Memories in ‘Limbo’: Brett Murray’s bronzes sculpt ghosts from my childhood
The creatures gazing outward to some imminent event, exemplify a state of innocence, not still, but thrust headlong into the experience and therefore capture something, a mere flash, of the rush of a soul from itself.
pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss’d, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.
— John Keats, On a Dream
Over a video call Brett Murray speaks to me in a Cape Town accent I haven’t heard for a long time. He sits at his computer, surrounded by children’s things – many recognisable from my own childhood memories: action figures, two large and slightly deflated golden birthday balloons say “11”, Halloween decorations, puzzles, Lego constructions, brightly coloured children’s books. He tells me that when he’s in a bad mood, Sanell – that is, his wife, Sanell Agenbach – says to him, “for fuck’s sake Brett, go and make something”, and he disappears into his studio for a couple of hours. He explains that his working progress, like this, is quite basically cathartic. He’s in a discoloured T-shirt, which gives him the appearance of having just come out of one of these therapeutic sessions.
I ask him if it was at all difficult to use these same “tools” used on politicians as he has on his family. Namely, the same reduction of form, the same methods and techniques, which in previous exhibitions have been used to ridicule, mock and parody.
“In this latest exhibition of bronzes these techniques are used rather to represent loved ones,” I say to him. “What was used to attack in this work is now used to express love; so it feels like mockery becomes something endearing, like the silliness of an inside joke, a kind of teasing.”
Murray’s new bronze works – which were exhibited for the first time in the UK at the Everard Read Gallery in London in November 2021 – seem to move inward, towards silence rather than towards speech. Even the titles of the works are single monosyllabic words (such as Loom, Witness, Shield, Omen), showing an awareness of the weight of language rather than the readiness to speak out that characterises his earlier work.
The same hands used in the past to caricature the powerful are used, in a manner of speaking, to tickle the child-feet of his sons, to be playful and tender and peel the fruit of love to its pulpy interior. But he seems uninterested; what seems to me to be a contradiction or a difficulty is, for him, completely easy and natural, an organic process:
“For a while now, I’ve been looking for a different material. I was finding the stark, very black patinas of my bronzes had a particular language… It was almost always about perpetrators rather than about people. The same animals that I am using now were the targets of my vitriol. They were the patriarchs, they were the predators, etc. And I had been wanting for a while to do something that was about people, that was more human based,” he says. “You know, that was about my family perhaps, and about my friends, and about us; so what you were saying – to rather look internal, and look inside.”
His eyes close in concentration as he speaks, emphasising with easy gestures that remind me of my father’s hand movements.
“It came to me when I started working with marble on my last show. I had made a series of maquettes. They are light grey in colour, a much lighter material that I make in preparation for my bronzes.
“I had half a dozen of these in my studio and the tone and the colouring, and what they started resonating was a vulnerability even though they were about perpetrators. And it was that I was looking for. And on the same day, Sanell walked into my studio and she looked around and she said, ‘these would look great in marble’. I didn’t know what marble would do to these forms. And actually they have made them much more intimate, much more sensual, much more quiet,” he notes.
“There’s silence,” I say.
“In the marble specifically,” he agrees. “Whereas before, in the bronze, you might reference military things and shields and armoury. In the marble, there is a totally different resonance. And it’s the physical nature of the marble that encouraged me to loosen up, actually, for these same forms to be more intimate and private and able to talk about vulnerability. Even though there is only one marble in this show, which is from the previous show. It was what the marble brought to my forms which I decided to pursue.”
My earliest experiences of art, like most, came from my parents. Both artists themselves, our home was full of images on the walls, objects cluttered the surfaces. A large framed replica print hung in my parents’ room: a black-and-white photograph of a woman leaning her head into the embrace of her own folded arms. It was beautiful, but I was too young for such serious ideas. To me, the photo was simply there in the same way the mahogany wardrobe was there; or the way the wooden carved angel missing an arm was there; the way mom’s dresser on which the angel stood was simply there. The picture was so still. It preceded my own existence, in a sense, was already in the world, or more precisely it made up the world around me, my notion of home, gave me a context, held me in this environment, as my mother would hold my head to her in an embrace so familiar that it could dispel all troubles and all thoughts and allow my own presence to be felt within myself slowed to the tempo of her stroking hand.
I left the house to go to school, to play in the street or the garden, while the picture stayed stationary, reliable and ever-present in the recesses of my mind, as a synecdoche of that home. There it hung, day after day, undemanding of my attention. I did not wonder who the woman was or why she was photographed in such a peculiar way, a white aura around her.
On occasion, I simply stared at it, sometimes at the fine dust particles that had accumulated in the corners adhering to the glass. And like this, the vague animals of my thought stirred, moved slowly at first, not around the picture, but from it, held by its familiarity, they wandered aimlessly through my consciousness, through the recollections of my day, perhaps, my week, school, friends, family, and even deeper into memories no longer attached to clear images but just the impressions, fragments and sensations left behind.
This all seemed to arrive as if directly from the surface of the photograph itself like spindrift or as light emanates from the filament of a light bulb.
It was only many years later that I even heard the name Man Ray, and another 10 or so years before I came to associate his photography with someone I had fallen in love with, and so came to appreciate his work with some intelligence.
A photographer herself, she lived in an old, rundown sweet factory in Limehouse near the Thames which had been turned into ramshackle artist studios, graffiti covering every wall. And it was from there that I took the Underground, in a marble-coloured fog, to Chelsea to see Brett Murray’s exhibition. That was the last time I visited her there, and so it was to her that my mind bent as I entered the gallery.
Murray is a close friend of my parents and his own work was among the many objects around our house. His pop-art wall lights especially, which, my father told me, he made for years to pay the bills: a penguin in a tuxedo serving a martini hung in my bedroom; a pink panther with an Afro, was in the lounge; and two hearts with the Afrikaans word liefie, “my love”, hung also in my parents’ room.
You could imagine Murray’s exhibitions to be family affairs, and in many ways they have remained so, the exhibition in Chelsea being the first I’ve seen without my family present. In this way, despite the explicit political content of his work, Murray’s presence in my own imagination has always belonged, like the Man Ray image of the woman resting in her grey-pale arms, to my ideas of home and the warm interiority of childhood.
In fact, I felt for a long time stupefied by the political content, which always escaped me as a child, but which also remained like a shroud, or rather like a vapour of mystery and importance around the sculptures, prints, paintings, posters. At these exhibitions invariably there would be a discussion about the current political situation and, not understanding, I listened attentively for a name I might recognise – the playful double syllables of Tutu or Winnie – and mouth these quietly to myself as though this was the key to adulthood. “Politics” came to represent to me everything that was secret, important and difficult about art and art, in turn, came to symbolise growing up.
Murray’s show at the Everard Read Gallery in London consisted of about a dozen small plinths, each with a small bronze sculpture, arranged in a kind of grid to cover the room so that one must walk between them to see each of the works. A deep-red-painted wall as a backdrop, a Scorsese red rather than a communist red, which in itself seems to mark a movement from Brett the agitation-propagandist to Brett the aesthetician.
The sculptures appear to be of animals – rabbits, donkeys, birds, gorillas, monkeys – rendered in a playful, stylistic manner, like children’s soft toys or cartoons. Some are alone, some are in a tender embrace, others seem alienated from one another, contemplative. They were illuminated reverently by spotlights, in which they seemed confused and lost, even blind, I thought. They reminded me in this way of a man I had seen one evening peering strenuously out of his brightly lit apartment, cupping his hands to his eyes, trying to make out the street below. All the passers-by, including myself, could see him illuminated perfectly in his lightbox, but he, surrounded by light, was completely blind to everything outside his little world.
Each sculpture seemed also alone on its own lightbox, what Murray described to me as “awkward, isolated islands”, blind to the other’s existence, blind to me and the other gallery visitors. Most of these animals look upward as though at the sky, in anticipation for something to arrive, happen, for an answer, for meaning.
Heartbreak, according to Roland Barthes, renders the world thunderstruck: “various objects – whose familiarity usually comforts me – the gray roofs, the noises of the city, everything seems inert to me, cut off, thunderstruck like a waste planet.”
These animals around me are like Adam and Eve, suddenly aware of their nakedness and shame, awaiting the fall: a sculpture of two donkeys called Tether, isolated from the world in their embrace, look up as if they have just heard the first crack of thunder.
Writing now, from a few notes and memories, Murray’s small sculptured creatures reveal to me something of my state of mind at that time.
Lost and frantic, identifying with the émigré protagonists of the novels I was reading, it seems to me now that I was living in a kind of mist. I can only describe this as a fugue state in which my previous life, my previous self, lived only in my memory. Fugue from fugere means “to flee”: a fugitive from love, from childhood, and from home. The sculptures, so intimate and anxious, made from the same eye, the same hand, as those objects of Murray that hang in my parents’ home so very many kilometres away, where I used to sleep to the sound of the ocean in the distance, felt like ghosts of the past. The colours of these sculptures, their earthy, soft patinas, represented the landscape of that home, the colours of the dry soil that the protea emerges from, the rocks and caves damp from mountain springs, the fynbos scorched by seasonal fires.
Beset by memories and history, I felt their sad comfort turn to something that reminded me of the mushrooms in Derek Mahon’s famous poem, who beg us to remember them, the lost people of Pompei and Treblinka. Under scrutiny, these memories, my own and the entire terrible history of South Africa even, seemed increasingly fictitious, like I had created them myself. Rather than comforting me the deteriorating memories now represented by these small, wide-eyed creatures threatened to derail my entire sense of self.
“An image that came to mind, when I saw all those figures looking fairly scared and terrified, I mean this sounds fucking pretentious, but it reminded me of – in Pompei and in earthquakes and sandstorms, you have skeletons that have been exposed in poses of intimacy. There is a beautiful mother and child, literally like my sculptures, looking up at impending doom. Then they’re exposed, and I suppose as a human being you relate to that there is a kind of relationship you have with that. The kind of intimacy and pathos. It was a surprise,” he explains.
I think of Barthes, who in Camera Lucida gives an account of mourning through photographs. He becomes frustrated by the many photographs left behind of his mother’s image because, to him, none of these images captures her essence. Eventually, he finds one that does this for him, but curiously, it is one of his mother as a child, before Barthes has been born. He writes however that in this photo a certain pose or gesture brought forward the realisation that the light which came off her summer dress literally is the light which impressed itself, imposed itself, or exposed itself to the strip of photographic film, the same light literally which Barthes receives with his eyes. He says that contrary to the photograph as merely a fiction as Susan Sontag would say, what is recorded by the camera, however rehearsed, set-up, fictionalised, has without a doubt for a moment paused, posed, still, even for a split second, in front of the lense.
Murray’s sculptures are not photographs, but he frequently refers to them as “exposed”, like the ash figures of Pompei. Through the zoomorphism, through the stylistics, what Barthes calls the studium (“more or less stylised, more or less successful”), a certain posture, a certain essential characteristic particular to his child, his wife, to himself, is held in the sculptures.
This is what is captured, exposed as though swerving toward me. The secret intimacy of a family that is not mine, but also the secret intimacy of being (Barthes’s frustration that even this photograph is in fact, under his scrutiny, blurred, uncertain and foreign to him). It is at the same time from where I am pricked, made to feel moved toward and away like the vertices of the hyperbola (“to throw beyond”) swerving in and away from each other.
The punctum, Barthes’s word for that which pricks me in the photo: punkt, the German word for “a point, a full stop”, but also a small hole, puncture, an ordering and a rupture, an asymptote. “The punctum is a kind of subtle beyond,” Barthes says, “ – as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see […] toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together.”
If the little face of this bronze monkey, gazing up at the viewer, were even a fraction lower, or its posture a little straighter, a little happier, it would not have captured the playfulness of Murray’s son so accurately. A little sooner or a little later, this perfect pose would have been missed; it is exposed at the right degree, the right angle, the right moment in time.
The bright little rabbits looking skyward, Witness and Protect, are inspired by the formal precision of Netsuke button fasteners. The capture of the sculptures, the eidos, is so slight, so deft, so quiet, so seemingly natural, that its contradictions – what seem to be the impossibilities of the execution – are overcome with the naturalness and ease of a breath, the naturalness with which Sanell could say “these would look great in marble”.
I return to the image of the two monkeys in their moulded embrace named Shield. As I had once stared at the Man Ray reproduction in my parents’ room, and like the anguished eyes of the philosopher who pores over the image of his mother as a child, my stare was full of hands, full of mouths. It leached to the light they fed me which rose to meet me faster than my eyes could drink. And here, myself floating just above this sculpture, I experienced a strange stasis, my breathing slowed to the pulse of their slow, undulating postures, arriving. And somewhere inside me, beneath the troubled surface of my consciousness, I felt calm.
My desire to flee from my own loss of identity to one which seemed to me held, fixed, pure, within the frozen bronze postures of these animals, was an attempt at surrogation, a nostalgia for meaning, a lonely rage. But in fact, the creatures gazing outward to some imminent event, exemplify a state of innocence, not still, but thrust headlong into the experience and therefore capture something, a mere flash, of the rush of a soul from itself. In this way, like a pencil hovering above the image it draws, like a strange moon above a planet, I experienced these bound figures as a kind of map of my own way. DM/ML