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02 Oct 2015 16:23
Ed Young’s Agnus Dei at the Smac Gallery. (SMAC Gallery)
A large screen greets you when you enter Smac Gallery in
Cape Town to view Ed Young’s exhibition, Agnus Dei.
One sees a young girl reciting an art theory text. She
stammers over the words, often breaking them into syllables, struggles and is
happy when she pieces a string of words together that even to her appear to
We only see her face and parts of her shoulders.
This work creates meaning on a number of levels: the
disjunction between image and text; the separation of the visual and verbal;
and whether words, sentences and text in the context of art discourse actually mean anything.
That is, refer to anything. Or, in Young’s words or those of
the text, are they merely “the chess board of art”, a game whose meaning is
self-referential and impotent so far as meaning beyond such text is concerned?
First, the struggle between image and text: it is difficult
to follow the conceptual underpinnings when faced with an image. It is as if
there are two languages at work and they are contradictory. Why is a young girl
embroiled in the antics of art theoretical meanderings? What has the text to do
with the innocent, a text that would be expected to be found in a context where
it is used and understood in order to support an institutional system we call
These questions remain rhetorical and as an “art-act” serve
to initiate questions around the authority of a text such as this, its
usefulness in society and whether as we grow older we are corrupted as
complexity becomes the foundation — or rather a nonfoundation. This is not to
say ignorance is bliss, but it does mean questioning what a society establishes
as knowledge, for is not meaning constructed, not to mention ideologically
Second, the struggle between the visual and the verbal: as
an extension of the first duality, we note further subtleties. The visual field
is such that it is taken in at an instant; one immediately sees a vista, for
example, or someone’s face. We need not piece bits together in order to create
a composite whole. Not so with sound. The verbal dimension occurs in time and
slowly one pieces together the bits or bytes of information or sound in order
to construct some semblance of meaning. The visual is inspirational; it occurs
in an instant whereas the verbal dimension requires time, work and effort.
Together they often clash or contradict.
Do we need to see in order to hear? Obviously not and
certainly not the more abstract the text. Yet here we are confronted with both
“senses” and it is unclear how to create a structured web of meaning.
Consequently the words are lost and our gaze at the young girl’s innocence does
not help us to retrieve further meaning, other than some fragments and traces.
Like an “other”, referencing the thinking of French deconstructionist
philosopher Jacques Derrida, we wish to escape the web of language and reach
out to another world. But the video forces us instead simply to oscillate
between the visual and the verbal.
Third, it is questionable whether art theory refers beyond
its own language game. Theories of art such as formalism, expressionism and
mimesis all apply to the game of art itself without the promise of extra
aesthetic (“real” world) meaning. That is not to say art does not help shape
the world in some respects, only that our understanding of it is peculiar to
the intellectualisation in art itself so that, save with hindsight, we cannot
have an Archimedean point outside (art) history to see its effect or how it has
been influenced and so on.
So with formalism, art is simply formal harmony or beauty. With
expressionism, art is the expression of the feelings, of emotion. And with
mimesis, art is a copy of some sort, perhaps playful and creative, but a kind
of duplication and substitute, though not necessarily in corresponding to
“reality”. In all such cases, we fail to pin down the ontological definition of
art, nor do we succeed in determining its function and value in life.
The solution, beyond words, beyond the opacity of theory and
discourse, is perhaps to argue that art and aesthetics are pervasive. Then the
innocent little girl will know one day that her frolicking in the sun and at
the sea is the same enjoyment that she may feel when she is adult — and the
terse text will itself one day become more transparent as the catharsis of art
is neither “the word” nor “the image”. Rather, as mathematician and philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein says: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.”
The title of this exhibition — Agnus Dei — suggests that
beneath, above and beyond the words, in the suffering silence and innocence,
there may be salvation and redemption. This 90-minute art video
may suggest as much.
Ed Young’s video Agnus Dei is at Smac Gallery, Cape Town,
until October 17. Visit smacgallery.com
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