/ 1 June 2007

A human soup of vulnerability

The sculpture is quaint; a box resembling a stage with roughly cut flounces. But the plastic ballerina strung from the roof of the box is inspirational — her tiny body soaring in a grande jeté way beyond her sugar-frosted potential. The work — an assemblage of found objects, including an old cake-decoration dancer — is a conduit for much darker humour, because her severed feet have been left on the stage.

“I am interested in that tension, the separation between that moment of elevation [and the inevitable fall]. You can’t stay there. You are sure to fall, you don’t know when or how, but you are going to crash,” says Sue Pam-Grant of her sculptural assemblage Grande jeté, and of life. “Things can be one way and then somehow, quite suddenly in the face of living, they snap to something else entirely.”

Pam-Grant, best known as a theatre practitioner with a lineage of work including Curl up and Dye, Chasing Chairs and Coupe, is preparing for Inner Linings, her second solo art exhibition, when I meet her at her Westdene home. The lounge has been turned into an impromptu gallery. The works — a humorous cast of thrift-shop oddities and domestic objects toggled together with bandages, ribbons and elastic — wait like actors on a stage in anticipation of their transportation to the University of Johannesburg Gallery.

There is a strong correlation between art and theatre, as each sculpture has its own stage, and Pam-Grant is acutely aware of the dynamic that exists in the triangle between the art, artist and audience. “[Art] doesn’t happen without one leg of the triangle. Art, artist, audience are all totally and utterly integral to the work,” she says. “What is the point of the work if I am not going to take it out and show it? Art is the composite of what happens inside of that triangle.”

The artist perches casually against the arm of one of her works — an old couch whose springs she has turned into ice-cream cones — and gesticulates excitedly as she explains the common threads of her pieces, which reference the grand human soup of vulnerability, disintegration, randomness, tenacity and transformation.

“I’ve been an assembler my whole life,” she says. “I bring stories together and reveal their inner linings to create the work. I remember as a very young child, I was about two or three, digging in some soil and unearthing a toy giraffe. There was a particular feeling of excitement in that find. That is the basis of my becoming an artist. That excitement at finding a new portrait in an old story. It ignites something in me. I get completely tickled.”

Childhood and domesticity are particularly strong themes in the works and Pam-Grant refers to the notion of “playing” in relation to the creative process. Indeed, the sculptures are whimsical at first reading, but as you cut through the strata of meaning, the playground becomes a battlefield and the strain of impermanence is tangible.

Pam-Grant says that, although the process of coming to a work is similar to that of theatre, creating art allows her to go deeper and interrogate meaning at a more intimate level. “It is more personal without any question. You are marking an arena in a lone journey. It is a one-person process, there is no cast and you can really dig into your own things, your own narratives [in] trying to pull it all together.”

No more so than in Cubicle E698, which Pam-Grant describes as having a strong self-narrative and, like many of her works, hints at her battle in overcoming breast cancer.

An old and broken hatstand is the frame for a figure made up of a disparate array of objects contained within the cubicle, which Pam-Grant says could be a changing room, a bathing booth or an X-ray room.

“It is the aspects of a life story that come together to make up that form. It is things that have something missing, objects that are not perfect that speak to me. They communicate fragility in terms of tissue, metal, wood — the disintegration of what is supposed to be durable.

“The fragility in living is my narrative. I want to tell that story by finding an authentic form for each object. When I find the essence of an object, it takes it into another narrative. It is my task to tell stories, I am a narrator. In a sense, I would be failing in [my] vision of what I am if I didn’t tell stories.”

Inner Linings opens at the University of Johannesburg Gallery on June 6 at 6.30pm for 7pm and runs until June 27