‘I strive to express my sadness’: Berni Searle’s Mute (2008)

This text is an extract from my PhD dissertation available here. It is from Chapter Two: ‘I strive to express my sadness’: Berni Searle’s Mute (2008). I am currently developing this chapter for the purposes of publication.

Videos:

Berni Searle, Mute, 2008, double-channel video projection, shot on SD video, 4 minutes, 11 seconds, colour. Copy of the video courtesy the artist and the Stevenson Gallery (Johannesburg and Cape Town).

Berni Searle, Black Smoke Rising Series (1) Lull, 2009, Single channel HD video projection, 7 minutes, 33 seconds, sound, colour. (2) Moonlight, 2010, Single channel HD video projection, sound, colour, 5 minutes, 33 seconds. (3) Gateway, 2010, Single channel HD video projection, sound, colour, 4 minutes. Copy of the videos courtesy the artist and the Stevenson Gallery.

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Berni Searle, Mute, 2008 (stills)

Tracing

It is 2011, and I am in Belgium, at De Hallen, in Bruges, in the monumental space that was once a 13th century, medieval market hall and which forms part of a constellation of medieval sites associated with the town’s heritage. Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses both medieval and nineteenth century sites. [1] The space is very dark and the only available light emanates from numerous screens, of various scales and kinds. Sound fills the space suggesting dialogues punctuated by sonic overlays and repetitions. Titled Interlaced after the work that lends the exhibition its name and that was, in fact, filmed in Bruges, this is a solo show of video work by Berni Searle. [2] While trained as a sculptor, and working across media with installation and photography, Searle is one of the most significant artists to work with the medium of video in South Africa. This chapter focuses on one work in Searle’s already extensive oeuvre. [3]

Titled Mute (2008) it is, unlike the other works on show, and as its title suggests, soundless. Mute is a double-channel video projection presented on two screens which face each other. Four minutes and 11 seconds in length, the video runs on a loop. Each screen deploys a different visual language. One presents a sequence of photographic images which appear to document an event, although the images selected are shrouded in darkness and, without context, appear opaque. The focal point, illuminated by torchlight, is an ashen form marked out on the ground. The form yields nothing except, in its documentation of ashen traces, the absence of someone that once existed. On the opposite screen a woman (the artist, Searle) weeps, amongst animated images of black crosses and what appears to be burning paper. These crosses are grounded in a pristine, white surface and are multivalent in signification. They invoke a Christian cross (their arms, of equal length, suggest a Greek cross). But their tilting also resembles the cross (‘X’) made on a ballot when voting.

My looking moves between the screens. On the one screen is the weeping woman and the migrating crosses. On the other screen, sequences focused on the illuminated form are encircled by figures in darkness. An animated cross/‘X’ moves downwards and across, slowly and silently on a white ground, a papery surface transformed by fire. A second cross/‘X’ emerges and, at first, its image is faint but becomes bolder. Figures are visible at the edges of the darkness, and one shines a torch which casts light on the ambiguous absent presence of a human form. The sequences of photographic images produce subtle, almost indiscernible, shifts in perspective. As the two crosses/‘X’s’ are animated, ghostly traces appear and disappear. On the opposite screen, slight shifts echo those of the crosses that move slowly and soundlessly on the other. Two of the figures shine torches and the form, marked out on the illuminated ground in front of them, appears to move closer. As it does so, its composition is gradually more visible: dust and debris, and the ashen, grey colour of burnt substances.  Crosses continue to surface, to shift and move. At first faint, then distinct, visual sensations of ghosting and shadowing are reiterated. Burn marks transform into formless abstractions, losing their relationship to the graphic shapes that brought them into being. One of the crosses/’X’s topples off the edge of the surface at the bottom of the screen. As the crosses multiply, the torchlight appears brighter: its focal point is constant, always the ashen, absent form.

The figure of the artist appears, her image at first faint. Then, in a sequence of slight, almost invisible movements, she surfaces more fully. She blinks. She faces me, confronting the viewer with her gaze. Only her head and shoulders are visible. Without superfluous adornment she wears black, as if in mourning. Her body, only head and shoulders are visible, is overlaid by the marks made by the burning of the paper. On the screen opposite, the figures in the darkness continue to shine their torch onto the ground, where the now visible but unidentifiable debris lies. Searle does not speak. Her face registers emotion, tensing up. She begins to cry but her weeping cannot be heard.

The crosses/‘X’s’, now faint, move, and overlay the artist’s body. The marks left by fire’s encounter with paper, casts amorphous patterns. One of the figures, shrouded in the darkness, becomes more distinct and appears to signal at something. But the space mapped out by light and ashes refuses clarity. Searle lifts her sleeve up to her face and wipes the tears from one of her eyes. There are subtle shifts in what can and cannot be seen. Her body appears to fade and then become more distinct. While there is no sound, I can see that she takes in breath. The muscles tense up on her neck and on her face and the weeping takes hold. On the facing screen, figures walk forwards towards the space lit up by the torch. Movement, captured by a camera, invisible to the viewer, is registered in the ghosting of limbs. Searle again lifts up her arm to wipe her face. She repeats the gesture once again, with the opposite arm, and her face is tensed up and reddened from weeping. The paper’s crinkling and puckering is visible as it responds to the heat of the flame that cannot be seen. The marks that consume the paper, swirling, amorphous forms, invoke flames gathering in momentum. Someone leans over to observe the illuminated ground and touches it as if to make sense of what it is the ashes and debris represent. As the ground is scrutinised, I imagine that something will be discovered to explain what it is I am looking at. But nothing is explained. The images simply fade, alongside those presented in the opposite screen. The woman, the artist, stops her weeping. She looks downwards, her face is visibly reddened by emotion and tears; she appears exhausted. Burn marks, its textures and patterns overlay the previously pristine surface and the figure of Searle herself. Slowly, again almost indiscernibly, these begin to fade along with the image of Searle. And then, the looped video projected onto the two facing screens, repeats.

Fire and Smoke

In May 2008, photographs depicting images of horrific violence, circulated in both the South African and international press. This included images of the beating and burning to death of people who, in the midst of mob unrest, came to function as repositories of escalating social anger. At this time, photographic images of a burning body were widely circulated. The image of this body, titled ‘the flaming man’ or ‘the burning man’ by the news media, came to represent this cycle of violence. [4] The man was later identified as Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a Mozambican national, one of many entering South Africa unofficially in the hope of finding work. [5] The photographs of Nhamuave as he burned to death show a man on his hands and knees, his body engulfed in flames. He is in an informal settlement; a makeshift home constructed out of corrugated iron is visible in the background. The ground on which he kneels is dry earth and dust littered with rubbish and debris. Smoke fills the image, and uniformed police appear to move towards him as his body is consumed by flames. The image of Nhamuave burning invokes numerous other images and, in particular, produces historical associations with the apartheid-era practice of ‘necklacing’. Developed as a technique in order to punish perceived political traitors, a rubber tyre, filled with petrol, would be placed around the chest and arms of the victim identified as the object of vengeance. The tyre would then be set alight.[6] The exhibition catalogue, accompanying Searle’s solo show Interlaced, states that Mute was made in response to the specific events of May 2008. [7] During this period, riots broke out in informal settlements located in the apartheid township of Alexandra in Johannesburg and spread to other parts of the country. [8] According to documentation, sixty foreign nationals were reported killed, while over three hundred were injured and over thirty thousand displaced. [9] The figure of the foreigner came to serve as the paradigmatic image of the events of May 2008 which escalated into brutal attacks and killings, including the burning to death of human beings. [10] This violence was enacted upon migrants (dubbed Makwerekwere) from other parts of the African continent.

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Berni Searle, Black Smoke Rising Series (video stills), Lull (2009), Moonlight (2010) and Gateway (2010).

Searle’s video trilogy Black Smoke Rising (2009-10), also exhibited on Interlaced, suggests visual and political dialogues with Mute. The trilogy consists of three single-channel videos: Lull (2009), 7 minutes/33 seconds; Moonlight (2010), 6 minutes; and Gateway (2010), 4 minutes. The works are screened consecutively, and visually are held together by the imagery of fire. In Lull Searle sits with her back to the viewer on a swing constructed out of rubber tyres; unlike in Mute where she faces us directly. Her action is staged in an outdoor setting, the beauty of which appears idyllic, and in which the colours and the sounds of birds and insects are heightened. As she swings, Searle hums. The river in front of her sparkles in the sunlight, long, green grass waves in a gentle breeze, and a butterfly flies past. The scene is seductive, a trope of an idealised landscape, it has the capacity to quite literally lull the viewer into a dreamlike, detached state of being. It is not unlike the settings available to historically privileged South Africans, spatially and socially separated off from spaces of deprivation such as informal settlements. Searle gets off the swing and walks away, although her humming continues to be audible. The swing, now empty, continues to rock gently backwards and forwards. The atmosphere is thick with the familiar sounds of birds and insects. As the swing disappears, the figure of Searle reappears, although now she is standing, facing the river, and not quite visible through the long grass and foliage. This visual language of appearance and disappearance is not unlike that encountered in Mute. The crackling of fire is audible, and a rubber tyre, heavy with flames, and suspended by a rope, swings violently across the visual plane, disappearing from view and then returning. Gradually the tyre begins to slow, and as it does so it is consumed by flames escalating in force. Black smoke becoming gradually thicker emanates from it. There is a strange, artificial dislocation between the violence of the burning tyre and the scene of nature in an idyllic form. Searle stands motionless with her back to the burning, as if unaware. It appears that these are two disparate moments filmed at different times and places, and digitally altered. The work, through the symbolic conduits of the burning tyre and the idealised landscape appears as a visual allegory of violence in South Africa, and its relationship to spatial dislocation and unrest produced by structural inequalities that remain. The temporal disjunctures and juxtapositions disrupt linear time, perhaps an allusion to the artificiality of historical demarcations.

Pulling at threads

The photographs that Searle deploys in Mute are credited to the South African anti-apartheid activist and press and documentary photographer Benny Gool. During the 1980s, Gool’s photographs documenting apartheid-era violence were published in ‘Grassroots’, a banned, underground newspaper. [11] Although the reasoning behind Searle’s decision to select Gool’s photographs, from others focusing on May 2008, is undocumented. The precise context of the photographs, and Searle’s own selection and re-staging of the Gool photographs, remain unknown. Searle is, I imagine, strategically resistant to describing the processes underlying the construction of Mute. Coombes focuses on Mute in a text titled ‘The Sound of Silence’ but no precise contextual background is presented. Coombes situates the video within the events of May 2008 drawing attention to an ‘earlier version […] produced in May 2008’. [12] Although access to this, or any process related work, has not been possible, Coombes’ reference is interesting. It points to the immediacy of Searle’s response to May 2008, an immediacy traditionally reserved for the photojournalist or documentary photographer. Coombes notes the ubiquity of the image of Nhamuave burning, and its international dissemination. It is not clear whether the Gool photographs, which Searle re-casts, are of Nhamuave but, as Coombes writes: ‘Searle’s poignant re-use of Benny Gool’s images taken during the outbreak of violence can’t help but recall Nhamwavane’s [sic] fate and that of others like him’.[13] In the catalogue published for Interlaced, a caption again acknowledges the Gool photographs but also thanks Jean Brundit for ‘additional still images’ (Brundit is an artist, who works with photographic media). [14] There is thus some ambiguity surrounding the provenance of the photographs that Searle deploys in Mute, even as elsewhere they are attributed to Gool.

Azoulay differentiates ‘the objective dimension possessed by an image imprinted in a photograph by virtue of its being, always, of necessity, the product of an encounter – even if a violent one – between a photographer, a photographed subject, and a camera’ [her emphasis]. [15] She writes:

[An] encounter whose involuntary traces in the photograph transform the latter into a document that is not the creation of an individual and can never belong to any one person or narrative exclusively. The photograph is out there, an object in the world, and anyone, always (at least in principle), can pull at one of its threads and trace it in such a way as to reopen the image and renegotiate what it shows, possibly even completely overturning what was seen in it before. [16]

Azoulay’s metaphor of pulling at a thread; the idea of reopening and renegotiating the photographic image is a suggestive departure point for how artists deploy photographs in the making of video works. Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas video (1999) – the filming of a strip of photographs shot in a deliberately obfuscating style – inaugurates, in its staging of a dialogue between photography and video, a different kind of engagement in the visual realm constituted by photographs and political resistance in South Africa. A dialogue between photography and video is staged once again almost a decade later in Searle’s Mute.

The photographs that Searle selected represent the aftermath of burning. They were shot at night-time, and all that was left of a burning body was its absence and its ashes. Through the enfolding darkness, the figures of uniformed police are vaguely apparent and police torches illuminate the ground where the killing took place. Searle provides no clues as to the context of the photographs, their time, place or date. There is no means of determining whether she made changes to Gool’s photographs in any way, or what her process of selection was.

Within the space of the exhibition Interlaced, Mute brought a South African event into a relationship with broader questions of violence, and xenophobia. As an art object, moving across sites, cities and art worlds (not only in South Africa, but also in Europe), Mute opens up questions about what it means to represent and engage actual, contemporaneous violence not as a photojournalist or documentary photographer but as an artist. Interlaced travelled from Belgium to France to the Netherlands, and this breadth of international circulation is a significant aspect of the exhibition, and circulation, of Searle’s work. [17]. Working with the medium of video, Searle explores violence perhaps not with the same kind of immediacy and proximity as the photographer, but nonetheless within a few months of its occurrence. Of the impetus for Mute, Searle wrote in 2010:

In the context of South Africa, issues of migration and borders exploded in xenophobic attacks on foreigners in May 2008. In response, I created Mute (2008), a double-screen video installation in which I strive to express my sadness about the attacks and my inability to voice the shame sparked by them.[18]

This statement, foregrounding both sadness and shame, conveys the immediacy of Searle’s response to the violence of 2008, and how she felt personally affected by it. [19] Her foregrounding of the personal, and the first-person – ‘my sadness’ – is not narcissistic but rather grounded in a history of the relationship between citizenship, the compromised nature thereof, and art and the political in South Africa. In inserting herself into the work Searle harnesses her identity as both artist and post-apartheid citizen at a time of crisis. Coombes, touching on the question of narcissism, draws attention to how the crosses mediate the image of Searle weeping: ‘The bleeding crosses put some distance between viewer and viewed and mediate any trace of narcissistic empathy in Searle’s tears […]’. [20] Searle’s visual practice is not located in spectacle.  Video as a medium grounded in histories, such as feminist art practices, and processes that are conceptual, political, critical and self-reflexive in orientation offers a different kind of language: one that requires another kind of engagement, a slower, more considered and intimate, mode of looking. Mute resists the urgent truth-claims and didactic charge of the photojournalist. In exhibition form, Mute presents the spatial and physical experience of standing in-between and negotiating two projections: it actively works against complacent looking and passive consumption. We have to negotiate between the multiple narratives and temporalities of two projections in dialogue with one another.

[…]

mute5

Notes

[1] See: Michel Dewilde; Julie McGee; Mirjam Westen, Berni Searle: Interlaced. (Holland: Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem and Belguim: Frac Lorraine & Cultuurcentrum Brugge, 2011),p.23.

[2] Michel Dewilde, et al., Berni Searle: Interlaced, 2011.

[3] See: Emma Bedford, Fresh: Berni Searle (Cape Town, South African National Gallery, 2003); Rory Bester, Float: Berni Searle (Cape Town: Bell-Roberts Publishing, 2003); Emma Bedford (ed.), A Decade of Democracy (Cape Town: Double Storey and Iziko, 2004); Annie E. Coombes, Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, 2004, pp.246-254; Sophie Perryer (ed.), Berni Searle: Approach (South Africa: Michael Stevenson Gallery and Johannesburg Gallery; United States: Contemporary Art Museum/Institute for Research in Art, University of South Florida, 2006); Emma Bedford (ed.), A Decade of Democracy (Cape Town: Double Storey and Iziko, 2004); Marion Arnold, Berni Searle: Recent Work 2007/8, 2008; Tamar Garb, Figures & Fictions, 2011; Dewilde et al., Berni Searle: Interlaced, 2011.

[4] Glynnis Underhill and Sibonile Khumalo, S., ‘No Justice For Burning Man’, http://mg.co.za/article/2010-07-30-no-justice-for-burning-man. (accessed 27 August 2013).

[5] See: Stephen Bevan, ‘The tale of the flaming man whose picture woke the world up to South Africa’s xenophobia’, Mail Online (Last updated 9 June 2008) www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1024858/The-tale-flaming-man-picture-woke-world-South-Africa-xenophobia.html (accessed 20 August 2013).

[6] See Jonathan Ball, ‘The Ritual of the Necklace’. Research report written for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, March 1994, accessed on-line, on 22 October 2013: www.csvr.org.za/index.php/publications/1632-the-ritual-of-the-necklace.html. Ball writes that the ‘first widely reported necklacing occurred in the Eastern Cape in March of 1985. The victim, Mr Tamsanqa Kinikini, was a member of the town council in the township of KwaNobuhle and was believed by some people to have been involved in corruption and violence’. Ball cites the burning of a woman on 20 July 1985, in Duduza, a township outside of Johannesburg, as the next one to receive media attention. This 25 year old woman was ‘accused of being an “informer”’ and ‘beaten and stoned, stripped, soaked in petrol and burnt to death’. Ball argues for differentiations between different kinds of burning practices, of which necklacing is one example, and draws attention to the absence of evidence with regards to the origins of necklacing as a practice and form of punishment.

[7] Dewilde et al., Berni Searle: Interlaced, 2011, p.9.

[8] There is a significant literature on the events of May 2008. A useful overview of this literature is presented in David, M. Matsinhe, ‘Africa’s Fear of Itself: the ideology of Makwerekwere in South Africa’, Third World Quarterly, Vol.32, No.2 (2011), 295-313. Matsinhe’s article also draws on extensive fieldwork and documents organisations and sources important to the study of Migration in South Africa notably the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP); the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

[9] Matsinhe, ‘Africa’s Fear of Itself: the ideology of Makwerekwere in South Africa’, 2011, 297.

[10] There are many histories of xenophobia in South Africa aspects of which are engaged in the chapter on Siopis. Histories of immigration, and xenophobia, in South Africa intersect histories of colonialism, apartheid and narratives about the post-apartheid condition. Race, and historical attitudes, sedimented in prejudice and xenophobia that includes anti-Semitism, and prejudices directed at southern and eastern European immigrants is a significant aspect of the history of immigration to South Africa and is part of  broader narratives about migration. See: Milton Shain, The Roots of Antisemitism in South Africa (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994); ‘Antisemitism in South Africa: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’, Jewish Affairs, 64:1 (2009), 6-11 and ‘Jewish Cultures, Identities and Contingencies: Reflections from the South African experience’, European Review of History: Revue Europeene d’Histoire, 18:1 (2011), 89-100.

[11] On ‘Grassroots’ see: http://www.sahistory.org.za/cape-town/grassroots-community-newspaper (accessed 27 December 2014).

[12] Annie, E. Coombes, ‘The Sound of Silence’, in Marion Arnold et al., Berni Searle: Recent Work 2007/8, 2008, p.34.

[13] Ibid.,p.36.

[14] Dewilde et al, Berni Searle: Interlaced, 2011. See the series of unnumbered pages at the end of the catalogue, after p.67.

[15] Azoulay, 2008, p.13.

[16] Ibid., p.13.

[17] Interlaced travelled from De Hallen, Bruges (where it appeared between 17 April-12 June 2011) to Frac Lorraine, Metz, France (20 May-18 September 2011) and then finally to the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem (MMKA), Arnhem, the Netherlands (9 July-16 October 2011).

[18] Berni Searle, ‘Sites of Refuge: A Photo-essay from Three Works’. South Atlantic Quarterly 109:3 (Summer, 2010), 545-6. The other two works discussed in this essay are Seeking Refuge (2008) and Home and Away (2003) both of which were filmed outside of the specific context of South Africa.  Seeking Refuge is a single screen projection (5 minutes, 56 seconds) and Home and Away is a dual-screen projection (6 minutes). Both were filmed outside of the specific context of South Africa:  the former on Lanzerote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands and the latter in the ocean between Spain and Morocco.  As is usual in her practice, Searle produced prints to accompany Seeking Refuge and Home and Away but did not do so with Mute.

[19] See: Timothy Bewes, The Event of Postcolonial Shame (United States: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[20] Coombes, ‘The Sound of Silence’, in Arnold et al., Berni Searle: Recent Work 2007/8, 2008, p.36.

Bibliography

Azoulay, Ariella, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008).

Ball, Jonathan, ‘The Ritual of the Necklace’. Research report written for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, March 1994. Accessed on-line, on 22 October 2013: www.csvr.org.za/index.php/publications/1632-the-ritual-of-the-necklace.html.

Bedford, Emma, Fresh: Berni Searle (Cape Town, South African National Gallery, 2003).

Bedford, Emma (ed.), A Decade of Democracy (Cape Town: Double Storey and Iziko, 2004).

Bester, Rory, Float: Berni Searle (Cape Town: Bell-Roberts Publishing, 2003).

Bevan, Stephen, ‘The tale of the flaming man whose picture woke the world up to South Africa’s xenophobia’, Mail Online (Last updated 9 June 2008) www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1024858/The-tale-flaming-man-picture-woke-world-South-Africa-xenophobia.html (accessed 20 August 2013).

Bewes, Timothy, The Event of Postcolonial Shame (United States: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Coombes, Annie, E., Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa: History after Apartheid (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2004).

Coombes, Annie E.; Garb, Tamar; Jantjes, Gavin; Murinik, Tracy and Ose Elvira Dyangani. Berni Searle Recent Work 2007/8 (South Africa: Michael Stevenson, 2008).

Dewilde, Michel; McGee, Julie; Westen, Mirjam Berni Searle: Interlaced. (Holland: Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem and Belguim: Frac Lorraine & Cultuurcentrum Brugge, 2011).

Garb, Tamar, Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (Germany: Steidl & V&A Publishing, 2011).

Matsinhe, David, M., ‘Africa’s Fear of Itself: the ideology of Makwerekwere in South Africa’, Third World Quarterly, Vol.32, No.2 (2011), 295-313.

Perryer, Sophie (ed.), Berni Searle: Approach (South Africa: Michael Stevenson Gallery and Johannesburg Gallery; United States: Contemporary Art Museum/Institute for Research in Art, University of South Florida, 2006).

Searle, Berni, ‘Sites of Refuge: A Photo-essay from Three Works’. South Atlantic Quarterly 109:3 (Summer, 2010), 545-6.

Shain, Milton, The Roots of Antisemitism in South Africa (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

Shain, Milton, ‘Antisemitism in South Africa: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’, Jewish Affairs, 64:1 (2009), 6-11.

Shain, Milton, ‘Jewish Cultures, Identities and Contingencies: Reflections from the South African experience’, European Review of History: Revue Europeene d’Histoire, 18:1 (2011), 89-100.

Underhill, Glynnis  and Khumalo, Sibonile., ‘No Justice For Burning Man’, http://mg.co.za/article/2010-07-30-no-justice-for-burning-man. (accessed 27 August 2013).

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