How to turn Marlene Steyn’s into a text?
Adjectives, rather than arguments, come to mind. Sensations, sonic inklings, ill-disposed to syntax. Mutations over fixed meanings. Ellen Agnew concurs, saying, ‘Steyn’s work moves through the limits of language.’ This – along with the Hélène Cixous quote which anchors the exhibition, ‘I, too, overflow’ – reminds me of Cixous’s introduction to Clarice Lispector’s Agua viva:
Is the text readable? One may have to find other modes, other ways of approaching it: one can sing it. One is in another world. The text does not keep, hold back, and one cannot retain it. Does this mean it is only water? Absolutely not. It is living water, full water.
Agua viva is typically translated into English as ‘stream of life,’ though a more literal rendering would be ‘living water’ or ‘water alive.’ It’s a good synonym, I think, for ‘deep she dive her’, Steyn’s third solo exhibition at SMAC. Not just because Steyn operates in the imagery of pools, lakes, showers, baths, tides, dives, deep-sea trenches and coral reefs, but because those waters are bodies of water: inhabited, embodied, and constantly in flux.
Like Lispector, Steyn is interested in the moment of metamorphosis, the pleasure of becoming. This show is chock-full of chimeras: mermaids, medusas, and basilisks, or else bodies morphing into other bodies. In submardreaming, for instance, hair becomes legs becomes palm fronds becomes arms becomes lips becomes streams becomes hair again. Viewers unfamiliar with Steyn’s knack for the slippy, drippy, and trippy may experience dizziness or nausea, symptoms of the phenomenon of overflow.
If Steyn’s work were a text, it would be riddled with run on sentences.
The paintings can be overwhelming, but not, I think, excessive. Steyn accomplishes this by treating each of her characters with care. below tide be low tied is filled corner to corner with figures – some above surface, some haunting the space beneath – yet none of them feel like fillers. They are whole, they have personality, they are protagonists in their own right. The two in the middle are having a sneaky underwater kiss; that one in the polo neck looks like she just got her heart broken; the one floating on her back is having her first quiet moment of the day.
If Steyn’s work were a text, it would have a polyvocal narrator.
‘deep she dive her’ is curated in such a way that there is no narrative, only flow. The white cube is softened by blue-painted walls and smoothed-out corners. I find myself circling, doubling back, and criss-crossing across the space. With each concentric spiral I stumble upon something I hadn’t seen before. I respond similarly to the paintings. They have no centre, no geometry, no internal border. The eye meanders, lingers on a small detail, goes off wandering again. In this show, Steyn seems to have rejected linearity in favour of discovery. Not discovery in the colonial sense of finding, claiming, naming, and cataloguing. Discovery in the sense of play. Works like arching type grant the viewer permission to have fun. The sculpture’s smile, her larger-than-life tongue sticking out, serves as a monument to childishness and whimsicality. The vodka punch served at the vernissage – which not only stained teeth and tongues blue, but also managed to get the Saturday morning gallery-goers excessively drunk – further encouraged an air of silliness.
If Steyn’s work were a text, it would probably have a punchline.
Play is also invoked in the erotic sense. Although they are not overtly sexual, the paintings seem to say something about the generative possibilities sex inspires, the primal joy of bodies touching, searching, witnessing one another. she shore shesaur she soar sees scaly water spirits relishing in a closed-loop massage train. In mother, moisture eyes her, a woman’s body melts into a pool between her legs, in which her bikini-clad friends swim, lounge, and play with each other and the waterblommetjies. abyssmistresses has something pleasantly masturbatory about it. As in, the sea-she-creatures seem to be exploring themselves in profound ways, navigating previously uncharted caverns of pleasure. For me, this is where Steyn’s work verges on the liberatory. Pushing femme representation away from dialectics of objectification and the gaze, Steyn enters into a world of women seducing and desiring and softening and deepening and luxuriating and enjoying themselves.
If Steyn’s work were a text, it would be written in present participle and polysyndeton.
If this write-up has felt a bit elusive, it’s because Steyn’s paintings make more sense in the moment of perception than reflection. What Lispector calls the ‘now-instant.’ Or, what Steyn portrays in steam/me/time. It’s difficult to talk about multiple, slippery selves that exist all at once. I’ve done my best to make sense of living water. I’m sure Steyn won’t mind my improvisations, slippages, mispronunciations.
If Steyn’s work were a text, I think it would sound a lot like this one from Lispector: ‘What I write you is a this. It won’t stop: it continues on. Look at me and love me. No: look at yourself and love yourself. That’s what’s right. What I write you continues on and I am bewitched.’