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Jenna Burchell: Musing on Memory and Mending

This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).

One of South Africa’s earliest new media artists, Jenna Burchell scorns the rigidity of artistic disciplines and transitions from performance art to sculpture with fluidity. For ‘Songsmith,’ Burchell mends broken pieces of rocks through the Japanese technique of kintsukuroi. As the viewer draws her hand close to a Songsmith, it senses her presence and begins to hum.

Burchell is concerned with memory. Of nature, of individuals. Of nations and peoples. She is even concerned with computer hard drives. Life grinds us down and shatters us into a thousand pieces, but the memories we stubbornly cling to – both the good and the bad – define us and how we relate to our surroundings. Memories, like the golden lacquer in ‘Songsmith,’ bind together fragmented parts of the self, instilling in us a voice so that we might, in spite of everything, sing.


Sitting in my studio I realise why my assistants tease me about it – it is not grand, lofty or even spacious, it is a modest space that took some ingenuity. Everything I built for the studio is on wheels so that it can shapeshift based on my needs; in the morning it could be a bustling work area, by the evening a pristine photographic studio. I have rows of tools, speakers, circuit components, nuts and bolts of all possible and impossible sizes. Intertwined on the shelves are rocks, bones and oddities that I collect on my expeditions. I like this space, it’s ergonomic. It also allows me to experiment late into the night.

Around my studio is my home. The boundary between home and studio blurs; I like to live and work seamlessly. Outside I can hear lawn mowers and trucks passing – a weird mixture between the industrial and residential. My studio sits on what people argue is the edge of Pretoria or the start of Bronkhorstspruit. Which one exactly is something like a mood swing; each delivery-man argues their case and fees. I’m flexible. I like to think that this place is similar to my practice; it is a place that fits between other places, linking them together.

Lillies, Interactive Installation. Wire, audio, computer software, circuits. 1070 x 1571 mm, 2011 (Image: Abound Photography)


The depths to which I am shaped by my country and its politics could fill a whole book. It has taught me how to think, see, feel, empathise, act, love, communicate, make a plan, create something from nothing, and even mourn. It has pushed and pulled my life to its absolute depths and re-forged me.

The causality of political shifts was there when I first decided to work with technology in my practice to express themes like home, land and belonging. This is a major theme in South African life after Apartheid as we negotiate how we all fit together. For me, it is my exploration into how do I fit into this cultural mosaic as a third generation South African born of grandparents who fled to South Africa during WW2 in order to survive starvation.

Geophysicists from Open Ground capturing GPR data at Songsmith rock site


My form of collaboration  is focused on the conversations between people. For example, during my extensive research and development phases, I often find myself inside factories learning about their production methods, sitting with electronic engineers and software programmers discussing systems, or raising conversations with historians and geologists.

Art naturally evolves with the times and right now we have so much knowledge at our fingertips, we no longer exist in a closed vacuum. I like to think that my work attunes to this zeitgeist by allowing the creation of meaning to shift from a singular ‘artistic genius’, to a dynamic flux of meaning creation. The creative subject now becomes the collaboration between myself, as an artist, the local community, the industry specialists I consult and the audience that interact with a piece.

Songsmith (Cradle of Humankind), 2016


Christy Bartlett wrote in the Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, 'the vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering…'

I created the noun ‘songsmith’ to refer to the golden sound instruments that I embed into broken objects that I find; especially those with a sense of the passage of time. To create a songsmith, I draw inspiration from the Japanese art and philosophy of Kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi is the art of repairing pottery with gold lacquer, treating breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. It embraces the flawed or imperfect and offers a sense that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

I borrow from Kintsukuroi both visually and philosophically to allude to the passing of time in my work. However, the songsmith repair also plays a vital, functional role in the final artwork; the way the songsmith is forged together with objects creates a sensor. It is because of this that I am able to create a time capsule holding within a song of memory and time: a song that can be revealed when an audience member brings their hands near.

The Songsmith artworks are created as if they are ancient museum artefacts. I like to position their audience as an imagined future audience wherein they discover the artefact’s past use and meaning. They decipher the work through visual clues such as the golden repair and the hieroglyphic engravings on the artwork’s plinth. The work has an almost primordial ritualistic element to it in the act of revealing and veiling the song within, all centred around the repair.

I think we can all relate to the feeling of brokenness at some point or the other in our lives: a moment of sudden demarcation between the whole and the shattered. The act of restoration in my work is perhaps an act of restoration in myself; an ode to the smaller moments of time that I have lost to the fragility of memory. Perhaps it is even a form of repentance.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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