Gallery in the Round, Makhanda
27.06 – 07.0.2019
Commissioned by the National Arts Festival, Berni Searle created a four-screen multi-channel video installation, A Place in the Sun, which cooperated perfectly with the four wall compartments of the rotunda-shaped Gallery in the Round in the basement of the 1820 Settlers Monument. With the shifting of lights, the video symbolically indicates a full day at a drained swimming pool, from morning to sunset until the whole scene turns into ashes and darkness.
A Place in the Sun begins with a scene of a pool with unseen birds chirping and children whispering in the background. A few people occasionally walk in and out in this space surrounded by crumbling walls. This video was shot at a decommissioned swimming pool in the Maitland district of Cape Town. The background music and sounds were also recorded in the area. Maitland – where this pool is situated – is inhabited by different communities of South Africa, as well as many foreign nationals. Like District Six before the forced removals of the 1960s, it is an area where people live together, embracing their diversity.
The pool is a site of memory. People who have lived in the area for many years still have nostalgic reminiscences of a place they used for recreational purposes, now in ruins. In A Place in the Sun, the artist, who is also included in the scene (as in most of her other videos) walks to and lies on the bed in the middle of the pool. Children frolic sounds fade in, like her dream. When a handful of people sit on the auditorium seats staring at different directions randomly, the noise gets stronger and seems like the echo of their common memory or imagination of this urban space. But the visual scene is inanimate. This contrast between the reality and the imagination creates the air of nostalgia for a failed possibility, or an unrealized future.
While it is no longer performing its original function, the site has not really been abandoned completely, as one or two homeless people have found home in this place. Their presence in the space draws our attention to Cape Town’s chronic housing-shortage crisis. It is also a reflection of the prevailing difficult economic situation where some people have lost their houses or move out as they can no longer afford the high rentals. The beautiful graffiti on the walls is a sign that artists have been coming and going out of the space, living their marks.
However, the place now faces a threat of a different nature. Maitland lies along the ‘Voortrekker Road Corridor’, a development project the City of Cape Town has earmarked to transform the areas along the historic Voortrekker Road in the next ten years. Anyone who has been following developments around the gentrification of Woodstock can speculate on the disruptive power this project will have on the diverse communities of Maitland, Goodwood, Parow and Bellville. Most of them will be pushed out of their business premises, houses and schools as they will not afford the high costs in the transformed spaces.
The unseen individuals who reside at the pool will disappear along with the deserted site, staying unseen. Coincidentally, the seemingly peaceful daytime in A Place in the Sun soon breaks into night burning fire and ashes. As in many of Searle’s works, there is a structure of two parts with entirely different visual effects and narrative tones: day and night, a swaying swing and a burning tire, red flame on the land and the mist of smoke engulfing the navy-blue Table Mountain in the backdrop. The particularly wonderful scene is the transition moment when the pictures and sounds of both parts join and link each other, which is when the day turns dark and the artist lies on the bed again within insects chirping sound in A Place in the Sun. The solemn and peaceful church music begins and, when some branches appear on the bed, the sound of flying sparks fades in and turns into sound of burning fire, while the police or ambulance sirens also join. A huge flame blazes out and the blare of police sirens overwhelms the fading church song. It is a moment of both hope and fear, peace and violence, full of contradiction and spurting power.
What will be left following that? What happens to the invisible individual(s) staying at the site? In the video, all turns into quietness and darkness. Ashes.
Searle pays constant attention to the social issues and movements in South Africa, such as xenophobia, access to housing, land and political protests. Her work is not reducible to simple poignant condemning. Rather, through her visual language, ripe with symbolism and narrativity, she creates the entanglement of poetic and violent imagery which captures the contradictions and complexities of South Africa.