Berni Searle

26 May - 23 July 2011

Michael Stevenson is pleased to present an exhibition of new and recent work by Berni Searle.

Seen in South Africa for the first time, Interlaced is a major three-screen video installation commissioned for Searle's solo exhibition opening in Bruges, Belgium, in April and touring to the Netherlands and France. The piece presents a site-specific engagement with Bruges, one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and an important international trading city since the 13th century. Of particular interest to Searle were the effects of contact and exchange, location and dislocation, that these encounters may have given rise to.

The video is filmed in the elaborate Gothic Chamber of Bruges' town hall, site of municipal law and grand ceremony, as well as the stark Biekorf theatre. With hands painted in gold leaf, Searle performs within these alternately loaded and neutral spaces, first covered in a lustrous gold cloak, then veiled with black lace. The Gothic Chamber was refurbished under King Leopold II, responsible for the plunder of the Congo for his own enrichment, and Searle's gilded hands are an ominous reminder of the atrocities committed against the Congolese, which included the severing of hands and feet. As Julie McGee observes in her catalogue essay:

Searle alternately becomes and then transgresses personifications of the Virgin Mary, a Bruggeling (citizen of Bruges), a veiled Muslim woman, a mystic. Searle interrupts the ceremonial performance of the Gothic Chamber with her own rites, and a space of orchestrated histories and municipal governance becomes witness to Searle's civic protest.

Working with musician Neo Muyanga, Searle arranged to have a score played on the carillon - an instrument associated with church music - in the Belfry, a symbol of civic pride which towers over Bruges. Based on the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan, and 'called out' from the Belfry, Muyanga's arrangement, which uses the modal key of F Lydian, inserted a discordant note in the traditionally Catholic city, with its soulful, if not mournful tempo and compellingly peculiar tonality.

In conjunction with this score, Searle's performance with black lace against her skin recalls ceremonial body ornament and tattoos, and the movement of the lace across her body is mesmerising. The ritual casts a visual spell which ultimately transcends the specificity of its context to offer a moving meditation on belief and power systems, on the relationship between individuals and communities, and a contemplation of beauty, loss and transcendence.

Also on exhibition will be Searle's Black smoke rising trilogy (2009-10), comprising Lull, Gateway and Moonlight, shown consecutively as single-screen projections. This is the first time the entire trilogy will be seen in Cape Town. This body of work was sparked by the rising levels of discontent among the poor in the country, which became overwhelmingly apparent in the wave of attacks against foreigners in 2008 and continue to manifest in protests by unions and mass demonstrations against poor service delivery. Fire is a recurrent image throughout the trilogy, as is - in the first and third videos - the burning tyre, a potent symbol of civil unrest since the apartheid era. More recently this image has also come to be associated with poverty and unemployment, as tyres are burnt to recover the wire inside - giving off toxic smoke with harmful effects for the environment.

In Lull, the tranquillity of a beautiful garden vista is unexpectedly disrupted by a tyre set alight. The flaming tyre swings back and forth across the landscape, which is progressively hidden from view behind billows of black smoke. The title implies a temporary abating, before the storm. The second piece, Gateway, alludes to the government's failed N2 Gateway Housing Project, which was intended to provide low-cost housing to people living in informal settlements along the highway from Cape Town to the airport, but became mired in controversy and administrative problems. A small house set ablaze gradually reveals itself to be merely a facsimile of the real thing, constructed from corrugated paper and soon reduced to ashes. In Moonlight, a view of Table Mountain forms the backdrop to a desolate scene, shot in a vacant plot in Philippi. Smoke rises from smouldering tyres while people search desultorily for remnants of wire; a burning tyre is dragged back and forth across the ground until finally the mountain appears to dissolve amidst inky black smoke. A faltering rendition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata provides the disjunctive soundtrack.

Finally the exhibition will feature a third work, a single-channel video to be premiered at the opening.

Searle, who lives in Cape Town, has previously held solo shows at Michael Stevenson in 2008, 2006, 2005 and 2004. Her European exhibition Interlaced opens at the Belfry and De Hallen in Bruges, Belgium (18 April - June 2011), then travels to the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem (MMKA), Arnhem, the Netherlands (9 July- 16 October 2011) and Frac Lorraine, Metz, France (21 May - 18 September 2011). Recent group exhibitions include Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2011); The Dissolve, the eighth SITE Santa Fe Biennial, New Mexico (2010); Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010); SPace: Currencies in Contemporary African Art, Museum Africa, Newton, Johannesburg (2010); and the 10th Havana Biennial (2009). Searle was selected for the annual New Photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2007.

Searle will exhibit concurrently with Ângela Ferreira and Sabelo Mlangeni.

The exhibition opens on Tuesday 26 May, from 6 to 8pm.

Searle will give a walkabout of her exhibition for the Friends of the National Gallery on Friday 27 May at 11am; cost is R20 (members and non-members).

The gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday from 10am to 1pm.