LIGHT PAINTING: Kali van der Merwe's eternal return to before birth.

BEYOND BEYOND, INFINITE AND INFINITESIMAL. An exhibition of photographs by Kali van der Merwe curated by Jackie Ruth Murray. Sponsored by Art lab at The Cameraland gallery until November 7. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews.

THERE is a bronze age pre-Columbian tribe, unconquered by the Spanish conquistadors, who live high up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta called the Kogis. Their shamans are known as the Kogi Mamas or enlightened ones. They consider themselves guardians of life on earth.

The shamans are trained from a tender age for up to 18 years in total darkness. This may be considered child abuse in western terms, but judging from the lucidity of the shamans portrayed in Aluna, Alan Ereira’s sequel film From the Heart of the World, there is no ill effect. Whereas Ereira believes “we need to criminalise ecocide and make it illegal to kill an ecosystem.”

In the film Aluna one of the Kogi shamans explained how when he first emerged into the daylight everything was white and how his shamanic training allowed him to “see” beyond the usual human range. The Kogis believe that in the beginning was blackness and that the world was created from the thoughts of Aluna, the mother or cosmic consciousness.

There are a number of parallels with Van der Merwe’s approach in her exhibition and the Kogis. Firstly, both are greatly concerned with the decimation of the natural world and its impact on our very survival. Whereas the Kogis have issued “younger brother”, that is us, a warning. For Kali “my work always comes from within a deep inner place in myself somewhere beyond the rational”. And although she doesn’t have an agenda she is “trying to get people to connect to nature so they connect on a heart level and a feeling level with my images. She wants viewers to “see that this is something amazing, that it should respected and that we should coexist with it”.

The exhibition opened with a “couch”, rather than a panel discussion involving academics and players from the art and scientific worlds.

There were some mutterings from scientists in the audience as to the debatable idea that plants can be seen as sentient beings given their primitive nervous systems, and from others as to whether we should be worried about the demise of the planet for everything ultimately dies, and the appreciative ooh’s and ah’s at a photograph of the almost extinct Marsh Rose that grows high up in the Kogelberg mountains featured in Kali’s work.

Her large format photographs may be are digital but we are reminded of the almost shamanic process that analogue photographic prints pass through to come into being and their parallel with creation myths. How in colour analogue photography a sheet of photographic paper interacts with chemicals which appear to magically push out the underlying or hidden forms in a sealed dark room.

Like the Kogi shamans who prefer the night, van der Merwe works in the darkness. For Kali “there is something special that happens” at night time when “others consciousness’s have gone to sleep” and she “feels like lone consciousness out there in the universe”.

Kali uses, a technique called light painting or drawing which incorporates long exposures and a moving, hand-held light source –in Kali’s case, a small beam torch in the dark. Through this technique her world of insects and flora drawn from the Overberg region are revealed in infinite detail associated with high definition and normally unavailable to the naked eye. This is due to the technique utilising many light sources. A legless insect, zooms like a demented air born samurai across the tendrils of smoke (like that of a smudging ceremony) from a burning Protea, a mantis stands in fighter pose atop a fynbos plant against a plush universe taken by the Hubble telescope.

The photographs have an overall sensual painterliness; golden toned insects rest on bright hot tipped flowers on the studded plushy, velvety backgrounds of cloudy skies and deep space. Scale is messed with, micro becomes macro, monster plants float in the universe, hot red flora mouths open up through what appear as rents in space like Boschian rosette nebula. Even in the rigor mortis of death and missing the odd feeler or legs the creatures appear animated.

The pairing of creature and plant is not a scientific one. For as Kali explains, “I work in an intuitive language” and by “fictionalising the truth” she is searching for a deeper truth than the apparent. These images provide a strong counterpoint to the Victorian like display of bell jars containing the faded remains of creatures and desiccated flora; a twisty pile of sloughed snake skins, a miniature tortoise shell next to a rodents jaw, a suspended mantis hovering over debris.

It took her five years to fully engage with her subject matter in the Overberg after moving from the city where she was used to the glib scanning that constitutes urban looking. In the first year Kali deliberately didn’t look up their scientific names of the flora and fauna. Instead she referred to them in description terms – “that beautiful pinky one, that spotted one or that fat green one”, believing that their names would get in the way of getting to their essential essence.

“When I actually see the creatures I don’t necessarily see all the detail”. It was only after she had finished photographing and was looking at the camera screen that she saw every little recorded hair. When Kali first photographed a bee she was shocked to see it looking back at her through the camera screen.

Like the Kogis who have never killed another human, Kali waits for the creatures to come to her via their deaths. “I rely on them to come to me”. A bat killed by a resident Burmese cat, a sunbird that broke its neck flying into a glass pane, or a rare silver spotted bladder grasshopper, which died a natural death. She also allows the flowers to decay a bit so what appears to be an unfurling bloom is actually a flower its demise. Although the images are not in any way macabre they all talk about death and in keeping with her adoptive name of the creator and destroyer Kali is fascinated by death. She feels that we generalise death. On a personal level, now in her 50’s she feels that she is facing her own mortality. In the drying flowers photographed she sees the death process in herself.

Contrary to the ironic, satirical and tongue in cheek current art trend Kali believes that people long for something deeper and heartfelt. She points out that ironically the most radical a thing you can do in contemporary art is to be sincere.

There is a conundrum at play here. While the intention of their creator is sovereign, how can viewers return to nature as seen through the limited human eye after we have experienced these heightened visual images?

Our interaction with the natural world can never top it. One of the problems with technology is it’s so easy to fall in love with an approximation of the real thing. In her book on photography Susan Sontag warned that photographic images are not so much statements about the world, but miniature realities. So much so that for the contemporary human, an actual experience may be far less appealing or enjoyable. Instead revisiting the event via the recorded image becomes preferable.

There is the desire to possess the moment which is achieved through the nature of the photographs fixedness, rather than accepting its fleetingness. Perhaps these photographs should carry a warning?

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