Songsmith (Fragile Homes)

Interactive sound sculpture
41 x 41 x 40 cm
M1, Kiaat, brass electroplating, speaker, circuit
1 Original & 4 Editions

Songsmith is a trade mark of Jenna Burchell

Click here to see a video of Fragile Home

"Life walks the land only temporarily. Only memory keeps it alive until that too fades." 

In a form of ritual creationism, Burchell’s Fragile Home takes the skeleton of an Tortoise, found fractured and bleached in the Cradle of Humankind1, South Africa, and turns it into a functional vessel. By forging technology into and around this vessel, it is carefully rebuilt. Burchell replaces its missing pieces with golden sound instruments called 'Songsmith'2. The resulting artwork holds within, a song that can be revealed when an audience member brings their hands near.
Tortoises have an important role in mythologies around the world. They are often implicated in creation myths regarding the origin of the earth. They are also an emblem of longevity and stability in many cultures. Its shell, which it uses for protection, is often referred to as a home. Referencing to these mythologies and histories, Burchell fuses the organic and the technological to create a new kind of time capsule. Its circuit build heart is intended to protect against forgetting and safeguard nostalgia in the form of a hidden song.
Song has long been a powerful source of cultural identity and a unifying force. For example, a 100 years ago nostalgia was considered an illness. People suffering from nostalgia experienced manic longing specific to an object or place.  History writes that Swiss soldiers where especially susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular song called ‘Khue-Reyen’. Singing this song became punishable by death during the Thirty Year War as it caused dissention in the soldier’s camps. Similarly during apartheid in South Africa, songs like ‘Weeping’ were banned because they became powerful cultural symbols of the anti-Apartheid movement 3
Fragile Home’s song is an in-situ recording from the exact location where this skeleton was found. This is referenced by the GPS co-ordinates engraved onto the artwork’s plinth. Captured with the help of geophysicists and ground penetrating radar, Fragile Home’s song is a recording of the layers of land going down six meters into the ground. Six meters becomes a depth representing eons of time. It also makes reference to the six meters of change in the ocean levels that scientists predict will radically reshape the world’s coastline and affect millions of people’s homes.
The song becomes like a forbidden fruit that we cannot grasp or control.  It is a mournful reminder that life walks its homeland only temporarily and memory can only keep it alive until that too fades. Even the longest empire is ultimately ephemeral over deep time; time that goes on beyond what we can imagine.
Engraved on the artwork's plinth is a hieroglyphic that asks the audience to bring their hands near to the shell to listen. This ritual performance of veiling and unveiling song seeks to meditate on a space wherein we can battle against forgetting, safeguard memory, and long for home to always stay safe.
In Burchell’s practice the technological heart of her works are in a constant, organic performance that plays out between hardware, software, environment and interactions with an audience. This organic, performative element allows the artworks to take on their own ‘life’, becoming what Burchell calls ‘living sculptures’.

1. The Cradle of Humankind was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999. This unique area spanning 50 000 hectres is situated not far from Johannesburg, South Africa. It has yielded some of the most important fossil finds of ancient human ancestors. These Fossil Hominid Sites are of outstanding global value, yeilding finds such as Mrs Ples, Little Foot, Taung Child Skull, Australopithecus Sediba and recently described Homo Naledi. The Homo Naledi fossil has been dated at an astoundingly precise 1.97 million years before present and therefore offers a fascinating window into our distant past and how we have evolved as a species. 

2. Songsmith TM (n.). In Burchell’s practice she has created the noun ‘songsmith’ to refer to a golden object embedded with a sound instrument.  In creating a songsmith the artist follows a method based on the Japanese art and philosophy of Kintsukuroi (n.) (v.phr.), which translates as “to repair with gold”. This is the art of repairing pottery with gold lacquer and sense that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken and showing it’s rich history. 

3. ‘Weeping’ is an anti-Apartheid protest song written by Dan Heymann in the mid 1980s and performed by the South African group Bright Blue in 1987. It contained the lyrics ‘"Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" that were banned at the time as they were part of the African National Congress’s anthem of the anti-Apartheid movement.  
Other Interesting Notes:

Strangely, unlike Burchell’s previous recordings with this same methodology, this song presented with an unusual pulsing sound – reminiscent of a heartbeat.

Burchell's works that contain objects, like this Tortoise skeleton from Fragile Home, are collected in an expedition like processes. This skeleton was collected, documented and archived during Burchells residency at Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind during 2016. Other works that came from this expedition were the ten rocks from the Songsmith (Cradle of Humankind) Collection.

This skeleton is of an Angulate Tortoise. It is native to Southern Africa. Although not endangered it is on a CITES restriction list for importing and exporting along side Whale Bone and Ivory. This is because with improper monitoring it can move into the endangered category. In respect of this, the artwork is made of replica bone that the artist moulded from the original skeleton. There are 4 editions of the replica. The original skeleton is kept in reserve with its correct permits in place.