“the mirror in the ground” book launch and exhibition

Happening next Thursday, 14 May 2015, this book launch and exhibition promises to be well worth attending. I’ve read parts of the manuscript for the book, and it deals with the topics of western scientific knowledge production and reading colonial archives “across the grain” in ways that are really apposite right now.


how could you go ahead of me? (1586)

Excavating an ancient tomb in South Korea, archaeologists found the 4-centuries-old mummy of Eung-Tae Lee, who had died at the age of 30. Lying on his chest was this letter, written by his pregnant widow and addressed to the father of their unborn child:

mummy letter

Source: Letters of Note


To Won’s Father
June 1, 1586

You always said, “Dear, let’s live together until our hair turns grey and die on the same day.” How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live? How could you go ahead of me?

How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me?

I just cannot live without you. I just want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where would I put my heart in now and how can I live with the child missing you?

Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. Because I want to listen to your saying in detail in my dreams I write this letter and put it in. Look closely and talk to me.

When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.

You are just in another place, and not in such a deep grief as I am. There is no limit and end to my sorrows that I write roughly. Please look closely at this letter and come to me in my dreams and show yourself in detail and tell me. I believe I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say and I stop here.

Source: Letters of Note

metaphors for abandonment: exploring urban ruins

The photographs in this post are of an abandoned hot springs resort/health spa, taken by me in July 2009. The resort is situated in Aliwal North, a tiny town on the border of South Africa’s Free State and Eastern Cape provinces. During Victorian times, and continuing into the dark era of Apartheid, this settlement on the Orange River was a popular holiday destination (whose amenities would have been available to whites only). I was stuck here for several days following a car accident, so I went exploring. I was told by a local that the resort had fallen into disrepair only recently, in the past decade, due to mismanagement of the allocated maintenance funds. I wondered to what extent this might reflect a rejection of the resort’s oppressive past by its post-1994 custodians.

I share the fascination with documenting ruins and decay that is the subject of the following excerpt from the excellent blog, Archaeology and Material Culture:

An astounding number of web pages document abandoned materiality, encompassing a broad range of architectural spaces including asylumsbowling alleys,industrial sitesCold War sites, and roadside motels as well as smaller things like pianosand even scale models of abandonment. This ruination lust is not simply the province of a small handful of visual artists, hipsters colonizing Detroit, or recalcitrant trespassers; instead, it invokes something that reaches far deeper socially, has international dimensions, extends well into the past, and reflects a deep-seated fascination with—if not apprehension of—abandonment. The question is what explains our apparently sudden collective fascination with abandonment, ruination, and decay. The answers are exceptionally complex and highly individual, but there seem to be some recurrent metaphors in these discourses.

For “urban explorers” (a term that might loosely include artists, photographers, archaeologists, and curious folks alike), such journeys seek out “abandoned, unseen, and off-limits” spaces that imagine ruination in a wide range of artistic, emotional, scholarly, and political forms. Many of these urban explorers and artists see themselves as visual historians, documenting the architectural and community heritage reflected in abandoned spaces. For instance, Jonathan Haeber’s urban exploration blog Bearings explains that “I’m just an eye. I’m just a camera. … An urban explorer is just a documentarian. … We only appreciate the creations that are overlooked. … It is what remains that is the democratic equivalent of a revolution.” Continue reading

elena filatova – the serpent’s wall

Elena Filatova has created this intriguing site about the defensive walls around Kiev in the Ukraine. They were built before the Mongol invasion in the 12th Century and a huge resistance was mounted in WWII against the Germans there. It’s a fascinating read, despite her not-so-good English.

Elena and a bunch of friends spend loads of time digging for relics around Kiev. They take bikes and metal detectors and beers and camp out and play guitar at night, after digging until they drop in the daylight. They’re addicted to the thrill of unearthing old arrowheads and earrings and coins that go back thousands of years, or machine guns or helmets or grenades from massive, half-flooded concrete bunkers from the Second World War.

Elena, whose father was a nuclear physicist, also (apparently) rode through the Chernobyl ‘dead’ site on a fuckoff big motorbike, documenting the destruction that was left behind, including how the ‘liquidators’ were sent in to seal the site and how many died later as a result of massive exposure to radiation. It’s all on kidofspeed.com. There has been a lot of speculation on the Net that Elena didn’t actually ride through the Chernobyl zone on a bike. Some writers on sites like Wikipedia suspect her story is a hoax. But even if she did go as part of a tour, in a car, her photos are nevertheless real, and so are the stories they tell, for instance, of people who refused to leave, who have mostly since died… “I would rather die at home from radiation, than die in an unfamiliar place of home-sickness,” as one old man put it… Stories of an area of the earth that will be polluted for the next 48 000 years…

Elena has also documented experiences of Russian prisoners – you can find these on Echoes of Trapped Voices – with titles like “Shoveling diamonds up the arse of one’s own destiny”. If you do enough trawling on the Net, you’ll find she’s written about a host of topics, from the nuclear disaster in Japan to the London bombings. She is sure one fascinating, free, unusual hell of a woman.