Anatomy of an Archive - The Secret History of a Material Body, 2009

This installation and exhibition, include a dual screen film projection, an 18' x 25' paper maché landscape built to scale. In a separate room a 9'x 12' ink drawing is painted directly onto the wall. A topographic database covering the entire South Africa is available for viewers to browse. At the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.

Instigated by research on the Zulu-British war, this project interrogates the inherent subjectivity of historical interpretation. It considers the role of individual histories, and storytelling as significant vectors of reference, which have often been ignored. The project references a specific event (The Battle of Isandlwana) and the reinterpretation of those events for reconfiguring South African history. 

Originally, much of the Zulu version of the war was not disseminated into public consciousness, it remained largely suppressed and existed as oral history. Since then, the context of the battle has been rewritten as a Zulu victory, which relied on brilliant military tactics. This is a key point for South Africa as it emerges from its colonial history; its nascent transformation requires an examination of historical conventions that relied on denial as a form of substantiation for political infraction. The socio-political ramifications of space and power, intimately intertwined concepts ratified by acts of territorial emancipation in battles like that of Isandlwana, were to become emblematic of future contestations, arguably right up until the dissolution of apartheid. This project looks at the implications of history borne out of family identity. (more text after images)

“Am I trying to write off the sufferings of my own mind and of my family as historical phenomena? Yes and no. We forget that we are history... We are not used to associating our private lives with public events. Yet histories of families cannot be separated from the histories of nations. To divide them is part of our denial.” 
- Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones - The Private Life of War. 

The installation functions as an environment that is disproportionate to the human scale. A miniature landscape, too large for the public to interact with, makes the gallery space inaccessible to the viewer. The edges of the sculpture become part of the walls of the project room, blurring the edges of the exhibition space. The periphery of the paper maché installation is bonded to the wall - they are, conceptually and materially inseparable forms. Like two objects leaning against one another it becomes indecipherable which one is the support structure. These edges, interstices and liminal spaces have come to stand for an obscure "border". The work is both gigantic and miniature depending on whether it is perceived in relation to the gallery or to the individual. Susan Stewart observes, “Our most fundamental relation to the gigantic is articulated in our relation to landscape, our immediate and lived relation to nature as it ‘surrounds’ us.”

“Our position here is the antithesis of the position in relation to the miniature; we are enveloped by the gigantic, surrounded by it, enclosed within its shadow. Where as we know the miniature as a spatial whole or as temporal parts, we know the gigantic only partially. We move through landscape; it does not move through us. This relation to the landscape is expressed most often through an abstract projection of the body upon the natural world. Consequently, both the miniature and the gigantic may be described through metaphors of containment – the miniature as contained, the gigantic as container."

- Susan Stewart, On Longing 

Included in the installation is a video titled Dead Moon Day, which explores the fragmentation of history, memory and geography within an individual’s psyche. The video connects to other elements in the project, including the landscape installation, an archive, and an ink drawing on the wall.

This composite installation attempts to connect the following: a film with a narrative from Samuel Beckett's "Company", the contested history of a battle in South Africa, and my faltering ability to integrate these historically significant events with any emotional coherence. I can identify subtle currents of memory and traces that translate into how I think about this place, a place I used to live near, but they remain fragmented recollections. My sense of loss and subjectivity is reinforced by my eclectic sense of identity that shifts according to where I am in the world. It is not located within this history, but it is connected. The film attempts to bring into the present various disparate elements of this exhibition through its content, narrative, and visual fragmentation. 

Central to the theme of the exhibition is the battle of Isandlwana, which took place on the 22nd of January, 1879. A bloody, ferocious encounter with Zulu warriors, the battle brought the first defeat to English troops on foreign soil. As it happened, the day of the battle was also a solar eclipse - an occasion that had fuelled British intelligence with information, that the Zulus would be too superstitious to attack on such a day. This partially accounts for my decision to have a dual-screen projection in the installation, one of which contains images of a moon rising, silently looping on the one screen through the field of projection. As the two screens juxtapose the regular cadences of a vacant interior with the natural rhythm of the moon’s passage, slightly opposing each other. They reinforce my sense of personal fragmentation - the abandoned plan meeting an unwavering truth; rational calculus versus dead reckoning. 

On the other screen are images of an airport terminal, a space that infuses within me a sense of transition that is exacerbated by the nature of travel. In airports, everything faces inwards; the cafes, bars, even the planes face the passengers. These images conjure up residual emotions of confrontation and voyeurism within my imagination, and they provoke a distance. In this video, the airport is completely devoid of all traffic and hauntingly empty. Sanctioned for temporary use by a charitable organization, Miegs Field where the video was filmed, is an abandoned terminal building in Chicago. The cool blue institutional modernist architecture has typical features which so often remind one of a space built for a temporary experience, of leaving or exiting, of being in transition. 

The narrative structure of the film is based on several paragraphs taken from Samuel Beckett’s prose text, Company. In his seventies, Beckett composed this strikingly poignant, fragmented narrative about memory and the faltering thereof. He contains the text in a monologue that references the second and third person as different parts of his memory. Speaking in the third person, he is confined to the torment of the present. In the second person, he references aspects of his childhood; the tone is infused with nostalgia, pregnant with reverence and mystery. 

The text alludes to the fragmentation of time through the intrusion of uncontrolled memories. These imaginary tableaus pose the threat of abstraction to our ordinary lives, of losing control to the fluid, non-committal nature of memory. It contains fifty nine paragraphs, one short of the number sixty, the implicit reference to the almost full but incomplete circle of a clock read through the minutes per hour. The trajectory of the minute hand in the clock and its inability to complete a full circle implies the impossibility of systematizing time, and, by proxy, memory. As Lawrence Graver writes, “The story evolves into a drama that is clearly taking place inside the old man’s head, a struggle about the voice-tormented fabulist’s need and obligation to imagine, as well as his anguished awareness of waning powers and an inability to connect to the past.” Fifteen of these paragraphs refer to the past, and an abject sense of failure to reconcile the memory of who he is in the present.

At the heart of this chronicle is a sense of self-incrimination, and failure to integrate the past into an ephemeral present. Ultimately, the narrative creates the illusion of loss, of a subjective selfhood and an intimate portrait of sorrow that fails to coalesce the disparate voices in his head. The voices oscillate between the tender tones associated with his early childhood and the traumatic, precarious crises later in his life. 

The structure of the film attempts to create passages for the imagination to rest, where no image exists but those created by “the voice” in his head; these are punctuation marks, non-scenes that mirror the notion of “lying on one’s back in the dark,” imagining, or trying to imagine a complete existence. It tries to capture the unattainable, the complete emotional integration felt during childhood without the tendency towards severance created by an adult mind. 

Miegs airfield terminal building, Goose Island, Chicago

Review by Susan Snodgrass, Art in America, June/July issue, 2009

In “Anatomy of an Archive - The Secret History of a Material Body” Chicago based, Mozambican born Jose Ferreira explored landscape as a metaphor for the body, while also invoking the 1879 Battle of Islandlwana, at which Zulu warriors defeated British forces, to examine issues of territorial conquest and postcolonial emancipation. Although the battle, referenced in didactic materials, was not represented in the art, Ferreira’s work suggested a parallel between psychological and political desires for a place of one’s own in the world. This multifaceted project, combining a sculpture, a drawing, a video and a computer-based archive, unfolded in the course of a two-month residency at the Hyde Park Art Center, during which viewers assisted the artist, formerly a resident of South Africa (as well as Holland and the UK), in constructing the installation in the second-floor project spaces.

Ferreira’s 9-by-12 foot wall drawing in black ink depicted a lush stand of trees set against a mountainous horizon. This unidentified Edenic landscape, which adhered to conventions of 19th century Romanticism, served as a symbol for European land-lust and the Zulu’s ultimate loss. Both are encoded in a digital archive of present day maps of South African provinces, gathered from that nation’s Department of Land Affairs and downloaded onto CDs stacked on two wooden shelves nearby.

Commanding one gallery was a monumental sculpture (5 by 25 by 18 feet) constructed from wood, metal, and paper maché, the undulating white surface of which evokes waves or rolling hills. Puryear-esque in its reductive form and penchant for craft, the work enticed viewers at the same time that it partially obstructed both the interior space and the urban view outside the windows.

The neighborhood of Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago, President Obama, and a large, multi-ethnic middle class, adjacent to a larger, more economically challenged community) offered a fraught background for most of Ferreira’s project. One of Chicago’s more austere areas is summoned up in Dead Moon Day (2009), a two-channel, dual-projection video. A moon rises from the bottom of the right screen, arcs slowly upward and disappears out of frame. On the left screen appear indoor shots of the terminal of the city’s Meigs Field, a single-strip airport closed in 2003. Images of empty seats, hallways and stairwells engender feelings of solitude, entrapment and immobility that are echoed in the work’s sound track, Samuel Beckett’s prose-poem Company, narrated by Stephanie Brooks. This “fable of one in the dark,” where “darkness equals silence and light gives voice,” where the past haunts the present, becomes a parable for South Africa’s history and for contemporary explorations of the self.