The process is everywhere the same: that of the sign and its likeness, and this is why nature and the word can intertwine with one another to infinity, forming, for those who can read it, one vast single text.
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
The partnership of imagery and text is nothing new. Artists throughout history have incorporated language and letterform in their work. And texts like press releases, curatorial statements, monographs, and reviews often determine how an artist’s oeuvre is interpreted by industry and public alike. Acts of Reading is a show about text, but maybe not in its conventional sense.
This show does see a lot of writing on the wall. Grada Kilomba investigates how vocabulary becomes charged with meaning. Five television screens flash dictionary definitions of the words denial, guilt, shame, recognition, and reparation. Although stripped, superficially, of their sociopolitical contexts, Kilomba’s curation of these terms invites the viewer to reflect on where they stand, and what’s at stake, in a world marked by injustice and exploitation. Kiluanji Kia Henda explores how text affects how an image is read. Ten negative film stills, featuring a masked, almost extraterrestrial figure, are overlaid with quotes from a 1997 CNN documentary on the Cold War’s influence in South Africa. The bad guys and the good guys creates a false anthropology, raising questions about how historical narratives are documented, and what are the implications.
Some texts don’t have to be read, necessarily, to be weighted. mounir fatmi stacks several Korans – of English and French translations, and Arabic – atop each other, maxing out an old produce scale. The Weight show how a single text can carry thousands of years of history: conflict, migration, and exchange; power, oppression, and change. Nolan Oswald Dennis similarly interrogates the weight of texts. Xenolith I sees Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia laid over J.C. Smuts’s Freedom, Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief casting shadow atop K Sello Duiker’s Quiet Violence of Dreams. This miniature library speaks to a canon that remains tethered to a violent past, even as it’s rewriting itself.
The books’ spines are mirrored by the sedimentary spines characteristic of the Xenolith series, in which Dennis sources blocks of layered soil for his plinths. A two-metre wide black-and-white photograph features Shirin Neshat situating herself in the midst of geological tensions: eroded mountains, cracked river clay, strata gutted and uprooted. These archeological encounters reminds us that history is ever-present, and that the earth itself can be read as text.
In fact, all objects in this show, even if they lack discernible script, can be read as texts. Haroon Gunn-Salie plates pairs of shoes in bronze and dangles them over wires, monumentalising the ways in which everyday people use materiality and sculpture to signify information. Kapwani Kiwanga’s Ifa Organ transposes a reading from an Ifa Priest onto a piece of music to be played through a barrel organ. Coded intervals, resembling the Ifa divination system itself, are punctuated into accordion folds that rise and fall, spill off the shelf, and tumble to the floor, resulting in a work with a flow and beat of its own. This piece points to a spiritual ethos that is as much convinced by affect and performativity than the content of a message, a method of transcription perhaps more authentic than its textual equivalent.
Other works, however, are less legible. The Day Nobody Died, a six-metre long roll of overexposed photographic paper, seems, literally, absent of imagery, and therefore, devoid of narrative. Until I learn the story behind it: Oliver Bloomberg and Oliver Chanarin traveled to Afghanistan with British Army units in 2008, during the deadliest month of the war. On the fifth day of their visit, the day nobody died, Broomberg & Chanarin unrolled this paper and exposed it to the sun for twenty seconds. The piece is about overexposure: war journalism’s overexposure to horrific imagery, the Middle East’s overexposure to conflict, which was exacerbated by the West’s ‘War on Terror’ (i.e., imperial control) effort throughout the 2000s. This is the language with which the image can be read: not a narrative written by pixels or emulsions, but a flash of light that speaks to the unspeakable.
Tabita Rezaire’s Premium Connect weaves together a visual narrative that encapsulates everything from CCTV monitors to cowrie shells, sacred geometry and binary code, textspeak and Kundalini deliverance prayers, excerpts from The Matrix and interviews with string theorist Sylvester James Gates. Premium Connect draws our attention to the fact that all knowledge systems – including those that have been erased, obscured, or discredited by colonialism; including those that seem to us silly or banal, like Kim Kardashian gifs – are interconnected. Neon shines from behind the screen, enveloping the viewer, a reminder that they, too, are interwoven in this complex network of language and power.
The word ‘text’ used to mean, simply, a ‘thing woven.’ Ultimately, this show is a hodgepodge of various readings of the world, which the viewer weaves together to form a navigable story. This is the act of reading.
I suppose the act of reading is not so different from how a viewer interprets any other exhibition. It’s my job as a reviewer to translate a visual language into text, to make artwork comprehensible in a thousand words or less. So, instead of ending this essay in the way I normally do – that is, telling you, the reader, more or less what to believe – here is a narrative I’ve woven together from texts I read in the show, in no particular order:
What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, I feel like I’m already tired tomorrow. I think you are exaggerating the funny, ambiguous relationship between possibility and distress. Life is a mess with English translation and commentary. Or, life is just life, we’re a mess: a loose band of surviving wisdoms, recognizing or being recognized for factory use only. This is not a world that belongs to freedom; it is an underground support system of healing bodies, holding their ground against the rise and fall. When the rains come, the land is ours.