160 pages, illustrations
Life of Bone brings into sharp relief, and interrogates, the abutting practices of the scientific and the artistic, practices which have co-existed since the beginning of our species. It is based on an exhibition, scheduled to open in May 2011 at the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand. This exhibition will display the original fossil skull of the Taung child hominid alongside artworks by Joni Brenner, Gerhard Marx and Karel Nel made specifically in response to these evolutionarily significant remains. This unique combination of paleoanthropological finds and art prompts a range of enquiries on the nature of both artistic and scientific disciplines, and encourages a dialogue between the very distant historic and the contemporary.
The creative work produced for this exhibition and the commissioned essays seek to explore issues of influence in various ways. Questions around viewing, and the new ways in which one sees the hominid fossils after viewing contemporary responses and re-imaginings of this material, will be fore-grounded. The creative and intellectual engagement with this material probes the human fascination with our origins, provoking questions about the human desire to go further and further back in an evolutionary pattern, until one belongs, and can be placed. The skull, specifically, is more than a scientific object; it is the architecture of consciousness. For humans, the grasp of self and the universe occurs in this small, sealed chamber. Engaging with one’s origins is to focus on the nature of life and death, absence and presence.
1. Obsessions and Impulses: Joni Brenner, Elizabeth Burroughs and Debbie Glencross
2. History, Ancestry, Genes: Himla Soodyall
3. Being-craft: Gerhard Marx: Elizabeth Burroughs
4. Part of the Story: Kopano Ratele
5. Of Words and Skulls: Joni Brenner Elizabeth Burroughs
6. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?: Donald Johanson
7. Matter out of Place: Karel Nel
8. Cartographer of Consciousness: Karel Nel: Elizabeth Burroughs
9. Conclusion: Joni Brenner and Elizabeth Burroughs
Epilogue: Lynne Slonimsky
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Joni Brenner, whose work has been in the field of portraiture, turned a few years ago to working from a human skull that she has in her studio, and from which she makes watercolour studies on an almost daily basis. Closely examining the internal structure of the head has focused her thoughts on what it is to be human and on the combined forces of the natural and the experiential or social, which makes us who we are as people. Recently she has begun work on a series of images based on a cast of the Taung fossil, which has pushed her investigation in portraiture and what it is to be human back by a few millennia. Her interest in the stubbornly partial or fragmented ways in which we know ourselves and others has manifested materially in her sculptural and painterly works, which very often appear to be stony archaeological fragments.
Gerhard Marx works with skulls, star maps and root systems – objects and imagery that all point to fragmented ways of knowing. He writes that ‘the skull (as object) is self-effacing in the same way that a map is: it is an object that points away from itself. The map points to the territory and the same applies to the skull, which serves primarily to evidence a passing. … In a strange way, all these objects are very hard to see as the objects that they really are’. Marx is compelled by the fact that these objects reference something else, something bigger, something that was transient, ephemeral, something on a scale that is incomprehensible. His work explores the ways in which these objects function in relation to a need for certainty: stars as coordinates and directional guides, the plant as a specimen in botany, and the skull as relic and as an aid in forensics and in the historical and scientific location of origins.
Karel Nel very often works with earth collected from specific regions or sites around the globe. He uses this matter to explore notions of deep time and the forensic information encoded within the formless substance, which for centuries has been a metaphor for birth and death, ‘dust to dust’. His work with earth and dust is also connected to an understanding that we live on the landscape but we become part of it – skulls and skeletons are animate above it, and inanimate below it. The landscape is a boundary between being and not being. Its horizon line is a boundary through which we inevitably slip back into matter. Nel’s work presents a distinctive and powerful combination of the conceptual and the physical, and engages the interface between experience/thought and its notation in visual form – the ways in which we inscribe individual and collective consciousness into the material world.