Reflecting on the in-between: Megan-Leigh Heilig on understanding “reality”

This summer, BOZAR is hosting Somewhere In Between, an exhibition which celebrates the vast array of art practices in Europe and tells the stories of anyone who’s someone in the diverse world of European contemporary art. Spread across different venues within Belgium and constellations further afield, it showcases the artistic dialogue taking place in the continent today.

As part of BOZAR’s ambitious show, Brussels-based curators Romuald Demidenko and Hélène Jacques have prepared Fremdkörper: Non-normative body and voice mapping, a group exhibition of voices both upcoming and established, to explore the elusive boundaries between physical corporalities and abstract identities. For the occasion, we’ve invited five of the signed artists to showcase their works.

South African native and filmmaker Megan-Leigh Heilig (1993) is one of the artists to look out for at the exhibition. Albeit a newcomer to the European art scene, she’s determined to make her mark: this year alone, her work will be showcased at festivals in Antwerp, France and Spain. She tells us how she incorporates a range of diverse art forms to grasp reality and question conceptions of time and history.

At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?

The idea of the camera as a device which records “reality”, or the construction of a reality, and the question of what reality and whose reality is recorded is of interest to me. The relationship with power which exists in the space between the subject of the film, their voice, and the person filming is a very limited space, sometimes only the focal length of a camera lens. In only 50, 100 or 85mm, the history of a person or place can be contained, constructed or fragmented. This space can also become an enormous void, where much is lost in the transition of one “reality” into another – into language, images and representations. The camera is like a weapon: it shoots, it takes and the outcome is often only a trace of what was there before. It is inherently violent and deeply associated with notions of sexuality, sex, race, class and gender.

What is its starting point and statement?

Sometimes I already have an idea of what the story should look like, in terms of narration or sound, and other times the story reveals itself to me frame by frame in the sequence and rhythm of images and sounds. Objects and ideas that come out of this footage often re-emerge in the form of installations, containing in their materiality the memory or experience of ambivalence, anger, love or violence expressed by the storyteller. The voice of the narrator or actor becomes fragmented, it questions itself and reveals its own uncertainty concerning the story.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

My work consists of a range of diverse mediums and collaborative practices; including multi-layered installation, sculpture, printmaking, photography, video and film. I use the camera as a way to test, experiment, and, ask questions about history and power in private and public archives and spaces. Sometimes these questions concern the uncertainty of memory, the abuse of power and the negotiation of responsibility. It is also an attempt to queer the archive, in order to engage different sexual and loving relationships and possibilities of imagining the past and the future. I record and edit images and create objects and installations that reflect on the in-between spaces, by layering narratives, images, situations and experiences that engage shifting positions of power in relationships and everyday conversation.

In only 50, 100 or 85mm, the history of a person or place can be contained, constructed or fragmented.

What characterises your work?

The camera becomes a character in many of my films, not only the actual materiality of the film, or even the camera as an object (the movements of the camera), but also the editing software. The timeline within the editing software becomes a record of time. Editing presents the possibility to go backwards and forwards in history while remaining in the present moment. The limitations which the camera presents offer different ways of working with or against the linearity of “real” time. I spend my time recording and collecting images and objects that surround me, with a logic that often begins with the personal but always engages a public (elsewhere). Once I have collected footage, and begin to edit it, I start to play with and against this logic, with the uncertainty of images, fictions and historical “truths”. The editing process is one of the most important aspects of creating my work, it is where the story unfolds.

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

Many of my works start with a personal experience or a story I’ve heard. I then look into the historical narratives that surround that story, the things that have been overlooked or forgotten about within that history. I record images and spaces which I feel complicate or explicate the questions I have formed or collected. The editing software is where these fragments come together or fall apart. How I show the work is as important as the thing itself, so as I am researching, I begin to collect objects and traces which emerge from the research surrounding the work, and this often results in an installation.

What series and/or project are you currently working on?

At the moment, I am working on a series of short films: And I Asked… is the first of the series and is currently on show in the Somewhere In Between exhibition at BOZAR. The series consists of several conversations between two female identifying persons at three different stages in their relationship. The works use various poetic and metaphorical devices to ask complex, nuanced questions about contemporary theory, in which internal and external narratives intersect.

The limitations which the camera presents offer different ways of working with or against the linearity of “real” time.

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

I am influenced by David Lynch, particularly his early short films such as Grandmother, and also his more recent hedonistic music video Crazy Clown Time. Bruce La Bruce is also at the top of my list, in terms of the subject matter and humour of his work. In general, much of my research into the medium of the film essay has been inspired by the early film essayists and New Wave Cinema directors, such as Chris Maker, Jean Roche and Godard. Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in Harun Faraki, the Black Audio Collective, John Akomfrah, Trinh Minh-ha, Omer Fast and other post-colonial film essayists. However, I am also constantly inspired by people in my immediate environment: many of the stories told through my work have been drawn from stories my grandfather has told me.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

I’m from South Africa and have only been living in Belgium for about six months, so I don’t feel like I can’t answer this question fully. However, I would say as a South African artist working in Belgium, the biggest challenges revolve around funding. There isn’t much funding for the arts in South Africa, and it’s very difficult to get funding from Belgium or other European countries if you’re not a citizen.

How do you see yourself fit into the country’s contemporary art scene?

My work almost always reflects on the history of the place I am in at that time. Therefore, I have been doing a lot of research into the history of Belgium and particularly Ghent, where I am based. The work I am currently exhibiting at BOZAR came from a period of research into the history of Belgium in terms of the Belgian economic miracle, the coal mining boom and the resulting need for a guest worker program. This narrative is told through the eyes of two queer women outside a bar. The film will also be screened at the Antwerp Queer Arts Festival on 7 August. I feel I am able to reflect on contemporary issues concerning Belgian society in a way that also reflects on where I am from. In the future, I would like to contribute to the Belgian queer art scene in particular.

I would say as a South African artist working in Belgium, the biggest challenges revolve around funding.

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

I wouldn’t say I belong to a particular local art scene. In South Africa, I’m constantly surrounded by inspiring queer women and non-binary artists, whose voices and presence have nurtured my practice. There is a large queer community, particularly in Cape Town, where I completed my MFA, and in Johannesburg, where I was raised. In Ghent, I’m lucky enough to be at HISK where I am surrounded by artists from all over the world. The atmosphere at HISK is really like a family, full of support, critical engagement and encouragement. Both of these local art scenes are challenging and exciting to witness and to be a part of.

What does success look like to you?

Doing what I love every single day. Loving those who surround me every single day. Collaborating and exchanging every single day. Not worrying about money every single day.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

I believe that art is a vehicle for change. It’s a form of communication that does not require language. I think the more specifically and particularly the work engages with time and place, the more capacity it has to initiate change. Change can happen within a community in the smallest of ways, through everyday conversations and experiences. Art occupies a space of uncertainty, for a destabilising and ambivalent narrative; this in itself is subversive. Subversive because it can reveal the ridiculousness of a single history or story, it can travel beyond the personal and can become a political tool for addressing and understanding historical trauma.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work?

The everyday is my work. Particularly everyday conversations and relationships. I can sit outside a laundrette or a supermarket, writing for hours, while watching people moving in between spaces. If something pisses me off, or I have a particularly bad experience, I write it down. If something amazes me or wounds me, I write it down. Later, these texts become the basis for future films or scripts. These relationships are never fixed, they’re fluid, constantly renegotiated, and therefore are reassembled each time the work is experienced. The places I film are another kind of character or voice in the story, its geopolitical position, and the histories which are contained there. The subjective voice draws on the history of essay film-making practices, in which the process of recording specific places and people is punctuated by the subjective projections and assumptions one makes while looking and filming. The digital projectors, the play of light and sound are often emitted by static objects, but like the objects I use to make installations, they’re also performative, they actively mediate the stories, people and places seen on the screen. Objects are then naturally part of all video or film work, sometimes hidden but always present, they’re engaged in a kind of loving or abusive relationship – sometimes even both.

And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?

They are very supportive, even if they might not understand exactly what I am doing. My grandfather is my biggest fan.
Somewhere In Between, and Fremdkörper are on display at BOZAR till Sunday 19th August.