Digging for Redemption
The Future Rewound & The Cabinet of Souls is formed in two parts, both inspired by the history of The Mosaic Rooms’ building. More than a century ago it served as the domicile for Imre Kiralfy, the man responsible for many of the grand exhibitions at Earls Court, White City and Olympia. Kiralfy brought curiosities from all parts of the global empire to England, where the Victorian public was eager to view such spectacles. The exhibition is conceived to confront these last hundred years, and give form to its forces that continue to thread colonialism and capitalism, captivity and control, the observing and observed. To acknowledge the ghosts that haunt our contemporary life, using a methodology and practice that actively seeks out the shadows present in historical artefacts, media imagery, document and social reality.
The Future Rewound explores enduring methods of control in contemporary life. It also challenges the notion that today’s technologies permit no absences of information, that everything of value to society is visible and available. The work therefore directly questions the value systems in place today, and consequently the origins of these structures of power. No is a two-channel video installation which focuses on the rigorous visa process that people must go through to enter the UK. On one screen an omnipotent faceless mouth voices the questions the UK border agency asks on the visa form. On the other, a choir of Tunisian citizens sings the responses to these demands for information. They are a group, yet they remain subject to the authoritarian voice and its investigation. The only answer it wants to hear is no, it values only what you are not, not what you are. The setting within an Anglican church draws parallels to the Holy Inquisition and the presumption of guilt without fair hearing.
Kaabi-Linke’s juxtaposition of subjectivity with impersonal jurisdiction continues in Modulor II, which takes its name from an anthropocentric scale invented by architect Le Corbusier. This installation challenges the scale of proportions he devised to be the most harmonious to the human form — a scale that has influenced much of modern design and architecture. Reflecting on this link between designed space and the human form, the artist researched the minimum measurements of prisons cells from across the world. By recreating European prison cells in a minimal three-dimensional line drawing, the artist aims to make the viewer aware of the physiological and psychological impact of such spaces and to reflect on the rationale for methods of confinement.
All Along the Watchtower powerfully employs shadow as architectural form to evoke the undetectable surveillance structures that permeate contemporary life. The shadow appears to be cast by a hunting post, but it is hidden from view. Inherently sensitive to light and temporal change, this shadow is beyond time, it renders the momentary indefinitely. By denying perception of the architecture itself, the viewer is caught in ghostly time, an unnaturally constant present. The post echoes the looming watchtowers of concentration camps and other restricted areas; we are aware of being watched, stalked but not knowing by whom or what, or for how long. The spectre of surveillance is made more disquieting through its unknown agenda.
Continuing commitment to interrogating forms of faceless power, Perspectives (Bank Junction, London) is a new commission that refers to the recent financial crisis in London and challenges the omnipotent influence of capitalism. Two views of London’s financial district are depicted in frames alongside the room’s windows. The translucent surface of these new panes contains the images, although a view to the exterior world beyond is denied. This liminal space of the window is transformed into the producer of a singular shadowy perspective, reminding the viewer that unseen forces control and obscure that which they perceive. The view itself denies traditional depictions of perspective, to remind us that this too was an invented device. This image is fragile, visible only through light, reminding the audience of the potential precarity of the financial systems that control modern life.
The lower gallery, The Cabinet of Souls, inverts the roles of spectators and objects. The works make visible the ghostly shadows that continue to influence social forces today and aims to release them from the confines of their representation. In Tunisian Americans, vials of the soil that surrounds 400 US military graves in Tunisia are placed within old type cases and labelled with their corresponding social security numbers. Kaabi-Linke archives the very earth of her native soil, a gesture in quiet contrast to the violent history inherent in such cemetery dust. Through this act the artist addresses the tension in recalling and ordering histories of conflict. The work as a whole interrogates patriotic ideologies and the defence of borders on foreign soils, raising questions of memory and memorialisation.
Impunities London Originals similarly negotiates visibility, using forensic methodology to render discernable the scars of domestic violence, both physical and psychological — trapped as traces on fragile paper. It forces the viewer to intimately confront the wounds inflicted on women and children who have suffered abuse. The work was made by conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews with former victims in London and is part of an ongoing project. The affect is a resoundingly visceral repositioning of the victim into the subject.
This space also features a new commission, Faces, which reflects on the politics of representation. This new installation re-presents members from the South African tribes brought over for the Savage South Africa spectacle by Frank Fillis that formed part of Imre Kiralfy’s Greater Britain Exhibition in 1899. Fillis was commissioned to bring nearly 200 tribespeople from South Africa to live in a representation of an African Village, a Kaffir Kraal, and perform nightly stagings from the Matabele wars. This spectacle also acted as propaganda for British Imperial pursuits in South Africa, including its mining activities for gold and diamonds. The spectacle was billed as “a vivid, realistic representation of life in the wilds of the dark continent.”
By appropriating original photographs of the tribes people from ‘Savage South Africa’, Faces questions the history of media portrayal of the other. Grouped together as examples of different tribes, and ascribed generalised attributes, the individual is unrecognisable in these artifacts. By re-portraying such figures in the manner of Western portraiture of the time, the artist re-distinguishes the self from the summation, while simultaneously invoking Western imperial use of the camera as control. The mass of portraits turns the gaze onto the viewer, forcing them to renegotiate the idea of the spectator and the spectacle, and who is the ‘other’.
Returning once more to the upper gallery and to the fabric of The Mosaic Rooms, A Colour of Time is a monochrome piece, which visualises the layers of time of the building’s history. Architectural exploration revealed that layers of paint from Kiralfy’s time still existed, as well as all the subsequent layers of emulsion and distemper. The artist took samples from the ceiling ‘rose’ in the upper gallery room, which she ground up to form a pigment. It was discovered that this ornamental rose had been gilded during Kiralfy’s time, the traces of which still exist beneath the layers. The outer ring has subsequently been left exposed by the artist. In its very materiality, this process makes reference to Faces and the imperialist search for gold, and reflects upon the passage of time and change through the physical skins of paint and plaster.
Through these quiet and minimal gestures to redress the sites of suppression, personal, historical, physical, Kaabi-Linke makes visible that which lingers and pervades. Through visualising these spectres, the works haunt the space of the gallery, and in this act of haunting, that which is hidden is made apparent to us. Only through the experience of this can it become a reality, it is not learned, but felt and known. In this way these quiet gestures can lead to transformative acts of recognition, and art can emerge as a way of reminding us that our world is not only of this moment but is always in negotiation with the past.
Source: Nadia Kaabi-Linke: The Future Rewound and The Cabinet of Souls, catalog, London 2014, pp. 4-6.