Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Spirits of Detroit: Eric Millikin

Eric Millikin

Spirits of Detroit 

Collage of 900 faces of victims of Covid-19 in Detroit


Background:  Deadline Detroit reports on a moving memorial project on Belle Isle in Detroit:   900 signs, bear the enlarged photographs of those lost to Covid-19 in the city, have been placed along the Strand on Belle Isle, as silent memorials to the deceased.  The project was organized by Michelle Riley, Detroit's director for arts and culture.The artist Eric Milliken has created, as the cover for the commemorative program given to family members, a collage created out of thumbnails of the 900 photographs. The composite forms an image of a figure, based on Detroit's iconic sculpture, The Spirit of Detroit, by Marshall Fredricks (dedicated in 1958). 

Artist's Statement/Press Release: 
As a memorial tribute to the 1,500 fellow Detroiters lost to COVID-19, artist Eric Millikin has created a montage of portrait photos of those Detroiters, with those portraits together forming a large-scale rendering of the “Spirit of Detroit” statue. This artwork will
be part of the City of Detroit’s Aug. 31 memorial at Belle Isle State Park, the nation’s first
citywide memorial to honor pandemic victims.

Millikin created this montage from nearly 900 photos representing a majority of the
1,500 Detroiters lost to the virus so far, between March and August 18th. Surviving family
members provided each of the images of their loved ones. These photos include
wedding photos, high school senior pictures, vacation photos, photos at Detroit sports
events, and family photos showing multiple family members who’ve been lost to the

“It is my honor to create this for our people of Detroit,” said Millikin. “This has been an
absolutely staggering, heartbreaking loss that this city will feel for years to come.”

Each family will be able to see Millikin’s montage on the cover of a commemorative
program booklet for all families that attend the City's Memorial Drive on Belle Isle on
August 31. The individual family photos that make up the montage will be displayed as
nearly 900 billboard-sized photos around the island. The public is asked to visit the Island
to see the photos next Tuesday and Wednesday, to allow families to mourn on Monday.

Eric Millikin is a new media artist based in Detroit and Richmond, Virginia. His work has
been exhibited internationally, in museums and galleries from Detroit, Denver, and Dubai
to San Francisco, Scotland, and South Korea. His artwork has been featured in WIRED,
USA TODAY, Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and The New York Times Sunday Arts section.
Mayor Mike Duggan has declared August 31 Detroit Memorial Day, a time to remember
those who did not have the funerals and home-goings they deserved.

For more details of the Memorial Drive, see https://detroitmi.gov/news/city-providesdetails-

Mark Auslander
:  As in Kahir Nelson, "Say Their Names" (The New Yorker cover of June 22, 2020), Eric Millikin has chosen to compose this searing image of a single body out of the faces of the dead. Both works may draw on Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” (1651) an etching in which the torso of a giant sovereign is composed of the faces of hundreds of persons. 

The choice of the "Spirit of Detroit" figure is especially appropriate, given that the original statue holds in his right hand a family symbolizing human relationships, precisely the bonds that have been shattered through the continuing pandemic of 2020. In Millikin's collage, Spirits of Detroit, the golden family held in the figure's right hand seems to dissolve into the surrounding faces, all testimony to the families that have been violated by the sudden departure of their loved one.


Millikin's figure is clearly a black male, which is appropriate given the tragic disproportionate impact of Covid-10 on communities of color.  Unlike the Fredricks model, this figure seems to be bent over in grief. The collage form, creating a single body out of many images of the Dead, is a particularly poignant reminder that this pandemic, intensified by an irresponsible national leadership notably unsympathetic to minority-majority urban areas, has been felt collectively and not only individually. The entire body politic is turn asunder, feeling the full weight of sorrow that seems to go on without end. 

The original Fredricks statue depicts an unclothed white male torso in the tradition of Greco-Roman sculpture.  Milliken's choice in Spirits of Detroit to shift the unclothed torso to that of a black male would seem to carry a new set of valences, including the long-term historical legacies of enslavement. As Tiya Miles and others have documented, hundreds of Native Americans and African Americans were enslaved in the Detroit region from the early 18th century onwards, and enslaved labor was foundational to the city's early political economy.

As Adam Serwer argued in his much noted column in the Atlantic, the Trump administration's anemic response to the Covid-19 crisis can partly be explained in terms of the nation's long term "racial contract," the implicit promise of racial hierarchy safeguarding the privileged position of many whites, at the expense of people of color. As it became clear in Spring 2020 to the administration and its supporters that disproportionate fatalities were being experienced by black and brown persons,  the Federal commitment to active suppression of the pandemic flagged correspondingly. By mid-April, President Trump tweeted in support of the overwhelmingly white opponents of masking and quarantine, who had rallied in Lansing, Michigan's state capital: "Liberate Michigan"--a moment that retrospectively marked a turning point, as Red states quickly hurtled towards rapid reopening and as it became clear that there would no systematic Federal policy on masking, testing, PPE access, and coordinated healthcare in the face of mounting death tolls. 

Hence, we may read the outstretched arms in Millikin's central figure as rather different than Fredricks' earlier (1958) Spirit of Detroit. The original sculpted figure held up the golden sun and the family, in a spirit of unalloyed optimism. These new outstretched arms might be stretched out in a latter day crucifixion or raised in supplication, for all those who have been lost and who are in peril, demanding urgently that their names and their stories be remembered.  At the close of a long summer of #BlackLivesMatter mass protests, this new Spirit of Detroit  appropriately takes multiracial form, created out of the beautiful visages of the recent Dead, as the city, rising once again, insists that we say their names and honor their enduring presence.

Press accounts of the Memorial Drive:





Monday, August 31, 2020

State of Suspense: Clement Mohale

Clement Mohale (South Africa)
"State Of Suspense"
Mixed media on paper.

Overview: In the center foreground, a large young woman's head faces the viewer. She is flanked in the background by figures, evidently standing in line for water.  On each side, we see standing figures with heads in the shape of the coronavrius, perhaps indicating their infected status. Also on each side are visible traditional houses, suggestive of a peri-urban settlement or  rural setting. In the middle foreground, to the figure's right, a cook stove emits smoke, perhaps indicative that the wait for water is so long that the woman in line has time to prepare a meal.
Artist's Statement: The Pandemic has shown that universal access to clean water is critical for public health, sustainable development and economic growth. As the African countries has announced its lockdowns extensions until late this year, the number of those infected by the Covid-19 novel Coronavirus keeps rising. Authorities work around the clock to"flatten the curve" and prevent community wide spread of the virus,with public health messaging continues to stress the importance of hand hygiene and washing your hands frequently. But the lack of access to clean and safe water is providing to be a major problem challenge in Africa's efforts to combat the Coronavirus.
Urban populations are particularly at risk of infection due to population density and more frequent public gatherings or in crowded spaces like markets, public transport or places of worship. People living in urban poor slums which is the worst form of settlement are at risk. Also a millions of children succumb to diarrhea and cholera every year as a result of lack to access clean and safe water. Therefore access to piped water in every home is most government's pledge, but there is a long way to go before that becomes a reality. 

Pamela Allara;
In Clement Mohale’s earlier submission, “Unprecedented Times,” for the TLC Student Collection (posted on the artbeyondquarantine blog on July 11, 2020,) a young woman holds out a pill to a  personfication of the coronavirus as if to say, “Can this provide a cure?” The drawing highlights the issue of the lack of available medicines for those affected by COVID-19, with a vaccine still yet to be developed. In Mohale’s recent work, “State of Suspense,” the same young woman faces out at us, while behind her waits a group of villagers, each with various containers for storing water. Standing among them is the personification of the coronavirus seen in the previous work. As an indication of the ongoing spread of the illness, a second personification appears to be standing on the left side of the group.  The colors Mohale has used for the woman’s face seem arbitrary, although I assume the highlights of green and red meant to be symboic. Hazardng a guess, I would speculate that healthy vegetative growth (green) is being threatened by the heat of the unremiting sun (red). But whatever Mohale may have intended for the colors to mean, they function to hold our attention, so we cannot just look away.

The work seems to me to be a companion piece not only to “Unprecedented Times,” but to Themba Kumalo’s “Waiting for Food Parcels,” as well, (posted on artbeyondquarantine on  May 25, 2020). There, too, we see a long line of people, in this instance faceless, waiting for the deliveries that will alleviate desperate hunger and prevent starvation As Mohale has stated, access to clean water is critical, not only for hygiene during the pandemic, but for life itself. The suspense, or anxiety referred to in the work’s title, is generated by the lack of assurance that government vehicles will arrive with the needed water (or food) supplies. The life-threatening need for water is indicated by the dessicated landscape; clearly there are no local sources available. Our young woman, whose cropped short hair may be an indication of malnutrition, stares at the viewer as if to ask, “What will you do to help?” “State of Suspense” is thus a call to action.
Mark Auslander: As Pam notes, in our recent commentaries on Clement Mohale's Unprecedented Times, she and I read the large standing figure with a virus-shaped head as the essence or personification of  COVID-19 itself, to which the young female figure was apparently making a kind of offering.  Now, in "State of Suspense," we see at least three figures bearing the coronavirus head.  Perhaps, gazing into the young woman's eyes, we are invited to enter her own mind, in which she apprehends her infected neighbors as bearing the spiked head of the virus. The unusual nature of the Covid-19 disease, of course, means that it is often impossible to tell who is infected, so the net effect of the image is to suggest the faceless anonymity of the infected, who could be anyone.  (As it happens, this is the classic scenario of witchcraft in many African cultural fields: no one knows where witchcraft lurks, and anyone could turn out to harbor its lurking, nearly irresistible dangers.)
Perhaps the central figure's anxiety over the dangers of infection is so great that her hair itself begins, again within her own mind, to agitate in a way that seems to be forming spikes, externalizing her own fear of catching the virus, and taking on the virus-headed appearance of her neighbors.  
The symmetry of the figures on each side of the central figure's head further suggests that we may be gazing into the young woman's own anxious mind, seeing through her two eyes what she sees with her mind's eye.  On each side we see at least one traditional dwelling in the distant background, and at least one figure bearing the ominous head of the Virus.  The relative sparseness of the landscape conveys a sense of dessication, as those assembled wait not only for physical water but the flowing blessings of Spirit that might quench their deepest longings during this long dry season of the body and the soul.
I am again struck by Mohale's skill at conveying the quiet dignity and resilience of township life, even in the midst of a prolonged crisis.  In contrast to the  fear and perhaps perspiration roiling the face of the foregrounded young woman, the background women and men are composed in a lighter wash with an economy of line that suggest patience and fortitude as they wait their turn for water, from a tap, pump, or well that is invisible to us.  
Although the dominant mood of the work seems bleak, I find myself wondering, in a very speculative mode, if there just might a beacon of hope before us. The artist's name suggests his roots in the Mohale clan, descendants of the founding sovereign of the Lovedu polity (in the northern Transvaal).  The Lovedu Modjadji, or Rain Queen, is famously gifted with the capacity as "Transformer of the Clouds" to call rain, especially at times of collective crisis, for her own people and others, near and far. As of this writing, the position of the Modjadji is currently vacant, as the nation awaits the coming of age of an appropriate princess. My understanding is that it is far from clear the succession will take place; in that sense, the entire nation is a "state of suspense" over its future.  Is it just possible that the central young woman in this image might be associated with a successful candidate Rain Queen, and that the hoped-for blessings of bountiful water from on high might yet be realized?
For further reading:

Dr. E. Jensen Krige and J. D. Krige. 1943.  The Realm of a Rain Queen. A Study of the Pattern of Lovedu Society. (Published for the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press.)


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Screen Drawings: August Ventimiglia

August Ventimiglia
Screen Drawings
Graphite pencil on paper
11 x 11 inches

Overview:  Vertical and horizontal lines of varied intensity criss-cross the surface in a series of images.

Artist's Statement: I’ve had a hard time connecting with my studio practice since the pandemic started, working in short sporadic drawing sessions with the materials I have at hand. 

As in previous bodies of work, I have found continued inspiration by playing with the rigid order of the grid. In a recent series, I draw lines with a graphite pencil and straight edge while varying the pressure on the paper. Unlike the repetitive nature of a pattern, however, my mark-making remains unmeasured and intuitive, with the straight edge as the only guiding constraint. This unconscious rhythm of pressure creates a network of lines that weave in and out of each other resulting in a flat surface that seems to vibrate, similar to a moiré effect.

Judith Hoos Fox: If one knows August Ventimiglia’s architecturally-scaled, athletic drawings on walls and floors—he has executed them on the broad entry wall of the DeCordova Sculpture Park & Museum, on seemingly endless wall of Fidelity Investment World Headquarter’s lobby space in Boston, Massachusetts, near South Station, and in the gallery of Montserrat College of Art, and on the floor at Tufts University Art Gallery—in this suite of Screen Drawings, measuring a modest 11 x 11 inches, one will sense pent-up, intense nervous energy, a result of the artist being confined to his studio. The sweep of his extended arm, the expanse of pulled chalked lines, the path of running shoes, their treads loaded with chalk, have been translated to the staccato of the graphite line, repeated and repeated, lines that both challenge the grid and are confined by it. We feel this tension.

The artist’s repetitive motion could be read as an analog to our current experience, confined to our homes where routines rule and adventures are out of reach. Like caged animals we do the same things again and again. The unintended images resulting from Ventimiglia’s repeated actions, fields of short lines at 90 degrees to each other, conjure their eponymous title with it defining conundrum: the screen both hems us in and is our portal to the world beyond. [Not so long ago Sarah Montross explored this topic in her exhibition Screens: Virtual Material at the DeCordova Sculpture Park & Museum.]  The screens of doors and windows confine us; apps and the web hold us captive to their ubiquitous screens as they transport us to far-away places and spaces. Tedium and engagement, confinement and expansion—these are dueling pairs. August Ventimiglia’s images oscillate between flatness and depicted three-dimensional space as the dimensions of virtual and the real worlds wobble.  


Pamela Allara: August Ventimiglia’s Screen Drawings appear to be abstract but I see them as quite literal representations of the anxiety that has settled into our collective psyche in the months since the arrival of COVID-19. What was initially seen as the opening up of available time for pursuing postponed projects became instead a period of suspended animation during which nothing was initiated or completed. The books we would finally get to read remain stacked by the bed or on shelves. Ventimiglia’s “Borrowed Line Series,” (2013-14), book pages with underlining that rather than highlighting significant passages serves as meaningless mark making, is apposite here. Pamela Allara: August Ventimiglia’s Screen Drawings appear to be abstract but I see them as quite literal representations of the anxiety that has settled into our collective psyche in the months since the arrival of COVID-19. What was initially seen as the opening up of available time for pursuing postponed projects became instead a period of suspended animation during which nothing was initiated or completed. The books we would finally get to read remain stacked by the bed or on shelves. Ventimiglia’s “Borrowed Line Series,” (2013-14), book pages with underlining that rather than highlighting significant passages serves as meaningless mark making, is apposite here.

The recent Screen Drawings also appear initially to be the sort of mindless doodles one makes when one is listening to a boring talk. But it quickly becomes evident that the repeated vertical and horizontal marks are far from random; rather, the marks trace actions: abrupt, sharp bursts born of compulsion. We are aware as well of the time required for these repeated marks to fill the page, and in that respect the marks become a record of the ongoing experience of anxiety created by an experience of time that has become synonymous with stasis.

Mark Auslander: In his classic essay, "The Age of the World Picture" (1938), Martin Heidegger famously ponders the overwhelming modern tendency to experience the world visually through the mediating form of fixed and restricted shapes--through windows, the painted canvas, the telescope and microscope, the cinema screen or, more recently, the television screen, the computer screen, smart phone screen, the Facebook page and the Twitter and Instagram feed.  It is almost impossible for us,  he argues, not to conceptualize the world as picture, as a representation of itself that is at heart framed, constrained, regulated  and highly mediated organized information, information that is seemingly infinitely available and yet achingly distant from primary sensory and embodied experience.  

During the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, our world often seems to be increasingly mediated by screens, including the endless routine of Zoom meetings and binged reruns of old TV series. It is far from clear that our online meetings, our obligatory encounters with others across constrained screens, necessarily lead to greater understanding or deeper reflection about our world and our ultimate purposes and goals within that world. As communications theorists might put it, the signal to noise ratio across our linked screens may be particularly high, a state of being intensified by the current US administration, given to staggering degrees of deception, disavowal, and distraction as Rome burns around us. 

August Ventimiglia reflects back to us the screen views, and perhaps the screen memories, of our current crisis. As Judy Fox notes, confined within these squares, again and again and again, the artist plunges into obsessive repetition compulsion of our historical juncture, in which we gaze into the screen, waiting to connect to a profound way, but anxiously uncertain just what might await us on the other side of the looking glass. 

Just what do we glimpse in Ventimiglia's criss-crossed pencil markings?  At a time when so many of our fellow humans beings have been confined to the ICU,  linked electronically and digitally to medical monitors at terrifying moments during this prolonged pandemic, I find myself sensing traces of anxious signals. Might we discern the rhythmic shape of the EKG and related life signs,  rising and falling in the fragile markers of life, and death, in our technologically-mediated age?  These screen drawings call to my mind the print outs of electrocardiograms, perhaps not of our physical hearts but of our anguished souls.  The artist tells us these forms are products of his own anxiety and disequilibrium at this time of strange confinement. Yet in these dimly hinted forms moving across the pages, rising and falling, again and again, I sense something, beyond words, of great words, perhaps even a shadow moving across the waters. 

In other words, I sense that there is more here than just the static glimpsed on screen as we switch channels or the freeze frame as we momentarily lose internet connectivity. Paradoxically the screens that in Heidegger's sense stand between our gaze and the fully embodied experience of being human in the deepest sense, may be evocative of a kind of return to immediacy of bodily presence.  We see the immediate traces of the artist's hand, grasping the pencil and pressing it in against the straight edge, again and again. And at least in my eyes, we apprehend across the screens undeniable signs of life, that a heart still beats, in a corporeal body and in the body politic--endangered to be sure, yet still irreducibly present. 


Heidegger, Martin. 1938. “The Age of the World Picture”   in The Question of Technology and. Other Essays, New York, Harper & Row 1977,



Saturday, August 8, 2020

Pandemic Elegy: Basia Irland

Basia Irland

Pandemic Elegy

(Digitally enlarged painted images, wheat passted on truck)


Overview:  A panel truck is covered on its sides with digitally-enlarged painted images of ocean, above which are seen canoes or boats sprouting wings flying through the sky. Small white shapes are visible in the background. The truck's rear has many images of blue elongated shapes, inspired by the bamboo leaves on which the flying boat motifs were originally painted.  Below the driver's window is written the caption, "To honor those who have died from COVID 19."
From Axle Contemporary Gallery site:    Basia Irland, professor emerita at University of New Mexico’s department of art and art history, has been engaged in an ongoing artistic exploration of our relationship to water for more than four decades. An activist, installation artist, sculptor, poet, and author, she uses creative mediums to call attention to issues such as water’s ecological importance, water rights, and the well-being of communities. In Pandemic Elegy, a series of paintings on the exterior of Axle’s mobile art van, water and winged boats are prominent motifs. The work was created to honor those who died from the coronavirus. Pandemic Elegy is round one of Broadsides, a series of coronavirus-safe exhibitions on the outside of the mobile art space that can be seen while walking, driving, or viewed on Axle’s website. 

Irland works with communities to explore imaginative ways to increase our understanding of water as the crucial resource on the planet. Her poetic writing conveys political awareness and pointed information about our human impact on water. 

Pamela Allara: As Susan Platt notes, Irland’s work addresses issues of water, the element crucial to life that is threatened by climate change and pollution. The painting she has created on the Axle van is initially a pleasant one: a pedestrian seeing it pass by would notice a body of water surmounted by winged boats: an altogether lyrical image. In the prologue to Irland’s book Water Library, she notes that “The bibliography inflates to form a kayak, drifting on an unnamed river at dusk, accompanied by a constellation of fireflies.”  [1] Without too much thought, said pedestrian might simply conclude that nature breezes along with us, a source of beauty and pleasure.

But those winged kayaks, surrounded by stars/fireflies, could also be understood as fleeing or escaping something. Their sprouted wings indicate a hybrid growth born of desperation, creating the irreconcilable contradiction of a boat that is flying in mid-air. Having left their watery domain for an unknown habitat, they have attached themselves to a motorized vehicle spouting pollution out of its exhaust. They may hope to flee, but there is no escape.

While this lyrical image honors those who have died of Covid-19, it also is a reminder of unavoidable ecological disaster.

Footnote 1: Basia Irland, Water Library 2007. University of New Mexico Press, Quoted in Susan Noyes Platt, Art and Politics Now: Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis 2010. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 289.

Mark Auslander; An elegy is a rhythmic poem to the Dead, which in classical times was sometimes thought to help move the soul of the deceased through spiritual trajectories from this world into the afterlife.  Here, the winged canoes flying over a turbulent sea may be reminiscent of Charon's boat, ferrying the souls of the newly dead to the underworld domain of Hades in ancient Greek mythology. The artist may also allude to the practice of burying the dead in aerial canoes, atop special elevated mounts, by many native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, in other cultures around the world mortal remains or their symbolic equivalents are set afloat on water as the deceaed embark on the ultimate journey.

Whatever the precise referents, we almost hear the beating sound of the wings, rising and falling, akin to the repeated couplets of a poetic elegy. How appropriate that this poignant image of traveling vehicles is wrapped around a mobile vehicle itself, a truck that makes repeated stops as it moves from place to place on its sad pilgrimage.  We may read the wraparound painting as a kind of winged prayer; like a recited classical elegy, may this journeying image help guide our lost souls, so many of them victims to ignorance and greed at the highest governmental levels, to a place of rest, above a great sea,  imbued with the Oceanic feeling of primal unity that bridges the Alpha and the Omega. 

Viewed from a distance, the small white shapes floating in the background might be read as seagulls or stars rising above the ocean's horizon line at dusk. Upon closer examination, they appear to share the ominous spiked shape of the novel coronavirus itself. The ubiquitous presence of SARS-Cov-2 is thus quietly affirmed, in the face of the orchestrated wave of anti science rhetoric that plunges us each day ever deeper into the abyss. The viruses, for better or worse, form the constellations arcing over our present sea of sorrows, across which the living and the dead now set sail.

As I write these words, so many Americans have taken to the roads again, many in wholesale denial of the vastness of the continuing, deepening pandemic. 250,000 unmasked  motorcycle riders are expected to descend shortly on Sturgis, S.D., in a likely super-spreader event of unfathomable proportions, as if the noise and exuberance of a high octane rally can drown out the insidious power of the virus.  At such a benighted moment in our history, Irland's poignant small truck, making its determined, quiet way along the roads and highways, from one safe viewing spot to another, is a necessary antidote, a painfully honest occasion of sorrow and honest recognition of the unfolding reality around us.  Step by step, walking pensively around the truck's circumference, imaginatively entering into its solemn seascape and its rhythmic waves and beating wings, we each take on the heavy burden of memorializing the Dead, beneath a vast sky of uncertain portents. 


Ellen Schattschneider: Contemplating Basia Irland’s “Pandemic Elegy,” I find myself thinking of a very different water-based process of memorialization.  In my book Immortal Wishes (2003) I describe the Dragon Princess Ceremony conducted each winter at Akakura Mountain Shrine near Hirosaki,  in northeastern Japan’s Tsugaru region.  (Basia has undertake public art projects related to Kyoto’s central river, so perhaps the following Japanese comparison is not entirely off base).

Akakura Yama Jinja (Akakura Mountain Shrine) is a hybrid Shinto-Buddhist institution founded by a charismatic woman spirit medium in the 1920s; for decades, women have been the principal ascetics based at the shrine, climbing the rugged mountainscape to perform austerities dedicated to the mountain’s divinities (kami) and associated Buddhist bodhisattvas, oriented to a sacred waterfall and other special features on the mountain, shaped by flows of lava, wind and water across the eons.

Each February, in the depth of winter, worshipers trudge up the snow-covered lower slopes to  the shrine to help transact sacred water that has flowed from the sacred mountain’s peaks down to a special shrine outbuilding dedicated to the foundress. They form a human chain from an icy stream, transferring buckets of water to the ‘bathtub’ (ofuro) in the building, in front of a statue of the late foundress Kudо̄ Mura. The accumulated water throughout the coming year will serve as medicine to ascetics, spirit mediums, and lay members who undertake in subsequent ceremonies to conduct kuyо̄ (Buddhist memorialization), on behalf of their deceased relations, helping to guide them towards Buddhahood and ancestral status.

The line of worshipers recalls  foundress Kudо̄ Mura's’ revelatory dream-vision of a great dragon flying from the mountain’s summit to her farm house, summoning her to climb the mountain and serve its resident divinities.  In the dream, the dragon pierced the dreamer’s farmhouse roof and landed on her pillow, moving rapidly from macrocosmic to microcosmic scales. The founding dream is concretized in a beautiful votive painting installed in the inner shrine, showing the dragon’s nocturnal flight in front of a full moon, above the sacred mountain (a detail of the painting is reproduced on my book's cover, seen above).

The mountain itself functions as a cosmic womb, binding together members of the congregation and rebirthing them, in renewed alignment with their beloved deceased relatives, in a collective burst of healing energy that unites the Living and the Dead, the visible and the invisible. Each human being dies alone, but this complex process of kuyo memorialization depends on the united hearts and minds of all the living congregants, guiding the dead through the cycles of creation that lead to full awareness and Buddhahood. This process is aided by the practice of votive painting by persons who have undertaken ascetic discipline (shugyо̄) on the rugged mountainscape and been granted revelatory dream-visions of the mountain divinities and the honored dead: gazing at these painted images helps in turn to guide subsequent generations of worshipers in their efforts to move their deceased relations and themselves towards Buddhist salvation.  These paintings are, significantly, referred to as “offerings,” special gifts into which the painter has projected a part of herself, establishing a kind of tangible bridge between the visible world and the invisible domain of the divinities and the dead.

I wonder if something comparable might be going on in Irland’s haunting work, which can also be read as a kind of revelatory dreamscape traversing the domains of the Living and the Dead.  The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly had peculiarly individuating aspects; so many of those lost to the disease, one might argue, especially in minority and Native communities, have been betrayed by the national government and the current administration, which failed to mount an effective response to the crisis.  The administration has of course been in active denial about the true toll of the pandemic and there has been nothing approaching collective processes of grief and mourning. Instead it has fallen to individual families to mourn, often in isolation from loved ones, given social distancing restrictions. Or, it falls to artists, such as Basia Irland, to offer their own loving acts of vision and mourning.

Might this truck and the great ocean it depicts, I wonder, be a bit akin to the cosmic womb of the sacred mountain of Akakura? Arising from the waves are the winged canoes, rather like flying fish, each presumably honoring a lost soul.  Each person may have died alone, ultimately abandoned by the national leadership, but in this poignant image they are restored to some sort of collectivity, condensing as it were the essence of the ocean that has rebirthed them. In such a way, perhaps, the many thousands souls lost to Covid-19 are moved in concert from isolation and neglect towards a kind of unity with one another and with other souls of the universe. 

Perhaps in time, the dead even reappear as the twinkling stars above the sea, beacons of the eternal. Each act of viewing the wraparound painting, as it speeds by on the highway or is parked in an outdoor lot, may be conceived of as an act witnessing and solidarity, that helps to move the lost ones along a pathway beyond our ken.  In this sense, Irland’s mobile painted elegy may function as a kind of votive painting, a concretized dreamscape,  transitioning those who may have died alone under tragic circumstances into a great collective reservoir of spirit, spanning the gulf between the encircling world ocean and the vault of the star-filled sky.


Ellen Schattschneider. 2003. Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain. Duke University Press. 


For Further Reading about Basia Irland:

2018 “Reading the River.” By Richard Bright. Interalia Magazine, September.

 2017 Reading the River: The Ecological Activist Art of Basia Irland. Edited by Museum
De Domijnen and Basia Irland. Sittard, the Netherlands: Museum De
Domijnen. 230 pages, full color, ISBN 978-9075883558.

2007 Water Library. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press. 234
pages, full color, ISBN 978-0826336750.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Tracking Series: Heidi Whitman

Hedi Whitman, Tracking (6)
Heidi Whitman
Tracking Series
Paper, drawing, T pins
Website:   www.heidiwhitman.com

Overview: Complex paper assemblages with collage elements, attached to a surface by T pins, casting shadows.

Artist’s Statement:  My work centers on mental mapping, memory, and cities.  American hubris and empire are underlying concerns. My constructions are built from street grids, skylines, and differing perspectives.  Urban architecture, both contemporary and ancient, as well as a network of shadows are part of this uncharted territory.  There is more information and many images on my website.

When the lockdown began in March I left my Boston studio for home. I started doing very small work in my dining room. At some point I remembered Dr. John Snow’s cholera map of 1854. London street maps are some of my favorites. I had used this map in my work many times for its graphic appeal. Our current pandemic reminded me of the story behind this very important map.

In 1854 during a cholera outbreak in London Dr. John Snow mapped a neighborhood with many cholera deaths. He soon realized that the dwellings with deaths were clustered around one water pump. He took the handle off the pump, and the deaths stopped. Before1854 people believed that cholera came from the air, a “miasma”. Then they understood that infected water causes cholera. Modern epidemiology began with Dr. Snow’s map. It’s a very hopeful and positive story. Unfortunately Covid-19 is much more difficult to map, track, and trace.

I started redrawing this 1854 map and incorporating it, along with other maps and data found online or in newspapers, into my paper and string constructions. The Tracking series refers to both that cholera epidemic and our current pandemic.

Hedi Whitman, Tracking (11)
The Tracking pieces are mostly paper constructions mounted on pins to create shadows. I often also use string and canvas as well as the paper.  Drawing is at the core of my work. Past drawings done are reworked with new material.  This series is new, and I’m just beginning. In each construction I’m thinking of some aspects of disorientation, destabilization, and destruction.

Judith Hoos Fox:  What began, in my estimation, as landscape-based paintings and works on paper where color surpassed space as a primary subject, where boundaries were respectful of the traditions of these media, has, over the years, leapt into challenging new territories. The exhibition of her work in 2004, State of Mind, at Harvard’s Mather House, is where I saw that her interest had shifted entirely from the exterior terrain into a concern with the mapping of thoughts, where investigations of brain activity found their way onto paper in the form of map-like markings.

In the 2015 exhibition Heidi Whitman: Lost Cities, at Montserrat College of Art Gallery, which included, in a sense, a chronicle of Whitman’s work giving context to the new work on view, her trajectory could be seen as both seamless and characterized by exciting strides. The journey from her early interests in physical terrain connected with investigations of interior, mental landscapes. Introduced was an additional layer that referred to the structures of cities, where physical form is the evidence of cultural and social activity constructed by humans. The work leapt from the walls, literally, extending into the gallery space. The depth of these bas reliefs echoed. A fresh and rich palette had emerged; color had moved from the Bauhausian black/white/red of earlier works to nuanced and unexpected hues that referred back to her earliest landscapes of the Southwest, but now with a bold introduction of occasional acid greens and sharp turquoises. Whitman explored space, depicted and actual, where paper is not bounded to the wall, where the gallery is brought into the image, and the artist partnered with shadow. Lines were both drawn and cast. Landscape had become city grid; mental and physical mapping had melded.

Heidi Whitman, Tracking (4)

For Whitman, a voracious reader and frequent researcher at the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, history is often a catalyst. The suite of works that she has created while locked down, working at her dining table, or in her studio in an all but vacated building, is spurred on by the game-changing maps made by Dr. John Snow in 1854 which led him to discover the source of cholera, one contaminated well in the Soho section of London. This was the birth of the field of epidemiology and, I suspect, of public health as well. Particularly in Tracking 4, the Dr. Snow’s diagonally canted irregular grid, its thin black hesitant lines, can be identified, in positive and negative, drawn and cut out of black paper. These intersecting lines that led to modern health studies can also be read as cages that keep us from life as we have known it, locking us inside. The somber palette of blacks and grays of the artist’s early work has returned, with occasional bits of menacing red. Whitman’s constructions tell the same story that the line and bar graphs we see on the news daily report, charting the spread and control of the Covid—19 virus—a story that haunts and menaces, with no end in sight. While the published graphs spur speculation, Heidi Whitman’s Covid series elicits dark thoughts.

Pamela Allara: The works in Heidi Whitman’s Tracking Series (2020) are maps that undercut (literally) what we expect maps to be. Their grids are not regular and do not allow us to mentally trace movement through urban space in a systematic way. The shadows the paper constructions cast when mounted at a distance from the wall confuse matters further. The mixed media constructions promise rational and coherent information, and although that promise appears broken initially, in the end a coherence born of matter and mind does emerge.

The series began as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this contemporary plague, like those in previous centuries, is especially acute in cities, where people live in close quarters. Most of the artwork responding to the pandemic to date has been representational, often portraiture of the frontline health workers. This emphasis on the heroic efforts of medical professionals is true as well of the masterpieces of the genre, such as Albert Camus’ The Plague, in which Dr. Rieux, a medical doctor attending to the stricken determines to write a chronicle that “should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in times of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Unfortunately, given the lack of leadership that has to unnecessary deaths in this country, we look to our President and see more to despise than to admire, despite the enormous efforts of the medical community. One wonders if a suitable memorial to the human cost of the pandemic in the U.S. can ever be created.

Whitman’s work does not attempt to deal with the magnitude of the loss of life due to the pandemic, but relates more directly to the experience of those who have avoided illness, and who daily try to mentally map whether its threat is approaching or receding, a challenge when accurate tracking information is lacking. In The Plague, Dr. Rieux goes from house to house in Paris, and so the novel maps his physical travels in terms of how successful he able to be in combatting the disease. Instead, the broken, fragile grids in Whitman’s Tracking Series speak to a communal system that is breaking down, a once-vibrant urban space that is now a shadow of its former self. Even the blocks of colored rectangles suggestive of urban architecture seem haphazardly joined, as in Tracking (11).  It is hardly surprising that she has based the works on older as well as contemporary maps, as the sense of destruction casts these constructions into the past tense.

But as she makes clear, these are also mental maps. As communal life recedes and we are confined to our homes—and her grids are also cages-- the ability to think coherently also recedes. When we articulate our thoughts to someone else, their response leads to affirmation or qualification. Without such acknowledgement, private thoughts just wander. In Tracking (4), a flag-like shape flutters from a grid affixed to a map of the world, its red, circular patterning suggesting both the encroaching virus and spinning thoughts. In this work, Antarctica is painted red; the virus has infected even this frozen, barren section of the earth, something almost unthinkable.

And yet these constructions, with all of their intimations of death and destruction, remain lively and energetic. The complex shapes seem to dance across the walls. Much may be lost but a new coherence of both mind and matter promises to emerge.

Mark Auslander:   Epidemics and pandemics occasion remarkable experiences of time travel, opening up slipstreams in the experiences of history and memory. Nearly forgotten stories and texts of plague years suddenly become deeply relevant and infinitely absorbing. States of anxiety and dread, which had been largely banished from our clean, well lighted spaces, are once again strangely familiar. Each step we take and breath we draw is now guarded: is this moment when contagion will strike? When do I reach out to help, when do I avert my eyes?

For at least 5,000 years, the history of cities and epidemics have been deeply intertwined. Population density, plentiful livestock in close proximity to people, reliance on limited water sources, challenges of sanitation, the frequent arrival of outsiders, and many other factors have long intensified risk factors in urban areas. Cities are often shaped by plagues; civil lines and elite quarters were often built on higher ground, away it was thought from noxious miasmas in low lying areas. Wide boulevards and open squares were imposed to break up dense quarters that were thought to breed disease, as well as revolution.  Cities are places of magnificent individual and collective dreams, of joy and wonder, as well as lurking danger, and moment of crisis, especially pathogenic, may open up unexpected channels between moments of time.  

This general tendency is brilliantly explored in Vincent Ward’s 1988 film, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.  Seeking relief from the Black Death of mid 14th century Cumbria, a group of villagers dig through the earth and emerge in Christ Church, New Zealand, hoping to erect a cross upon the famous cathedral spire. They find themselves surrounded by shadowy hints of the HIV/AIDS plague, one plague opening up a tunnel, in effect, to another.

Heidi Whitman’s Tracking Series plays with this partial interchangeability (or perhaps transposability) of cities in crisis. Her various intricate assemblages of urban maps, casting evocative shadows on the surface below, could in principle be lifted up and set down elsewhere, their rather chaotic overlaps equally attuned to multiple urban spaces. Aspects of cholera-plagued London of 1854 could be extracted and slotted into any world city of 2020. The specific contours of each city at each moment of history are of course different, but the general apprehension of a shadowy underworld, that there is something lurking underneath any great city, incipient danger that cannot be fully named or contained, endures. This shared uncanny experience of lurking darkness, whether it is understood as miasma or rogue RNA,endures across the centuries, and is called back into being with each mass disease flare up.

In N.K. Jemisin’s fantastical short story  “The City Born Great” ( in her new collection, How Long ’Til Black Future Month) we meet avatars of the world’s great cities, who defend each metropolis against the lurking darkness that threatens it, a condensation were given to understand of the collective intolerance that writhes in rage against the cosmopolitan energy and diversity of the urban.  Each city sends forth an emissary to find a street waif in an endangered city, fostering in her or him the passionate artistry and intensity that the city needs to do battle with the forces of darkness. 

I read Whitman’s paper assemblages as something comparable. They are distillations of a specific city at a specifiable moment (such as London in 1854) yet they can be  slotted into other cities, now and in the future, as they dance their eternal dance, of creativity, death, and rebirth.  The spirit of John Snow’s scientific mapping of contagion emanating from single water pump must travel to other times and places, especially to our current moment, when science and rationality are so deeply under siege.  So too must the spirit of endless creativity and recombination, the soul of any great city, be summoned up and spread, as a kind of vaccinating anti-virus, from city to city across the great arc of time.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Ex Unitate Vires: Paul Emmanuel

Paul Emmanuel
Ex Unitate Vires
Original drawing, hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon residue
63 x 73cm

Overview;  An image of the artist’s body, from neck to lower abdomen, is inscribed on black carbon paper. Over the figure’s center chest is inscribed the old seal of the Union of South Africa (and later the Republic of South Africa) with its Latin motto: “Ex Unitate Vires”  (Union is Strength).  Heraldic floral components from the old seal are reproduced across the figure, which is primarily rendered in a light shade, with the exception of the figure’s left arm and flank, which are much darker, close to the pigment of the original carbon paper. The field surrounding the body is nearly white, punctuated  or perforated by tiny dots of black.

Artist’s Statement:  Carbon paper is obsolete. As a material, it speaks to me. Like making carbon copies by using carbon paper, the older generation is perceived to have little remaining validity in our present digital age.

In 2015, I found the last roll of black carbon paper ever produced in this country, as a limited demand for this product remains. I experimented on the carbon paper by scratching an image onto it to see if the technique worked, practically, creatively and conceptually. The carbon paper was left unrecognisable, looking like a delicate piece of fabric.

I began to experiment with creating images of my own body emblazoned with 'shadows' – both in the form of an imposed inherited system of uniform (eg. a school blazer) and contemporary consumer brands influenced by consumer marketing. I became aware of how many of the brands people choose to wear, for added perceived value and status, are based on the plant and animal motifs of the heraldry that was used to decorate the victorious, eg. the laurel leaves of the Olympic Games and throughout history in war.

Ex Unitate Vires (literally "from Unity, Strength") is a Latin phrase formerly used as the national motto of the coat of arms granted to the Union of South Africa by King George V. Ex Unitate Vires was originally translated as "Union is Strength" but was later revised in 1961 to mean "Unity is Strength".

This artwork will be featured in the solo exhibition Paul Emmanuel: Substance of Shadows at The University of Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2021.

Coat of Arts of South Africa, 1932-2000

Pamela Allara: We depend on artists to make us examine what we routinely overlook, and Paul Emmanuel’s “Ex Unitate Vires” asks us to ponder the former seal of the Union of South Africa, an emblem in use from 1910-2000.I think one can assume that among the general populace of any country, interest in and knowledge of its official seals is relatively low. However, when Emmanuel emblazons the seal on his naked torso in an image painstakingly scratched from carbon paper, attention is demanded. The seal’s imagery does feel relatively straightforward: after all, one would anticipate the use of South African wildlife: in this instance, a springbok and an antelope hold up the escutcheon, above which is perched a lion holding four bars representing the four original provinces of South Africa. But Emmanuel has chosen the ‘embellished’ 1932 version, with flowering plants sprouting on either side of the lion. And these flowering forms in turn, appear to have blown across the rest of the artist’s body, like scattered flowers on a gravesite. Both the seal and the flowers become memorials to a past, that as we know, is never past.

Motivated by Emmanuel’s art, I took the trouble to look up the seal of the United States. It was designed and adopted 128 years before South Africa’s: in 1782. But its motto is much the same: “E Pluribus Unum” and of course it bears our national animal: the eagle. Boring so far, but what is truly interesting that our seal is officially called “The Great Seal of the United States.” The seal was meant to indicate the nation’s greatness from its founding. That insistence on inflating the name of the seal may be the unfortunate historical precedent for the use of “Great’ at present to refer to a mythological past an ignorant leader vows to restore.

Mark Auslander:  In two previous major works created through carbon paper, Veil 1954 and carbon dad 2017, Paul Emmanuel deployed this archaic technology of replication to explore the mysteries of biological and psychological reproduction, especially in reference to deceased parents: what traces do children bear of  their mothers and father, and how do we attach and detach ourselves from their continuous absence presences?  What in turn is being reproduced in Ex Unitate Vires, probing the enduring legacies of a largely forgotten defunct national seal and motto, and what weight does that shadowy reproduction have upon the national psyche left in its wake?

One point of departure is Franz Kafka’s 1919 short story "In the Penal Colony" ("In der Strafkolonie”). The tale centers on a horrific apparatus of execution which inscribes onto the body of the condemned the words of the commandment he has violated (which the prisoner may not even be conscious of violating). In principle, close to his death, the condemned man comes to “read” his crime through pain inflicted on his own skin, and thus dies having attained, in his final moment, the knowledge of his transgression impressed violently into his own flesh.

It is possible to read Paul Emmanuel’s assemblage Ex Unitate Vires in precisely these terms.  The previous South African regime continuously violated its own motto, "From Unity, Strength.”   As George VI is said to have remarked during his 1947 tour, shocked at indignities of racial segregation, upon seeing the coat of arms on a train table cloth, “Huh, not much bloody Unitate.”   

Following the South African War, the ostensible “Union” of South Africa in 1910, referenced the formal integration of the English-speaking and Africaans-speaking polities of the region. But this “Unitate” masked a fundamental disunion, as the black majority was disenfranchised and saw more and more of their own land subject to white control. In that sense, the coloration of Emmanuel’s torso, figured as a rather archaic map, is  historically salient : the shoulders, chest, right arm and right side of the torso are covered in white, and a lesser  portion, primarily the left arm and left midriff, remain black.

Emmanuel’s body standing at attention can be seen as embodying generations of South African soldiers, of different races, sent into battle in Europe, southwest Africa, and in the townships on behalf of the national project.  The work could equally be read as rendering visible systematic violence perpetrated by Apartheid-era security forces on actual bodies (primarily, but not only, black)l in the name of the principles of Unity and (masculine) Strength, through which thousands of persons were quite literally consigned to the shadows. (Although this may not be an explicit reference to Emmanuel’s carbon paper-based work, I am  reminded of Paul Stopforth’s stunning Steve Biko series, especially his 1980 “Elegy,  in which a finely worked graphite surface renders hauntingly beautiful the circulated autopsy images of the martyred Black Consciousness leader.)

In  Ex Unitate Vires, the artist can be seen as intentionally subjecting himself to a latter-day version of Kafka’s penal apparatus of needle sharp writing, in an act that may hover somewhere between atonement and acknowledgement. Inscribed on his torso is precisely the commandment that the nation violated, both in the time of the Union and under the Republic prior to 1994. “Unity” was more observed in the breach for at least eight decades, and, one might argue, has been more of an aspiration than an achievement in the nation during the quarter century since the first democratic elections of 1994.

As the current Covid-19 pandemic and the associated Lockdown makes abundantly and painfully clear, the great majority of the nation’s populace, nearly all low-income people of color, continue to endure conditions of enormous privation and vulnerability. In contrast to the relative islands of (primarily white) class privilege, inhabited by those who are able to work remotely and limit their exposure to the novel coronavirus, those in the townships, temporary locations, and isolated rural areas by and large have little freedom to observe social distancing protocols, and have highly limited access to the soap, running water, and personal protective equipment mandated by public safety campaigns.  The national community may confront a common enemy in SARS-CoV-2, but there remains preciously little “unitate” in how these dangers are experienced on the ground.

(Although Emmanuel began work on this complex, painstaking work well before the current pandemic, the proliferating heraldic devices scattered across the mapped body through our current eyes may take on the spectral apparition of the virus itself, endlessly proliferating and spreading through the landscape.)

As in The Lost Men, Paul Emmanuel lends his own body as a dynamic canvas onto which are impressed the inescapable lessons of the past. Here, like the Officer in Kafka’s horrific tale of bureaucratic discipline, the artist intentionally enters into the apparatus of History, onto which the violated commandment of unity is inscribed directly over the heart of the body politic.

Having said that, the work could also be read as evoking subtly, the post 2000 national motto "ǃke e꞉ ǀxarra ǁke" (ǀXam: Unity Through Diversity”.  There are many ironies to the new postcolonial motto, not least that given the extinct status of this specific Khoisan language, it is unclear if this phrase would have been considered idiomatic or grammatically correct by the language’s vanished indigenous speakers.  The phrase, as noble as it is, remains in a sense unknowably embedded in an ancient landscape that long proceeded the imposition of European rule and demarcations. Radiating out from the formally designed Coat of Arms over the torso’s heart, the constituent floral elements of the seal gradually dissolve, like blossoms blowing across the landscape, growing ever fainter as they reach the most blackened (indigenous?) expanses of the body’s extremities.  It may be that the  springbok, gemsbok, and lion, confined for nearly a century within the baroque confines of the Coat of Arms’ heraldic conventions, are themselves breaking free and leaping across an unconstrained landscape.

Perhaps that is what is being recovered through Emmanual’s nearly magical form of automatic writing, reproducing that which we have so long been unable to see. We glimpse a return of that which was long effaced by colonial schemas of representation and signification, apprehending the resurgence of other ways of knowing, which the land, and the body, still retain sensible access to, against all odds, across the layered sheafs of time.

Ellen Schastschneider: In this work, Paul Emmanuel continues his nuanced exploration of the contradictions and vulnerabilities of masculinity. The headless torso has phallic attributes, a logic reinforced by the male lion and the upstanding springbok and gemsbok antelopes, consistent with the emphasis in classical heraldry on masculine prowess.  Yet the absence of a head at the top and the cut-off of the figure just above the groin might suggest the risk of castration or of diminished virility and strength (the "Vires" of the title.) It may be that the absent head is refracted in the abdominal region of the torso as a miniature face: the navel or belly button could be read as an eye, embedded in a face in profile facing to the right.  If so, it may be significant that this solitary "eye" is formed by the enduring trace of the umbilical cord that bound this male being to his mother: the seat of knowledge of the world is inextricably bound up with the feminine principle.

As it happens, the oldest device in the upper left quadrant of the shield or escutcheon, held aloft by the standing horned antelopes, is the Maiden or Lady of Hope grasping an anchor, a symbol of the Cape Colony dating back to 1715. (The older term, the Cape of Storms, had been replaced with the more attractive phrase, "Cape of Good Hope," with the expectation of drawing more settlers to the region.) The anchor is an ancient Christian symbol of hope, dating  back to the Roman era of persecution and hidden worship; it evokes both the crucifix, and, it is sometimes said, the female-coded crescent moon, implying the sanctuary of a nurturing safe harbor in a storm-tossed world.  Emmanuel may well find it appropriate that at the heart of this hyper-masculine device, long associated with martial violence, conquest, and domination, are found evocations of the divine feminine.

Indeed, the overall composition of the work shares some features with the Chinese taijitu or "yin-yang' symbol, the two interlocking spirals that evoke the dynamic, unified duality of existence, including the interdependent and interpenetrating aspects of maleness and femaleness, each opposite force present in the heart of the other.

At the conclusion of The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell characterizes his work of literary and cultural criticism as excavating "our buried lives." Paul Emmanuel, in his own registers, is committed to comparable works of excavation, in which his own body, or the bodies of those he loves, figure as canvas, multilayered landscape, and even, as Pam suggests, a kind of living graveyard.  In The Lost Men France,  as noted above, Emmanuel physically pressed the rediscovered written names of soldiers of the Great War into his flesh, embodying their distant absent presence as a way of honoring and recovering their enduring, dimly apprehended legacies in our present world.  In Ex Unitate Vires, he carefully excavates his own bodily image, refracted on the delicate shroud-like surface of carbon paper.  In so doing he reveals, tattooed over the body's heart, the now defunct national signifier of state-sponsored masculinity, the Coat of Arms.  Digging deeper, he takes us traveling into a realm where the old certainties, predicated on the triumph of patriarchal, heteronormative whiteness over its antitheses,  dissolve and fluidly recombine. Out of a mythic "unity" that long denied sexual, gender and racial diversities, a newer and deeper unity is being unearthed from our buried lives, and, at long last, is ready to be born on the turbulent surface of the national body.


Paul Fussell, 1975.  The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Ghosts of the ordinary: Kerry-Leigh Cawrse

Kerry-Leigh Cawrse
Ghosts of the ordinary
Black and White photography
TLC Student Collection
(South Africa, 2020)

Overview: A triptych of three black and white photographs of abandoned building in Johannesburg, South Africa, Left and middle images both show interiors wall meeting; right image shows a tower jutting up in the sky. (There are other images in the series, not shown here).

Artist's Statement: “Ghost of the ordinary” I feel as if this series resonates with the notions of isolation and the tribulations we as a society face today. Each photograph depicts the ghost of the people who previously lived there, their particular taste and lifestyle. As we move out of lockdown, I notice a society craving human interaction. We have adapted to a new normal. Touching, embracing
and gathering is a thing of the past, a mere ghost of the pasts ordinary. I feel as if these
images provide a new outlook on isolation and of what once was. 

Pam Allara: The life cycle of a building has parallels with the human life cycle. When it is being constructed, it is exciting to see not only its form but also its function take shape. Of course, the final product, just like that of offspring, does not always meet expectations, and can be disappointing. Nonetheless, any  new addition to the cultural landscape finds is uses over time, and by association these functions can also elicit fondness for the structure. However, the building will inevitably grow old, outliving its function and likely losing its structural stability in the process. At that point, it will be dismantled, and its ‘body parts’ trucked off to a  landfill.

The black and white photographs in Kerry-Leigh Cawrse’s “Ghost of the Ordinary” series captures buildings around Johannesburg in the last stage of the process: the dismantling. It is unclear whether this is purposeful, or if the buildings have simply been abandoned and are crumbling on their own. As abstract compositions, they are handsome. We look up from ‘street level’ at an interesting interplay of vertical and horizontal lines and rectangles. Her care with the composition honors what once was: that they were once well-designed and functioning edifices. Cawrse’s choice of black and white rather than color photography is further indication that we are looking at the building’s past life.

The enjoyment of these well-made images is soon replaced by the recognition that the structures themselves are in poor condition. Clearly abandoned, they will not be renovated or rebuilt; their future is to collapse, either intentionally or through neglect. In this suspended state between ‘life and death’ it is inevitable to look at the architectural elements and wonder about their previous functions. A kitchen in one, a tall tower in another provide  hints of  former functions. For the artist, they evoke “the ghosts of people who previously lived there.” Isolated and derelict, the vulnerable buildings are thus a metaphor for the deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has certainly led in some cases to former homes being abandoned. Structures don’t immediately return to some neutral state once their occupants have left. There is an aura that remains, even though we have no way of knowing “what once was.” These images speak to loss and death, and so become monuments to mourning.

 Mark Auslander:In an intriguing corrective to Pierre Bourdieu's  characterizations of body-house-cultue formal homologies, anthropologist Thomas Beidelman observed that it is through our houses and our bodies that we come to know, or at least glimpse, the most elusive aspects of our social and cultural world. As our world moves into a a puzzling successor state, still in the midst of becoming something beyond the pandemic, abandoned homes may be the fitting 'royal road' into glimpsing our elusive present and almost future moment.

In the initial triptych of the series, the artist photographs abandoned houses in stark black and white, spaces haunted by those who once dwelled within them, silent monuments to a lost world of social proximity that has not quite yet been replaced by a new order of things. Each of the three images is centered on prominent diagonal forms, a shadow in the left, and jutting beams in the center and right frames. One senses the distant traces of an arm held out, seeking another, alas without any hope of a reciprocated gesture of acknowledgement. Cowrie’s ghosts, one suspects, are not only the former inhabitants of these decaying structures, but the specters of our recent selves, who hold the body memories of touch and closeness which now must discipline ourselves every day to avoid. It is up to all of us to rebuild a new social world on the ruins of the old, balancing the need for health with the imperatives of retaining and refashioning that which makes us human.