I walked into a little side room. A woman saw me enter and followed behind with interest. On two tables were two screens. I walked around them and then stopped, standing next to her, watching a Lo-Fi video of a woman throwing plates across a room. A silent minute passed, us strangers standing together attempting to parse the work’s meaning. She turned to me, “Do you understand what’s going on in this exhibition?” suppressing frustration, “I can’t make sense of any of this.”
I hesitated, “I’m not sure… But when I see works that are difficult for me to understand, I like to let everything wash over me and take everything in, and then think about it later and let the meaning come.” Her response was to scoff and walk back into the main room, so I assume my answer was not what she had hoped.
Stevenson Cape Town’s winter group show, the New Parthenon, titled after the Penny Siopis video work, a story of a Greek man’s personal experiences of war and immigration narrated over found footage, offers much to consider about ways of creating, conveying, and receiving meaning. I offer the following facts because I see them reflected throughout the show in disparate guises: Generally, the Parthenon symbolises civilisation’s urge to archive cultural knowledge. Archaeological study of the Parthenon’s surviving sculpture has suggested that they served a pedagogical function, that they were created to tell the story of the Athenian people, starting from the birth of Athena.The Parthenon as it stands was built to replace the ‘Older Parthenon’ or ‘Pre-Parthenon’ which was destroyed during the Persian invasion, and the existing structure was damaged in a later war between the Ottomans and Venetians. The Elgin Marbles, named after the 7th Earl of Elgin who took half of the sculptures in the temple and brought them to London in the name of conservation, are still held in the British Museum, to the anger of the Greek people and anyone else who takes issue with the looting of cultural knowledge.
The exhibition is described in the text as a study of “essay film and object-based installation as modes of speculative inquiry”. Cultural knowledge and speculation are themes that run throughout the show and feelings of uncertainty and familiarity are evoked in the viewer’s interactions with the work. The relationship between uncertainty and familiarity is well-established in Jane Alexander’s oeuvre, and a slideshow projection of her photomontages, ‘Survey: Cape of Good Hope 2005-9’, opens the exhibition. The images show familiar streets seamlessly superimposed with alien bodies which, ironically, are now also thoroughly familiar to the South African art audience. In a smaller room is Détresse (2017) by Meschac Gaba. The blinking red light of car signals in the dark felt familiar in ways that were both nostalgic (long days ending in quiet but contented nighttime car rides home) and uneasy (the flashing hazard lights that signified the occurrence of a grim accident on those same car rides).
The main room is where I suspect that my fellow gallery-goer felt most at sea. This being a group show, the variety of visual languages used is vast and there is little room for the languages of each artist to be fully expressed. Even so, when looked at in its entirety the exhibition is remarkably coherent despite, and even because of, a persistent feeling of uncertainty. The work that stood out to me, besides Siopis’ video which is the centerpiece of the exhibition, is Thierry Oussou’s A Common House (2015). The work consists of a series of framed texts that give access to a 13th century Beninese oral tale of a chief who marries a woman who transforms at will into a panther, translated from Fon into English and French, and marked by illustrations in the margins that are reminiscent of illuminated bibles and medieval manuscripts. The work suggests the continuation of cultural knowledge but also the appropriation of cultural knowledge by colonisers. Like Athens, Benin was the victim of British looting of cultural artefacts, and like the Elgin Marbles, the narrative in A Common House cannot be seen outside of the lens of the coloniser, through elements as simple as the difficulty of sustaining oral traditions in the present-day unless they are transcribed, and the act of reading a translation of the tale in English and French.
This work was the opening that allowed me to see the exhibition as a cross-section of a ‘new parthenon’f an archive of cultural knowledge that resists the singularity of vision, the uncontested ‘rationality’ of the older parthenon, or canon, that came before it. Phil Collins’ how to make a refugee (1999), part of a rotating programme of screenings, illustrates the questioning of older forms of knowledge. As I watched the film, people entered and left, murmuring about their confusion about the subject. Without a clear narrative, the viewing experience felt disassociated and unanchored. However, with patience, the film became one of the more explicitly stated works on show. A Kosovan-Albanian family of refugees are filmed being photographed and interviewed. A boy is directed to pose among flowers and asked to lift his shirt and reveal a scar on his torso. The family is staged in their entirety, unsmiling and staring at the camera. The last shot relieves a sense of tension, as if they were holding their breath in front of the photographer’s camera and are finally allowed to exhale as it is turned away. The film problematizes our ‘knowledge’ about global crises as we are shown how they are constructed into media spectacle.
The New Parthenon creates room for differences of experience and paradigms of thought, for speculation and uncertainty. An essay by G. Thomas Goodnight entitled ‘The Personal, Technical and Public Spheres of Argument’ (2012)1 describes deliberative rhetoric, which can be considered as a device of speculative inquiry, as an art,
a human enterprise engaging individual choice and common activity […] a form of argumentation through which citizens test and create social knowledge in order to uncover, assess, and resolve shared problems. As any art may fall into periods of disuse and decline, so it is possible for the deliberative arts to atrophy. Barring anarchic conditions, though, when one way of fashioning the future is foregone, another takes its place.
Using the story of the stranger at the beginning of this text as an example of a perceived general ‘atrophy’ in order to proselytise would be ungenerous. She may have asked her question in earnest and spent a week thinking about the things she had seen. It would also disregard the intellectually energetic feeling of most of the works included, and of the exhibition as a whole. This exhibition and others like it demand an audience that has a comfort with uncertainty that is especially necessary in regard to video and installation-based art. However it also demands discomfort with uncertainty, enough to engage in the speculative inquiry that powered the works on show into existence. The power of speculation can of course be applied to all aspects of uncertainty, and gains a particularly radical impact when utilised outside the designated spaces of cultural knowledge. There is a ‘new parthenon’, glimpsed within the exhibition, which attempts to pervade all, questioning itself, manifesting in a multiplicity of forms, and adapting as we collectively age. As a way of thinking, it is more resistant to looting than a temple or, for that matter, an art gallery.
¹G. Thomas Goodnight, ‘The Personal, Technical, and Public Spheres of Argument: A Speculative Inquiry into the Art of Public Deliberation’ (2012), Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 48 , Iss. 4.