The Girl who Loved Insects

Lithops Dialogues in Diaspora

I realise insects have held a strong, if shifting, narrative all the way through my life. As a child I loved all forms of animal life. I had a rabbit as a best friend. I felt deeply hurt in incensed when I witnessed my brother burning ants with a focussed ray of sunlight through a magnifying glass and saw my mother casually crush snails underfoot because they were eating her plants. Teenager-hood shifted that empathy. I became ‘fearful’ of insects not out of a deeply held terror but more out of an adopted gendered response. I thought it appropriately feminine to yell for a family member to come and kill the insect I encountered in my suburban setting (now I was the killer). I am pleased to say, my family never took my urgent requests seriously, even to the point of laughing at me.

Choosing to study fine arts after leaving school, my degree show was all about the relationship between humans, insects and the city and I created hybrid, monster insect-city, insect-human fusions. I chose this subject matter partly because the particular cockroaches in my city centre existence were truly terrifyingly large, odious and suitably apocalyptic symbols. Those were dark days in the 80s. In depicting and sculpting cockroaches, I was partly trying to find a way to come to terms with living with them and also attempting to loose my fear of insects I had developed. The endeavour was partially successful, I love all insects except city cockroaches.

Hunt my Tongue

Intense focus on insects passed out of my life until seven years ago, when I found myself living a rural life engaged in an intense series of mythological, archetypal, photographic, naked self-portraits. I was unable to work during the cold winter months and developed a keen interest in the flowers of the fynbos growing all around me. I photographed every single species of fynbos flower that emerged painting with light in the dark of night, the same technique I was using for the self-portraits.

I became interested not only in the fresh flower in bloom but also how its form changed in the process of dessication and death. I noticed when the flower was dying, it was the most fertile time for the plant as the seeds are growing in the expanding ovaries. As my knowledge of flowers deepened, so did my powers of observation. I became aware of the close relationship between plants and insects and I began to image insects. Because my photographic process requires long exposures and working in the dark with a moveable light source, it necessitated the insect be still for many minutes at a time. An impossibility for any living creature. Death, a necessity for my technique, is also a theme extending through all of my work.

Mysterium Fascinans

Ever since I re-named myself Kali, at age 30 while living in Berlin, after the Indian Goddess of creation and destruction. Death, decay, waste and the darker more hidden aspects of life became threads weaving through all my creativity. At the age of 39, I witnessed the death of my mother due to cancer. I experienced that close to imperceptible moment when she just never took another breath. A moment so quiet, yet a moment that changed everything. (Before the undertakers arrived, I redressed her cold stiff rigor mortis body.)

I am interested in the impact death has on physical form. The death pose providing hints as to the final moments of life, whether they were traumatic, defensive, unexpected or peaceful. My real interest lies in bringing some life back into the inert form in a way that is honouring of the existence that particular being led. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, identified creativity as “the God-power in this world”. Finding ways to re-animate the dead through photographs can provide some hubristic power although I definitely put myself in the category of a fumbling demigod.

I hold all of life as sacred and never kill any form of life in my creative endeavours. They are all finds, gifts from friends, or in the case of larger animals, birds and snakes, tragic victims of roadkill. Roadkill is a sign of constant human encroachment on wild territory and spaces so there is less and less habitat for wild animals to survive. It is with such mixed feelings that I receive any animal killed on the road and it becomes an imperative for me to pay tribute to their lives. I do so through photography, re-animation into perpetual motion films and an alternative form of taxidermy that doesn’t involve any cutting.

Call of the Void

Providing a setting for my re-animated life forms, is where my work enters the theatrical. In this part of the creative process, I become the director of a play, staging a scene by placing the various “actors” (insects, plants, animals) in relationship with one another. Relationships that are more revealing of my own state of mind than any realistic reflection of what takes place in nature. The backdrop to my photographic theatre is our greater home, a view out into the universe, courtesy of the high resolution, Hubble Telescope, public domain astronomy photographs.

With more and more sophisticated technology, we are able to look deeper and deeper into matter and at the same time deeper and deeper into outer space. I find these opposing viewpoints we are able to expand into completely fascinating. In some small measure, it parallels my own bionic vision. I have one eye that focusses near with the other focussing in the distance. I had my eyesight medically restored from severe cataracts I developed in my mid forties. It was both comforting and frightening living in a misty, blurry world and my extreme attention to detail in all my photographs is testament to my continuing delight with my now sharp vision.

Ultimately I feel my work speaks to interconnectedness of all of life. the incredible balance and mutual interdependence of everything. I see a proliferating metamorphosing oneness that throws up infinite different reflections of itself. At the same there is a delicate balance between eveything which can be easily shifted. Humans are presently seriously upsetting this balance in their lifestyle choices which strip, poison and decimate natural resources in constant expansion and consumption. I see myself as a visual advocate on behalf of wild animals, plants and insects who are not able to communicate directly by themselves and so I hope that my images in some way touch people to appreciate the incredible beauty of fynbos flora, to find the smaller six or eight legged creatures fascinating, to see that wild animals have as much right to survival as we do as humans. In fact the mass extinction of other species will ultimately mean our own extinction as well.

Probing Fissures in Time and Reason

 

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The Girl who Loved Insects

Escaping the city and Dark Light

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I escaped city living through a temporary house swop, a friend who had built her dream home away 3 hours outside of cape town needed to return to the city for work and medical treatment, I wanted out of city life. It was a wonderfully mutually beneficial arrangement that lasted for two and a half years before we managed to extricate ourselves from each other’s houses. It enabled me to without major financial commitment establish a life away from a city dependence.

I have not looked back and seven years later, I still live a rural life. My reason for leaving the city were many but the driving force was that I was changing careers from a documentary filmmaker back to my first love, art. I studied fine art formally at university but found that other interests and adventures pulled me in directions I had never anticipated. Studying art is both a blessing and a curse. It enables you to situate yourself within an art history context expanding your visual and cultural references and for this I am grateful. But it also stifles spontaneity and for me it severed my trust with my instinctual creativity because, so I was taught, there was a “”right and wrong” way of going about things according to lecturers biases. It took me five years of an chaotic, anarchist, experimental life in Berlin to undo my formal art education. And by that time I was more interested in filmmaking.

Filmmaking led to photography and that was a big reason why I left the city. I began an intense series of transformative self portraits using a photographic technique called “light painting”. The technique enabled me to transcend the solid flesh of my body and capture elemental energy forms. In all the portraits I am completely naked. Clothing felt too restrictive and identifying. I became immersed in discovering ancient, inner, mythological archetypes which were re-interpreted through my 21st century perspective. In order to access these much deeper layers, I needed intense focus, a lot of wild space, and quiet, exploration I found impossible in the pressure, noise and congestion of the city.

The mythological self portrait series I termed ‘Dark Light’ for I felt I was making the unknown visible, through (my own) embodied form in a way that could be captured on camera. It was immensely liberating as I felt I was finally freeing myself from a voyeuristic male gaze I had inadvertently internalised my whole life and was. It turned out to be a full time three year project, discovering and presenting myself through my own eyes.

During this time, I was taking long walks through exquisite fynbos which I was fortunate enough to be living in the midst of. It felt very organic that I transferred the same light painting technique and intense vision into exploring flowers. In fact one Dark Light sub series is the mergence of my female form with various proteas. So began my fascination with flowers, plants, expanding to insects and animals.

Escaping the city and Dark Light

Printing midwife

Artists need a series of midwives to take their creations out into the world, printers, framers, gallerists, publicists and more …

As a digital photographer, one of my most important midwives is the printer. Before being printed my images are gestating in the belly of my computer.

Photographs look marvelous on a backlit screen, especially the high resolution screens of my camera and the computer. The hard part is to translate that brilliance of light, colour, texture and clarity onto dull absorbant paper.

From screen to paper, this is where the magic happens or this is where the deep disappointment begins. These days one doesn’t have to physically go into a place to hand over high res image files, they can speed through the net to their destination and return, via courier, printed.

This is a most nerve wracking time, as at that point, I have never seen a whole, full resolution printed image. I have only seen a test print sliver of it. I imagine it’s like having horse blinkers on, one can only see whats in front and not the sides. For one exhibition I never saw the full images until they were framed and hanging in the gallery. Giving birth, from digital to physical is a nail biting time, one needs a printer midwife one can trust.

The first question I am always asked when people look at my images is, “What is it?”. I know people are not referring to my subject matter, but are referring to the fact that they can’t work out whether the image is a painting, a drawing, or a photograph. I enjoy leaving them in that liminal, ambiguous space and refer the question back to them, what do you think it is? They usually go through a series of out loud deductions, well the colour looks like rich watercolour, but the image looks so sharp yet in places it is blurred…

People seem to need to satisfy the left brain with the technical details first before they can proceed to visually appreciate the image. They often reach their own conclusion that the work is a mix of painting and photography. This is not too far off a mark since the technique I use is I termed light painting but I tell people that they are looking at a photographic print. This usually really surprises them.

I tell them that I have a special printer who creates this magic for me and they are called ArtLab and are based at the Biscuit Mill in Salt River, Cape Town.

Prints of my images from ArtLab are always super sharp, full of rich color, bright with light with the blacks are how I like them, deep and velvety. Getting that balance right is a trapeze act and I can honestly say that I have never been disappointed, no not even by one print.

For the sake of transparency ArtLab have sponsored some of my exhibition printing, but they would get a glowing review, sponsorship or not.

Printing is the most crucial for photography, it brings an image to life or asphyxiates it.

With ArtLab I have found my printing midwife.

http://www.artlab.co.za

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Printing midwife

Laugh out loud in the face of death

I feel like I have tunnel vision. I am busy compositing my images in photoshop, it is not my favourite process. It means day and night on the computer, shifting things a little bit this way a little bit that way, making them bigger making them smaller. It is a bit like editing a film when one is endlessly making cuts, one frame longer or shorter, shifting sequences here or there. It is fiddle precise and tedious. With all those millions of small movements day after day wears down your tendons and muscles in your wrist, elbow and shoulder. My shoulder rotator cuff was just recovering, almost a year later from my last intense bout of compositing, and now I’m wearing it out again.

When making long form documentaries which had budgets, I always had an editor. That was truly fabulous to have some one who could help you sort through the immense piled up knot of raw material you had and put it together so that you had a comprehensible, well paced film. You are always too close to the material to do a really good job yourself. How I wish I had an editor now who could sort through the thousands upon thousands of photographic images I have created and magically put them together into some wonderful composite image. Making films, I would be the control freak on the sidelines, saying do this, do that. My editors would invariably kick me out of the edit suite to go and have a break and get out of their hair. Upon my return they would have put things together in a different way but somehow it worked. With compositing stills, like editing movies, there seem to be no absolute rules. It requires fiddling and fiddling until an intuitive voice inside you says …yes that works.

I wish I had an editor now. But alas I have to fiddle on my own and it is driving me crazy. I look back on a day and realize I have only shifted a few items a little to the left, a little to the right, a little up, a little down. Made it a little bigger, a little smaller, rotated it a little clockwise, a little anti clockwise etc etc. There is no great sense of accomplishment. But like editing all those small adjustments create the final art work or film, otherwise all you have are unwatachbly boring long takes of raw footage and an endless stream of similar looking images.

I don’t know if someone else could create my art works but I would love to have the money to employ someone to try. I love creating the photographs. I find it deeply meditative too look so deeply at and into form, lighting it up from all different angles. This is when I get into the zone, when I find myself so present in the moment that all else falls away, where subject and object become fused into one beingness. It is such a peaceful, joyful, awake state of deep satisfaction that there is nothing that is needed nor wanted nor missing.

It’s hard to return to the everyday mind of needing and wanting, feeling like something is missing. I wish the zone could be a  permanent state but the harder I try to achieve it the further it moves away. Because it’s a state without striving and therefor not achievable.

During the tedious hours of editing, Ruby Wax has been keeping me in hilarious, witty, intelligent, mischievous company. I have watched just about every prankish interview she has conducted on the net and still have not tired or been bored. She has such chutzpah, pizzaz, bravery and clownishness but ultimately delivers a penetrating gaze into contemporary culture and the narcissistic ego, her own and those of her celebrity subjects. She is always surprising.

More recently Ruby Wax has become serious, studying the brain at Oxford and exploring depression, her own and that of others. I suppose her spritely, prankish self couldn’t last forever, or it would become caricature.

So I fiddle on endlessly with Ruby keeping me hilarious, dated company from her old shows. Even if my images are about death, one needs to laugh out loud in the face of the terminal.

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Laugh out loud in the face of death

It was a dark and windy night when I heard a strong, insistent tapping against the window. Sounds like it could be the beginning of a horror movie. But where I live, its only precious beautiful creatures that disturb me and in fact they don’t disturb me at all, even the biggest hairiest spiders and the most venomous snakes. Creature nature is not cruel or vindictive, just self protective.

I went to investigate the window tapping and found an enormous furry pink orange bodied moth desperately wanting to enter into the light of the kitchen but the clear glass was the invisible obstacle. It was hitting the window with such force and its attempts were increasing and becoming more and more frantic, it even became a bit frightening, I had to remind myself I was looking out from the safe inside. When the moth remained still for a brief moment, I could see that its wings were completely ravaged, they were hanging off in tatters. It was like someone had taken a knife to a kite and gashed it up into uneven strips. The kite would be able to fly for a bit but the crash was inevitable. This moth was hitting the window with such vehement, violent life force, death could only be hovering nearby.

I considered for a moment opening the window and letting the battered moth in. But then i remembered from past experience that one has a kamikaze missile the size and force of a small bird inside one’s house. It is unsettling, and disturbing. I turned off the kitchen light to give the moth some rest in preparation for its journey into the spirit world. I made a mental note though, to go and find the moth in the daytime, I doubted it would stray far from the window, the night was too icy and windy.

The following day I remembered to search for the moth and found it clinging to the wall beneath the window, with its shredded wings. What a body it had, furry pinkish orange with dark yellow feelers. It had big black purple balls of eyes, that seemed to unflinchingly look into me ogling its form and wishing for it imminent demise.

A small perfectionist part of me was disappointed that such a fine specimen had ruined its own exquisite wings (the confusion of artificial light being the other culprit) . The bigger, deeper part of me knew the moth was perfect. The ravages of time and life having torn its wings ragged. A potent, if mournful symbol.

I forgot about the moth and it didn’t flap at the window again. The following day on my way to my vegetable garden, I saw the moth on its back on the grass. I picked it up hoping that the panther cat wasn’t responsible for this death, in particular because he damages the form in the process. The moth appeared perfectly intact. It was such a gift. Usually i only find the moths after a few days and by then dust, hairs and spiderwebs are stuck to their bodies and feelers like velcro and they can only be removed virtually in photoshop.

I immediately set about organising the moth into a pose in order to create a good photograph. I arrange the legs, the feelers, the wings by pinning them in position on cardboard. I never pierce the form with the pins, as one can see the holes in the close up photography. I managed to get the moths legs closer to its chest and get the feelers to lie flat. One of its lower legs had already gone into rigor mortis and was almost impossible to change its angle. Moths are also very hard to work with because the more you touch them the more they loose their beautiful metallic, glowing dust on their wings and the hairs of their body.

I was about to put the pinned down moth in the fridge, when i accidentally brushed the extremity of its abdomen with a pin and its abdomen moved. It had two flap like appendages at the bottom of its body and these two flaps opened when touched and then slowly relaxed back together again when left alone. A creeping sense of horror overcame me. Had i pinned down an alive moth? I touched other parts of the moth, the legs, the feelers, the wings, it didn’t stir. But every time i touched the lower abdomen, it creepily responded.

I put the moth in the fridge, hoping that the cold would bring about its final passing. I have heard dying from cold makes one pass peacefully by falling asleep and never waking up again.

It became my daily routine to see if the moth abdomen had stopped moving when i touched it. Each day it contracted to the touch, without any other part of the moth having moved. It was pinned down but in a way that it could have moved a leg a wing a feeler if it wanted to.

Finally after five days, i touched the moth abdomen and it felt hard and crunchy to the pin touch and there was no movement.

What an extended death, perhaps made all the more torturous by me. I tried to google about how long it takes for a moth to die. Why would its abdomen continue to move like that? I thought perhaps it might have been female and that the abdomen would move to expel eggs even after body death. But no such eggs emerged. This remains a mystery to me. One of the many mysteries I encounter on a daily basis in my interaction with insects animals and plants.

The moth holds deep symbolic significance for me personally. It feels like a mythological representation of the soul for the insistent way it persists on going to the light, even if self destructs and immolates on the flame or heat of the light. Is not release from the body a prerequisite for completely merging with the light? And what a bodily life a moth has, born as a juicy terrestrial worm only to dissolve itself into a magnificent winged creature of the air.

Here I have been playing with different compositions.

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Wholeness & Brokenness

Wholeness and brokenness seems to be a theme running through this latest batch of work. I have only  seen it now, yet it also seems to obvious and also such a vast nebulous topic that one could almost say any image is about wholeness and brokenness. In general our lives speak to this immense topic.

Listening to Marie von Franz on dream interpretation, she says that at the core of Jung’s psychological approach is individuation, finding out what our uniqueness is about and giving it expression. Everything in the universe is individuated, no two trees are alike, no two leaves are alike, no two stones are alike, no two bees are alike. Discovering our uniqueness involves a dialogue with the soul which goes beyond the rational. Dreams are messages from the soul, the deeper part of ourselves. At this deeper level there is uniqueness yet also wholeness and connectedness (the collective unconscious).

I have to admit, my creativity is spiritual. There I have said the unmentionable, the very thing one should not talk about in the art world – spirituality. It’s as if spirituality becomes trite in the art world. I do agree that there can be an aspect of trite spiritual art, that is all about rainbows, haloes and dragons. I would say that kind of work is more craft than art.

This is my second attempt at being an artist. My first attempt at being an artist involved attending art school at a university after leaving high school. I graduated with a fine art degree and an advanced diploma in art which took five years of study and practice. Afterwards, I went travelling, landed up and Berlin not long after the wall came down and that became the place where I pulled my formal art education apart. It took the same amount of time dismantling as i had spent studying, five years. After those five years, I no longer wanted to be an artist.

I re-incarnated myself as a self taught documentary filmmaker. I was so happy to answer “filmmaker”, when people asked me what do you do? I could see the awe in their eyes. People would reveal to me that being a filmmaker was always something they had secretly wanted to do. We all love movies and going to the cinema and sometimes fantasise about the movies we would make if we could. Previously when I answered “artist” to the “what do you do?” question, I heard the sigh and pity in peoples’ voices.  The legend of the poor, starving, mad artist is ubiquitous.

Now I am back in the art game. And what a game it is. I thought I knew some of the rules after I left art school, but at that time I didn’t know what I wanted to express. My life experience was rather minimal and middle class protected. Re-entering the art world has not been easy, just to understate the difficulties. Fresh out of art school, the doors of the art world seem to gape open to a privileged, young graduate of a prestigious school. Re-entering, the doors appeared firmly shut. After a 20 year break, you are forgotten. Now you no longer have the right credentials, no recent exhibition history, no accolades to recommend or judge you by. The harder you try knocking on the locked doors, the more you are seen as unworthy of any attention. This is the  strange, defeating, circular logic of the art world I have encountered.

The interesting part of returning to personal art, is that I am realising how much of a documentarist I actually am in my creativity. Each night I document some creature, plant, fruit, vegetable, stone, egg, anything I have come across or been given that is of interest to me. The process of photographing is a deeply meditative for me. At night I enter into a parallel world, where the realities of the day are forgotten, and the expanse of deep, nocturnal blackness opens up. I enter into stillness and time becomes elastic. An hour can seem like a night, five hours like a few minutes. I don’t even realise I am in the void. There is no subject, there is no object, there is no form, there is no not form. Just the click of the camera aperture on long shutter brings me back.

I have vast archives of photographs, just my insect images number over 6 000. I can only do around 30 photographs on a good night. So that amounts to 200 nights of photographing insects alone. I have over 7 000 images of flowers and plants and so it goes on…

Presently I am in the stage of collaging together the individual images from my  documentary archives. This becomes a really creative process for me. This is the time when I wonder and ponder and question myself. What are you doing? What are you trying to express? Photographing is a intensely creative act for me because of the chance provoking method I use to light up my subjects. But there is a certainty in that there is an actual subject/object in front of me. Collaging enters into the abstract, the scene needs to be created and everything is open to change.

Back to the theme of wholeness and brokenness. I am finding the visual language to express the mystical experiences in my life. You know you have had a true mystical experience when you are no longer afraid of death. You intimately know in your bones that death is but a transition. Having experienced the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greek times, it was said that one too lost the fear of death. But you were put to death if you revealed the mysteries, a strange self defeating deterrent…

Words are not my friends yet. I feel pinned down by them, like an insect in an entomologist’s collection. Images are open ended, they have multiple, layered meanings. Words can play multiple tunes but only in a wordsmith’s workshop. I am persisting with this blog because I am determined to be on a more friendly basis with words. I feel my soul is calling for me to use this medium and that I should make myself a little more comfortable and adept in this linguistic medium. So do forgive me dear guinea pig reader. The good part is that everyone is blogging and revealing all sorts of things about themselves and their lives, so I don’t feel so all alone.

And this is what emerged today with the theme of wholeness and brokenness…

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Wholeness & Brokenness

Chinnamasta

Aisha Salem such a profound woman. I listened to her talk again on Buddha at the Gas Pump with Rick Archer last night and I managed to reach a new level of understanding of what she is pointing to. She can sound like a madwoman if one has not attempted to reach the depths of exploration of where she goes. Last night she made so much sense to me.

Prior to god is the void

the void is beyond  self realisation

passing into the darkness

meeting with nothing

the revelation of the primordial

silence…

doesn’t leave an experiencer

nothing not nothingness

disappearing beyond existence

letting go beyond existence and life will (hopefully) reappear again

The void is the blackness between the cells – the black light in the body

 

“Burn god in the backyard”, she rallied

She is so radical – I love the depths to which she uncompromisingly goes and then reports back from these almost unknowable, unfathomable places in her direct way.

She only deals with students who are 100 percent committed to allowing her to annihilate them.

Not sure if i am ready

I still cling onto the creative process – it holds so much depth and fascination for me – it might be a slower path than radical head cutting by Aisha – but its the path for me and right now I feel at the peak of my creative powers, its just all pouring out and everything I have ever wanted to express is flowing out freely and easily, can’t stop now…

My realisation last night was that if I totally surrender – there is no need for accidents. Accidents are a way for totality to burst in through conscious control. Take away the conscious control and “accidents” happen all the time in a continuous flow. Creativity then becomes effortless as there is nothing to hold onto, only a letting go…

Aisha, bless her profound soul, talked about Chinnamasta – a Hindu goddess very few people know about. She is my favourite. Chinnamasta goes beyond Kali. Kali cuts other people’s heads off (the head symbolising ego) but Chinnamasta cuts off her own head.

Here is my version of Chinnamasta from a series I created called DarkLight.

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Chinnamasta