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.