10.02 - 12.02.2022
It is not often that I get to write about an artist’s work whose practice strongly parallels my own. Antonia Brown has been in my life since 2013, when she arrived as an undergrad at Wits School of Arts the year after I graduated from the fine arts department. I was depressed because I had finished art school and had not ‘made it’. There is, however, a necessary process of initiation to ones own body as an affective site of trauma – particularly in Johannesburg – for white artists who want to share the stage. In Antonia I found a friend and contemporary who processed and made work in a similar way to me. That was almost a decade ago, during which time we have both come to know better the worlds we inhabit, critiqued who we are in those spaces and the histories that our bodies carry. How does one navigate an art practice with a body like an over-filled water balloon in someone else’s mouth? I can only answer by writing about her work, which, like mine, is all about flesh being held.
Brown recently showed her work in a duo exhibition with Swiss artist, Matheline Marmy, titled, ‘Pulling forces, seemingly a drip’ supported by Prohelvetia Johannesburg. The exhibition took place at The Ramp: a ‘cultural centre’ in Paarden Eiland that also hosted the Cape Town Art Fair after party, SIYABANGENA. The exhibition included sculptural works from both artists and one large-scale collaborative textile piece, Pulling Forces. In it, three unevenly-scaled cotton sheets, each expansive enough to cover a bed, are roughly sewn together and hung from the ceiling down to the floor. Each textile depicts curious natural dye compositions with copper sulfate and sea water in reaction to a given environment. One of the textiles has deep brown marks, apparently due to a reaction of copper sulfate with the steel shavings of the metal workshop in which the textile had been laid out to dry. Dazzling details of aquamarine blue and galaxies of crystal salt drying accentuate strange marks that read as traces of some kind of incantation. Between the two artists’ practices, this work depicts the sediment of a word that cannot be written down.
Marmy’s curious sculptures in Displacement Loop channel impossible transferences. Clear veins of dissolved copper sulphate (a feint blue liquid) are encouraged to ‘re-agglomerate’ on the surface of solid steel wires, which have been fed through plastic and rubber tubing. Deep brown mineral clusters form on the steel wire in a process that Marmy describes as a ‘wet relation’: a return of the liquid copper sulfate to a hard existence-in-relation. Copper sulfate is known to be used as a killing-agent for plants, fungi, algae, roots and snails. I imagine that my and Antonia’s bodies are filled with the blue liquid of a copper sulfate and the teeth that hold them steel. The stakes are as high as the potential of bursting and ruining everything. How do you contain this body while also insisting on being held?
In Brown and Marmy’s co-written text contribution to HIT Journal , Brown describes the trajectory of Agapanthus as the first flower to be exported from South Africa by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-17th Century. She explains that the local medicinal significance of the flower was primarily concerned with fertility: an agapanthus root worn around the neck of a new mother for protection or, a part of the flower consumed as an aphrodisiac or a cure for bareness. However, on its journey to Europe (of course), this information was left in the mouths of its speakers. The flower arrived not as pharmakon but as a decorative object that still graces the manicured public pavilions of European cities such as Rotterdam, where Brown writes to witnessing them. Essentially, Agapanthus arrived in Europe in the mid-17th century as a surrogate for the colonial legacy of forgetting.
The Greek word pharmakon means drug and is designated the dual meaning of both poison and cure:
Plato uses the word to refer to everything from an illness, a spell, artificial colour and paint. . . In Phaedrus, the written word is also notoriously called pharmakon. The question up for debate between Socrates and and Phaedrus is whether the written word kills memory or aids it.1Maggie Nelson, Bluets, 2009.
Brown regards the unspoken code of Agapanthus’ sacred properties to be an expression of refusal. In this case, the written word is elided by memory; whether it kills memory or aids it is of little consequence when the word is withheld from the pen inside a mouth.
Brown describes her approach to art-making as a sympathetic affect: feeling with the object. In regards to her relationship to the Agapanthus, she relates her material process to a “memorial labour for the flower.”
Brown’s sculptures in her Three Women series appear as the enlarged and isolated sex organs of a flower, materialised in steel frameworks, naturally-dyed organza, chainmail and salted thread, sometimes secretly adorned with a dead butterfly. Her other featured work, She of the wild, features a silk yarn-spun, yellow-bile-coloured textile piece, held up by a thin steel arm secured to the wall behind it. The silk yarn carries a multitude of perfectly geometrically-placed sacks within its body.
Brown’s sculptures present an array of spectacular anatomies of a flower. They also refer back to the anatomy of her own body. A body that is held taught in bruised silk organza and temporally-stretched by perfectly-placed sagging pouches. Brown’s sculptures are in a symbiotic-sympathetic loop with her own corporeality.
Another sculpture work by Marmy, Untitled (Displacement Reaction), is presented as a part of an old exhaust pipe on the floor of the exhibition. It is filled with copper sulfate and traversed by steel wires from all directions, almost haphazardly placed, settling into the liquid at intervals. I was curious about this work because, at first, I wanted to dislike it — a found object on the floor. On approaching it, however, I became utterly seduced by the feint blue liquid held by the shiny steel vessel. It made me think of a world without us — a strong theme of my own practice — and what mutations are bound to occur with our residual personal effects.2I was reminded of the scene of a stream running over gold coins, tiles, syringes and machine cogs, among other curious affects of life previously, in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).
Over a call, Marmy tells me about her pursuit of the highest pigment of green found in Cyanobacteria: not a plant but the godmother of photosynthesis. 3.5 billion years old, cyanobacteria can be placed at the start of the Great Oxidisation Event during which colour was introduced into the landscape through processes of oxygenation. Cyanobacteria can bloom over bodies of water, fixing atmospheric nitrogen and killing all life that surrounds or interacts with it. Marmy’s smaller scale and more controlled experimental work with copper sulfate — itself, a highly pigmented, potentially toxic substance — speaks to me as a form of surrogacy for time.
On the exhibition’s final day, someone’s friend walked right into Marmy’s delicate floor sculpture, knocking the liquid copper sulfate onto the concrete floor. The controlled wet-relation of blue liquid, exhaust pipe and swooping, crystallising wires thrown out of whack in a clumsy instance of someone else’s life. In the days that followed, the copper sulfate dried into an exquisite crystalline puddle of yellow-bile, tinged at the edges with an aquamarine blue, as if it were a sea inside-out. A mistake interaction that somehow gives an image reference to my initial question of how to contain a body in a mouth. Un-annunciated, a word cannot be fixed to writing.