Sounds from Home


Jenna Burchell, a native of Pretoria, creates interactive installations and is also a performance artist. Her soundscape exhibition, Homing, is making its debut at the Festival.

Entering the gallery, one encounters a forest of suspended copper wires in two sections: one is the soundscape of Pretoria and the other, that of Grahamstown.

Jenna Burchell with her art exhibition Homing at Rhodes School of Art. Photo: Jane Berg
Jenna Burchell with her art exhibition Homing at Rhodes School of Art. Photo: Jane Berg

The wires are set in floor-to-ceiling bars, in a total collection of eight sound harps. Each set of harps of various configurations contains a set of seven wires that sport a total of 70 distinctly different sounds. The experience is unexpected, playful and utterly engaging as people touch the wires and access familiar and exotic sounds of various intensities.

Walking around the room, Burchell played the copper wires like the strings of a huge harp, reaching from the wooden floors to the high ceilings of the exhibition room. With each touch of the wires she would paint a portrait of a time in her life, revealing the soundscapes of the two cities she navigates between.

Her aim is to have audiences experience the space in a very personal way. “Families migrate from place to place and it is important that when people move, they can attain a sense of – ‘I’m home!’ One way to achieve that is to hear familiar sound around you,” Burchell says.

Burchell was inspired by the work of legendary allegoric composer and music theorist John Cage (1912-1992). Although she loves the way Cage arranged his music to a set amount of possible compositions, she has taken it a step further and opened it up to have the audiences create an unlimited number of personal compositions.

The Pretoria installation echoed more impersonal, distant sounds such as rolling thunder, the industrial noises of the city and the first morning rain, recorded at 4am on Burchell’s balcony. Grahamstown sounds were more communal and eccentric, like the clangs of the cathedral church bells, the voices of local poets, and the strumming of a local street musician who has religiously played his guitar on the same street corner every day for the past 13 years.

“I can’t say I’m at home in either one of the cities, but more that I exist right here,” says Burchell, standing directly between the two installations. “We live in a global village with phone calls and Skype sessions connecting us through sound. This is me coming to terms with the diaspora of people and sewing it all back together through sound.”

What Burchell has essentially done, is archive the sounds of a certain place at a certain time in history, allowing audience members to access them exactly as they were. As you walk around the room, tentatively touching the wires, melodies create memories, sounds combine to form symphonies, and you find yourself returning to a place you can call home.

Homing is embarking on a three-city tour through Grahamstown, Pretoria and Johannesburg as a final stop. Not to be missed.

Homing, Rhodes School of Art Studio Gallery, daily 9am to 5pm

– Dave Mann and Isabel M. Castro