Excerpt from a Correspondence
Sierre, 8 February 2016
It made me so happy to see your mail. I hope that in these first few lines I can absolve you of any apprehension you have about your letter. It’s perfectly in line with where I know (to the maximum extent, which unfortunately is still smaller than I’d like) you are at the moment.
Of course, I can only imagine what it has been like for you since you got back. Undoubtedly South Africa is complicated in ways that are paradigmatically unique. When my mind folds back into Johannesburg, in the moments when I think about going back, it appears to me like a theatre. Not only is the city re-inventing itself (‘World Class’ comes to mind), but there are a cornucopia of responses to the call, making the city rife with iconography. There exist so many cues on which to try and formulate yourself. Oddly – and I want to emphasise that this is me going back to it in my memory – I am never certain where I am situated in this theatre. Sometimes I am seated in the crowd, made impotent by a kind of suspended disbelief as I imagine which socio-political river to stick my oar into. And other times I am on the proscenium stage, confronting the gaze of a spectator that is the time and place of Johannesburg, and which has already projected a good deal of narrative onto my personage. I have no doubt though, that a spate of armed attempted hijackings just before I left has contributed to my impression of the city as having turned a massive oculus on me; at a time when I was already, as you said figuring out how to make sense of myself within my own country. I find your use of ‘saviour’ curious though. I sympathise with it, don’t get me wrong. I guess that this is the guilt characteristic that Mirella so keenly observed that we both share. It makes me anxious to imagine how I will work when I return. As I briefly mentioned when last we Skyped, my hopes have been somewhat dashed by Flusser’s vicious description of the situation of the African intellectual within the larger scheme of the program.
This cynicism has certainly fed into my recent diorama reading: luckily there has been quite a bit of it. Three situations come to mind: I will present them now like figures in relation to one another. The first was a rhino in Berlin: an object magnificently visually burdened with narrative, suspended from living, but certainly not from life. Maybe the most operative word here is ‘object’. The hide demonstrated damage that it had undergone when it was moved during the war, no doubt with the thundering of bomb blasts adding tension to this activity. In addition, it is impossible to conceive of this animal without also keeping in mind how endangered most species are these days, something we are both familiar with in South Africa. Why, just this morning I saw an image on my Facebook newsfeed of a friend who is performing service near the border with Botswana, protecting rhino’s from poachers: the image replete with his rifle and militant-like uniform. Although, let me not spend time speculating on this situation of the politics of life here just yet.
The second is the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History collection. It opened its doors in 1857 and has changed little since: Brian Faye, professor at the college of art, who was our guide, helped us understand that it is of particular interest to curators fascinated by historical modes of curatorship. Because so many of the collections are so old, they bear the marks of the birth of this kind of museum. Poor taxidermy suspended the fragile bat in terrible form, hyena’s presented their heads bulging and round from a poorly observed cast over which the hide was stretched. Furthermore, on many specimens bullet holes could be observed, cut marks and torn skin stitched back together. There was a rhino here too. Its horns had been removed, revealing the hessian and plaster that lay beneath, characteristic of early taxidermy. On its nose – conveniently still a perfect hook – hung a sign, revealing to visitors that this had been done so that the horns could not be stolen, as had apparently happened in museums elsewhere, and reassuring the public that the horn has no special pharmacological properties.
The third and final figure was encountered thanks to an artwork. While in Dublin I attended a talk by the artist Gerard Byrne, whose most recent work is a video shot inside the Biologiska Museet in Stockholm, built in 1893. It is a total diorama: visitors enter an elevated viewing deck (encased in glass) and visually peruse the 360 degree panoramic diorama. Entitled 1/125 of a Second, the work consists of a video loop wherein the camera navigates this epic diorama of the Swedish animal landscape with mesmerising even tempo, all in high definition. Byrne edited field recordings of local birds with the image, as well as oceanic recordings of crashing waves, seals and seagulls. From what I could gleam from the images, this museum does something sublime: it inverts the position of the spectator, placing her/him in a vitrine while the suspended nature surrounds. It begs the necropolitical question: are natural history museums formulated in order to give the imperial subject the impression of living?
But of course, this would be the kind of Empire State of Mind – exceptionally phrased as such by Madina Thiam in recent article on africasacountry.com – which would make the position of the human central again, when what are discussing is the frightful situation of suspended animals within an epistemic tradition. This is precisely what is at stake, and would form a good deal of the corpus of any letter I might send to the museum in Geneva. Can we even talk about dignity in this exhibitionary complex? Or has it been transcended so appallingly that it is an anterior concern now miles from the room in which we find ourselves? Would it be childlike and absurd to mention autonomy? Cynically the response issues far too quickly from my keyboard: of course yes. So, where do we go from here?
What you bring to my attention in your vivid recollection is precisely the core of the problem: that these institutions remain educational sites. It is unnerving to visit the website of the Dublin museum and observe the lighted and curious faces of so many adorable and pint sized aspiring biologists as they investigate the animal kingdom from the top. The museum has sustained this role with alarming ease. What the Geneva museum is, like others, is a visual testimony to the epistemological tradition of the superiority of (European) man, conquering nature just as it demonstrates it should be conquered. So how can we reformulate the museum in light of this pedagogic politics? I’m sure that your inclination to a notion of posterity springs from precisely this concern. On a final cynical note, before I hopefully delve into a bout of open optimism, I must ask: how far can a qualifying statement of self-consciousness actually carry what succeeds it? Or, put another way, how much exemption can an initial statement of awareness offer?
You have asked me an earnest question, and I will try to postulate an earnest response. How would I write to the museum? I cannot deny that I am grinning now at the prospect – you have inspired me girl, and perhaps I will seek out those institutional ramifications that Christian Höller calls to urgency in his contribution to the publication The Artist as Public Intellectual? The cogs are turning: I cannot wait until I have more material. For the time being I have some fragments; over the next few days I will try and develop some of these to share them with you. For now I think I have reached the limit – I don’t want you to be scared of how long this letter is already becoming 😉
I must admit though, you have not satiated my curiosity with regards to what you are working on at the moment: go on and tell me next time. I cannot wait to meet you in Antwerp and get into your studio again.
Until next time – which I am elated to say is quite soon – dearest Victoria,
All my love and best wishes