JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA —
This is Part Three of a five-part series on
visual artists in South Africa
Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5
Insects embossed in paper, thousands of feathered fishing flies in ceiling-high columns, the skeleton of a horse suspended to suggest a prehistoric or alien creature, rhino bones in the shape of a snake eating its own tail.… To view Bronwyn Lace’s work is to become part of a magical world where art and physics merge and structure and form decompose to offer wondrous insights into life and death, order and chaos.
Her visions often take her, and those who witness her unique art, on extraordinary journeys…as when she visited a veterinary institute to view horse skeletons.
As the Johannesburg-based artist was doing this, she began to imagine creating an installation from a complete horse skeleton. So she asked an official if she could buy one.
“I really didn’t think it was possible but to my surprise she said, ‘Yes you can.’ And so I did and I brought it home and I started to work with it. I put the bones in the bath because some of the connecting rib bones needed a bit more cleaning,” Lace explained.
She took the skeleton to the basement of the inner city building she lives in. A large window allows people to see into the space, which is parallel to a street sidewalk. Children, on their way home from the numerous schools in the area, became her “test audience.”
“Kids were walking home and I had this skeleton on the floor and I was starting to rearrange it…. It was just so wonderful because these kids would knock on the window and they’d look at me all curiously and want to come in. And I’d let them in, or they’d shout at me from the door, and I got questions like: ‘Ma’am, when did you kill the dragon? How did you find that dinosaur; did you dig him up?’”
Lace “fed off” the children’s energy and wild imaginings.
“Their ability to see the wonder in everything nourished me. Not one of those kids ever came to the conclusion that this was the skeleton of an animal that we’re all very familiar with,” she said. “Because of those kids I realized that by reconfiguring the horse skeleton I could elicit this kind of imagination in people who viewed my work.”
She suspended her rearranged horse bones in the atrium of a Johannesburg gallery.
“It took on this [form of] either a flying or swimming creature; it was imagined to be many things by many people. And that’s what I wanted; I wanted to stir people’s imaginations to re-puzzle a horse skeleton,” Lace explained.
She hung the horse bones using the material she favors most to realize her artistic fantasies – monofilament fishing line, which she started using as a student.
“I began to recognize the more I worked with it that it was really my pencil, or my paintbrush,” said Lace. “It was a medium that held light and if you lit in particular ways and with different colored light, it had many different qualities. It would take on its environment. That was something I found very poetic….”
She said she enjoys fishing line for its “strong, structural, architectural feel” when it’s fixed, but she added, “You just need to nip it and it falls into a chaos that is almost impossible to untangle and again there’s a very nice metaphor in that….”
For Lace, fishing line is a simultaneous symbol of two key themes in her work: order and chaos. To illustrate this she referred to a piece she built last year, called God’s finger
“It was a large column of fishing line that moved from the top of the gallery wall space to the floor and suspended within it were thousands of shards of broken colored glass from a rose window.”
Rose windows are large and circular and found in churches around the world, often consisting of multicolored glass pieces.
“The reason I called it God’s finger
was because that is a term the Renaissance painters used to describe that moment when you’re in a kind of open landscape and sun moves through a dense cloud and sends a kind of rare and deliberate beam to the ground,” said Lace.
Like Renaissance painters, the artist wanted to “capture luminescence” in her work. “In God’s finger
I wanted to replicate that religious, mythological moment when people see light as a metaphor and symbol for God,” she stated.
After the installation’s run at the gallery was over, Lace created the “collapsed version” of it by cutting the filaments.
She explained, “That’s kind of now an inversion and a kind of vortex of chaotic, spinning [fishing] line and broken glass. Rather than moving in a structural, straight way, it’s collapsing in on itself. It’s that relationship between chaos and order and the way the two feed one another and move in a cyclical pattern.”
Lace sometimes builds her work before a live audience. She said the physical challenges of creating art with fishing line “feed” her work.
“When I create an installation it’s actually hard physical labor. I’m normally moving up and down a six-meter [high] scaffolding and in order to create a column I’m having to do that over a thousand times.”
She said using her muscles to repeatedly scale scaffolding, and then to thread thin line through minute holes in diverse materials, such as glass and bone, and to tie it in position for days on end, “causes a physical and a mental repetition” that she finds meditative.
“When I create the installation physically, I feel transported into another realm – a very quiet realm. My head enters an empty, white space. I go into a trancelike state. I often find that after a day of working I struggle to remember the details of the day,” she said.
Lace often injures herself. “I’ve fallen off scaffolding and [almost] broken my wrist. Once working with thousands of fishing flies – not once, many times – I managed to get a hook through my finger.”
‘Murder’ of Fibonacci
Lace also sometimes “collapses” her work in front of her audiences. She said they often “direct” her art. As an example of this she told VOA about a complex grid structure she built in a basement in central Johannesburg.
“The grid was constructed above the audience members’ heads. On top of the grid I both suspended and balanced a large fishbowl [using fishing line]. And in the bowl was a little goldfish and he swam around.” Lace continued, “The grid also shifted in height, so people of different heights had different experiences. So tall people had to be aware of where they were walking. Then also the angle that the light hit the line and entered your eyes was different, so based on the physicality of each person’s body, the audience members’ experience of the work was unique.”
That was the intention of the installation. But Lace said she never anticipated the ways in which people would respond to the fish, which she’d named Fibonacci, after Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, whom historians consider to be the most talented western mathematician of the Middle Ages.
“The fish, for me, was a lovely little symbol of the perfect mathematics in organic life, or the irrational mathematics – the never repeated kind of mathematics that is found in organic structure,” she explained.
But people who viewed the work didn’t seem to see any symbolism in it; all they were concerned about was the fish’s wellbeing, said Lace.
“They started hitting me with a barrage of questions about the fish like, ‘Isn’t he lonely? Isn’t he cold? Do you take him home at night?’ Then I’d say, ‘No, he stays in the installation’ and they’d say, ‘Is that okay?’ I thought this is so interesting – you put a small goldfish in the middle of an art installation and there’s an enormous outpouring of empathy [for it] – and then everybody goes out and has sushi.”
She said this experience has been a “great catalyst” for her ongoing work with various forms of life – and death.
“It was after that that I did an hour-long performance where I ‘murdered’ Fibonacci. I got a lot of flak for it,” she said.
Lace, blindfolded, moved through her installation for exactly an hour.
“At certain points I pulled the line down and severed it with my teeth, compromising Fibonacci’s position. Eventually the bowl fell and smashed on the ground.”
A large audience watched as this happened, without intervening.
“Somebody could have held the bowl; somebody could have stopped me. Nobody did – until the fish was flapping on the floor. And then somebody dove forward and put the fish in their wine glass and ran and put water in the glass and desperately tried to save him,” said Lace.
The artist said she’s “obsessed” with using natural materials that are sometimes bizarre.
“Every time I come across a dead insect, be they floating in a pool, in a light shade or whatever, just on the road or on the ground, I collect it…and I archive it,” she said. “I store it according to its species. I often record its injury and where and what it died from. I have many, many deaths by drowning, in swimming pools.…”
Using a powerful press that she says could easily crush a human, Lace then embosses the bodies of the insects into rich cotton paper.
“The form and the architecture of that insect remains in that paper. It’s kind of my way of creating small monuments to the forgotten and to those forms of life around us that we very easily throw away and that we want to throw away, that we get rid of,” she said.
Lace often creates art from dead objects, or with materials that can easily be associated with death – dead insects, skeletons, fishing line, flies that are used to lure fish onto hooks. In so doing, in terms of creating artwork, she returns a kind of life back to dead things.
“I work with dead things because they interest me as objects and symbols of the ways in which we think about death and life. My work is about life and death,” she emphasized.
Surrounded by death
Much of Lace’s work revolves around peoples’ inability to accept death.
“It’s the absolutely most normal part of life and yet we are unable to acknowledge and accept it and we won’t talk about it…. And we won’t let certain ideas go, even though their time has come to an end, and we won’t let a lot of structures and ways of thinking go because we feel like we’re losing control. So we won’t let things die….”
Her attraction to the theme of death, and willingness to use dead objects in her art, isn’t surprising when one considers that she grew up surrounded by death.
“I’m the daughter of a hospice nurse. So I’ve spent my entire life listening to my mom speak about death and the last moments of death and normalizing death,” said Lace. “She has helped patients and their families to accept that this is the end. When somebody is terminally ill, much of the Western world and the medical profession will deny it until the very end. That’s a very painful path to go down.”
She described death as a natural path, saying, “I’ve witnessed many people in the process of dying, because of my mom and because of various family members and friends dying. And the more I experience death, the more I realize: It’s actually an incredibly beautiful journey that could be equated with the birthing process. I think it’s a path, I think it’s a canal, I think it’s something we move through. It’s not the end.…”
The concept of beauty – whether in life or death, order or chaos – is also extremely attractive to Lace the artist.
“I think that something happens when you are confronted with the extremely beautiful. A space in your mind opens up to other possibilities,” she said.
She explained, “I think that great architecture, be it religious aesthetics in cathedrals or beautiful sports stadiums, has an effect that is probably more physiological than cultural. The same thing might happen to us when we see a spectacular cloud formation or sunset. I’m interested in recreating those kinds of possibilities for people who see my art.”
Critics and viewers of Lace’s work often describe it using words such as “magical” and “beautiful,” which pleases Lace.
“I’m pleased because I think that beauty is a tool. It’s a tool that nature uses; it’s a tool that artists have used; that architects and religions and even that science uses, to open the doors to more information and knowledge. And I find it interesting that the more you know about something, the more beautiful it becomes.”
Lace used the example of a rainbow to explain herself.
“Most people appreciate a rainbow. But when you begin to understand the physics behind a rainbow, and you understand that you’re seeing it because of your relation to the sun, and you understand that it’s happening because light is reflecting off millions of perfectly formed raindrops, the beauty and magic of a rainbow is magnified.”
Lace described the “tools of wonder, beauty and magic” that she uses in her art as first steps to open people’s minds to what she considers to be the “next steps: Information, thinking, learning, knowledge and meaning – and the ability to critique what we think we know. That’s the kind of world that I enjoy diving into and I hope my work is a conduit for that.”
She calls her work “strange” and “weird.” And therein, in its defiant difference, and proud indifference to convention, is its magical beauty.