Joanne Bloch created for the South African pavilion of the 55th Venice Biennale, clay replicas of items with various historical, personal and material values. She painted them all gold and presented them together in museum display cases. This installation, which she titled “Hoard” provokes attention on the arbirary nature of objects’ value but also the possibility that historically loaded items can be accidentally overlooked and misevaluated. A particular object’s mistaken identity lead me to her work when she presented a paper titled An Ugly Old Thing”: the strange tale of the death mask in the UCT archive at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’s Lives of Objects conference in September 2013. This paper told the story of a mask that might, or might not, be Cecil Rhodes’s death mask. As part of her doctorial research with the Cape Town University, this mask and its accompanying issues relates to her life-long artistic practice picking and presenting found objects that can be considerd trash or treasure.
AFH: Where did your source the objects for “Hoard”?
JB: Mainly, they form part of a rather bedraggled colonial-era object collection based in the Manuscripts and Archives Department in the University of Cape Town library. Most of these objects are everyday things – for example, a faded pink silk tie, an embroidered bag, a set of water colour paints and a wooden pencil case. Others are more quirky, such as a chip of wood from the tree under which David Livingstone proposed to Mary Moffatt in 1824. Others more overtly resonate as symbols of colonial power and conquest, for example a miniature gun and Bible, and a judge’s gavel. I also chose to make new versions of the relatively few artefacts in the collection that speak of apartheid and the struggle for democracy – a broken South African flag, a passbook, ANC badges and a gas canister to stand in for the lost one that was placed in the archive after the South African police took action against protesting students in the mid -1980s.
To these artefacts I introduced a few items from the C11th Mapungubwe collection, housed at the University of Pretoria – a well-known and loved solid gold rhinoceros, sceptre, bowl as well as a pile of beads. This inclusion references a South African history conceived on a far broader temporal scale, that resonates with the symbolic tropes of national identity- making.These artefacts also added an important layer in terms of the work’s central focus on value, since both in terms of the historical evidence of a thriving pre-colonial society the collection they form part of provides , as well as in purely monetary terms, the original versions of these artefacts have the undisputed status of priceless national assets.
AFH: Some of the items are your personal posessions, right? How do those items fit?
JB: Finally, I included a few items from my own archive that are at once more random, more personal and paradoxically more universal too – for example an earring my mother wore to a party in the late 1960s, and a blue wooden building block from a set I played with as a child. Obviously, in terms of value , these objects fall at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Mapungubwe material, holding meaning and value for nobody but me.
AFH: Why did you name the piece “Hoard”? What does that word imply about the health of a relationship with the past?
JB: Well, this title can be understood in various ways. Of course it usually does refer to the often pathalogical inability to throw things away, but there’s also the alternatively spelt ‘horde’ which speaks more of a pirate’s loot, or an unearthed treasure… Even in terms of the first meaning, as an artist who has based almost all of her work on collecting and collections, for me, there’s no sense of judgement attached to hoarding…and some aspects of the past are surely worth treasuring?
AFH: Of course, was that the reason for coloring them gold? What were the inspirations and references for your methods of displaying the objects?
JB: My intention was to refer both to institutional displays of precious artefact collections, as well as to conventional museum display. Hence the sumptuous silk velvet ground as well as the glass vitrine. The decision to tilt the shelves slightly forward, which was actually only taken at the time of installation, to me added in an appropriate new element of potential instability, and also slightly messed with the perspective from which the objects are viewed in a way that I found interesting.
AFH: You spoke at Oxford about a sculpture which might be, or might not be, Rhodes’s death mask. What does it mean for you if the object is falsely accused of being a piece of painful history?
JB: Very little of South African history isn’t painful – that is pretty much given as far as I’m concerned. Whether it is a death mask or not, the artefact still represents Rhodes, and his far- reaching and disturbing imperialist legacy is something that just cannot be avoided, and I believe shouldn’t be ignored. To me the fact that the ‘death mask’ is not actually a death mask adds an interesting layer of meaning – I see it as a metaphor for the sometimes contradictory imputed, disputed, revised and reversed layers of meaning that a close engagement with the archive , including objects in archives, but also speaking much more broadly, inevitably brings to light. Secondly, the ‘death mask’ that is not really a death mask allows for an opportunity to engage in a fresh way with our tainted colonial history, using Cecil John Rhodes as a kind of emblematic prototype. It is in this spirit that I produced my own new amalgam Rhodes ‘death mask’, intended to be seen alongside/ in conjunction with ‘Hoard’.
AFH: Are you saying that, as a South African artist, you feel obligated to address history in your work or were you personally compelled to create art confronting South Africa’s past?
JB: No, I don’t feel obligated, and I’ve made plenty of work that speaks to other aspects of my own life and of life generally. But this particular body of work is all about an archival collection, so inevitably, it engages with aspects of history , and this has opened up a whole new set of creative possibilities for me.
AFH: Tell me about your interest in fridge magnets.
JB: Not just fridge magnets! Also charms from lucky packets, little toys from egg machines and key rings- in fact all sorts of ephemera that people usually dismiss as throwaway tat.
By arranging these little objects in different formations, I’ve tried to do several different things. Firstly, to express my (obviously impossible ) desire to catalogue everything in the world. Secondly , to raise questions about the kind of things that are considered worth representing in miniature – as evidenced by the dearth of tiny black babies in South Africa, for example, versus the tidal wave of guns, soldiers and weaponry of all sorts; or the fact that over many years I have never seen a little plastic man with long hair for little girls -or boys -to comb.
I ‘ve also used this work to interrogate the rampant consumerism of the capitalist world. One aspect of this theme is that of obsessive greed. Most obviously, the form my work takes expresses my own greedy desire to collect and possess everything tiny and trashy that was ever made. The endless availability of these artefacts means that my personal desire for more can never be satiated.
AFH: Mostly they’re tossed away, arent they?
JB: On another level, I like to use my work to ask questions about what we think of as precious and worth treasuring… Cheap, mass-produced plastic novelties are the only treasures available to the vast numbers of the world’s population. In my work, I seek to disrupt the categories of ‘trashy’ and ‘valuable’, ‘throwaway’ and beautiful, and in the process, configure a new personalised set of criteria.
AFH: How does this relate to research? Why have you decided to pursue a PhD?
JB: It presented itself as an unmissable opportunity to challenge myself intellectually and expand my practice. So far –I’m nearing the end of my third year – I’ve really, really enjoyed it. Having said that, I need to add that I do sometimes wonder whether it will ever be finished… but I gather that this is a common feeling amongst PhD students!
AFH: As someone with her own albatross, I hear you! How does the research and ways of thinking required for this degree differ from your personal methods of working as an artist?
JB: It’s totally different , and that’s been great. In the past, I was working more intuitively, and always following a particular methodology that I’d developed over several years. Now there’s an intellectual component and a creative component, and the challenge is to mesh the two together in a way that works… this has been and continues to be an intriguing process. The PhD has also given me the chance to try out different ways of making work, which has sometimes been confusing and difficult but has also been consistently interesting.