SOCIOGENESIS – resilience under fire
Els van Mourik
Watching the work for the exhibition SOCIOGENESIS – resilience under fire evolve over the last 12 months has been an engaging and very moving experience. What started out as the desire of two artists, Chrisél Attewell and Barbara Schroeder, to present a duo exhibition after their SAFFCA residence (2019) at the Entabeni Farm Knysna, South Africa, has grown into a substantial personal and artistic endeavour for the artists. I have had the fortunate opportunity to visit Chrisél Attewell during her residency and work closely with her during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Through her work, Chrisél is reflecting on the human spirit and the workings of society, thereby acknowledging the process and the experiences of people’s trauma and providing space for expressing their emotions and finding relief from turmoil. Living through and witnessing the visible impact of the disastrous Knysna wildfire of 2017 on inhabitants, commercial plantations, properties and infrastructure, the forest fire also mirrored Chrisél’s experience of rising from the ashes after a tumultuous period of being confronted by death and grief in her own life.
For this exhibition, the artist worked with a team from the Glass Forming Academy in Pretoria to create an installation in which the natural forces of the carpenter ants appear as unruly forms that are encapsulated in glass. The gallery’s central space is lined with plinths that hold pieces of stained wood combined with glass, sampled from sites within the Knysna forests. The carpenter ants navigated a complex circuitry that is reflected in the mirrored surfaces of glass; the movements of the colony evoking images of data processing and flow of information on a massive scale, through their intricate division of labour and the matriarchal social structure that guide their behaviour. This composition providing us with a view into the secret life of ants and the transmission of information – as if an invasive life force has worked its way through an endless network of passageways and overrun the environment.
At the far end of the gallery, a second installation houses the remnants of scorched earth, showing us the catastrophic and magical beauty of wildfires, like a visual poem. Dead trees and decaying plant matter coexist with healthy trees and, when a fire burns through all of them, ashy nutrients return to the soil so that more diverse species of plants and animals may grow. The work is a strong example of the gestural language of Chrisél Attewell: different lines, patterns and textures are made visible as a manifestation of applied energy on canvas. The marks possess unique characteristics, with a lot of playful, experimental practise – something which is so distinctive in all her work – and show the artist’s ability to work in harmony with the earth. The installation invites visitors to become involved in an experimental ‘earthwork’ activity, making their own soil tray and experiencing the sheer joy of creating something with materials derived from the earth. As soil trays are an ephemeral art activity (they don’t last forever), pictures can be taken of the experimentation and the final artworks.
As a whole, the exhibition experiments with themes such as the entropy inherent in nature and the social and political hierarchies of living organisms. Both installations in this exhibition provoke important questions about the relationship between humankind and the environment and, more generally, calling attention to unprecedented crises. At the moment, we all are living and surviving in an invisible firestorm that surrounds us. Some of us have been socially distanced or isolated and are fairly protected. Others less so, and many more are in the direct line of fire. Perhaps for the first time in history, people all around the world are having the same conversations and sharing the same fears. We have been living in a common world for some time now, and a pandemic is a crisis that allows humanity to experience its interdependence and its togetherness.
The colony is a kind of creature, and so is our society. I have been exploring this idea since I started working on this exhibition. SOCIOGENENIS – resilience under fire, found its roots during an artist’s residency I attended in Knysna. These roots were dying.
When I arrived in Knysna in August 2019, death stained everything. I came from a phase of death in my own life and yearned to escape it. Knysna could not offer me this escape. I hoped to share the place I remembered – a place of innocent charm and wonder – with Barbara Schroeder, the artist who joined me in residency. Instead, I felt lost, trying to find images in my head of a place I had once adored. The Knysna I remembered was gone. Two years prior, a raging wildfire had swept through the forests, leaving the landscape laid bare like a body struggling to breathe.
Fire transformed the skin of this body. It became thin and stretched, warped and transfigured. In parts, it grew tough and thick, filled with scabs, cracks and peelings. In other parts, it became fragile and transparent. I asked a farm worker what the fire was like. He said: “The water was black.” I imagined the lakes and lagoons of Knysna, scattered black over the landscape like third-degree burn wounds.
I wanted to investigate the burnt body of the forest, to find signs of healing and life. The bark of dead trees looked like the burnt skin of a creature. I peeled away at the skin, picking at the scabs, expecting raw infected flesh, but instead I found patterns. Underneath the bark of the dead trees was bare wood, tattooed throughout.
I discovered later that carpenter ant colonies had carved these patterns. Carpenter ants make nests in dead or diseased trees, carving out galleries as they go. This quickens the decomposition of dead trees, fortifying the antifragility of the ecosystem. Antifragility is a concept developed by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It is the opposite of fragility. It is more than resiliency or robustness. Something which is resilient can withstand blows from adversity. Something which is anti-fragile grows stronger through volatility, shocks, stressors, or failures. My curiosity grew as I observed the ants. I hoped to learn from them how to be more resilient, perhaps even anti-fragile.
Similar to ant colonies, human societies are also sociogenic, where individual determination is socially mediated. The society you grow up in determines your social class, your behaviour, your caste, and your identity. Human societies develop based on their internal structures and rules. The most anti-fragile societies are the ones who embrace adversity and use it to grow and develop. The anti-fragile system works based on trial and error. If individual parts in the system fail or succeed, it provides information to the system on what works and what doesn’t. This society then adjusts and grows stronger. A rigid society, that aims to avoid volatility, will as a result become more fragile.
The society I grew up in is very fragile. It is one that has remained unchanged for years, and its failure to adjust with changing times has resulted in it being fragile and isolated. It has rigid internal structures and it cannot accept that which is different. Having different beliefs and worldviews, I often felt like I didn’t quite belong. My beliefs and opinions, different to those of the community, made me deviant, and I was recently cast out because of it. I had to leave the colony.
As I left, I wondered again about the skins of the forest. Would I fit in somewhere else if my skin was different? If my skin could not change in colour or type, it would have to change in thickness. When individuals are placed under fire, they often become more resilient. But how can we transcend from being resilient to being anti-fragile? If I have learned anything from the forests and the ants, it is that you cannot become anti-fragile without volatility.
I hope I can be strong enough to accept change, to keep evolving, and to always see beauty and possibility in adversity.