Berni Searle at Michael Stevenson
With a solo Standard Bank show currently on at the National Gallery in Cape Town, a participation on the prestigious Artes Mundi contemporary art award show in Cardiff, Wales (winner to be announced at the end of this month) and an invitation for a museum show as part of the upcoming London Festival, Berni Searle's star has never burned more brightly. Thus, new work from this artist is anticipated with more than usual interest.
'Vapour', now on at the Michael Stevenson is the fourth and most elaborately staged of all her videos. Opening on a close-up of fiery wood crackling under two large steel cooking pots, the camera then tracks the legs and bare feet of the artist as she strides up and down between the rows of what becomes apparent is an expansive grid of steaming cooking pots, each on its own fire, set out on a vacant lot.
It is dusk, steam is escaping from the lids, and a ritual seems to be in process. Cut to close-up of a hand grasping and lifting the handle of a lid, releasing clouds of eminently photographable swirling vapour, which fills the screen. The closing shot is filmed from above, using a crane, and looks down on part of the site. The fires are dying; other figures are spotted, hard to distinguish amongst the wisps of vapour that drift across the scene.
Searle has always chosen 'props' basic to the human condition to make her work - foodstuffs like oil and spices, her own skin, elements like water, and now fire and its effect on water. Flour rained down on her in 'Snow White' and was mixed with water to make dough. In 'Float', she drifted in the sea, suspended in the water between the coasts of Spain and Morocco. In all of these earlier works, Searle has been very much present: a naked body lying under a blanket of the spices which brought her ancestors as slaves to this country, or with her skin stained or imprinted by elements from the past. One has always been conscious of a personification of effort and fortitude.
'Vapour' marks a move away from this intense personal involvement. Yes, Searle is barefooted as she makes her way between the fires, there might be a danger of being burnt by a stray spark, but the sense of individual struggle has given way to a new role: the artist as stage manager of an event.
Searle's idea for the piece was triggered by a newspaper photo showing 107 pots of food cooking for an Eid feeding project. In a catalogue interview with Michael Stevenson, Searle says, "I was drawn to the image on many levels, the most immediate of which was the visual impact of the huge pots and roaring fires, placed in what seemed to be endless rows. The sheer enormity of the event, the logistics of making food on such a huge scale and the intentions of the people involved sparked off so many possible associations, and I thought these could be very worthwhile exploring."
The scene is indeed evocative. The stoked fires at dusk, the steaming pots with their vapour creeping out from under the lids take the imagery beyond communal feasting, and could be read as a metaphor of an energised transforming society. The association of the fire, which heats and gives warmth, is as old as mankind� but somehow... in seeing only the feet and hand of the artist, only the vague shapes of the other figures, a sense of detachment from the constructed landscape seems to prevail. It is only on cover of the catalogue and the poster image for the show that we see Searle as silhouette against the sunset sky and the burning fires. One wonders why this key shot does not appear within the video.
February 18 - March 27