The Origins Centre Museum
22.03 - 30.07.2022
Who would have thought the Indiana Jones franchise to be a pop cultural comment on, or popularisation of, post-war, “post”-colonial exploitations of land, resources, and indigenous peoples by multinational builders of empire? Not I. Not until artists Nina Barnett and Jeremy Bolen introduced their collaborative exhibition, The Weight In The Air, with a 16mm film loop of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, at Wits University’s Origins Centre in Johannesburg.
The exhibition, so reads its description, presents “a series of immersive, materially complex installations encouraging viewers to consider what is present in the air we inhabit.”
That series kicked off, quite literally, as I stepped into a passageway dimly lit with reflections of earthly blue and green bouncing off walls when – just before I could get a sense of place – I’d set off an old film projector. I see, feel, and hear the projector rattling to life before I see what is being shown. In this way, the exhibition is already at work: it takes human interference to bring it to life.
The film installation is a nod to the Top Star drive-in cinema built atop a Johannesburg mine-dump. My childhood nostalgia, for I used to go there, experiences a mild tremor. Well into this rigged entrance, I turn around to watch a soundless loop of 80s heartthrob Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and his exoticised, Oriental love interest in a moment of mortal danger. In the film, Jones is the protagonist who must “rescue” both lady and rare, precious treasure from an “inherently dangerous” land. In reality, the exhibition asks, is the land – and all that is indigenous to it – really the threat we are led to believe it is? How has mine dust been proverbially pulled, like golden wool, over the eyes of our collective consciousness?
I dig a little deeper into the work of Johannesburg-based Barnett and U.S-based Bolen. Their individual and collaborative works explore themes of ecology in the age of the Anthropocene; that is, our current period of existence, where human life has the most dominant impact on our environments (natural, built and social).
With the footstep-activated film as the catalyst, the artists offer a multi-sensory archive in The Weight In The Air. In contemplating the air, they set the scene: “Johannesburg is built for…gold extraction. The mines have defined the landscape – giving rise to the architecture and industry built from the extracted wealth, and to the apartheid system, the destruction of viable land and clean water, and the yellow mountain-sized piles of dust that mark and constitute the skyline. This dust, even when invisible, gives form to a history of colonialism and its destructive local cost. It moves freely through the porous air – settling on surfaces and within lungs. This dust is the catalyst for the exhibition, which considers ways of sensing or knowing matter.”
The weight: that seems to be a more complex question. It is, perhaps, the question we, the viewers, are tasked with as we navigate the space. What is the weight in this air? How much does it weigh? Who does it belong to? Who belongs to it?
Charged with a sense of discovery – a more reflective than extractive one (we’d hope) – and armed with a particular persuasiveness of film on one’s psyche, we’re invited to embark on an Indiana Jonesing of our own to unearth The Weight In The Air.
As we enter the exhibition’s main floor, it is as if we’ve stumbled into a space where we should not be: the secret lab of a sinister scientist. Ahead of us, blue rubber curtains reminiscent of a butcher shop’s and blue gum trees float in front of unremarkable standing fans. Moving closer, something trips on the floor beneath us again, and the fans switch on. The curtains dance in a monotonous artificial wind we’ve just triggered.
To one corner is a glass cabinet where various types of rock are displayed, each suspended in its own blue liquid. Connected to each rock, as if monitoring for a heartbeat, are nodes and rods. A pile of bricks lies close by, with what looks like a Geiger counter (a radioactivity measuring tool) placed on top, as if nesting.
Then there’s the location itself – the Origins Centre. We’ve had to move through the Centre’s own exhibition through time and Africa’s role in the human-dominated world’s formation in order to get here.
Standing at a window overlooking a construction site in Braamfontein, my visibility filtered by blue rubber curtains, those questions of what, how, and who the weight in the air is explode into yet more questions. When has this city not been under construction? If Johannesburg is the City of Gold, is it then also not a City of Dust? If “particles retain a record of where they have come from, and have the potential to send material messages between far reaching places,” as the artists offer, and those particles are deeply embedded in our water, soil and air systems, in what ways are we – citizens of Johannesburg – drinkers, eaters, and inhalers of this dust and all it symbolises?
In what ways are we its unwitting embodiments – messengers – doomed to an insatiable hunger for that which was ripped from our ancestral mouths? A hunger Johannesburg itself dubs “ambition”?
In no prescriptive terms, Barnett and Bolen have instigated an Anthroposcene. The Weight In The Air gives no clear answers. Instead, it provokes more questions, and in doing so lends a haunting weight to French artist Louise Bourgeois’ idea that “you pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself if a form of architecture.”