Texts on selected works
Essay: Mistaken Media
Minnette Vári biography
Media Work - Exhibition
R E M
How can one not be tempted to divine one's own
destiny from the televisual tarot of global media? There were times when, told
in the language of international news, the histories of my country would unfold
in unrecognisable ways, and my place within these stories would become
disjointed and unbearable. I wanted to speak of the discomfort of a thousand
ill-fitting interpretations. Using television images relating to the
transformative events between 1994 and 1998, I attempted to locate my own
implicit presence in the narrative of these critical times. My project was about
reclaiming these moments, re-inscribing them with the movements of my own body,
the sound of my own heartbeat - a memory recounted in flesh and bones. Although
my body is not a-political nor neutral and my access to it is not uncomplicated,
I wanted to bring the extremes of fear, euphoria, desire, rage and loss into a
language beyond democratic rhetoric.
When used as an instrument against the forgetfulness of history, the strategies of art become volatile and impatient. Through my work I tear at the fabric of different realities, severing images from their origin and cleaving apart the logic of their familiarity. The links I make in this process can be chilling and brutal, but often the things we can't bear to face are the most telling witnesses of our times. Considering the socio-political imprint that this place and time has left on me, I choose in my work to bring the peculiarities of a mutating subjectivity to bear on the specificities of its historical context. We need all the individual fragments we can find in order to anticipate the places our histories could take us.
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Rory Bester: How have you tried to use different
kinds of archival footage in the video?
Minnette Vári: I preferred sources such as television news footage from the distant and recent past. I also used free publications by various South African organisations, travel brochures and commemorative pamphlets of the South African Armed Forces. I chose the kind of information that is endlessly recycled on global media networks. I was once snowed in at a motel room in Detroit, watching CNN for news on South Africa. It was 1994, a very important year for South Africa. Inevitably the requisite news items came up and I photographed them straight off the television screen with my small automatic camera. Ironically these re-claimed images became part of my souvenirs of America. Eventually I decided to re-animate these low-tech stills. I wanted to restore a new kind of authenticity to these over-familiar images by applying the aesthetics of cyber-animation, broadcast news and virtual reality games. I've tried not only to reconstruct the way the images were used, but to also rewrite them.
RB: It isn't really clear what images you're using as sources for the animated video...is this important?
MV: The original content is all but lost through this process of visual encryption, but I think the sequences contain clues that say a lot about where the images originated and even their context. Some details do remain, things like microphones, emblems, aircraft. These trivia may be arbitrary, but when read as part of a sequence they reveal the trappings of a kind of reportage - a version of South Africa that the world sees in 'eye-witness account'-type reporting. We start seeing ourselves in this revolving mirror of up-to-date-ness, but also uncover the world's desires with regards to this country and its situation, the tell-tale patterns of othering. TV frames events and crops meaning, animating world events in a very particular way. I'm interested in how images get convoluted and translated in the narrative of news and sent all around the world, becoming quite detached from their origin, almost alien. That is why the figures in the video seem so bizarre and distorted. They speak of the discomfort of an ill-fitting interpretation. In my failure to fit into their forms I become misshapen, yet remain recognisable. Because one is instinctively drawn to one's own image, there is a tension in being repelled from it at the same time. My project is about reclaiming these images, re-inscribing them, personalising them. It's about embodiment, quite literally giving a new body.
RB: How important is it to you that you end up re-creating a narrative?
MV: We live in a time where everything has to be redrawn. A simple analogy is the new constitution. 'Draw' implies a going back, a tapping into, but when you make a drawing you also advance along a line. Drawing is a process of appropriation, always covering new ground. 'Draw' also implies pulling, tugging, an act of struggle. To draw is to give shape to something. Applied as an implement of narration, it can be a way to plough up pieces of fragmented history, a means to re-member certain things. Art can be a powerful instrument against the forgetfulness of history. In the animated video, I render the silhouettes live, drawing myself into that space. With this appropriative gesture I am re-inscribing the photographed figure with the vernacular of self-portraiture, as part of a need to create a new subjectivity in post-apartheid art. It's about our paranoid fantasies of ownership and loss. One cannot take one's identity as a South African for granted. This kind of identity-configuration always remains negotiable.
RB: Why have you inserted yourself into the images?
MV: It's a way to figure out what the implications are for me. In an image of a policeman escorting a photographer away, I wanted to register the moment of forced erasure and alienation. Both the policeman and the photographer were acting in the interests of particular bodies of people and are caught up in that moment of discord: a desire to remember and a counter-desire to erase, to forcibly divert the gaze. It is a moment where distinctly different agendas draw these figures into an explosive unit. I attempt to write my own implicit presence into the narrative of these crises. But by doing this I myself perform an act of erasure. My body is not a-political nor neutral, my access to it is not uncomplicated. It is a site of continuous arbitration and transformation. I find the same sense of tentative uneasiness in images relating to transformative events. The figures in the original footage, members of the armed forces, press and political delegates, are all in some way emissaries, representatives of a South Africa. As representatives they have a mandate to speak or act on my behalf. This way I'm not actually absent in the images I've used. Yet my implied presence in the original images is fraught with uncertainty. Like news events, it needs to be explained and recounted again and again.
RB: Are these images about your own guilt about the past?
RB: In using documentary processes, how important is the visual discourse itself?
MV: To me it's important to show how the same visual iconographies can be applied in propagating vastly different agendas. The context of representation is easily tainted by the way images are presented.
RB: By adopting this approach you run the risk of becoming too preoccupied with form...
MV: Actually it's more like a morbid fascination. Surface has become such an important visual commodity. Presentation means as much, sometimes more than content. Visual discourses are used as a means of creating wealth and power. My work is about re-appropriating the aesthetic of these discourses, to see if an aesthetic can maintain its power in a different context. To slit open the surface, to get at its innards and see how it's constructed. By re-tracing the steps that make an industry have a certain 'look', I can attempt to reflect the histories, the political strategies and social implications behind that appearance.
Excerpt from an interview conducted by Rory Bester, from the catalogue of Democracy's Images: Photography and visual art after apartheid, Bildmuseet, Umeĺ, Sweden, September 1998. Rory Bester is a Johannesburg-based art historian and critic.
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En route, there is a lot one can pick out from the
passing landscape to serve as example and evidence of a history still being
lived out, being lamented and celebrated. A thin black scribble, the road is
witness to so much history. My best conversations with the occasional visitor
from Europe or elsewhere happen in my car when we are on our way to or from the
airport, from Johannesburg to Durban, or Cape Town, or Pretoria. On the road
there are people and situations: minibus taxis weaving through the traffic,
large groups of tourists who crane their necks to take in the scenery, men in
overalls perilously crossing the highway on foot, big old buses with school
children who sometimes wave at us. We see billboards that advertise
international brands for an African market, factories, ungainly monuments, the
sunsets, the expensive German cars, the high fences, beggars of all descriptions
with their trade mark handwritten cardboard signs. Traffic cops pass by us on
their motorcycles, we see street vendors with their dismal wares from Taiwan,
armoured vehicles carrying cash to and from banks, lamp-posts festooned with
various posters, many printed boldly with the newest headlines, dead animals by
the roadside: dogs, big ones and small. Cats. Hares. Pigeons. Other animals too
- we call them roadkill, one category. Often, what you see doesn't resemble
anything much, no specific breed or type of animal. But it's clearly roadkill -
shredded flesh, smeared into the tarmac, pieces of fur or feathers loyally
sticking to unrecognisable remains of animals torn from their skins, opened up,
broken and twisted, exposed, naked, dead. At times I speed past such scenes of
destruction as fast as I can, to try and blur away some of the impact of this
sadly unwelcome and unwelcoming sight. Strange that I would feel so
uncomfortable driving by animals crushed under speeding tires? Still, the road
is a living document, and our memory must be uncompromising.
Here, these roads connect the scenes of a more famous destruction, not as clear or as final as the fate of a ruined dog. Every day brings new witness of a history of blight, and new reasons to wrench hope from a past and a present violently bound together in the anticipation of a very different future. To understand something is in a way to close in on it, to dissolve distance, to embrace that maimed thing, if only with your mind. But up close, some memories seem improbable and perverse, so unrecognisable that their owner, torn and uncomprehending, fails to dodge their crushing momentum. A known and lived past has shown itself to be monstrous - like an animal that, in trying to cross a dark road, has instead crossed over another less visible divide. Mutilation introduces a distance: that animal is now part of a very different reality. I cannot, as such, feel 'one' with it anymore: it is a crowded encounter that affords no space for empathy, an impatient decay with no time for nostalgia. There can be no healing in the simple sense, no whole parts to piece together again. No re-membering. Only brokenness, separation - and because of this, horror.
On the dark mirror of the road there is a moment of hesitation. Why is it so painful to write myself into this history? Doubt freezes me in its headlights and, on impact, shatters my body into a horde of strange reasons, each rising from the oily surface of forgetfulness. They rise with an awkward gait and begin an inexorable march on a road that will retrace a history I was not ready to recall. The road is hot, hazardous in its elasticity, the boundaries not yet solid. I recognise with dread the discomfort they feel in an ill-fitting skin, too tight and too thin for this critical journey. Naked in an alien landscape, their story retold by a thousand tongues, they wake with the scent of blood on their breath, and with the smell of burnt hair. Into a grey and heartbreaking dawn they march two, three abreast. There is no honour in their silence. Against an ever-brightening sky they must perform their tragedies, negotiate their triumphs and their losses and weigh their currency over and over again while their mute interrogation rings in my ears.
All texts © Minnette Vári
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Recent South African history has shown that a
cohesive notion of the past can only be forged from within the intricate maze of
individual recollection. In my work memory appears as a document under revision,
an uneven patchwork of information that is never complete. Recollection renders
the perceived facts of a history into a narrative, the re-telling of which
inevitably interferes with the plot: this is the way of language. Hence
remembering is an act that requires the human faculty for representation - this
suggests moments of appropriation and of editing which could amount to an
over-writing or, less kindly, an act of erasure. Therefore a narrative always
speaks firstly of the position of its speaker, and only then of what is
understood as the content. The rendering also rends: at times the pain of
remembering shows us the grim weight of our desires and our losses.
Art renders. I am always redrawing the limits of my understanding of the world, making up alternative narratives along the way, translating the visual agendas of contemporary media and drawing conflicting histories of this place and time into discomfiting proximity of each other. Art also rends. Through my work I tear at the fabric of different realities, severing images from their origin and cleaving apart the logic of their familiar rhetoric. When practised as an impetus against the forgetfulness of history, the strategies of art become volatile and impatient. Considering the socio-political imprint that this place and time has left on me, I choose in my work to bring the peculiarities of a mutating subjectivity to bear on the specificities of its historical context. The matter has become increasingly personal as I come to know more and more about my country of birth.
To acknowledge the gaps in our memories and to reconstruct the missing parts of a history is almost as frightening as staring an apparition in the face, daring it to show itself while knowing that one couldnít stand the sight. Often the things we can't bear to face are the most telling witnesses of our personal and ideological origins. My new work constitutes a kind of ghost-hunt, tilling over the soil of public and private recollection to find the phantoms that could help to form a composite portrait of an itinerant 'self'. My aim is to determine a sense of future by giving voice to the unmentionable and form to the unimaginable. Because I believe that what one presents as artist can be looked upon as a way of divining our individual and shared destinies.
"The shadow past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing. It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This is how one becomes undone by a smell, a word, a place, the photo of a mountain of shoes. By love that closes its mouth before calling a name." (Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, 1997)
Eating history, devoured by time
In Oracle I become a maniacal golem, cramming all
the conflicting histories of present-day Africa into my mouth, in a fit of
hunger that makes me gag. To re-incorporate the disparate truths into one body,
to make it whole again, is an excruciating task. Unlike Saturn (or Chronos), the
god of time who, in an attempt to evade his fate, devoured his children, the
figure in Oracle wants desperately to hasten her fate, to bite into, over and
beyond time. As in
Oswald de Andrade's Cannibalist Manifesto this figure becomes
a metaphor for postcolonial identity, a craving to assimilate every fragment of
information into one hybrid body.
The proliferation of information about a history as active as South Africa's has been, can sometimes prove too much, and one reaches saturation point. Unable to deal with the influx of information, unable to digest all the different versions of reality, the figure in Oracle must reject mouthfulls of it, spitting pieces out, despite the forceful urge to ingest more.
In my research for this work, I have taken as a starting point Francesco de Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his children, and looked into the identities of the children of this mythological figure. I have found that each of these gods and goddesses had specific powers, duties and areas of concern, such as death, agriculture and the wellbeing of women. I have chosen footage from the media in accordance to these characteristics, and wound up with a portrait of South Africa at a certain point in time. It is this portrait that becomes the setting for a more personal interrogation of the history that has shaped who I am.
© Minnette Vári
R E M
Night sounds of the Karoo: crickets, bats,
occasional gusts of wind, an owl calling. Onto an uneven stone or concrete
structure, or the exterior of a building, is projected a figure moving in
dreamlike slow motion, as if weightless, treading on air. It is the figure of a
woman, a ritual huntress, a Venus of Willendorf - changing her position and
shape while all around her other creatures slowly appear and then dissolve again
into darkness. Other human figures become visible: half-distorted, blurring away
and re-appearing. These figures go through familiar motions: walking, meeting,
fighting, moving objects around. The image resembles a Bushman rock painting: a
tableau of human and animal figures and various objects engaging in a flow of
relationships: the hunter and the hunted, the shaman and the devotees,
adversaries in combat, the arrival of Europeans in their awkward cattle-drawn
wagons. Despite their hallucinatory appearance, some images also seem strangely
contemporary: scenes of modern warfare appear, present-day vehicles move about,
people engaging in familiar late twentieth century actions. On the projection
surface, all the different images appear as dream-objects in a landscape of
apprehensive expectation. Throughout, the central figure performs her slow,
rolling, trancelike dance, asleep and dreaming.
REM (rapid eye movement) is a physiological state during sleep most associated with dreaming. The blood flow to the brain increases, breathing and heartbeats become irregular, the hands and face start to twitch and voluntary muscle controls are lost. REM Sleep is often called the 'Dream State'. This is the most active state of the sleep process. REM dreams are vivid, filled with physical and emotional energy. During this time the mind is at its most active as the subconscious deals with all the information, memories, neuroses, fears and emotions archived during wakefulness. Some scientists refer to REM as a third level of consciousness that allows us to relive life experiences.
The figure is that of the artist, filmed while asleep. The phases where she was the most restless were selected, edited together and made to play in slow motion. All around her, images of historical and contemporary Southern Africa unfold: taken from post cards, newspapers and books, historical, geographical and political images of the last century: a hundred years of great change. The work engages the hopes and fears of those who have lived through the turmoil of an infamous history and now have to find the best possible future. It refers to the Aboriginal Dream Time, a time suspended between yesterday and forever - but projects this into a much anticipated and imagined tomorrow (the 21st Century).
REM can also be seen as a warning or omen communicated through a dream against the hubris of nations turning away from history in myopic negation. Therefore it is also a call for calm reflection and deliberation. REM questions our perception of reality and whether our actions sometimes take their cue from a primordial unconscious rather than from waking consciousness. On a bigger scale, the figure represents that of the earth itself: a life in free fall, a fertile body full of dormant and diverse potential, entering an uncertain age, spiraling into an unknown destiny.
© Minnette Vári
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On this longest night of the year,
I am thought's hermaphrodite,
half present, half dreamt.
In this unreal world, all windows dissolve.
Sleep flounders between two stars:
orphaned halves of a press-stud.
Not knowing myself distresses the shadows of leaves.
I have admitted to my faults,
and still I am astonished to find myself sad!
Obsessed with truth, my heart
wrestles to conquer its cage.
To the south, an accumulating storm
accepts itself in spasms.
Content with duality, wood-owls confer:
Discovered by cold, I am
restless beneath these layers of rational wool.
Rhomboids of insomniac light are frozen to the walls.
Out in the real world, the wind is all bluster and muscle:
my every half-awakening dream is torn
by the shriek of a loosened latch.
On this the longest night of the year,
the lumbar ache of loneliness is as integral to my being
as tinnitus is to hearing.
Eventually I rise, and pacify the latch.
In our mutual nudity, a streetlight laughs aloud.
Serene as a child in the traffic of her dreams,
the intuitive moon negotiates clouds.
At Newgrange, four thousand years gone, shamans,
astrologers, shaggy warriors, slaves, wrestled
massive boulders into place, built a tunnel,
a chamber, laid out chiefs' ashes, and nestled
Beneath a mound their reverence, that acceptable dread.
Four thousand years on, this one winter dawn,
the sun still spikes the dark, horizon to tomb,
and gilds again the ethereal scabbards of the dead.
And here, the same sun, this identical dawn, tips
over the trees, lances through an airbrick, lights
roofbeam after beam, without shame, like a blade.
Michel Foucault suggested that the word 'monster'
refers back to the Latin, monstrare, to put on show as a spectacle, and not as
an object. The idea of creating something illegitimate, which doesn't belong or
fit in, is central to the monster myth. Like folk tales and children's stories,
they are moralistic, suggesting a way of posing issues of beauty, evil, power
and good. Perhaps the confusion of dialectic categories is the greatest heresy,
combining fur with feathers, tame with wild, edible and inedible. They become
significations of our worst nightmare, but also points us to what a sense of
freedom might be. Chimera, the title of Vári's video installation, refers in
Greek mythology (Khimaira) to the fire breathing she-monster represented as a
composite of a lion's head, goat's body and dragon's tail. The mythologies and
legends of ancient and modern cultures teem with an enormous variety of monsters
and imaginary beasts, many of which can be found at the gates of Hades. A great
number of these are composites of different existing animals that emerge from
various cultures, from Babylonian winged bulls and leopards, to Hindu winged
elephants and Western Chimera, who according to legend was slain by Bellerophon,
mounted on the winged horse Pegasus. The English poet Milton has described the
chimera of an author as a vain, foolish, incongruous fancy or creature of the
In addressing her own history Minnette Vári works here within the confines of the Voortrekker Monument, inaugurated in 1949 as a monument to Afrikaner Nationalism and built to describe the significance and meaning of the Great Trek to its descendants. A covenant was established that gave birth to the Afrikaner nation who left the Cape Colony between 1835 and 1854. Depicted in a marble frieze of 27 bas-relief panels is the everyday perseverance, heroism, illness, death, conquests and trials of the Voortrekkers. The frieze of 92 meters long is housed in the Hall of Heroes. From the pristine glow of the Quercetta Italian marble emerges the incarnation of Chimera where Vári has captured on video the entire frieze of Voortrekker figures, reanimated with additional footage, producing a procession of monochrome ivory amalgams of human and animal aberrations floating in a dreamlike moment. The Chimeras interact with each other, echoing a strange freakish version of historical events frozen in time and ideology.
Jean-Francois Bayart has described South Africa as being "precisely and fully in the process of inventing illusions to the conceivable since there is no agreed upon reality, as yet, to which a single discourse can be referred"1. For Njabulo Ndebele, the history of South Africa and particularly Apartheid is described as follows: "If today they sound like imaginary events [it is] because, as we shall recall, the horror of day-to-day life under apartheid often outdid the efforts of the imagination to reduce it to metaphor"2. That is the danger, that apartheid is just a story, a memory, an illusion. The chimera of political ideology is represented by a lion's head: an embodiment of the disastrous reign of a tyrannous and perverted ruler who dominated reality to the extent that reality surpassed our wildest imaginings. The properties of the she-goat are revealed in the sexual aspect of the Chimera and the serpent's tail represents the corruption of the spirit through pride and vainglory where the ideals of nationalist separation inevitably led to failure.
Chimera has been conceived in addressing the complex contradictions that exist in post apartheid South Africa, by drawing an analogy between a past that is monstrous and the monsters of ancient mythology. Cultures dominate one another, history is written, stories are told and heroes are born. From the Voortrekker Monument we discover the cold, one-sided historical account that is anointed as history and in effect then, truth. Minnette Vári chronicles the evidence of a perverted narrative of denial and forgetting. She brings into question the way that histories are written, represented and commemorated. Her Chimeras, like that of the Voortrekker Monument figures, are etched in time, perpetually for all eternity. Vári's Chimera excavates the allegorical tradition of European art and mythology. It is a language predicated on disrupting the illusion of the exotic, grotesque and unfamiliar. Ranging from the cabinet de curiosités to the display of Saartjie Baartman, mankind's fascination with nature, culture and history has led to inconceivable deviations with regards to race, genetics and extreme creations. Chimera plays some of these deviations against one another and what emerges, is a poignant but elusive narrative that resonates between the broadly historical and the intimately personal.
1 Jean-Francois Bayart, 'The State in Africa, The Politics of the Belly', Longman, London, 1993.
2 Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee, Negotiating the Past, 'Memory, metaphor and the triumph of narrative', Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1998
Text by Johannesburg-based independent curator, Clive Kellner, September 2001.
© Minnette Vári, Johannesburg 2001
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chimera or chimaera n. mythical monster with
a serpent’s tail, a goat’s body, and a lion’s head.
1. From Greek chímaira monster, supposed to have been a personification of the snow or winter; originally, she-goat, feminine form of chímaros he-goat (that is one winter old), related to cheîma, cheimón winter season. … Sanskrit híma winter, himá-s snow...
2. Brought forth from the bowels of the earth. Daughter of grotesque and ferocious creature Typhon, a hundred-headed dragon, and fierce Echidna, a creature half woman and half serpent. Whomever surrenders to the Chimera is seduced and destroyed.
3. A fabulous beast made up of parts taken from various animals.
4. Wild illusion, fantasy, figment of the imagination. A wild and unrealistic dream or notion.
5. A disease of the psyche, characterised by a fertile and unrestrained imagination. …The snake or dragon’s tail represents the way in which vainglory corrupts the spirit; the goat’s body sexual ficleness and perversion; the lion’s head a tendency for destructive domination. …embodied in the ‘disastrous reign of a perverted, tyrannous or weak ruler’.
Various sources, including Collins English Dictionary, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, Collins Dictionary of Classical Mythology (E. Tripp) and Cassel’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology (J. March).
Conspicuously atop a naked hill outside the city of Pretoria stands a square colossus – the Voortrekker Monument, one of the great landmarks of Afrikaner Nationalism. Inside, light filters through panels of yellow Belgian glass into the vast domed hall. This great hall is always cold, even in summer.
All around the walls runs a frieze in Italian marble depicting a large chapter of the battles of the Voortrekkers, early settlers of mainly Dutch descent who drove their wagons inland to be free from the British colony in the Cape. Battles won and lost against Ndebele and Zulu armies are a main theme, the stoic and righteous character of the Voortrekker heroes always beyond question.
The figures in the relief panels are frozen in time and in ideology. Framed in their various roles, perpetually acting out one version of a history and etched in the hard light of a one-sided account where doubt is superfluous, even dangerous. This kind of cold perversion sneaks into almost any nation’s account of history at any given time. There’s a fine line between denial, omission and forgetting.
I am interested in exposing the way in which ideologies and deep-seated desires and fears register in the way that histories are written, represented, remembered and commemorated. Is the mythical creature - the Chimera – not always somehow present in the way we gather our histories into tellable tales? Is there, for instance, progress or degeneration in a list such as this:
Text © Minnette Vári, Johannesburg 2001
Television, after radio, is accessed daily by
millions in South Africa who rely on this medium for their daily fix of cheep
entertainment (soaps, especially), to follow their favourite sport and to see
what the newest developments are in international and local politics and other
affairs. Television has come to be called a 'tool of true democracy, spreading
information and education to all'. Although there are certainly arguments
against this, it does stand that a great many people access their share of
entertainment, world news and education from the small screen, even if it is
from the classroom or the house of a neighbour.
As in many other countries in the world, exclusive television entertainment has become big business in South Africa, and sets itself quite a long way apart from the state-monitored National broadcaster. In this spirit there are a few 'pay channels' that make their material available only to subscribers who have the appropriate decoders. As is the international custom, these exclusive services scramble their broadcasts so as to render their programmes unwatchable by the non-paying public.
At times I can sit and watch these scrambled signals for hours, marvelling at the strange combinations of recognisable image and sheer visual 'noise', all the while noticing that the soundtrack is not at all part of the programme being broadcast, since they rotate the same lame 1980's songs over and over again. Intermittent break-ups in the audio signal bring storms of electronic hiss and crackle, or long stretches of silence followed by the voice of an unaccountably excited host announcing upcoming attractions that will remain just 'noise' to me and millions of other South Africans, until I can afford my decoder, that is. Despite this, there are moments where I think I recognise the flash of mangled footage as coming from a movie that I've seen before, or footage of some other event that I know of, and this keeps me riveted to the screen for more clues. Invariably I come away seeing flashes of light when I close my eyes.
The TV is like a hearth that gathers families and strangers alike around its flashing bluish glow; it emits rays of light-borne information to countless pairs of eyes - information that illuminates or confuses, encourages understanding and tolerance or incites violence and hatred. Or simply moves people to buy stuff they will never use. All things and all energies can be seen as information in transit, and here I thought of the sun that emits a constant shower of solar wind-driven sub-atomic particles out into space, causing chemical and electrical reactions to occur - sometimes on a grand scale.
The solar wind flows over and around the planet, hitting the Earth's magnetic field at around 400 kilometres per second. The field deflects the stream towards the magnetic poles, where the electric charge of the particles reacts with the chemistry of the upper atmosphere. The resulting photo-electrical discharge lights up the night sky and creates the famous Aurora Australis of the South Polar Region, exactly as happens in the North Polar Region's Aurora Borealis.
Great flowing ribbons of coloured light brightens the skies over the polar region too far south to be seen from the southernmost part of my country. And yet, because of its location I feel strangely territorial about this grand display. Just like the coloured bands in the scrambled transmission on my TV set, these seem to carry some hidden message, and holds some remote enchantment, even a chance at intellectual and spiritual illumination to those who watch. Like the goddess of dawn, Aurora (or Greek Eos), it heralds of something out there, something greater, a cryptogram of things to come.
In Aurora Australis, the encrypted television footage from my home TV appears on the screen, slowed down to a whisper of motion to show the shifting ribbons of colour and light and the strange flashes of life and fantasy that they partially obscure, partially reveal. Faces and gestures, figures moving in different locations, hinting at sport, politics, intrigue, high action, romance. This work will track the scrambled versions of a few selected programmes and movies related in some way to the concepts I have written about above.
Given the geographic location of the place where I encounter this televisual scramble, even if it originates from a totally different source, and the mythological links to the auroral phenomenon (Aurora, dawn, the east where the sun rises), I followed broadcasts of movies that in their title or content have a link with the South (Africa and Australia) and the East (East Germany, Pakistan, China).
I engaged physically in these images, casting myself as a 'double' of some of the actors, replicating certain actions or completing their actions for them. Picking up on certain themes, I entered into a physical struggle with the apparent chaos by wrestling with the colour bands to make way for a new plot to be revealed. I became a kind of Augur, trying to interpret, or decode, a narrative from the storm of cryptic information.
Of course what is revealed is likely to have nothing to do with the 'found' scrambled information, which is precisely the point. Part of my struggle here is to show the endless possibilities for poetry in every person's grasp of the world in the endless stream of information emitted by the world. That which the world presents us with is in no way ever straightforward or uncoded. The struggle to make sense of our histories and experiences, even of our truths, holds a lot of freedom, but in essence it remains a struggle of great risk, significance and magnitude. I would like to be able to read the signs of the world in the same way that the ancient peoples made sense of nature's everyday and more uncommon displays.
On the rooftops and high places of urban
Johannesburg, imagine the appearance at dusk of creatures so strange that their
role could be that of sentinel, or fugitive, or witness, interloper, heir,
envoy, clairvoyant, even impostor. Not entirely of this world, but still with a
very real and disfiguring multiplicity that speaks of a bitter and exotic
inheritance - their bodies heavy with the relics and anxieties, gifts and
weaponry of many generations. And at this moment, the very newest in history,
all has been gathered into a tight, tense entirety, and everything is at risk.
Whether that which they carry with them is shelter or shortcoming, or even where their peculiar belonging belongs, is hard to say. We all know that no-one gets to have a bird's eye view of history.
In a new photographic series, Minnette Vári confronts the condition and self-awareness of being both white and African. With, as reference, the family emblems of European settlers to the Cape, she asks what it is that keeps people from really belonging to the place where history has brought them, and why, after all this time and on the brink of political and emotional homelessness, there are those who sit in high places, awaiting the new day that they have promised themselves.
© Minnette Vári
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Essay: Mistaken Media
Minnette Vári biography