Lyndi Sales at Bell-Roberts Contemporary
by Katherine Jacobs
Memory is often imagined as a particularly frail and erratic filing system; one which inexplicably loses information, erases bits at random and allows its contents to become blurry or faded. As one psychologist bluntly conceives it, ‘our memories develop holes, like an old pair of curtains that is being eaten by moths’ (Legg 1998:85 in Hallam and Hockey 2001: 35). Comprising myriad laser incisions into various materials, the majority of the works on Sales’ ‘TRANSIenT’ show resemble these moth-eaten memories. Constituted from absences, form is created in the works wholly out of a play of positive and negative; limbs and torsos, hands and flight paths made visible only by the removal by laser incision, of material. The works shift between absences and presences; sometimes a void is opened up in a piece of material by the cutting, as in Negative Limb I & II, and sometimes a positive image is constructed by the process of removal, as in Torso II. Something, a moth, or a sea snail perhaps, is eating away at the torn scraps of materials. Even as the memories disintegrate, the image of what was lost remains in negative: a cleanly cut void of all too definite shape.
Sales began examining loss in her 2007 show, ‘1 in 11 000 000 Chances’, the title referring to the probability of dying in a plane crash. ‘TRANSIenT’, however, expands the terrain covered in that exhibition to consider the meaning of death, something accessible to the living only as a profound physical absence of a loved one. Sales, who lost her father in the 1987 Helderberg disaster, is surely fully qualified to talk about this sense of loss. A famously mysterious blip on SAï¿½s history, very little information was released to the public regarding the crash, leaving victim’s families struggling to comprehend their loss without any evidence or scenario to imagine. Now some years on, it is as if the tidbits of information the families did receive have been eaten away by a moth with extremely delicate eating habits. Like the curtains, the cut out materials retain a trace, a memory, of their purpose and meaning, but are inscribed with years of decay; all that is left of some are filigrees of fibers like the refracted light playing on the wreckage at the bottom of the ocean. Indeed, not unlike the clues and evidence of a more recent arms conspiracy, the signs of the Helderberg disaster are in the process of disappearing altogether.
In Shatter, boarding passes representing the exact number of people who perished in the Heldeberg are eaten away, their information partially erased, by a spider’s web of laser incisions forming an impact mark. In Flight Path II, aircraft safety guides suggesting the possible procedures the passengers might have attempted, are incised with images of flight paths that hauntingly resemble fireworks. Other images consist of lone body parts, conspicuously headless, disembodied and ghostlike, inscribed onto rescue aids. A torn remnant of life raft material has been marked by the void of a leg, crisscrossed by sinewy lines like those a sea snail or seaweed might leave on a body in Negative Limb I. A life jacket with the shape of two lungs missing from its fabric forms the cruelly inadequate safety device in How Long Can You Hold Your Breath. There are many of these images. And though the number devalues the poignancy a little, the recurring nature of the images also reads like a psychic preoccupation; a flashback that cannot be silenced. Fragmented, and inconclusive, as memories or evidence might be, the pieces certainly evoke a sense of absence, and a ghostly presence.
In terms of process, Sales could not have found a better medium with which to express such a brutal loss. A violent process of removal, the laser literally obliterates and burns away the image. The image Float, a wallpaper of lottery papers cut and shaped to form two sinewy legs, contains traces of this process, the laser having left faint scorch marks around its cutting area on one filigreed leg, which, appearing as they do on the peachy, fleshy coloured lottery papers read like burn marks into the skin. This is again evocative of the memory, memories of the death of loved ones often conceptualised as inscribed ‘on the vulnerable surface of the body as wounds that cannot be soothed’; as ‘breaches in the skin that defy the healing power of time’ (Hallam and Hockey 2001:35).
Technically too, the works are impressive. Sales has taken advantage of the medium’s precision, creating the most delicate, fine absences that are engraving-like in their subtlety. Indeed the work can be compared to Sales’ equally fine, delicate etchings, which would perhaps have made an interesting pairing with the laser cuttings. As a process, etching would make an interesting counterpoint, involving both a play of positive and negative and a violent eating away process, metal, which is described literally as being ‘bitten’ into by the acid.
Process, it seems, is also a fitting way to describe Sales’ conception of death. Describing death as ‘a transient period’, akin to the aero plane flight (cover the non-capitalised ‘en’ in the title to find the notion of ‘TRANSIT’, inside ‘TRANSIenT’) with its move over ‘from one realm to another’, the moment of transference from positive and present, to negative and absent, is what interests Sales. Three more sculptural pieces in the adjoining room attempt to represent this more obliquely. Suspended Departure faces Suspended Arrival, while In Between State Cone of Silence hangs ominously in between the two. The two Suspended pieces are wall-size circles composed of smaller, overlapping circles of Vilene, so that the effect is of scales or some kind of skin or membrane that one might pass through. The use of Vilene here is a clever one; used by seamstresses between two pieces of fabric, to join or strengthen, it is commonly referred to as ‘interfacing’, an appropriately luminal material. Visually, the work also suggests a kind of leaving or arriving; the circles dyed to create a false sense of perspective meaning that the viewer seems sucked in to a dark centre (Departure), and released again by the darkness moving to the periphery (Arrival). The aeroplane language also seems appropriate; the sense of placelessness one experiences inside the white, climate-controlled, ‘chicken or fish’ capsule could well be described as a state of limbo. Whilst these works are interesting in their conception of death, they seem somewhat less resolved than the highly refined laser cuttings in the adjoining rooms. The Cone of Silence, concentric circular frames strung with embroidery thread, seems particularly unresolved. Though thread is an interesting material appropriately sinuous alongside the laser cutting and etching and luminal in its function as a joining material it looks a little inadequate here; too permeable for the tunnel between the realms of life and death.
These few gripes aside, this is an extremely well conceived show. Every detail seems important, every mark, considered. Like memories that fade into transparent, lacy curtains in the back of our minds and continue to structure our actions unconsciously, Sales’ work communicates in a subtle and delicate way that is nonetheless very moving. Though there are many different conceptions of death across creed and culture that might well differ from Sales’, a particularly courageous personal entry point to the subject makes this a poignant show for all.
References Hallam, E and Hockey, J. 2001. Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg
by Katherine Jacobs, originally published in ARTTHROB Issue No. 127, March 2008