/ 6 August 2004

Exposing the ingrained

In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, Immortality, he describes the city of the Immortals where “every act (and every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning. There is nothing that is not lost as if in a maze of indefatigable mirrors. Nothing can happen only once, nothing is preciously precarious”.

Richard Penn, recent winner of this year’s Sasol New Signatures — one of only four major open-art competitions in South Africa — uses a similar analogy of being caught between two mirrors to explain his work. “A gesture is something that goes all the way into the future and all the way into the past,” he says — in Penn’s case, all the way back to his ancestors in Lithuania and, for now, as far into the future as the gestures made by his six-month-old son, Zac.

Mirror 4, the piece that won the New Signatures competition, is part of an ongoing body of work that takes on the nebulous task of trying to isolate “the physical manifestation of genes articulated through gesture”. The piece consists of two photographic “portraits” that Penn took of the back of his father’s head using very fast film (3 200 ASA).

The resulting photographs are grainy and somewhat ghostlike, an effect that is enhanced when Penn enlarges the picture and works into the print with iodine, which dissolves the light-sensitive silver halides of the photographic paper. There are no negatives of this phase, so the work is printed using a chemical photographic process (called lambda) that exposes the scanned photograph using lasers. Viewing the final prints leaves one with the feeling of having glimpsed something quietly intimate and ethereal.

Penn’s father was actually putting on his socks at the time that the original photograph was taken, but what is important, Penn says, is not what his father was doing, nor that his father is the subject, but that an isolated gesture was captured.

“There are things [mannerisms] that my dad does, that I do, that my son will probably do when he is older, that to me are essentially Jewish. The prints as they are now cease to be portraits of my father … what they have become are self- portraits of the Jew.” The artist’s exploration into gestural genealogy began years ago when he would watch his grandfather moving slowly about his house. “He was religious and would walk around his house in Yeoville, making a slight movement back and forth with his head while he prayed. But I would notice my father making the same movement while he was doing something ordinary like dressing.”

Penn, who is head of animation at the AFDA South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, plans to use the R50 000 prize money he won in the Sasol New Signatures competition to hold an exhibition of the next phase of his work.

The Sasol New Signatures exhibition is on at the Pretoria Art Museum until August 20