Life Giving Forces Live Just Below the Surface: The Work of Liza Grobler By Laurie Ann Farrell
Liza Grobler’s newest solo exhibition White Termite coalesces her many creative modes of expression into a unified experience-based installation. Descending the stairs into the subterranean gallery visitors encounter an immersive environment with blue walls, networks of blue crocheted fibrous forms linking a series of portable, monumental beaded panel paintings, drawings and a series of objects that all hint to the exhibition’s namesake – termites.
While working on a project exploring the formal and biological qualities of hair, Grobler read Eugène Marais’ The Soul of the White Ant , a book that serendipitously had resurfaced in numerous conversations throughout many years. Struck by the complex interconnected workings of the termitary, along with the significance of water as a life-giving force, Marais’ findings proved inspirational to the artist. The paradoxical relationship of construction and destruction in termite culture, coupled with their sensory mode of living (the blind termites rely heavily upon other senses to build their intricate nests), and the nest’s dependence on the welfare of the queen termite, informed much of the structure and content for Grobler’s site-specific installation.
From hand-made sculptures to illustrated fantasy scapes, performance to immersive installations with hints of Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager, along with a visual vocabulary that resonates ever so slightly with the work of Penny Siopis, Grobler’s installation also features video footage from a previous performance, Crochet, Gym and Tonic (2011), along with a series of planned new performances that will unfold through the duration of the exhibition. Water, which is omnipresent in this installation, also bears personal significance for Grobler. The artist recalls a reoccurring childhood nightmare in which she sees an approaching tsunami as she stands frozen in place, unable to flee, or seek cover. This ominous premonition manifests in some of the large beaded panels that were realized over the period of the last year in collaboration with the Qubeka Bead Studio. The luminous swirls of beads loop and crest like waves of water against a dark, foreboding background.
The queen termite of Grobler’s realm is represented by the presence of her crown resting on a royal blue velvet pillow. A delicate light blue crocheted column rises from the crown adorned with a blue inset jewel. The queen termite is all in Marais’ account: all life emanates from her cell where she can produce up to 50,000 eggs in a 24-hour period. If the queen perishes all activity and life in her nest ceases, or her clan of termites dedicate themselves to a neighbouring queen. A series of small biomorphic nest-like sculptures rendered in copper with a blue patina with semi-precious stones rest on pedestals as artefacts, or relics taken from the nest near Grobler’s crown.
Moving further into the installation five portable pools filled with water and coins are joined by fibre constructions that will become further connected as fibre constructions continue to amass between them. During the run of the show projections of performers crocheting pieces to add onto the web-like labyrinth between the pools will be cast onto the water. Grobler, who states that she has always been fascinated by repetitive actions, began incorporating fibre works into her oeuvre in the mid 1990s. From Oos Wes Tuis Bes (1999), where she worked collectively with a community to cover a series of wooden house structures with polychromatic crochet patterns, through to the suggestion of crochet costumes and elements in Tjorts!/Cheers! (2012), the artist has employed this labour intensive medium that straddles the high/low art continuum consistently throughout her career.
The repetitive use of the colour blue, water and a series of interconnected objects and references suggest that each artwork is a small organism within Grobler’s bigger system. And while each item is linked to the next, Grobler is cognizant that the installation will disintegrate as works are sold. The artist hopes that viewers will have intuitive responses to the installation that go beyond the assertion of nature in their midst. For Grobler, as with Marais, the structure of the life of the termite is comparable to the human experience. And while some viewers may seek to unearth a political message in the White Termite title, they would do so at the expense of missing the larger themes and connections offered by Grobler’s installation. Grobler is a child of a musician and a scientist, and understands that both music and science rely on systems. “Those who excel in these areas know how to honour the system, but make regular leaps of faith,” says Grobler. Perhaps viewers to White Termite will take this leap and journey beyond the artist’s interest in the natural world into the realm of imagination where anything is possible.
Laurie Ann Farrell is an art historian, curator and executive director of exhibitions for the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). In this role she directs the exhibition program for all SCAD galleries in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia; Lacoste, France; Hong Kong; and at the SCAD Museum of Art.
A South African writer, lawyer, naturalist and poet, Eugène Marais first published The Soul of the White Ant in Afrikaans under the title Die Siel van die Mier in 1937. Originally called the Qalo Bead Studio, the collective was founded by Jeanetta Blignaut. Grobler has collaborated with this beading collective on many occasions for the past 8 years.
E-mail communication with the artist, April 15, 2012.