The wildfire that tore across Table Mountain and on to UCT’s campus destroyed not only the physical archive of materials and records, but also aspects of historical memory. The object makes visible and tangible the loss of a library, representing not only UCT’s Jagger Library but also other archives, where materials and objects have been lost forever, and, in this case, where numbers (Dewey Decimal Classification) embody a larger set of meanings.
Through this exhibition, curator of artwords Jean Dreyer set out to explore how language interacts with image and how word and image together inhabit a new kind of physical and conceptual space. The three artists, Elrie Joubert, Emma Willemse and Laurel Holmes, responded to the curator’s vision through a conversation about the overlapping conceptual significance of their works in the exhibition.
The apparent connection between the works of Elrie Joubert, Emma Willemse and Laurel Holmes is the notion of the “archive” and how this evokes literary traditions and becomes a metaphor for memory and loss. The role of the artists is to enable the transformation of concepts mentioned here (in essence, becoming cataloguers), giving these concepts a visual language of their own.
Elrie Joubert’s Waste not, want not, the library index card catalogue box (used in analogue systems), is synonymous with the archive. The index cards were once gateways to knowledge, meticulously maintained by librarians and researchers. Now, they evoke a sense of longing for the tactile and tangible in a world where information has become intangible and fleeting.
In Laurel Holmes’s piece, Weight of loss, the object (rows of empty, fragile paper porcelain memory boxes that weigh almost nothing) represents irrevocable loss. The wildfire that tore across Table Mountain and on to UCT’s campus destroyed not only the physical archive of materials and records, but also aspects of historical memory. The object makes visible and tangible the loss of a library, representing not only UCT’s Jagger Library but also other archives, where materials and objects have been lost forever, and, in this case, where numbers (Dewey Decimal Classification) embody a larger set of meanings.
Emma Willemse’s work employs neither spoken nor written words but refers to the sphere of language in the title: Reclaimed Archive II, where an archive traditionally refers to a collection of written documents. The way paint shards are stacked in a sorting tray alludes to archival conventions such as filing, cataloguing and classifying.
The display of a catalogue box, a sorting tray and rows of memory boxes all strongly reference the “archive”. As the archive plays a pivotal role in each of these works, the idea of the archive as a collection of historical documents or records comes into play.
Willemse says of her work: “The archival conventions of the collecting, sorting and filing of written historical documents are transferred to a different kind of historical document: paint shards peeled from a wall of a friend’s home. I consider the paint shards as the historical documents of this site, which was a home for generations of people. These shards show the different layers of paint that the inhabitants of this house painted on the walls over time. The shards are filed and stacked in a wooden sorting tray originally used for storing screws or drill bits – the tray and shards have a link in their original intended purposes.”
Traditional archives may often contain many records of colonial documents and published material. However, UCT’s Jagger Library had the most extensive collection of Struggle/anti-apartheid materials in the world (banned publications, papers, posters, pamphlets and the like) entrusted to the Special Collections section in the library. In the work of Holmes the empty porcelain memory boxes are displayed in horizontal rows, like materials on library shelves.
Joubert feels that language and art (word and image) are potent vehicles of human expression. Both can be used to tell/preserve narratives, whether personal experiences or historical documentation. Through the written and visual language, her work weaves together themes of nostalgia and transformation.
She adds: “Alongside the index cards, recycled plastic bags house remnants of other artworks – disregarded pencil shavings, eraser rubbings, too-short pencils, and rough sketches.”
In the deliberate choice of specific materials and how they have been transformed and displayed, the works of the three artists subvert the traditional conventions of archives. They are elevated into “a new kind of physical and conceptual space”. The physical materials used in the works stand in for metaphorical associations:
For example, in Joubert’s catalogue box a pencil (now only rejectamenta) is connected to an artwork she created, but the disregarded pencil is no longer necessary for the artwork to be considered valuable, even though it played a fundamental role in its creation. The intrinsic value of the seemingly overlooked material prompts contemplation on what we leave behind and what endures.
Willemse refers to the materials she used in her work as humble, sometimes disregarded, but becoming agents in the meanings we attach to place and the loss of place. Both the paint shards and the sorting tray evoke a site of a home, a home that is in transit between owners – much like the uprooted boat-like display suspended in mid-air.
Holmes uses porcelain as an indicator of how access to knowledge was once exclusively the domain of the wealthy, and the DDC numbers index the concept of knowledge of a library. When materials are lost, only the (colonial) DDC record of what once existed remains. The work promps an opportunity to remember and reconsider how future collections of knowledge and information are collected and catalogued.
Through their use of materials, each of the three works embodies the idea of memory and loss. Holmes noticed how the fragile quality of memory is echoed in the physicality of the works: “A ghost-like quality is imbued in all the works: pencil shavings and other rejectamenta (which reference an absent artwork / created object), paint shards and translucent porcelain clay; they become relics, representing the past.”
Each of the artists’ works finds inspiration from and references the spoken and written word but goes beyond that by employing devices such as symbols and metaphors and “deepening the mystery” (quoting Francis Bacon), which is the role of an artist. The visual construct is less exact and more elusive than spoken language, allowing for other individual interpretations by the viewer.