South African Cultural Observatory


BY Dr Danny Shorkend 31.07.17

SITUATED in the beautiful Franschoek, I was happy to see the work of Kali van der Merwe. Powerful and profound, her work stirs one’s senses and reason in terms of philosophical speculation on the question concerning the relationship between life and death. Based on relics and bodies that she encounters on her farm residence, she has created images of uncanny scientific, taxidermical and magical qualities. There is a sense of structure and order, yet one “imposed” beyond the assumed categories of the sciences. Her path therefore is embraces both a desire to know nature and one that is in awe of – and complicit with – the unfolding of the natural and cosmological realms.

Her methods allow for a beautiful light that pervades her subjects. Her subjects – ranging from plant life to the world of animals – in fact is a life that has passed and yet the artist suggests that that body still somehow houses a spirit or life. In the macabre death of the image, one can intuit a life that was, an existence that was palpable and real. In a Frankensteinien sense Kali almost breathes life back into these carcases and remnants.

In her photographs she contextualises the dead bees, flowers, snakes and snake skin, cats and birds to name a few, within galactic, interstellar space, images derived from the Hubble telescope and freely accessed. This gives such animal-forms an almost angelic and other-worldly meaning. It instils in them a sense of cosmic depth and meaning even after the spirit appears to have expired. At the very least, the viewer may well sense a portal to other dimensions.

In her installation work, she urges the viewer to touch and fondle the various broken and fragmented bodies and relics. It is an experience that precedes any kind of knowing or categorisation of the mysteries of the created world; it is a primitive sense of awe and wonder. At the same time, as the artist communicated in her speech at the opening, the observer effects the observed. Thus, one cannot pierce and know reality as such as being kinds of biological organisms ourselves we effect and change the experimental set up. In simple terms, one can only know with reference to the framework of human knowing, and that framework is necessarily limited. Yet, Kali suggests an alternative taxidermy that considers an artistic vision as well, one that could sit equally well in a Natural History Museum as it could in an art gallery or museum.

Kali’s work shows tremendous observation skills (she provides a magnifying glass with all curious “sculptures” or ready-mades). Consider her video installation where one watches a pray mantis devouring its meal. It is absorbing and yet one cannot eschew the abject horror together with the curious desire to engage. A wonderful scientific and artistic scene is expertly recorded. Kali has a reverence for the scientific exploration of nature, but I believe adds to this knowledge base as she somehow touches what she calls “the soul of form”. This concept points to the fact of which the artist is aware, that matter itself is ill defined. A photon, a particle (and wave) for example is massless; and the other of matter, namely dark and anti-matter is said to be more ubiquitous than matter itself. So, it is unclear what the substance of the universe consists of. Perhaps energy is the closest approximation. Her poetic titles allude to this kind of ineffability and at the same time, sensual delight.

One is not simply looking in on nature, for humans are stardust and of the earth (hence her juxtaposition of both space and animal). Kali gathers, connects with, and then via an artistic process has over a period, developed a language. It is a kind of post science, post history, post (post) modern vantage point where mind, heart and senses coalesce.

Playing her alter-ego, Dr Kali, her work appears to straddle the line between painting and photography, the sculptural and the installation or found-object. It is a taxidermy, a secular enterprise and yet a holy place of worship (as in Dr Kali’s lab-oratory). It draws from the history of painting, for example a middle-ages halo effect;  a renaissance study of the body and the rise of secularism as well as early Dutch oil painting – all the while being photographs!

An exhibition well worth a visit amongst the teeming life of Franschoek even if for a moment, one has a vision of the shadows, of death. Yet one senses the energy that once housed these bodies; stretched muscle and skin that once threaded around a skeletal structure, is yet alive. Alive as clues to understand and know and alive to be recreated and reordered in their aesthetic glory.  

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