The fire that destroyed Shany van den Berg’s home haunts her exhibition, (In)filtration of Time, but it is not immediately apparent.

It is a biographical tidbit that offers a deeper reading of this intriguing exhibition concerned with the evolution of the female identity and existential questions about the passing of time and what it is to be alive.

It is hard to think why these two themes shouldn’t be interlinked. Perhaps we are programmed to believe that any dialogue about the female body has to do with appearances and not deeper universal issues that also pertain to men.

Yet the exhibition is a deeply feminist one. The link between clothing and the female identity lingers. The works in the entrance of the cavernous Circa gallery in Cape Town pivot on silhouettes of ideal-looking female bodies, which are cut out from a coarse linen and allude to pattern pieces of garments or mock traditional couture.

In collapsing the female form into a garment, she drives home the idea of how clothing "births" the female body rather than it being structured to fit a body. In this way, women are issued off production lines.

This idea is further advanced through a hanging installation of a bolt of fabric exposing the negative shapes of the cut-out female bodies.

Small distorted female sculptures that don’t fit the mould appear to be discarded, like faulty works on a factory floor.

Or, perhaps they were once perfect and were disfigured by a fire? You can’t help thinking this, if you are aware of Van Den Berg’s life story.

She arrived at her home in Paarl 24 years ago to find it had burnt to the ground. She lost all her belongings and it appears something less tangible was also destroyed — the person she had been before.

The loss of all the anchors that shaped her identity presented an opportunity to reinvent who she was. This led to a journey of self-discovery to find out who she was beyond being a wife or a mother.

Works such as It is Written in the Clouds, which presents hundreds of cut-out bodies in different positions and configurations across a large canvas, point to a restless spirit searching for a place, an identity.

The sartorial link feeds into this identity crisis as it is through clothing that the self can find expression — particularly for women who are stereotypically judged by their appearance. Van den Berg offers a picture of the ideal in the portrait of Gaia — a young, beautiful woman with flawless skin. In contrast, there are portraits of androgynous female figures with puckered skin marked by time.

They are not only old, but weathered. Their clothing is in tatters, evoking the fire that destroyed Van den Berg’s home and shattered her life.

The fire that haunts this exhibition and her life reaches through time and "infiltrates" it. This fact makes everything before seem unreal, a fantasy.

The further away she moves from it, the older she becomes and the closer the flames lick at her life, eroding memory and history further.

Despite her restless spirit, Van den Berg chooses to discard clothing; she doesn’t represent change through dress, but through multiple forms or weathered portraits against black backgrounds

It would be an oversimplification to suggest Van den Berg is concerned with the ageing female body, though it is significant that an unflattering self-portrait hangs in a room where she has displayed the pages of a visual diary she set out to create more than a year ago, producing an artwork a day.

The diary almost functions as the bulwark against time’s onward march — it allows Van den Berg to hold on to moments and days, gather their essence and give them shape. Her daily artworks cover a long table and could take days to study. The sheer volume and weight of a diary allows the creator to physically weigh time and create the illusion of agency.

Van den Berg keeps returning to the female figure in the daily works. They are a short-hand for her identity and perhaps her unwillingness to settle for one.

Despite her restless spirit, Van den Berg chooses to discard clothing; she doesn’t represent change through dress, but through multiple forms or weathered portraits against black backgrounds.

Her pared-down, neutral palette and black backgrounds allow her to tackle the notions of an essential self, a fluctuating spirit that is old and young, weary and worn but still twitching with energy and hope, an intensely vibrating aliveness that keeps the body constantly moving towards its unknown end.

• (In)filtration of Time shows at the Circa Cape Town until October 31. Join the artist for a walkabout on October 28  at 11am.

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