12.05 - 27.06.2021
Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.
— George Seferis, ‘Mythistorema’
I first saw Bronwyn Katz’s work in Cape Town at a group show. She was at that time a recent graduate asking around for disused mattresses to make sculptures from. My sister, a peer of Katz’s at art school, actually contributed our late Granny Jean’s old mattress. The mattress itself was stained and well worn and I couldn’t imagine it becoming anything even vaguely desirable. In my diary I wrote about seeing what could have been my grandmother’s old bed: “A mattress stripped of all its materials and stuffing, rid of all the marks and stains of living, hung up on the wall as though it were a painting. The bed springs were still in place, sticking madly out in all directions, both affronting and comical. But it was the green yarn wound, dutifully, carefully, to cover the last coil of each spring that moved me. These green woollen rings seemed to offer something soft, a collation of prayers, which also gave these silly springs a tenderness, even a soul.”
In the above passage I am alluding to a Walter Benjamin quote that says, “attention is the prayer of the soul”. More than ever, Katz exemplifies this phrase years later with ‘I turn myself into a star and visit my loved ones in the sky.’, her solo show at White Cube Bermondsey. On one hand, there was a mechanical violence in stripping away the person from the mattress, on the other hand a redemption of the individual in the soulful labour of winding yarn. On first seeing her work, I was astonished at the simple act of attention that was represented by the minute ringlets of wool and how it transformed a ready-made into a work of feeling.
‘I turn myself into a star and visit my loved ones in the sky’ consisted of a single room hung with ten deconstructed bed frames made from bits of salvaged mattresses, pot scourers and coloured, wool yarn. The titles of the works are salvaged too: named in !Ora, of the Korana people, a language decimated to the point of near extinction by colonialism and apartheid. One piece, ||Ūs|amiros (Springbok star), was again made of bedsprings liberated from their stuffings and wire frames. But here, each spring was covered by stainless steel pot scourers extended like socks over their lengths. The scourer-covered-bedsprings turned into a strange mass of polyp-like entities reaching out toward me like fingers or mushrooms. Aside from their artificial colours – blue, chrome – they appeared almost organic, almost alive, even desperate and disturbing.
They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say[.]
– Derek Mahon, ‘A Disused Shed In Co. Wexfrod’
Several other works of the show were made from the wire-frames rather than the bedsprings of mattresses. These pieces were far more introverted and sparse: |Amis||ãub (Magellanic clouds) I and II, not unlike Bauhaus in their formal sensibility, reduced the everyday physical shape of the bed frame to simple wire lines and gestures of colour. Each of the wire-frame works were covered in part by tightly wound, coloured yarn. The shape of the mattress is always alluded to, but often altered, abstracted, the original quotidian aspects of a bed only faintly hinted at. For example, a work called |Hōdi (Pleiades) turns the mattress into five blue, verticle lines spaced evenly and parralel on the wall. |Hōdi’s lines suggest the shape of a rectangle, the diluted memory of a mattress. At the end of each line, the blue-covered wire bends up into squared curlicues, reminiscent distortions of bedsprings: memories of lost souls and loved ones.
In Katz’s wall pieces there is a pathos so small and delicate it is barely there. There’s a humbleness in winding wool around wire so carefully. Something quiet and sensitive – stripped of all the fluff of the ego, what is left is a singular austerity. Like mythology: strange and timeless. The slightness of these works feel equivalent to bandaging a wound or tending to a vegetable garden: an art of healing, or mourning; a language of spirits and stars. I became aware of the many ghosts of the exhibition: languages, ancestors, loved ones, strangers, bodies, objects. South Africa’s histories seem to hound the materials from which the work is made. The pot scourers can’t escape the connotations of domestic labour, of race, of gender. Meanings of homelessness, desperation, inequality crowd the idea of the disused bed; peoples dispersed and discarded by history rise from the white gallery walls.
Katz attempts, through her work, to transcend semantic congestion by reconstructing an inscrutable language that can speak on behalf of the Other. There is something so moving about taking the debris of domestic objects and re-assembling them into an abstract expression of living. Not of a single life, not a personal experience – these are not the old mattresses of Granny Jean or Bronwyn Katz – they have been stripped of the individual and given new names in a language of ancestors. A tongue full of ghosts speaks the names: ǃNoas (Tortoise star), ǃOmm (Porcupine star), ǃXankukua (Orion’s Belt), |Amis||ãub (Magellanic clouds). The individual gives way to a mythopoeia of collective experience of aporia, amnesia. Katz’ work seems to suggest that it’s in the peculiar, rather than the particular, that the universal is found. To turn oneself into a tortoise star is to be subsumed by a strange universe, it is to pay attention to those obscure people forgotten among the asphodels.