Ed Young’s chess board of art

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 make sense. We only see her face and parts of her shoulders. We only hear what appears to be an obtuse text that one is possibly never meant to understand, certainly not read in this broken, very innocent and human reading. We are in text and beyond text. We seek to understand what is really elusive.

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 “art”?

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 charged?

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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