TORRE DI PORTA NUOVA, ARSENALE NUOVISSIMO
3 JUNE > 27 NOVEMBER
by:Alisa Prudnikova May 26, 2011
At the first, far away sight, the object hanging from the ceiling in the South African pavilion prompts a string of associations, one emerging only to be replaced by others, equally haunting.
Is it a sea monster, reminiscent of earlier work by the artist, Lyndi Sales, caught in a net and brought from South Africa as an exotic curiosity that still manages to retain its own geometric dignity?
Or is it a knot in the nets themselves, empty nets that caught nothing, yet project an illusion of the thing itself – that object of our curiosity and desire, our thirst for the foreign and the unknown that in the end proves to be a mere product of our own imagination?
Or is it, in yet another turn of the screw of interpretation, a discolored symbol of how impossible it is to distinguish or draw a boundary between the net and the catch, the space alien and the bugbear, Venice and South Africa?
As we come closer and read the work’s title – Satellite Telescope – we discover that the whole notion of a monster was most probably a projection of our stereotypes about its place of origin. Indeed, one of our problematic stereotypes is that, Africa is not commonly associated with technology or self-reflective perception; it is something that can be seen, not something seeing.
Throughout her career, Sales has been preoccupied with invisible visions. Sales links her work to an x-ray satellite telescope launched from Kenya in 1970, and to the astronomy of southern skies that has been explored in Cape Town, where she lives. Yet she also merges celestial maps with the images of her own retinas and uses the peculiarities of her astigmatic eyesight to connect the macrocosm with the microcosm. Sales would seem to understand modernity as a plethora of incomplete, lost yet meaningful opportunities (Iain Chambers, Citizenship, Language and Modernity, 2002), and this randomness is reflected by the structure of the telescope, in its combination of incoherent form and multiple internal connections.
Organic imagery returns as we recognize Sales’ very conscious effort to provoke a corporeal response from viewers: by moving past the work’s reflective surfaces, the skies are connected not just with the artist’s own retina but with the eye and body of the viewer in the fleeting temporality of perception.
This connection is necessarily two-way: linking the technological vision with one’s body humanizes the machine. The telescope once again becomes a body, a cocoon. In a more conventional vision of modernity, it would have been given a clear shape, a pregnant body promising the birth of a cyborg. In Sales’ cocoon, by contrast, the outer and inner surfaces are irrevocably mixed up, the future and the present connected by myriad convoluted strings – and yet the modernist feeling of the promise, of the new birth, is somehow retained.
Yet again, who is this viewer “supposed to know”, to read this artwork by endowing it with a sense of their own corporeality, and where is he or she located on the map, astronomical or otherwise? This localization is not easy, as Sales’ work has uncanny, ghost-like quality: it comes from the impossible world where the eye can see itself seeing. Jean-Paul Sartre observed that when actively looking, the subject cannot be conscious of his or her eyes as visible objects – and, inversely, being conscious of them precludes one from seeing. One can never see one’s own gaze.
With Satellite Telescope, though, one can. Sales invites us to overcome Sartre’s impossibility: in her work, viewers do see while being conscious of the apparatus of their sight, including the knots in their corneas.
Thus, Satellite Telescope is brought back to the terrestrial map. South Africa, like other countries caught in the uneasy transition to technological modernity, is the place where one’s own gaze can be registered, if only by peripheral, astigmatic, blurred and double vision.