Paper presented by Lyndi Sales for a seminar entitled: Personal Experience & Artistic Process: an exploration into the ways in which life and art interact. Held at the University of Cape Town, 2010. Other speakers included Penny Siopis, Linda Stupart and Mwenya Kabwe.

For my contribution this seminar I would like to talk about my creative process as a tool to facilitate a healing process, and as I go I will make reference to specific photographs that were to inspire key works within my larger body of work.

After completing my MFA degree at UCT I went through a period of “artist block”, where I was not satisfied with anything I made for a period of about three years. Eventually I realized I needed to turn inward to look at the incident that has had the most significant impact on my life to date, the Helderberg plane crash.

The Helderberg went down on the 28th November 1987. I was 14 at the time, and flying from Taipei to Johannesburg on his way home from a business trip, my father was a passenger on the plane.

The Ministry of Transport’s Inquiry into the crash remains inconclusive, failing to determine the truth amidst a variety of claims about the disaster. These included the most widely accepted claim that the aircraft was carrying flammable material in contravention of international prescripts, and that the ZUR tape that kept a 24-hour record of flight information was, as a result, deliberately removed and possibly destroyed.

It is suspected that the cause of the crash was a fire on board, but the cause of the fire has remained a mystery. However, it is widely believed that the Apartheid government was indeed importing highly flammable substances onboard passenger air carriers throughout the time of sanctions and the arms embargo against South Africa.

I have begun with the work entitled How long can you hold your breath because it was the object of the life vest that initially propelled me into making this body of work. At the time of acquiring the life vest I had no idea where my project was heading, but the acquisition of this object served as a staring point for what was to become a body of work created over a three-year period.

I had come across a photograph taken from a submarine, of the ocean floor during the wreckage recovery. It revealed a lifeless safety vest partially rolled up and lying on the ocean floor. As an object of safety, it appeared ironic lying deflated and without function on the ocean floor. I was motivated by this strange feeling of irony and so set out to find a passenger life vest similar to one found on the Helderberg.

How Long Can You Hold Your Breath?

845 x 1150 mm. Found object. 2008

I eventually found someone who worked for a private airline company and who was willing to give me a damaged life vest. Throughout my project I was very cautious not to mention why I needed the jacket and actually fabricated a story that I was working in the film industry and needed one as a prop. The man helping at first me gave me a damaged life vest, which he placed down in front of me. Each life vest is stamped with a date of production as they are perishable items. The date stamped on the damaged life vest was, curiously, Dec 1987. The Helderberg crash had happened on the 28th November 1987. The coincidence was overwhelming for both me and to the man who helped me, to whom I later revealed my intention for the life vest. I took this as a strong signal that I was on the right track in perusing this research.

The title for this work: “How long can you hold your breath”, was inspired by a memory of childhood. I grew up as a Catholic, and somehow believed that when I prayed, that the longer I held my breath - the harder I was praying.

The work seeks to draw a parallel between the human body and material object, inhalation and inflation, exhalation and deflation. The work also explores a paradox in the function of a life vest. I set out to create a defunct/ condemned or inadequate object that is at once both safe and dangerous.

The Helderberg plane crash was a highly publicized event as are all plane crashes around the world. Before I began my research I had not read any newspaper articles about the crash. My coping mechanism was to disassociate my father from the crash. I found it incredibly difficult mourning him so publicly. I never spoke about the incident. I moved schools shortly after the event so that I could be anonymous. And although I mentioned it briefly in my master thesis I even spelt Helderberg incorrectly. So I realized that if I was to comment on the crash I needed to be equipped with all the facts.

The first piece I made was titled 29th November 1987, the date succeeding the crash, when the news broke.

My grandmother on my paternal side was a collector of random things. Some of importance but most arbitrary disposable items like chocolate wrappers and toilet rolls. Before she passed away she gave me a collection of newspaper articles that she had gathered over a period of 13 years of all articles published on the Helderberg disaster.

At the time I was completing my masters and could not even bring myself to open the black bags full of paper. I threw her entire collection away. Years later I was to regret that decision.

And in my regret, I began to search for Helderberg newspaper articles in order to make artworks from them.

I soon came across an article written by David Klatzow, which was a request to the public to come forward with any new any information surrounding the controversial crash in the hope that 19 years later, some new leads would help him reopen the case and find some closure. At the time of the crash, Klatzow was a young reporter and investigator who specialized in forensic investigation where fire was involved.

He was hired by the Star newspaper to investigate the crash and from the outset suspected a cover-up. Over the years he has collected an entire and comprehensive archive around the Helderberg, from newspaper articles to the black box recordings, telephone transcripts, photographs and results of scientific experiments on flammable objects.

My introduction to David was overwhelming and stirred up a lot of emotion for me, when I found my self face to face with this stranger who knew all the details surrounding my fathers death. Until that point I had completely blocked out all information surrounding the Helderberg. And with each visit to David’s archive, I allowed myself to learn more details.

At that time I was experimenting with laser cutting as a tool to burn or engrave an image into paper. The laser as burning tool seemed appropriate for two reasons:
one was that it seemed like a logical progression from the etching processes with which I was familiar. The laser cut into paper in a similar way to how acid bit into a copper plate. Secondly, the act of burning seemed appropriate, as it was a fire on board that ultimately caused the plane to crash. The brutal cutting away and the scorched marks left on the edges of the paper seemed like a suitably destructive process of removal or obliteration through which to express the experience of loss.

There was also a strange photo of a gambling slot machine that lay at the bottom of the ocean that struck me amongst the photos I was able to look through. After seeing this image I introduced the theme of gambling into some of the works. In a direct way I wanted to comment on the fact that 159 lives were gambled the day that plane set flight. In a more indirect way too, through the use of playing cards, South African currency, lottery coupons, gambling chips and roulette wheels I made reference to the hope, chance and risk associated with gambling.

On a particular visit to David Klatzow’s archive towards the end of my project, I came across a file I hadn’t seen before. I opened the file and saw a packet full of photographs inside. At first I was very excited and thought they may be photos of underwater wreckage, but soon discovered that they were colour photographs of recovered body parts as they lay displayed on autopsy tables after the incident. I had done some reading on the gruesome impact a plane crash may have on a passenger’s body. I had read that in many cases the chairs collapse in on themselves and that the result is limbs severed from their torsos.

I immediately closed the folder, but later returned out of curiosity, as well as to verify if what I had read was illustrated in the photos. I reassured myself that none of the body parts were my fathers, so it was ok for me to look. After looking I felt physically ill and ashamed of myself, and didn’t tell a soul for about a year thereafter.

The body part series was a result of my exposure to these images.

The limb series emphasized the vulnerability of our physical body, the transient nature of the physical in general. By cutting into the body parts I was implying a void or an alternate space, but also alluding to the circumstances in my father’s case, where there was a ever-present lack of any physical bodily evidence.

After cutting into paper, I began cutting into life raft rubber. I was able to find some condemned life rafts, which I used, for a number of the body parts works. The act of incising into the nylon nullified the function of the life raft, rendering it incapable of sustaining human life in the limbo before rescue.

As I worked on these body parts I became more aware of my own physical body. The result of this research was not only stressful for me emotionally, but also physically. I found myself becoming more and more withdrawn from family and friends and in retrospect can see that I was grieving for the first time. It had taken me 19 years before I would finally start the grieving process. With this I experienced insomnia, eczema and weight loss.

During a prior visit to China, I was introduced to the traditions of Chinese kite flying. One of the traditions includes flying kites at a memorial ceremony, where the string of the kite is cut in mid-flight to release the kite into the sky, in so doing releasing the soul of the deceased from its mourners. The artwork entitled 59/295 makes reference to this tradition. The title refers to the 159 passengers on board and the Helderberg flight number SAA 295.

So this piece, in a sense, served as a kind of memorial.

Consisting of 159 individual kites each kite is suspended by a thread and collectively they hang to for the shape of the Phoenix. The phoenix in mythology makes reference to the notion of a bird rising from the ashes. If seemed appropriate to make an analogy between a firebird and a burning plane, that leads one to contemplate hope and loss within the same moment.

Through my research I came across images of the memorial service that was held in Mauritius after the event. These images revealed the different ceremonies that were preformed such as the Chinese tradition of burning Jos paper, incense burning and constructions of shrines. Of the 159 passengers, about half were of Chinese and Taiwanese nationality. For that reason, I began cutting into Jos paper, along with fake Chinese money called ‘Hell money’.

This installation exists in an edition of 3, made for shows in Cape Town, Salzburg, Holland, Paris and San Francisco.

I then found an image of the plane nose that was retrieved from the ocean and that inspired the work entitled What are the chances if the game is rigged?. This is also a kite and once again makes reference to gambling.

The photograph from the evidence archive of three wristwatches that were recovered from the ocean floor inspired another piece. All these watches were shattered and stopped at similar times. Inspired by this photo I made the work titled Shatter.

At the time, I was researching near death experiences and my curiosity had been aroused by reports on experiences describing ‘the tunnel of light’. I had also joined a meditation group. I began contemplating the reality of life after death and different cultural beliefs around the subject.

I was particularity interested in the Buddhist belief and the period known as Bardo. Bardo is explained as the transitory state in which the soul resides when moving between the physical and the spiritual world. It is thought to be very fragile state and is understood a 49-day transitory period. It occurred to me that the limbic state of Bardo may be aptly metaphored by an airplane flight.

Shatter was cut into 159 original SAA boarding passes. Boarding pass paper is similar to fax paper and the print on it fades with time. For the visual reference of Shatter I looked at science experiments conducted on glass shattering and the patterns the cracks form as a result.

Inbound and Outbound also references an inbetween or liminal state. The work is made of Vilene, also known as ‘interfacing’, which is used by seamstresses to join fabric or to strengthen cuffs and collars. It seemed like an appropriate liminal material to use. So each of the 3m x 3m installations were suspended opposite one another with the intention of creating some kind of tension between a positive and negative, push and pull.

In closing and in looking back at this process I have come to realize how my art process was a significant tool which allowed me to access grief, to unpack it and to confront my fears. In retrospect I realize how I had suppressed my mourning. At the time of working on this project I was in a depression. I withdrew from all my relationships, which caused havoc within my personal life. I felt alone, I was emotional and often wondered why I was doing this to myself.

The irony for me now and after having some distance with this work is the fact that I was able to initiate a healing process through publicly expressing my grief.

The difficulty of doing this at the time lead to my suppression of grief and deferral of healing. After the crash I found it distressing that the public could read in the press such personal information pertaining to my father’s tragedy and my family’s trauma. At that time my mourning was not able to be private or safe and so I chose to suppress it and enter into a form of denial. Ultimately my creative process and the research allowed me to express these fears in a public way, allowing me a valuable transformation that has changed many aspects of who I am today.

See Also: The Exhibition | An Introduction By Pippa Skotnes | Reviews | Download Catalogue