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Pandemic Stories – Jenna Burchell

July 1, 2020
Posted in News
July 1, 2020 Kurt Schroder

Pandemic Stories – Jenna Burchell

We take a look into the impact on the lives and livelihoods of people during the COVID-19 lock-down.

The unprecedented COVID 19 Virus and subsequent Lock-down has had drastic and differing effects on people in South Africa. This series aims to explore that space, and document a bit of what life looks like during Lock-down in South Africa. All necessary health & safety precautions were maintained in the production of this article, and all persons involved had legal permits to work and travel.

The story is told and was photographed by Bernard Brand.

I feel like I need to just take a minute here to gather myself and wholeheartedly thank everyone that has been part of this series of stories I’ve tried to tell. I don’t think I am done just yet. I have several more people I’d like to sit down with but I digress.

Jenna Burchell is an artist that to me blurs the lines between the digital and physical realm. Once again I am at a loss for words on how to exactly describe what she does, so I’ll take a short excerpt from her bio.
”Jenna Burchell is an award winning South African artist who is driven to find ways to preserve the fragile and ephemeral nature of memory and experience. Burchell often fuses the digital with the natural world in order to create vessels, archives and libraries where in the historical is subverted with narratives from the periphery”.

This almost feels like less of an interview and more of a conversation than previous stories and perhaps that is exactly how this series will evolve.

BB: You mentioned earlier that your dad had been living with you for a while and moved out just before the lockdown. How has that change been for you; from having someone here to now being on your own?

JB: For the most part it’s been great. This is my first time in the house alone since my late partner.
 You know what it’s like when you’re always busy, you don’t have time to live into a home, so I’ve literally touched everything in my house and moved it into a space where it’s slightly new.
Just before lockdown I went to some nurseries and bought a bunch of plants and like the toilet paper shortage, potting soil was also one of those things you couldn’t find. Ha ha. I bought 20 litres of paint because I was going to repaint my bedroom.
I had plans, I was going to express myself, not my business, not my art, not my trauma or my family, just myself.

The first week I started in my storeroom and it was a disaster, but it was very cathartic. So yeah, to bring it back to your question, it’s been extremely cathartic, not just cleaning the physical space, but cleaning out the embodied space of myself that I was trapped in. Breaking it down, restructuring it, understanding it all and archiving it back into place. That was really healing and I loved that.

“In life I feel vitality. If you pick up this leaf and place it there, it has your vitality until I come and disturb that”.

Pointing up at the trees Jenna tells me this…

“At the start of lockdown these trees were green and then everyday a torrent of leaves would fall down so I’d pick all these leaves up again and again. There was something about structuring and making order of this space over and over and in multiple iterations. So everyday I would start at the bottom of my garden”.

Speaking about structure and routine…

In my art… Let me just qualify that by saying I get a little obsessive compulsive. In my art the canvas is blank and you can go in any multitude of directions and it’s so vast that it implodes on itself and you have to put some kind of structure into it in order to feel that spark and be able to stochastically move through things. That’s why I set little arbitrary rules for myself, like I can only put so much time into this particular thing to this extent, especially on a field trip when I’m looking for a rock. I have this much time in this area and then I just walk”.

“I’ve never felt more terrified or empowered to say no in my life and just to allow myself to be in this space and to let the mind go wild and really embrace the chaos and the strange dark depths. Let’s go there and let’s feel down into that space”.

Jenna mentioned that she hadn’t been creating any new work since the announcement of the lockdown and that she’s been consolidating, fixing and maintaining works that sold, but can’t be delivered just yet and she mentioned her “Sound Painting” collaboration with artist JJ van Schalkwyk. You can go view some of it on Instagram.

“I’m working with EEG data (brainwave recordings). This is Jaco’s mind while he was creating the artwork. It’s woven into the back of this painting and that’s my contribution to the piece. You then reveal it through different parts of close contact with the artwork. It’s forever shifting and changing. For example, I wove the theta waves which is the subconscious into the classically dark parts of the image and then I wove structural awareness – so when you are looking at the world around you which are alpha waves – into the high detail parts of the painting et cetera. I played with the classical division of the brainwaves into the different parts of the painting”.

BB: What have you’ve learnt about yourself?

JB: Accepting the imperfections in my work and allowing them to be, which is ironic, because everything in my work is about imperfection and yet I don’t allow myself that space to be a learning, growing thing. I expect myself to be perfect constantly and performing at peak all the time and it destroyed me.

Editors Note: 

Jenna mentioned little sounds and “glitches” the sound painting has and right in the middle of this thought I heard it.



To let that “glitch” go is really difficult for me, but it is what it is now and I need to learn to let go and let the imperfections exist. Everything I believe about technology is that it is very organic and can’t be absolutely controlled. This is a case of learning to let go of control of technology, of perfection of the voice in my head, letting go of enforcing control over things and allowing space for it to be imperfect.

“Three years ago my whole world changed. I was living as an artist. There was no distinction between the two things. The person and the artist. To step back from that and say I’m a person too, I also deserve life and deserve to figure out who I am. Not just through art”.

BB: What do you miss the least about life before?

JB: Before there was a lot of stoicism a lot of being closed off and in this pandemic I’ve felt less alone than ever in my life. Suddenly there is an allowance for anxiety and sorrow and turbulence and self reflection.
It feels like there are more people going through things that I am going through. We’re all suddenly dealing with the same thing. People have made themselves vulnerable.

The biggest thing I don’t miss is the isolation of being in your own mind.

Editors Note: The sound portrait made a sound as Jenna was putting on one of the vinyls that form part of the Sound Project and she thought how can the vinyl be playing when the stylus is up and I realized it was the sound portrait. Here’s what she had to say.

“This is the part about the work that blows my mind. I’m constantly seeking for some form of redemption, something that is more than just the facts. Something that says there is something else in the world that we just don’t understand. Shit like that happens and I realize there is stuff I just don’t get’“.

BB: How do you see the art world changing because of this and do you think it’s ready to adapt to the changes?

JB: We touched on it briefly before. The art world has responded with just throwing things online. The exposure of art has been very closed off and highbrow and inaccessible to people.
The biggest descentralizer of experience and information is online where suddenly almost everyone can have access to everything.

Two directions I see:
1. The decentralization of space so things are more accessible. If you just put a painting online it falls flat. How do you create meaning online? What can I do in virtual space that conveys the meaning of my work, so it’s going to force me to branch out and I honestly needed to.

2. The other side of the coin. Art has been so interlinked with social economic politics. The word social more so now than ever. For me the center of my practice has always been people, community and places. My desire to communicate with people to hear them, to in some way represent them and their voices when they are not heard. I think there is going to be a huge move toward relational aesthetics more social aesthetics and more integration between mediums.

BB: What has kept you hopeful?

JB: That’s interesting because feeling immense bouts of despair has kind of riddled this time. Hopeful that it’s possible for something to change over night, that the path we’re on isn’t rigid.

I suppose the “classics”, it’s possible to lessen pollution, to live with less, to have a different future. That gives me hope. As for myself – shedding the constructs I’ve built in my own mind and realizing there is hope for me to be calmer and slower and more accepting.

I wouldn’t venture into the realm of where my career is going, yet. That’s still unknown. There is a saying from varsity, that when our life is doing well our art career is bad and when our art career is doing well our life is bad. Ha ha… 
So life feels better, but the art career is going through a difficult rebirth. 

There was nothing short of this that was going to stop the train I was on and to take the time off in the middle of a big commission and take a step back has been the most rewarding experience.
Even just given time to sit with this project (The Sound Portrait) and reflect on it and not producing anything right now. But of course the little voice is always there, saying you should be producing things.

Editors Note: There were a few more avenues Jenna and I took and explored, but I don’t think they fit in with the interview. We spoke about music whilst listening to the Sound Portraits on vinyl and we touched on another one of her projects titled No Man’s Land. It was a little difficult to decide which of these two things to focus on, but I think the Sound Portraits made more sense for this story.

Thank you for reading.

Editors Note: Answers edited for conciseness.