this statement by the artist takes the place of a formal interview, and is followed by an interpretation by Mandy Conidaris of the link between process and concept in Emma’s work – and finally, Cavafy’s Ithaca.
The exhibition dis(place) represents an extension and a shifting of my art-making practice which involves collecting and transforming discarded objects found both in demolished homes and on the sites of their remains. Since experiencing a series of losses of my own homes in the 1990s, I became interested in the phenomenon of displacement and its traumatic effects on the individual. My research in this field focused on the navigation of the constructs of place, memory and identity within the displacement experience.
About the wooden floor blocks
The first artwork in which I used parquet floor blocks was constructed from blocks salvaged from a derelict house which was once my home, retrieved a few hours before the house was demolished. The video artwork Tracing transition documents this last visit to my former home.
The floor of a house maps the inside spaces of a home, it defines the spaces where people experience their most intimate moments. By retrieving the floor blocks and inverting them in my artworks, I attempted to re-connect to these experiences. In her book The skin of the film, Laura U Marks maintains that objects “are not inert and mute but they tell stories and describe trajectories” (2000:120). In this way, Marks assigns an animated role to objects in which their meaning and significance resides in their physicality, their materiality and their tactility, in the same way “as habit stores memory in the body” (2000:121). For me, the trace-like qualities of erasure and elusiveness inherent in the inverted parquet block fragments imply the imperfect memory processes linked with trauma prevalent during displacement.
The wooden blocks in the suspended installation de(part) were sourced from second hand building material shops in Woodstock, Cape Town, also the site of The Lovell Gallery. Since my move to Cape Town in 2008 and my involvement in a residency as an artist at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock, I have been intrigued with this area’s social dynamics of change and transition. As carriers of the history of their places of origin, the discarded wooden blocks in de(part) speak of a collective memory of social upheaval prevalent in urban development.
About the boat
Archaeological discoveries of boats that have been buried underneath the soil for centuries, such as the Dufuna Canoe in Nigeria and the Egyptian solar boat inspired the visual aesthetic that I was searching for in my planning the construction of de(part). The boat-like structure in the installation de(part) was built by myself and a team of assistants in an extremely laborious process of layering the inverted floor blocks found in Woodstock. Guided and directed by the inherent qualities and materiality of the blocks, the process involved a slow and painstaking uncovering of a visual expression in an attempt to reveal the many narratives and histories that the floor blocks contain, much in the same way that archaeologists meticulously unearth the remains of centuries ago to uncover links in history and humanity.
About the journey
In travelling over water - a symbol of the unconscious - a boat has connotations of a vessel transporting the deceased to the afterlife. When linked to the displacement experience, a boat may signify the physical means of displacement, while holding the potential for emotional transcendence.
In its suspended state in the gallery, de(part) supports this reference to alternative realms. The journey is through the intangible seas of the psyche and the spirit, and above all the elusive process of recollecting events. It is however, the tangible fragments and weathered brokenness of de(part) which evoke an archeological find and suggest wounding and scarring. de(part) has a ‘post-fossil’ sensibility, creating an awareness of the link between past and future, and providing a vehicle in which the possibility exists for a past traumatic experience to be psychologically transcended through excavation of memory – the afterlife of displacement.
Marks, L.U. 2000. The skin of the film: intercultural cinema, embodiment, and the senses. Durham: Luke University Press.
(an interpretation by Mandy Conidaris)
This exhibition spans several years of the ideas and working processes of Emma Willemse’s journey of creative exploration. The outoftheCUBE exhibition accompanies her solo at The Lovell Gallery, Cape Town, both opening on the same night, 8 May 2013. The outoftheCUBE exhibition is strongly process-based.
When Emma heard that a house she had once lived in and was displaced from was about to be demolished, her gut response was so strong that she climbed into her car and drove some distance to the house, to walk though it for one last time, reliving aspects of her life there, unearthing old thoughts and emotions – provoking memories. This last journey through her old home was recorded and edited into the video artwork Tracing transition. Here we sense the faded tone of the video and the soft scrappy imagery, the focus on the doors which reference the idea of threshold - the moving from one space to another - physically, psychologically? Is the move back across time, or forward and through? The dissonance of the soundtrack, not a heartbeat but an unidentified irregular biological pulse, evokes the peaks and flatline of the act of remembering, creating destabilised chords of memory.
This experience culminated in her removing the parquet floor blocks. In our interview (11 April 2013) Malcolm Christian says
There is [often] maybe the lack of understanding about the reasons why we do things, that it is engaging us in a process of enquiry all the time, that questions ‘who am I?’, not based in me, but rather in the way I react to people and to the environment or the context in which we find ourselves. These traces that we leave behind become the important element, not how we felt, not how we dealt with things. The simple honesty of going there and looking at things, not knowing, but bringing all of this history … and picking up a mundane object and saying, but there is poignancy and pathos in that, so that by focusing on that you are creating a container for others to fill, to use temporarily for meaning ... that’s where trace can be very specific or can blur the edges or it can be something that remains enigmatic for ever.
For Emma, these parquet wooden floor blocks gave her the physical materials for a large installation How to remember a home (2011). A huge image of her own thumb print was laser cut from reassembled floor blocks and the entire structure was suspended, disguising the thumbprint enough to allow the question ‘what traces DO we leave on a home?’ as an acknowledgement of her own history, her process of enquiry into the violent act of displacement, and her memories of a lost home.
Later Emma again began to use found parquet floor blocks in preparation for this solo exhibition. She had spent many months examining her experiences during her creation of How to remember a home, and realised that this acknowledgement had given her the capacity to move forward into a fresh creative space with an enthusiastic spirit.
Her focus became the building of a boat with all the positive associations of travel and new starts. An exciting part of this process has been the recording with a GoPro camera the actual physical building and assembling of this boat, and this recording will form part of the outoftheCUBE exhibition.
The completed boat structure, suspended in the central space of The Lovell Gallery, carries the quality of a journey of potential, a container that holds the scars of displacement while shedding the wounds, and so evolving into a vessel of transcendence.
The accompanying prints - Remember, Dismember and Salvage - function as a narrative, the soft, loose memories of Remember suddenly sharpening into the fragmented Dismember, only to be reconstructed in Salvage, still in clear focus but made whole again.
The exhibition dis(place) represents a journey – although from an alternative perspective. Chronologically, the journey begins with an old journey’s end, traverses a passage of time and ends with a fresh journey’s beginning. I am reminded of the Odyssey, of Constantine Cavafy’s Ithaka …
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better it lasts for years,
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Constantine Cavafy (1911)
Translated by Edmund Keeley