired into a hand-held microphone connected to a backpack radio. Silence. "This is Charlie Oscar Echo Tango Zulu Echo Romeo, do you copy?" repeated Coetzer, looking uncannily like a lost troepie from the Border War trying to find his way home. Still nothing. The broadcast was, of course, a hoax. The radio Coetzer used was a fake."I fabricated it," says Coetzer. "There is a megaphone inside."

"Did you do this in your spare time?" I ask. "I always do," he responds. "I never fly to a place without doing something – I must use the petrol. So I always keep making art, always." I'm seated in Coetzer's studio when he tells me this. Studio is perhaps an overstatement, niche is closer to the truth, his work area a screened-off section next to the bathroom in the open-plan, upper level of his home. The view east from his work area looks out to rural farms and mountains, the view west blocked by a wall decorated with, amongst other things, two guitars and a vinyl record featuring the smiling face of Elvis. The record was the first piece of music Coetzer shelled out money for as a youth growing up in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria.

"How important is music to your art making?" I ask the artist. "Jus, it is moer of a important. Because music has always been a way of mine to really tap into the written word and poetry and ideas." Coetzer's love of music is self-evident, not only from his home furnishing (which includes a customised guitar amp shaped like a crucifix) but in his new exhibition too - it is entitled New Adventures. His acoustic guitar, lost but then magically found when his insurance claim was lodged, features in a number of Coetzer's deadpan public performance works, which are shown as video documents on New Adventures. One work in particular stands out for me. Playing guitar for Goats is based on the Swahili saying, "Sawa sawa na kumpigia mbuzi gitaa", which translates as "It's like playing guitar for goats". The title to his performance pretty much says it all. Coetzer, ever the melancholy absurdist, sits playing his guitar to a trip of goats. They bleat; he plays. Nothing else happens. It is Ali Farka Toure meets Buster Keaton - melancholy soul blues that makes you smile and feel good about life.
In another performance work, we see Coetzer rolling down a sandy embankment to the accompaniment of Papa was a Rolling Stone, the sublime early 1970s hit song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and made famous by The Temptations. The song includes a four-and-half minute instrumental lead-in, which is ample time for Coetzer to explain why he is pretending to be Sisyphus. (Technically it is a rock, not Sisyphus, who rolls down the hill in the Greek legend, although in 1970s Pretoria a "rock" was understood to be an Afrikaner, a detail Coetzer would no doubt appreciate.) "It is man art," is his explanation. "Middle-aged man art." Coetzer is not being ironic. "It is all about not having medical aid, falling by the wayside and not being like my dad who was such a very amazing man. He had such good medical aid. I am very aware of my mortality."

Coetzer's explanation, unvarnished and to the point, is revealing. If there is a serious message underpinning his works, which variously toy with political activism, identity politics, global warming, cultural displacement, medical insurance, Elvis in Zanzibar, Coetzer avoids a leaden approach to these zeitgeist issues in the construction of his work, which is routinely informed by humour, absurdity, bathos and silliness. In this, his work eschews the earnest and ultimately fatal impressionism that characterises so much South African art employing moving images. The artist shows me another video on his computer, a YouTube clip of late career Elvis, bored and indifferent, stumbling through his repertoire. We laugh.

Later Coetzer shows me a piece of software that is functionally a thesaurus but also visually a free association map of ideas rendered as words. In a way, the logic of the software offers a key into Coetzer's work, which can seem random and disassociated, but is in fact driven by the free-spirited logic of enquiry. Who else but Coetzer would connect - quite logically it turns out - philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to composer Richard Strauss to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick to Elvis and Freddie Mercury? "It makes amazing sense to this plak that I'm on at the moment," smiles Coetzer as Elvis reveals a cape with a motif linked to the ancient faith of Zarathustra. "What is your plak?" I ask. He laughs. " I'm not sure, I'm figuring it out as I go along." He laughs some more.

Sean O'Toole is a journalist, writer and regular contributor to Frieze and Sunday Times . He is based in Cape Town.