Julia Tiffin - 'Buried Alive' at João Ferreira Gallery
by Nikki Winward Cross
Student review written as part of the Practical Art Criticism course in the History of Art Honours Programme at UCT
On entering Julia Tiffin's photographic installation 'Buried Alive', the viewer is enveloped by an "earthy pine smell ... reminiscent of the womb: inviting a space of beginnings, a place of safe exploration". Or so one is informed by the artist's statement. On arriving at the exhibition all that is left to arouse the olfactory senses is a couple of strategically placed plastic sacks filled with dried up soil and dead pine needles. Nonetheless, Tiffin's highly complex, multi-referential exploration plotting a personal "processing" of "genetic and inherited memory" manages to withstand the lack of this sensory element.
More intriguing than the absent "memory-jolting" aromas are the large-scale, uniformly framed images positioned at regular intervals throughout the space. Comprising two separate yet thematically resonant series, these images document what Tiffin refers to as a "choreographed performance in which real moments and things are cycled through a succession of narrative passages".
The images spanning the left-hand side of the gallery space depict a television set at various stages of interment. Small Perspex calendar "pages" on which the artist has recorded the phases of this process accompany each image, functioning as clues to deciphering the significance of the burial procedure. These dates and comments alert the viewer to the fact that the television set is an inherited object, and in turn to its significance as an embodiment of personal and "genetic" memory. As a signifier of the intangible yet "weighty burden" of memory, the physical enactment of burying the inherited relic represents a metaphoric processing of these "potentially suffocating" memories. The unexpected vandalization of the burial site, which is documented as part of the "narrative", comes to represent for Tiffin an actual liberation of this inherited memory.
In the second set of images, Tiffin explores a similar metaphoric process. Different from their high-resolution counterparts in their diffuse, almost sensual depiction of a glass container placed upon the seashore with waves washing around it, these images nevertheless continue the physical process of grappling with memory. Described by Tiffin as a container for that which cannot be "seen, heard or touched"; "memories fragile and pernicious", the "destruction" of this glass vessel as it is swept away by the force of the ocean in yet another unexpected incident comes again to symbolise a liberation or release from the burden of memory.
While the title 'Buried Alive' suggests, among other associations, finality of experience and closure, the manner in which Tiffin has arranged the images - with the last of the glass box series being the first image one looks at before moving into the "narrative" of the television set, itself introduced by the image of a new "functional and stylistically modern" set projected onto the wall tiles above a bath, comes to suggest a ceaseless, cyclical process, undoubtedly referring to the regenerative processes of birth/death. Indeed, Tiffin writes that "conceptually 'Buried Alive' draws from the metaphor of the seed", something which requires burial in order to germinate. In this way, the grave becomes a symbol of the womb, a fecund regenerative space, while the water lapping around the glass container is reminiscent of amniotic fluid.
On closer inspection, it becomes evident that these images do not form a sequential narrative as one is led to believe. In following the dates provided by the Perspex calendars one comes to realise that Tiffin has, in a manner of speaking, "fictionalised" the apparent narrative, in the process emulating and highlighting the selective and fictionalising actuality of memory. This ethereal mutability inherent in the nature of memory is again referenced in Tiffin's use of photography to document this reclamatory and regenerative process. Tiffin writes about the photograph as a "matrix of secret storytelling that turns fiction into fact and back again", a process that she feels is analogous to remembering. For Tiffin, in documenting an intrinsically personal experience, these photographic images both rewrite and recreate the truth of past events, in the process initiating new truths and new narratives in a manner that simulates the myth-making processes of memory.
Until April 27
João Ferreira Gallery, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: 021 423 5403 or 082 490 2977
Fax: 021 423 2136
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat 10am - 2pm