Bernie Searle at Michael Stevenson
by Tavish McIntosh
Berni Searle continues to defy the age-old prejudices against film and photography by reiteratively realising exhibitions in these media that are highly polished materialisations of art's potential to create drama, mood and aura. 'Crush' demonstrates her skill in seamlessly juxtaposing nuanced cultural commentary with a sumptuous aesthetic sensitivity. The work was produced in the winelands of Stellenbosch. Searle performs atop mountains of crushed, squashed grape-skins. These monuments to agricultural excess, the unheeded detritus of winemaking, provide the artist with an organic environment replete with connotations of celebration, indulgence and, ultimately, decay.
Searle unsteadily tramples and spins around upon the mountain of already crushed grape-skins in Free Fall and the Descent series of photographs, echoing the ancient ritual of trampling on the grapes to celebrate the harvest. While occupied with this now futile action, her performance is underwritten by an empathy for this exhausted residue of industrialised agriculture - an empathy particularly resonant in this specific locality where wine farming is the major economic driver. The grape-skins become the cultural baggage of both those who have benefited from this industry and those who have been its hapless victims. Searle's exhibition uses the culturally rich, decaying environment to create a transitory monument for her own highly particularised performance.
The pieces echo visually and iconographically Penny Siopis' landmark painting Patience on a Monument where the subject peels a lemon while seated atop the cultural debris of apartheid South Africa. The mound forms an ageless yet highly transitory monument to the imbrications of locality with identity. Just as Searle's pristine white dress is stained purple by the grapes, so cultural surroundings imprint themselves upon the body/self of the subject.
Adopting an almost medieval progression, the photographs dramatically embody significant moments of a narrative. This method is especially evident in Approach where Searle horizontally juxtaposes seven images of the mound, effectively extending the environment to create multiple vistas. Initially seated on the apex of the mound, Searle is bathed in a warm light as she gazes outwards at the retreating landscape. She re-produces images of herself within this newly surveyed environment like any intrepid explorer would; we, along with her, gaze upon the artist multiplied and replicated in this uncanny location. Photographed in the descending late afternoon sun, the mound is increasingly cast in silhouette as Searle, sliding down the mound into the shadows, sinks knee-deep into the yielding grape-skins.
Yet the most powerful piece is reserved for the cordoned-off back room where Searle's massive projection screens cover three walls, creating an enclosed environment for the richly incoherent narratives of Nightfall to unfold. The drama of the scene is immeasurably increased by the background which, previously dominated by purples and blues, becomes an igneous orange. The murmuring soundtrack, created in collaboration with Freshlyground lead singer Zolani Mahola, keeps pace with the descending grape-skins as they are emptied onto the supine body of the artist in the central screen. This deluge threatens to engulf her.
On the left, a twirling Searle is showered by the hard pellet-like grape-skins. As she staggers under this orange onslaught, she seems entranced by the ambiguous substance. The scene reads as a cleansing ritual, contradicting the staining properties of the substance. Once completed, the lulled artist lies down and curls up. Slowly, slowly, the resting position is upset as the artist starts tumbling down the mound. This momentous, inevitable, weighty descent gathers momentum and seems unstoppable as the artist crashes out of the screen, sending up rippling spurts of grapes while the haunting background murmur reaches shattering crescendo.
This exhibition contradicts Walter Benjamin's idea that mechanically reproduced artworks lose their spiritual integrity. His concern is rendered baseless by Searle's commanding manipulation of film and photography. In fact, her photographic recordings communicate powerfully and directly with the viewer, transcending the limitations of the media and offering a distilled, atmospherically enhanced record of the proceedings on the grape-skin mountain.
Tavish McIntosh is a Master's student in the UCT History of Art department
Opened: September 21
Closed: October 20
Michael Stevenson Contemporary Gallery
Hill House, De Smidt Street, Green Point
Tel: (021) 421 2575
Fax: (021) 421 2578
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm