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art value 13
8. Jahrgang 2014

Abstract

The Pandemonium of the Heart
Order and chaos in the work of Dineo Seshee Bopape

Clare Butcher

‘He spoke to me of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor's court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shonagon had a passion for lists: the list of 'elegant things,' 'distressing things,' or even of 'things not worth doing.' One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of 'things that quicken the heart.' Not a bad criterion I realise when I'm filming;...’

These lines come from the voice-over narration of Chris Marker’s 1982 essay-film, Sans Soleil. The lists drawn up by this 11th century woman are what inspire Marker’s approach to his travelogue which takes us from one obscure corner of the globe to another. In its attempt to sequence the very different histories and contemporary realities of places, the film fails to shed light on the world as something which can be organised, and easily connected. Rather, what we see are intimate glimpses of the beautiful (and often frightening) unclassifiable nature of things; things which require an entire revision of our own structures of knowledge in order to appreciate and understand.

This poetic uncertainty of ‘things that quicken the heart’, I would argue, not only motivated Marker’s work, but also that of many artists living in capricious times. Despite the fact that museums and collections rely heavily on the ordering (whether that be alphabetical, sequential, or chronological) of art history, many artists have drawn comfort, like Shonagon, from their personal ability to intervene in political and institutional flows. Perhaps this tentative relationship could be likened to the counterbalance between the ancient Pantheon, home of the gods and the city of demons, Pandemonium. Rather than being a place of distress or entropy however, Pandemonium represented a space of promise – an ungovernable realm for which the rules were still unwritten. In this place, personal desires could negotiate collective ones and value systems are interrupted and then reflected upon.

It is this wilderness in which the complex work of South African artist, Dineo Seshee Bopape, treads. Her topsy-turvy installations of found material and the seemingly shambolic worlds which Bopape creates in film and performance, present the viewer with a set of idiosyncratic categories, creating unique tensions between clear and obscure, clean and messy, official and unofficial, private and public. The artist’s own words elaborate these relationships in her ongoing practice:

The world is chaos, and one attempts to put order onto it, oranges with oranges, 1 after 2 followed by 3, one attempts to make a narrative, to make a cohesive whole of disparate elements/parts (that are chaotically without class – whatever class that is). [This is] not believable – or rather, it is unstable – so in the attempt to make a cohesive order, another order has to be dismantled: to divorce tomato from 'fruits and vegetables' and shift it to 'warm tones : reds, maroons, magentas etc.’ But perhaps order keeps changing, as does chaos...

Within my work – I'd think these categories keep shifting [the notion of] 'order'- perhaps in the videos especially, in the relation between sound and image. Within the sound design – some chaotic elements become harmonious, and some types of 'order' become any order and perhaps the chaos is the story that interrupts...

While Bopape’s work may travel to many disparate contexts, such as in the pages of this publication, her material interruptions enable us to reflect on the makings of not only art but also of history. Her approach, often personal and intuitive, provides a counterweight to the things we thought we knew about the world and the criteria we use to make order…or chaos…of it.