Out of The Cube

Eastern Cape reviews

'Unearthed': Lindi Arbi at the Monument

Lindi Arbi at Gallery in the Round

By Ashraf Jamal
26 September - 26 September. 0 Comment(s)
Unearthed

Lindi Arbi
Unearthed, 2009. Installation View Photograph by Brent Meistre.

Mourning is either a solipsistic act or a collective one: 'you will never understand my pain…' or '… we will find a way to work through pain together'. While born astride a grave, it does not mean that we are prepared for the inevitable, particularly when it is not one’s own death but the death of a loved one which becomes the source of grief; when that death couldn’t be prepared for or anticipated. It is this sudden break, the hand wrenched from your grasp, which produces a grief all the more maddening. A sudden death makes for a peculiar kind of mourning, one that hollows out and leaves one with the corrosive and deafening static of sentences unfinished, actions thwarted, embraces unreturned. An annulus grows where love once took root. The dead and living, husband and wife, form a strange new pact: the dead one, while estranged, remains alive; the living one, yearning, experiences the nullification of another kind of death. Both the living and the dead now occupy an interzone between being and non-being: both are alive, both dead.

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Emily Bronte conveys this state of existing between life and death in her ghoulish novel, Wuthering Heights. Cathy, the ghost, haunts Heathcliff who, damned by her absence, starves himself to death, turns mourning into an unrequited hunger. Bronte’s story is a tragic one; Lindi Arbi’s, while certainly tragic, finds a different way to deal with loss; for her cankerous hunger, thinning the marrow, hollowing the heart, proves not an end in itself.

Arbi’s question is how to address the loss of a man who, deeply loved, passes suddenly away. Her burden firstly is to live for her children, and, in the maw that separates herself from all she's held dear: endure. If the face becomes a mask; an action hollow, neither the face nor the action can lose their purpose. And art, the adage goes, is a great healer. However, it is not healing Arbi seeks, nor sop for sore spirits, nor memorial.  For memorialization, a common socio-political and cultural reflex, demands memory. But what if memory withers - how then do we read a memorial? Surely it is better to accept the transitoriness of all things.

Arbi’s MFA exhibition addresses the complexities and the fallacies of mourning and memorialization. Presented at two levels at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument in Grahamstown, the exhibition functions at two tiers, the one - titled Unearthed - is located in the Gallery-in-the-Round: a cellar, cavern, recess. In the tier above is the doppelganger or cerebral other, a more self-reflexive and coolly detached counter to the drama played out in the netherworld below. This doubled vision is titled Anon. This anonymity recalls the unknown soldier, a marker not for a particular individual but a lost symbol.

Arbi’s exhibit dramatizes the signifying force of location – underground/aboveground – which distinguishes the realms of the dead and the undead. The distinctiveness of the spaces is matched by the distinctiveness of the two representations of mourning. In the basement space of the Gallery-in-the-Round, the atmosphere is claustrophobic, damp, the whole evoking the mulch of browning ochre. What we are witnessing is an unearthing, an excavation.  Lining the walls in obsessive serried rows are clay casts of a water-bottle. In a corner, thousands of shards: the object and its trace. Spaced about the room are various sculptures, some malformed and indecipherable, others perceptible. The subject-turned-object of the sculptures is the artist – a series of self-portraits in clay and polyurethane which Arbi buried for 18 months in the Grahamstown New Cemetery at Waainek. In these disinterred works we see the figure caught in the sedimented impress of a vast block of earth, vegetal growths binding figure to ground, a visceral reminder that we come from the earth and return to it. Another figure, soiled, stands in a solitary corner. Caught in a yellow light, the naked figure is here seen whole, excavated, eerily alive. One realizes, given the entropic affair of flesh and earth, that the artist’s focus is mortality and its fatal workings. While solemn, the effect is neither melancholic nor tragic; rather, in descending underground as it were, we recover loss, draw it closer, making death and dying an intimate thing. Here the series of water-bottles, One more night with you, function as synecdoche, for water-bottles denote the need for security and warmth when one feels vulnerable. It links death to sleep to the dream-life between.

Above ground, on the stage-space of the Guy Butler Theatre, there is an entirely different exhibition, the two spaces connected by an opened door in the floor. Projected from above onto the floor in the underworld is an image of a woman – again the artist – that is spectral but also a mortal imprint or trace.  Photographed after the exhumation of one of the self-portrait sculptures, the image depicts a body-like imprint left behind in the open grave – a residual self filled in with seeping ground water. It is this light projection which links the unearthed to the living world above. This world, titled Anon, is comparatively more abstract, more conceptual and performative. If the world below is marmourial, eerily animate-yet-static, then the world above – the world of the undead, the living – is abuzz with sound effects and a vast projection of an earth-moving machine (or TLB) which repeatedly refills a vast hole. The TLB withdraws then repeats the same action of filling in and leveling, as if ceaselessly staunching and erasing an abyss.

If the space exhumed beneath conveys the intimate scene of a mourning self – a self trapped between the living and the dead – then the space above generates quite another effect: a chilling conceptual sobriety. We see the arabesque-like fold of an ECG – her loved one’s healthy heartbeat, recorded shortly before he died of myocardial infarction. The ECG is covered with the traces of notes he’d left behind. The notes, or notations, are incidental; they harbour no profundity. Then, dominating the vast dark vault that is the upper tier, is a metallic arc to which translucent resin water-bottles fall like tears, like sacs attached to drips. Contained in the resin are the material traces of Arbi’s loved one. The clinical, ordered nature of the installation above serves as a mirror to the more visceral world below.

Unearthed/Anon is a stunning achievement in that it teaches us to live with, inhabit, and survive grief. While this in itself would be more than sufficient as a lesson, Unearthed/Anon, moreover, reminds us that memory and the body as subjects and objects of art can also shift us through-and-away from a numbing morbidity and a deathly act of memorialization. In short, it is a great body of work which, in mortifying the body, in killing off the self and its tawdry self-absorption, paradoxically restores life to the body. For now the body no longer carries the Apollonian ruse of fullness, wholeness. Now the body, flayed, returns us to the wound that is life. Moreover, because of the unflinching rigour of the entire enterprise – the immersion in death, the final deferral to life – Arbi’s achievement proves a rare blend of the visceral and abstract, somatic and conceptual: pairings which like the structural doubling of scenes, underground/aboveground, remind us of the mortal coil and the will to life.


Ashraf Jamal teaches Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University. He is the co-author of 'Art in South Africa: The Future Present' and the author of 'Predicaments of Culture in South Africa'.