Berni Searle

Berni Searle in conversation with Michael Stevenson
10 February 2004

I recall when you first showed us the photo published on the front page of an issue of The Argus late last year, of 107 pots of food cooking on open fires for an Eid feeding project, you were immediately excited and inspired by the imagery and the associations. The enactment and reinterpretation of this event has preoccupied you ever since. Why? – are there personal recollections about your childhood and early family life that this celebratory ritual has evoked?

I was drawn to the image on many levels, the most immediate of which was the visual impact of the huge pots and roaring fires, placed in what seemed to be endless rows. The sheer enormity of the event, the logistics of making food on such a huge scale and the intentions of the people involved sparked off so many possible associations and I thought these could be very worthwhile exploring.

Yes, personal recollections were evoked, not in terms of my childhood, but from a later stage in my life, when I first met my broader family, from whom my immediate family had been estranged. It was in my teens, when I was first invited for Eid by our extended family, that I saw men cooking in big pots in the backyard. It intrigued me, perhaps because of my realisation of what my childhood might have been, but also because I could not imagine how it was possible to cook in such huge quantities and still have such tasty food. That´s a real art!

Having pointed out a personal reference and the specific event, I think it is important to remember that cooking in huge pots over open fires is obviously not only a practice that occurs in this context.

Is locating this work on the Cape Flats significant? Your previous works were shot in studios except for Home and Away which was filmed at sea mid-way between Europe and Africa. Obviously in this work location is significant to its meaning?

I don´t want to overplay the location – it was shot in Athlone on the Cape Flats, and it is a practice that usually takes place on the site that was used for the shoot. But it‘s not my intention to simply recreate this event with all its specifics, but rather to ‘enact‘ aspects of this practice, that extend beyond site. Since it was shot almost entirely in the dark, it could in fact be taking place anywhere.

Similarly, in Home and Away, the two coastlines are those of Spain and Morocco, but neither is recognisable as such because both look so similar even though they are geographically two distinct continents. I like that ambiguity, and like to avoid a location overpowering a work. So while these works can point to specific sites, they are not necessarily identifiable as such. I‘d like to draw attention more to the activity within the piece – the ritual and traditions and their associations.

Would this suggest that you are exploring the rituals of feasting in a very metaphoric way which, in a sense, brings together two threads in your past work: the theme of foodstuffs - spices, flour, olive oil, squid ink – which you used with your body to reflect on issues of race, often within the context of South Africa; and the elements – water, air and fire – which you use more broadly to reflect on human consciousness?

Yes, the foodstuffs that I previously worked with are related to my heritage but, in this instance, I‘ve abstracted the associations with food by filling the pots with water. Using spice in this work would also have been an obvious link to my previous work and I consciously wanted to move away from these associations. The work is not singularly about me, or my heritage, or the Cape Flats, or Muslim traditions.

Despite the play with elements like air and fire, there is still a human presence in the work. It‘s the first time that I‘ve introduced other people into a work of mine: as you will see in the video, there are other isolated bodies that move through this constructed landscape. These figures and my figure are silhouettes and a shadowy presence in the work. The ritual of eating and sharing food is an activity that we all engage in; it is participatory and draws people together.

In watching the realisation of this new work, I have been very interested in the shifts between your carefully-planned choreographed movements and your moments of instantaneous creativity – in other words,you set up very specific frames of reference for the production, yet also allow yourself to respond in surprising ways to the process. Again it appears to reflect shifts between the conscious – your detailed plans – and the unconscious – your on-the-spot interventions inspired by the sight before you. Is this your usual approach to creating a work?

Yes, initially I do have a strong visual sense of what I am trying to achieve which invariably changes according to a whole set of circumstances that I don‘t necessarily have control over, for instance, not being behind the camera or my own limitations in terms of what I am physically able to do. So a degree of flexibility is necessary. For example, in making this work I did not think that the smoke would be so overwhelming and in terms of the footage captured, there were often unanticipated angles and movements of the camera despite preparatory discussions and sketches. These unexpected aspects make the production more difficult on one level, but they also force a creative engagement with the process.

And your relationship to the team that assist you in realising your works?

This is the fourth video that I have made and, although I am not physically behind the camera, I am constantly conscious of the line of sight of the person behind the camera. With stills photography we usually use Polaroids so that I can instantly see what is being framed, how the subject is lit, etc. and with video, I repeatedly look at playbacks on a monitor during the shoot. I do wonder if it would be different if I was behind the camera but learning these technical skills could take me another lifetime! In fact I do not own a video camera and the stills camera I have is a simple ‘point and shoot‘. I mainly use a digital stills camera for documentation. When I have an idea I am preoccupied with how it may be possible to realise it.

As always with your work there is a lyricism and aestheticism that is enticing and engaging, yet, also, there is an underlying uncertainty that leaves a viewer unsettled. Perhaps this emotive response derives from your vulnerable state in relation to the elements; will you fall to the ground, are you drowning, will you catch alight?

There is a sense of vulnerability in relation to walking bare foot in between these fires with the sparks blowing about in the wind, and in terms of being overcome by the smoke or burnt by the steam. But, yes, the work also draws you in, to the comfort of a warm, glowing fire. There is also a kind of progression inthe video, with a close-up, and therefore more personal view in the beginning, through to a larger aerial view left desolate with smouldering ashes towards the end. It looks quite surreal. It looks as if something catastrophic and devastating has occurred. I‘m reluctant to specify what this might point to, but destruction and upheaval seems to be the order of the day.

Your thoughts on the title Vapour? – it is a word that describes an alchemic process of the combination of water and heat creating another substance, steam. It is also laden with associations: its ability to cleanse although it burns, it has a presence yet can hardly be seen.

I like the idea that the substance or material that was concealed beneath the lids alters in form over a period of time. Also, I was attracted to the idea of pressure building up, and what might act as a release – in this instance, lifting the lid. I was also attracted to the fact that, as a noun, ‘vapour‘ is ethereal, transient, momentary, fleeting ... and as an adjective, ‘vapourous‘ refers to something imaginary ...

An interesting shift in your recent work, A Matter of Time, Home and Away, and now Vapour, is the way in which you explore altered or transient states of consciousness – your body floats through water and air; drifts through darkness and light. You are creating dreamlike images, with enigmatic references rather than emphatic statements; you avoid overt narratives and instead explore oblique gestures; you intimate rather than confront. Are you aware of this shift towards visualizing your inner world rather than creating direct encounters with a more conscious reality?

I often try to remember my most intuitive response to what I see and experience, or consider my initial response to a situation that I may be in, and use this as a starting point for my work. But emphatically working with ‘states of consciousness‘, seems to me to run the risk of having no bearing, or relation to the ‘real‘ world. I don‘t want to escape reality. If the work is indeed shifting towards more enigmatic references, it is my intention for this not to happen at the expense of reflecting on the very real circumstances that we find ourselves in. So in Vapour, for example, I was initially struck by the idea that a group of individuals extended themselves by, on one single occasion, feeding 42 000 people across the Western Cape. I know it‘s not going to change the world, but it is a monumental gesture – one which I used as a starting point for exploring our individual and collective relationship to the world. Obliquely, that is.

To view all the works from the Vapour exhibition, click here. For more information contact +27 (0)21 421 2575 or fax +27 (0)21 421 2578 or email

2005 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.