The Disembodied Traveller

“In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us – not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.”

– John Irving, “Until I Find You”


IMG_7120
Hannah and Eden on top of the cleft rock at Cleveland dam.

I have an A’ Level student who has been considering places to mount an installation, and the cleft rock at Cleveland Dam came to mind. It has been as excellent opportunity to revisit the spot, which I did with my family, and inspired a series of small explorations to the haunts of my childhood. Three years ago, I was invited by the inaugural Toastmasters’ club of the Academy to make a speech. Given my recent preoccupation with the South-Eastern side of this city, I have decided to re-hash that speech, and present it here. I hope that the speaker’s voice is not too irritating to the reader:

The Dam at Makuvisi Woodlands last Sunday
The Dam at Makuvisi Woodlands last Sunday
Rufy in the
Rufy in the “Dam” Makuvisi river…
The Flying Boat, Balancing Rocks, Epworth.
The Flying Boat, Balancing Rocks, Epworth.
Hannah and Eden in the cleft rock, Cleveland Dam
Hannah and Eden in the cleft rock, Cleveland Dam
Balancing Rocks, Epworth
Balancing Rocks, Epworth

The ‘place’ of my early existence was the Southern suburbs of Harare. Within this domain was, amongst other features, the Makuvisi river, which I have dammed in numerous places, the Balancing Rocks, Cleveland Dam and quarry and mountainous lime dumps brilliant white, with turquoise lakes on top. The Northern end of the runway and the five levels of the Parkades, were nightly haunts and became for me the most romantic spots in the city. Every square meter was cycled and explored. Owned. As I look back, there is one significant aspect that I remember about my inhabitance of this domain:

Wherever I went, whatever I did, I took my body.

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Me climbing at the Balancing rocks about 1991 (both in in a greener state). Zoomed in, I notice the most awesome, respected Jack Robinson in striped shirt: One of very few people to mitigate the wreck of my secondary school education.
Climbing at the Balancing rocks about 1991 (both in in a greener state). Zoomed in, I notice the most awesome, respected Jack Robinson in striped shirt: One of very few people to mitigate the wreck of my secondary school education.

Today, the “place” of my inhabitance is considerably more vast. Indeed, it is the same territory as yours: the digital domain which extends literally, across the globe, and into space. Within this, we play and study, we are intimate, we shop, we explore. As we do so, our brains undergo the same chemical reactions that we experience in the physical world, and we are subject to the usual experiences of intrigue, pain, heartbreak, lust, jealousy and anger. And as we travel we abandon our physical selves this side of the digital frontier. We become disembodied.

It is a harsh, vulnerable condition to travel without one’s physical self. We are stripped of the defences we have so pain-stakingly constructed: our be-gymnasiumed bodies, the four corner shoes, dyed hair, multiple earings, “porno-shorts” and bizarre slippers, each which mark our individuality and sense of belonging within a particular group or structure. The curators of the spaces we inhabit know this. They acknowledge our predicament and offer us a solution:

The Profile.

We begin with a little badge; Status. I have “mined” various What’s App Profiles to illustrate my point: One declares that she belongs and that she “believes”; “Your need was abundantly supplied before you knew it”. Just as we do in the physical world, we proclaim our identity as defined by another: “SA” proclaims one. “JS”, says SA, and with a touchingly feminine flair, she adds a heart. On the day of his first anniversary,  “PR” was “available” – very, very bad, whilst his celebrant counterpart offered the disturbing winking tongue-pulling emoji. Altogether, a most disconcerting arrangement.

We proclaim our sporting knowledge; “definitely the best keeper in the country”, says one, and stroke our egos; “Keep up, or cheer me on” announces another. Through public, visible marks, we flesh out our disembodied selves, reassuring those we encounter that we have a life: It is bigger than you see here, it has more depth. “Getting rid of memories is easy”, claims one, unconvincingly; “how do I make you fight?” writes another. Each statement is a breath, a pulse, evidence of our existence.

With status as well developed as possible, we manicure our avatars, our imagery and visual attributes: fat rolls hidden, best smiles and correct lighting. Everything constructed to best represent our self-conception, and thus embodied, we are more adequately armed to occupy these vast territories. The braver ones expose themselves, they write and blog. Some inhabit depraved spaces – but they do so under false identities, masked, like thieves. Others hack, troll and spam – the vandals of the domain.

For most, the reality is that there is little of significance that can be said to many friends, and little of value that we are willing to divulge to largely undefined and unknown audiences. Illusions are created, happy photos, great lives, good times. We engage in the curious modern phenomenon of posting the most inane, inconsequential trivia. We erect billboards for our identities, marking our success with “likes”, carefully garnered through dead-end posts such as: “Like, if you wish cancer didn’t exist”. We make desperate pleas for popularity, adding tags such as “I follow back” (The “I’ll be your friend if you’ll be mine” of social media). It matters little what is said, so long as we are noticed – It is the most fundamental of human concerns. As the philosopher George Berkley observed: “To be, is to be perceived”.

My own Facebook page prompts me daily to “complete” my profile, as though I can be neatly packaged. Nice. It wants me to state where I went to school, a miserable wreckage that I would rather conceal. They want me to state where I work, but I do not define myself by the institution that pays my salary, rather by the human interaction I engage in whilst I am there. But that is not an available option. Daily, they prompt me: “The most popular posts are short, friendly and conversational. Write a post.”

Piss Off.

The quantity of information, the nuances and complexities of my identity does not easily fit this curator’s options. The fleshing out of my new body is a picture of what does not hurt, what is not admitted, the mistakes I have not made. If to “be human is to err” then this identity is arguably everything humanity is not. And I have already spent an extraordinary amount of time constructing it. How complex. How frustrating. How frightening. This is not the simple fathomable arena of my youth.

The Northern end of the runway is marked by a row of red lights. About one hundred meters past these is an impenetrable, heavily monitored fence. There is a road which leads to the Airforce Base to the East, and on its left is another large fenced area, perhaps of about 25 square kilometers. Within this is a large signal beacon about three meters tall, which indicates the line and direction of the runway. For what it’s worth, the beacon is accessible from the Old Twentydales Rd. It provides a spectacular view of the low flying aircraft as they land and ascend.

If you go, take your body, you will feel the downdraft as they pass.

The beacon and the row of lights, taken at lunch today.
The beacon and the row of lights, taken at lunch today.

OBSERVATIONS

i. The internet cable network that runs under the sea is 885,000km long. It is long enough to circle the globe 22 times. This link includes an animation which demonstrates this quite extraordinary thing: http://www.iflscience.com/technology/there-enough-internet-cable-under-sea-circle-earth-22-times

ii. A quick internet search of Cleveland dam reflected my own view; an interesting spot, pleasant walks and fun for children. But spoilt by an excess (even relative to our somewhat questionable standards) of litter. It appeared to be an afternoon drinking spot. Nehanda Radio (http://nehandaradio.com/2013/01/28/cleveland-dam-turned-into-sodom-and-gomorrah/) paints a slightly darker picture, likening it to Sodom and Gomorrah – one would neither enjoy the company of the nightly “bouncing” cars (with tinted windows…), nor the guns allegedly pointed at the guards. Notwithstanding the fact that, according to one featured individual, if you have paid your entry fee, “[y]ou cannot be denied quality time with your wife even in the kitchen, dining room or even car.”

Greg Shaw 3 October 2015

Razor wire, a gash and some burnt wood (Part 1)

“My songs have nothing to do with war. They are all about the sad insecurities of a balding rock star”

– Chris Martin (The Guardian 17 March 2003)


I picked a piece off of a painting and painted the hole red. It looked like a small wound in flesh. The surface had been afflicted. It was a small wound, it could be construed to have been caused by a sharp stick. There were also scratches, quite deep I suppose. There was a slight translucency in the layers of oil, which spoke to me of a sort of bruising. Once, when I was using my sisters stilts, I slipped. There was a rusty screw sticking out of the handle, and it stuck me hard in the shin. It made a hole right into the bone, quite deep. I never talked about it because of the fear of going to hospital.

Minimal damage.

Contained.

My painting spoke nothing of the carnage that was created and endured at that time. Perhaps that was not the objective. Perhaps that was simply too big to consider. But as a hole in a dam, a picked scab, the injury beneath a toyed with, nuisance piece of loose skin grew and grew: Visually, physically, contextually. I engaged with that initial hole, that small puncture wound. It was the beginning of an obsession with surface and texture, with representation and literalism that would endure till the present.

This is Part 1 of a post about that preoccupation. I write it as my work “Elegy” hangs on the Art/Artefact II exhibition at Gallery Delta, a work a long way from the painting described above. I don’t think I can really speak about it without writing of one element of it’s history, which is what I shall endeavour to do here. I will post the second part next week. (The painting with the hole (Scratching the Facade) formed part of the 2005 exhibition “Embers of Dreams”.

Scratching the facade, 2005. Oil on canvas. 120 x 80 cm
Scratching the facade, 2005. Oil on canvas. 120 x 80 cm
The Elusive Dream, 2005. Oil on Canvas. 120 x 164.
The Elusive Dream, 2005. Oil on Canvas. 120 x 164.

Between then and the present lie a collection of stories of corrupted foundations, damaged structures, isolation, wounds and destruction. Stories of despair, defence, of light, of patience. Of burning, embers and ash. Not ash. Ash has less value – it is a symbol of something departed – it is hard to work with, grey, lacking contrast, lacking substance. Stories that end with charcoal. Charcoal is different. It has another quality; It’s dense, black. It has substance. It possesses the power to be rekindled. Charcoal is potential.

As the wounds grew, so did the necessity to represent them. The acrylic/plaster base became insufficient for the task. Scratches and punctures were no longer the nature of the environment. In search of a sense of greater depth, I took to ripping and layering pieces of canvas, still incorporating the earlier base. There was a transformation taking place; what began as a representation of a wound, gave way to an actual rip and tear. The surfaces which had until now seemed to form a bridge between the abstract and the figurative became literal embodiments of the ideas about which I was thinking. I didn’t ever name the parts, though the surfaces seemed to reflect different aspects. In one a type of skin, in another, panels or rusted metal, in a third burnt panels, broken, insufficient to cover or piece together the carnage. I worked on numerous pieces at a time, as over the layers of canvas, were numerous layers of oils – glaze upon glaze. I think that they had a richness and depth, from memory they were strong, resonant images. Amidst them were moments of light, of dreaming an hope.

The works below are of that era. They were part of the 2007 solo exhibition “The Valley of the Shadow”.

Wound, 2007. Oil on Canvas, 120 x 90 cm.
Wound, 2007. Oil on Canvas, 120 x 90 cm.
Staunching the Wound II, 2007. Oil on Canvas, 40 x 48cm
Staunching the Wound II, 2007. Oil on Canvas, 40 x 48cm

The culmination of these ripped and layered works ended with: “Enough Said”. What a load of crap. An total misnomer. As if there could have ever been enough said.

List of paintings that I can think of that (when standing alone) are truly able to describe horrific moments:

1. Guernica.

Not that I would rename it, it was a good title. I think for me it was enough said. It marked the end of a two and a half year obsession with those stories, and those processes. It was painted for the 2008 HIFA exhibition, “determine: Nation”, at the National Gallery. At almost two metres in height, it was somewhat overbearing, the colours were strong, the composition had some tension. It remains for me a really significant painting, one I am proud of.

Enough Said, 2007. Oil on Canvas. 140 x 180 cm
Enough Said, 2007. Oil on Canvas. 140 x 180 cm

OBSERVATIONS

  1. The product DM6, was an acrylic base which dried into a transparent flexible and extremely tough surface. It had the added property of being extremely sticky. It was developed by Peter Eyllis of Pigmento, as far as I understand, with a certain amount of artistic input from his sister-in-law, the renowned artist Helen Lieros. It is a product no longer readily available.
  2. I now use the PVA “book-binding” glue from A.T. Carter. It is as good a water-based glue as any I have used in my career.
  3. Operation Murambatsvina/Drive Out Filth, also known as Operation Restore Order, was a wide-spread government clear-up (decimation) of informal settlements across the country in July 2005. According to Wikipedia, the United Nations estimated at least 700 000 people were directly affected, and over 2m indirectly affected through the campaign.

Studio One

Still from
Still from “Contamination”, Isobel Fox

We are entering the really frantic period (more frantic that usual) of our academic year. The coursework deadlines are looming for the IGCSE students, and the Upper VI. Despite the high pressure, it is also one of the very exciting periods, as the student work peaks and the Final Outcomes are turned in. I spent last Saturday morning with some of the Form Fours. Isobel Fox presented her installation, a work entitled “Contamination”. It is a complex and intriguing work that will hopefully be included in the Hellenic exhibition next term. I have included a link to a tiny detail here: https://vimeo.com/139447880

Greg Shaw, 21 August 2015.