Writing Art History Since 2002

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About to forget, 2005, three-channel video projection shot on 35mm cinemascope film, duration 3 minutes There are few South African artists who display their own nakedness with such an overt absence of ego than Berni Searle. Her self-exposure is not simply a literal expression.Using her body as a vessel, medium and site of excavation her work exudes an almost skinless quality. In her show About to Forget her physical body is absent, but her nakedself is overwhelmingly present.Fixing implies the ability to control. By employing materials and metaphors associated with flux and change – pigment, water and symbolically charged colours – Searle invokes the fictions of systemic classification. Her work exudes a mercurial quality in its ability to slip through semantic nets. In About to Forget she traverses the murky terrain of memory, its simultaneous associations of reclamation and loss – and the paradoxical point at which the sharp edges of memory soften, blur and fade.Using old family photographs as her source material, she cuts out crude silhouettes of characters from red crêpe paper. These are then submerged in water. The colour seeps fromthe paper staining the water an intense, visceral red. The blood and water associations are ineluctable and universal: pain, purity, healing, sacrifice, rites of passage, cleansing, fertility.Drained of colour, the cut-outs become viscous and translucent. Forming the fulcrum of a series of photo-based prints and a three-channel video installation these fragile forms evoke multiple layers of memory stripped bare, until only traces remain. Searle’s simple materials and rudimentary method (using her own bathtub) evoke memories of childhood games. Yet for Searle youth was clearly an over-praised season. About to Forget is as much about painful rites of passage courtesy of racial, cultural, gender and family conflicts, as it is about cognitive processes.Searle’s almost inchoate process of bleeding her characters contrasts with the sophisticated video production. In the former Searle is an invisible, child-like participant; in the latter she provides more detached direction.The sounds of dripping water introduces the video, evoking the fluidity of recollection. The transience of this process is illustrated through the ebb and flow of the reddening water as it ‘washes’ the colour from the cut-out silhouettes. Associations are made with bodily secretions, menstruation and lineage. They stimulate questions concerning bloodlinesand heritage, and their contentious connections to classification. Understated, yet emotive, this work re-affirms Searle’s growing stature as a video artist.Yet there is also an undercurrent of evasiveness in the installation, Searle not fully confronting the conflicts that so evidently inspired her quest to come to terms with issuesaround identity. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is the photo-based prints and rows of video stills that appear more layered, and perhaps, unintentionally, more semantically complex. Works such as Along the way and Friends between mangroves I & II resemble wombs with a view, female orifices surrounded by skin-tissue and secretions that almost seep through their surfaces. Like the series of stills, displayed frieze-like along the gallery wall, these works are derived from the video; yet they float in an autonomous conceptual space. Juxtaposed against their trace-images these dreamscapes represent monuments to once-frozen, now-fading moments.About to forget is very much a women’s exhibition, a personal and painful tribute to three generations of Searle women. Yet the clues are not forthcoming in the works themselves. One does not expect a literal exegesis of familial dislocations, for that would certainly dilute and oversimplify the works’ conceptual nuances. But in images such as On either side, derived from a photograph of Searle women seated in a hall, one wants to know more. By not fleshing out, so to speak, her cleaved history, About to Forget remains emblematic, primarily illustrating the processes of erasure without sufficiently exploring them.

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