Recently announced as the winner of the 2016 FNB Art Prize, Nolan Oswald Dennis joins an impressive list of past winners including Turiya Magadlela, Portia Zvavahera, Uncles & Angels (Mocke J Van Veuren and Nelisiwe Xaba), Kudzanai Chiurai and Cedric Nunn. ArtThrob sat down to chat with Oswald about some of themes underlying ‘Furthermore/ More’, his solo presentation at this year’s fair.
ArtThrob: The titles of your recent solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery (‘Furthermore’) and your FNB Joburg Art Fair presentation (‘Furthermore/ More’) suggest a strong connection between the two bodies of work. How do you view their relationship in terms of building on the concepts underpinning each other?
Nolan Oswald Dennis: I think in ‘Furthermore’ I was trying to mine the ambiguous sub-terrain of our historical moment, the underlying imagination and memories that were buried in the euphoria of the 1994 project. I was thinking of this as a collapse of the symbolic language of rainbowism; through a circular notion of time outlined in the phrase “The empire never ended” from VALIS by Phillip K Dick. The Furthermore/More installation responds to the challenge of a new political memory by extracting particular artefacts from our subterranean imagination. The idea of land and memory are central to this project which is searching for a turn towards parallel futures.
AT: What was most the most important concern which you wanted to get across to the FNB Joburg Art Fair audience specifically?
NOD: Maybe the work is trying to reambiguate our social temporality, to place ideas in uncertain continuities and then stretch those uncertainties forward into time. I wanted to imbue the trade show with a sense of the funereal, but also of resurrection.
AT: The JAF presentation’s centrepiece (two empty pedestals covered in utility blankets and lit from beneath) are particularly visually striking. Could you tell us a bit more about those pieces?
NOD: Those works are trying to search for a forgetting. The idea of strategic amnesia comes close to describing the irresolvable tension I feel through these works. The materiality of the blanket is loaded with both personal and social baggage, their ubiquity in our region interests me, they are found in the at home, in the military, some people use them for animals, some people use them for moving, sleeping, they are in prisons, they are on the streets. An overload of connections and meaning. These objects are totally committed to the failure of clear meaning. They are markers for some spatial unfittingness.
AT: In the work Nation building and Reambiguation, you refer to the Wikipedia entries of ‘Azania’ and ‘Zanj’ and the disambiguation page for ‘Azania’. What was conceptually significant about Wikipedia?
NOD: The first thing is Wikipedia is the largest repository of human knowledge in the history of the world. But its coverage of African topics is severely limited and incredibly biased. In fact the whole of human encyclopedic knowledge reflects Western prejudice, both in terms of content and methodology. There is a powerful project called WikiAfrica based in Cape Town which tries to intervene in this system of knowledge production from the position of Africa.
I am interested in Wikipedia as a source of contested fictions, an online reflection of a offline inventions. Thus the triptych extracts complimentary and hyperlinked pages to begin to map out the boundaries of a possible Azanian imaginary.
AT: 1996 Class Project Glossolalia features an interplay between language and the law. However, ‘glossolalia’ also implies a spiritual dimension; or at least an ambiguity between nonsense and the language of God. What do you see as the relationship between these elements?
NOD: I am interested here in private languages and public misunderstandings. There is a spiritual element to the sanctification of the document, but also to its obscurity. The unknowability of the thing is what concerns me here, what exactly is constituted here? Can we make sense of our relationship to each other through this readymade object?
AT: Your video piece similarly looks at the relationship between the law and the South African flag. In The Four Approximations you juxtapose elements of creation with a desire to scrap the current South African flag. What is it about flags that you find so compelling as a litmus test for the state of the nation?
NOD: In 1993 there was a public competition to design a flag for the new South Africa held by the Star newspaper as part of the CODESA process. All the designs from the competition were ignored, there was also a call for designs from professional designers whose entries were also discarded. Ultimately the flag was designed by the Apartheid state heralded as an interim flag, and through the drama of our transition it stuck. I am drawn to the flag for two reasons, the first is to revive the idea of the interim. That the flag, and the state symbolised within it, is a work in progress, a momentary state. And therefore an incredibly beautiful gesture by a functionary of the Apartheid state, a flag which was designed to be replaced. The second attraction is to participate in the act of imagining a new country by reenacting this moment of social imagination. These flags are part of a project of designing flags for a new south Africa which predates Furthermore and continues now after this prize.