Michaelis School of Fine Art Graduate Exhibition 2015
11 – 19 December 2015 (Cape Town, South Africa)
Extract from Introduction: ‘the Lacuna and the Pit’
The final scene of Werner Herzog’s documentary film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010), depicts two baby mutant, albino crocodiles self-absorbedly swimming in their artificial tropical habitat located a mere 30km away from the entrance to the Chauvet Cave . In contrast to the archeologists, paleontologists and historians interviewed in the rest of the film, this scene marks an undeniable departure from the informative towards the poetic. Instead of trying to piece together meaning from the fragments of cave paintings, footprints and fossils, Herzog uses the two otherworldly and non-human creatures to remind us of the ultimate unknowability of this ancient and forgotten fracture in the earth. Spanning ages of ice and of steam, and only briefly intersecting with the arc of human history, the Chauvet Cave remains as elusive as Plato’s Cave: a truth of which we can perceive only shadows.
Like the albino crocodiles, my exhibition traverses the contradictory and disquiet conceptual space that exists wedged between rational knowledge production, enchanted curiosity, and the limits of human understanding. To visually represent this space my work relies on the metaphor of the gap, the fissure, and the hole – especially as they extend downward and disrupt the solidity and finality of the ground. Both ‘lacuna’ and ‘pit’ refer specifically to this metaphor; however, far from being a redundant tautology, the connotations of the terms refer to two very different experiences: one, an intellectual and academic codification of that which is missing; and the other, a visceral and earthly confrontation of unbounded depth.
As a foil to the unknown hole, my work also appropriates (and critiques) the language of archeology as both subject and methodology. A searching, excavatory activity, archeology is charged with discerning meaning from fragments and discontinuities – thereby (to use Foucault’s terminology) transforming documents into monuments . By reshaping discarded wood ash to create the monumental forms in my sculptures, I hope to undermine their legitimacy and finality, and to critique the faith placed in teleological and anthropocentric knowledge production in a way that is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ . Ultimately the sculptures in the exhibition serve to celebrate the ruin over the monument, the trace over t he event, and the fragment over the model. In an attitude not dissimilar to that depicted by the Mannerist painters through their “attraction for the abyss and for the indistinct … organized around images like powder, shadow, … heaps, clouds, [and] vapor” – the ruin becomes a symbol of the inherent instability and transitory state of matter and history .
Finally, suggestions regarding the concealment of knowledge and the illegitimacy of certain forms of curiosity lurk hidden between the ambiguous grey forms of the sculptures and the darkness of the room that surrounds them. According to Heidegger, every production of knowledge is mirrored by a simultaneous and obligatory concealment. To call something fact, it must first be separated from what is called fiction; and in post-Enlightenment rational discourse the illegitimate and heterogeneous forms of curiosity must be repressed beneath the legitimate structures of knowledge production . While the curation of the objects in my exhibition clearly references museum display and scientific research, it also subverts these dominant knowledge structures through allusions to the ‘curious sciences’ (sciences curieuses), such as alchemy and the study of the occult . Like the arcane pseudo-linguistic visual imagery adopted by alchemy , my sculptures and images seem to resemble information-carrying forms (eg. organic specimens, models, dioramas and topographical maps) but remain obscure and incomprehensible. Furthermore, the complex material combinations of three forms of carbon, namely: wood, ash and graphite, remind the viewer of processes of transformation, the shifting perception of time and causality, and the ultimate impermanence of the present moment.
1 Cave of Forgotten Dreams [DVD]. 2010. Produced by E. Nelson & Directed by W. Herzog. New York City, USA: IFC Films.
2 Foucault, M. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.
3 Benjamin, W. 2003. On the Concept of History. In Benjamin, Selected writings, vol. 4, 1938-40. H. Eiland & M.W. Jennings, Eds. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
4 Makarius, M. 2004. Ruins. Paris: Éditions Flammarion. p 50
5 Martin, D.L. 2011. Curious visions of Modernity: Enchantment, Magic, and the Sacred. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
6 Elkins, J. 2003. Four Ways of Measuring the Distance between Alchemy and Contemporary Art. HYLE. 8(1):35-48.
7 Dakerman, S. 2011. Introduction: Prints as Instruments. In Prints and the pursuit of knowledge in early modern Europe. S. Dakerman, Ed. 19-35.