TALYA LUBINSKY: Alchemy of ash

The Wits Anthropology Department reopened its Museum collection with "If we burn there is ash". An exhibition by Talya Lubinsky with contributing artists Meghan Judge, Tshegofatso Mabaso and Thandiwe Msebenzi and performances by Lebohang Masango and Healer Oran. Wits University, Johannesburg. PICTURE LAUREN MULLIGAN
The Wits Anthropology Department reopened its Museum collection with “If we burn there is ash”. An exhibition by Talya Lubinsky with contributing artists Meghan Judge, Tshegofatso Mabaso and Thandiwe Msebenzi and performances by Lebohang Masango and Healer Oran. Wits University, Johannesburg. PICTURE LAUREN MULLIGAN

Ashes of memory

the flames are the fleeting moment, and the ash what is left of it all, lingering almost imperceptibly, but nevertheless present. Ash is a physical remnant of fire, a trace that regenerates itself since it can be used as an ingredient in cement mixtures. This kind of alchemy of ash is part of what Marble Dust is about: connecting materiality with history, memory with fire, paper with history, cracked pages with the layers of time.

On the one hand, marble is solid, a stone made from the calcium of bones and shells of sea creatures. On the other, dust scatters, born from ground rock it turns into fine particles that hover in the air and group into piles on the ground.

The Wits Anthropology Department reopened its Museum collection with "If we burn there is ash". An exhibition by Talya Lubinsky with contributing artists Meghan Judge, Tshegofatso Mabaso and Thandiwe Msebenzi and performances by Lebohang Masango and Healer Oran. Wits University, Johannesburg. PICTURE LAUREN MULLIGAN
Talya Lubinsky, The Livingstone Door, Goethe on Main, Johannesburg, 2014

The marble slabs that make up the components of the installation are carved out of the shapes of paper. The outlines of the marble follow those of pages from cemetery records that are torn and falling apart.

The records are from a cemetery in the Mamelodi township north of Pretoria where political prisoners who were hanged for their antiapartheid activism, were buried without gravestones.

Now, 60 years later, their bones have disintegrated to the point that they have become dust.

The marble’s shape (the papers’ broken edges) adds an element of fragility to the stone. The paper speaks of impermanence, of the passing of time -a quality which is usually not associated with gravestones.

The Wits Anthropology Department reopened its Museum collection with "If we burn there is ash". An exhibition by Talya Lubinsky with contributing artists Meghan Judge, Tshegofatso Mabaso and Thandiwe Msebenzi and performances by Lebohang Masango and Healer Oran. Wits University, Johannesburg. PICTURE LAUREN MULLIGAN
The Wits Anthropology Department reopened its Museum collection with “If we burn there is ash”. An exhibition by Talya Lubinsky with contributing artists Meghan Judge, Tshegofatso Mabaso and Thandiwe Msebenzi and performances by Lebohang Masango and Healer Oran. Wits University, Johannesburg. PICTURE LAUREN MULLIGAN

If we burn, there is ash

What guides you in your choice of materials?

My materials are always embedded in the meaning of the work. For the exhibition, If we burn, there is ash, I used ash and cement as materials to investigate the potential aftermaths of fire and burning in relation to colonial collections of material culture.

In Floating Bodies, I used sandbags as a metaphor for the human imperative to create barriers against the natural power of a flood, which is imagined as a force of history. In previous work, I used sand. I like this idea of particles of sand, that when they’re dispersed they’re individual grains; when they come together they’re a heap, a mountain, a dune.

This idea of lots of disparate things coming together guides me in my practice.

Talya Lubinsky, Floating Bodies. Exhibition at Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, 2017
Talya Lubinsky, Floating Bodies. Exhibition at Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, 2017
TALYA LUBINSKY: Alchemy of ash 1

Dust Transformation

What do minerals like rocks and stones mean to you?

This is the first time I’ve worked with stone.

I find it fascinating how these slabs of marble are actually alive: when you cut into them they have a scent, like sulphur, the gas that got caught in the stone for thousands of years.

The actual material of marble -and I’ve only just found this out- is compressed fish bones, formed under the ocean.

Water, earth and fire all connected.

For this project, I enjoyed committing to one material. I like the contrast between the marble that is heavy, strong, fixed- and the dust.

Talya Lubinsky, Marble Dust, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2020

Talya Lubinsky, Exhibition View, Marble Dust, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2020
Talya Lubinsky, Exhibition View, Marble Dust, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2020
TALYA LUBINSKY: Alchemy of ash 6

The carving itself creates such quantities of dust, the room in the workshop where I worked was completely transformed with a layer of dust covering every surface.

It seems that time is imbedded in them…

Yes, rocks make us think about long geological time, on a completely different scale.

Would you consider yourself spiritual?

Yes. I was brought up in a traditional Jewish family.

The way I relate to Judaism is a cultural affiliation, the rituals are important to me.

Observing the Jewish festivals creates a different sense of time, outside of the flows of capitalist, secular structures.

Talya Lubinsky. Photo courtesy of the Artist

To what extent does literature inform your practice?

I write and read poetry. One of my best friends is a poet and I have used excerpts of her poems as titles for some of my works, like ‘If we burn there is ash’ or ‘Floating bodies’.

It’s a weird push and pull: there are specific archives and histories I want to integrate, contextual, political issues to talk about, but then at some point these are distilled into more universal themes, which is where they become art, or metaphor.

Talya Lubinsky, Exhibition View, Marble Dust, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2020
Talya Lubinsky, Exhibition View, Marble Dust, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2020

Re-thinking fixed memories

Can you tell us more about your choice of materials and the symbolic meaning of elements in Marble Dust?

What I like about elemental materials is that they are quite universal, like open signifiers.

For Marble Dust I wanted to re-think monuments to the deceased as not only made of marble, but also of paper, in order to disturb the notion of fixed memory.

Talya Lubinsky, Exhibition View, Marble Dust, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2020
Talya Lubinsky, Exhibition View, Marble Dust, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2020

The stone becomes the embodiment of that heavy, solid narrative, the paper and the dust embody an ephemerality that can be associated with human life, but also with the nature of memory itself.

Talya Lubinsky’s installations explore the poetry of memory, identity, and time. Her project Marble Dust at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien was the starting point for our conversation when we met in her studio in Berlin.

Find out more about Talya Lubinsky´s work on her website!

Author: Alexandra Etienne