MARLENE STEYN

Artist Room

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EXHIBITION TEXT

28.08.20 – 25.09.20

Cape Town

Artist Rooms is a new feature of SMAC Gallery’s exhibition programme. Created in response to art fairs and exhibitions being postponed globally as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Artist Rooms creates a space of experimentation and easier work flow to accommodate for these restrictions.

MEANDER me and her (2020)

Marlene Steyn’s work is all about fluidity. Fluid optics. Fluid subjects. Meanings which are fluid and therefore difficult to grasp, which might explain why viewers often call her work surreal. For me, Steyn’s work is less surreal than it is perceptive to fluxes ever-present, but often unseen. It understands embodiment as intrinsically linked to other bodies: human, animal, terrestrial, mythical, and otherwise. The question this body of work — which Steyn began to create during lockdown — asks is, how do we understand embodiment in isolation?

In some hours, selves gestate. In others, they evaporate. Days bleed into one another; dreams become days’ events. Muddling dreamscape and landscape, Steyn paints memories of a world outside: rock pools, beaches, koppies. But, like in memories, like in dreams, these landscapes are somewhat formless, unidentifiable. So too are the faces that become (are becoming of) them: not so much present as they are reiterations of an inner working. MEANDER me and her speaks to this: the many wandering, unfurling, ever-becoming personalities that constitute our internal worlds.

i so lay chins, a play on isolation, shows the figure sitting with themselves (their selves), within themselves (their selves). What might have, in another context, come off as navel-gazey instead portrays a complex net of self-care to which I can relate my own solitude. I mean self-care not in its commodified sense — that is, synonymous with relaxation — but in the sense of coming to know myself (my selves) deeply as I am. bell hooks put it plainly: “When we can see ourselves as we truly are and accept ourselves, we build the necessary foundation for self-love.” This is a messy, and oftentimes painful, process. That Steyn’s figures look relaxed — dare I say, happy — speaks either to her comfortability in the unintegrated, or an innocent relationship to harder truths.

Still, the message remains. We are more than meets the eye; Steyn is a painter of more. Her challenge to us is threefold: to go deeper within, to imagine better one another’s depths, and to understand those depths as entangled.

Isolation is unattainable, even for the class who can afford to isolate. If pandemics prove anything, it is that we live in a world of orifices, far more indivisible — therefore precious, therefore vulnerable — than the world of capital may sometimes make them seem. I wonder if that is why the most common configurations in this series are mouths becoming eyes becoming mouths again: Steyn is playing on our softest spots, our openings. Bodies are contagious. Bodies contaminate. Pandemics reveal the politics behind who contaminates, who is contaminated. They reveal the many ways in which we care about one another’s survival. They also reveal the many ways in which the world is organised to guarantee survival for some by rendering other lives disposable.

In Steyn’s paintings, bodies are full of the world; the world is full of bodies. This fact can be cause for celebration as well as heartbreak. Celebratory when we acknowledge the world as a divine commons: negotiable, mutable, ours. Heartbreaking when we perpetuate colonial understandings of the world: navigable, manipulatable, owned. Which is probably why Steyn borrows the visual cues of South African landscape painters — Pierneef’s acacias, Volschenk’s sunset hues, Laubser’s rounded-off horizons — and inhabits them: Steyn rips the fantasy of the uninhabited away.

Our bodies are carriers of unnameable inhabitants. That is true on microbial, psychological, and ancestral levels. Much like the bodies of water, Steyn’s figures appear in (and of). I am thinking now of Astrida Neimanis’s hydro-logics: water’s capacity for “gestation, dissolution, communication, differentiation, archive, unknowability… hydro-logics configures us in relation to other bodies, in an aqueous politics of location that is about more than abstracted ‘fluidity.’” Or, Sophie Lewis’s amniotechnics: “the art of holding and caring even while being ripped into, at the same time as being held. It is protecting water and protecting people from water.” That is to say, if we accept, as Steyn does, the world (ourselves) as fluid, then we must also accept fluidity’s price. What overflows from us — our seepages, our sickness, our sorrows — flows into the world, and vice versa.

How do we understand embodiment? To start, pay attention to how things ripple.

Text by Keely Shinners

 
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