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