Berni Searle at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival
by Virginia MacKenny
Berni Searle's Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival this year offered a visual and conceptual richness that indicates the award was well placed. Any aspersions cast that the choice of Searle was a politically correct strategy to offset the recent string of pale male recipients (Brett Murray, Alan Alborough and Walter Oltmann) are dispersed by the strength of the show.
Known for her works engaging her racial identity, particularly the 'Colour Me' series, the exhibition includes Snow White, an almost monochromatic, double screen video filmed in real time showing Searle from two angles. Flour streams from above gradually turning the naked Searle white, at which point she gathers the flour and kneads it into dough. Simple and meditative, its titular allusion to purity as well as the fantasy world of fairy tales gives the work a double-edged poignancy.
Searle's latest work continues to tackle identity but seems to offer itself for more open readings. While continuing her habit of centring the work on her own body her two latest video works open up new terrain. In A Matter of Time Searle is filmed from beneath a glass plane with olive oil on its surface. Walking in bare feet she attempts to cross the glass. Her head just visible above her toes she is recorded carefully placing each foot until she successfully traverses the glass. Then in a sudden slide she skids backwards down the glass again.
Returning once more to the beginning she starts her attempt again in what becomes a Sisyphean act of futile - but tension-filled - repetition. The slipperiness of surface as well as the potential fragility of the glass reinforces the vulnerability of the walker. The work translates easily into broader associations of the personal travail of an individual's progress through life.
Home and Away, Searle's latest and most ambitious double screen video, depicts her floating in the sea between Morocco and Spain. Just 16 kilometres of sea separates the two countries at this point and such proximity has, over the centuries, dissolved the boundaries between the two, both in terms of politics and culture. Filmed from a crane Searle floats on her back in a red and white dress in an apparently boundless sea.
Any notions of a latter day Ophelia are dispersed, however, by the movement of Searle's arms that signal her efforts to keep herself afloat, and alive. At one point black ink invades the water sullying the purity of the colours and threatening to engulf the figure.
In the room next-door the photographic component from Home and Away is translated into lithographic prints on watercolour paper. These are baroque in their luscious colour and dynamic forms. The sumptuous billowing folds of Searle's dress, seen from above and below, floating in the Mediterranean waters is reminiscent of the drapery of martyred saints ascending in a Titian altarpiece.
While allusions to such transcendent and transformative possibilities are not conscious, according to Searle, they may still be relevant. Searle's most recent works seem to dissolve the boundaries between one substance and another. In Home and Away the water becomes both space and fire, while in Snow White the white flour becomes dough - a remaking of an age-old substance. Searle thus engages with the ever-continuing, ever transformative, process of identity.
June 27 - July 5