Elfriede Dreyer, Ship of fools 5, 2013. R8680.00 | Elfriede Dreyer

Elfriede Dreyer, Ship of fools 5, 2013. R8680.00

Elfriede Dreyer, Ship of fools 5, 2013. Archival digital print, 600 x 800mm. AP. Edition of 3 + AP. Unframed. Provenance: Obtained from the artist. 

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My Ship of fools series of works has been profoundly influenced by Michel Foucault's theory of heterotopology and the derivative idea of a 'ship of fools'. In Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies of 1984 (English translation: Of other spaces, 1986), the philosopher (Foucault 1986:27) derives a triumvirate of a place that exists by its own rule (heterotopia), in relation to a particular economic structure, and infused by imaginative projections, a construct that is appropriated and applied to the context of the Apies river flowing through Tshwane and at once also one of the founding reasons for the establishment of Pretoria, the city. My work, Ship of fools 1, 2012, Figure 1, was the first to deal with this theme in relation to the conditions and histories surrounding the Apies. The founding of Pretoria as the capital of the South African Republic can be seen as marking the end of the colonial settlement movements of the Great Trek and as reflecting utopian ideologies premised in survivalism through racial othering. In Foucaultian (1986:24) terms, "Utopias are sites with no real place. … They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces." Yet, on closer inspection, this condition could rather be interpreted as the reflection of heterotopology being "a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space" (Foucault 1986:24).

Besides the importance of mountains as protection and large trees providing shade and functioning as natural coordinates and gathering places, water and rivers have mostly determined the sites for the establishment of cities, creating green banks and a fertile surrounding region. The vicinity of the Apies has evidenced multiple cultural and political histories in terms of both colonial and postcolonial time frames. The heart of the historical city centre with the Apies as main artery is a place with its own utopianism and culture; it is a place where the homeless gather and seek shelter on the banks of the river; it is a site of pollution; a location where xenophobia easily flare up in the battle for survival and where violence and poverty are palpably obvious on the streets. Significantly, due to large-scale pollution, in November 2011, the Apies river was declared a disaster area by the Department of Water Affairs. What was originally the focus of a political and cultural teleology, thus became dystopian in the creation of dispersed, diasporic and nomad identities. The dystopia here seems to narrate social restriction through lack and loss, impaired mobility and dysfunctionalism.

Note: At the turn of the sixteenth century when allegory characterised art production in Europe, the ship of fools metaphor became popular: Hieronymus Bosch painted The cure of madness (1475-1480) and The ship of fools (c. 1490 - 1500); Desiderius Erasmus wrote The praise of folly (1511); and in 1494 in Sebastian Brandt published a book of satire, Ship of fools (German: Das Narrenschiff, Latin: Stultifera navis), which most probably informed many of these works significantly and determined English satire. Brandt's Narrenschiff included the first commissioned work by Albrecht Dürer. It is interesting to note that whilst Thomas More coined the notion of utopia in his 1516 publication De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula utopia, the idea of the ship of fools as a dystopian concept in the sense of a senseless journey leading nowhere also emanated at the same time. In More's understanding of utopia, it is a construct derived from the Greek δυσ- and τόπο that articulates the notion of a fictional society somewhere - in the imagination, in some unknown fictional or even a known location, or in the future. Although having been popularised by the entertainment media into a dark, pessimistic, postapocalyptic construct, dystopia has always maintained a relation with the experienced real as a kind of critique of utopia, but also as a response to the utopian ideology-gone-wrong, evidenced by the practice of ship-of-fools. In literature and the visual arts at the beginning of the twentieth century, the metaphor of the ship of fools was revived in literature and art.

Source quoted

Foucault, M. 1986. Of other spaces, translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16 (1), Spring:22-27.

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  • MORE ON THE ARTIST

    Elfriede Dreyer is an arts professor, curator, writer and artist. She has been affiliated with Unisa since 2015, after lecturing there full-time from 1990 to 2003. She also taught full-time at the University of Pretoria from 2003 to 2014.

    Her recent work from 2017 onwards entails a series of event-based works relating to the traumatic experience of the loss of her entire home and personal belongings during the Great Fire of 7 June 2017. Her main conceptual preoccupation is an ongoing interest in worldmaking discourses and the ideologies of place and space. main concepts are utopia, dystopia and heterotopia as nuances of a family of constructions around place, such as a good place; a bad place; non-place; cocooning; displacement; and migrancy. Perceptions and projections of a good place as utopia are common, but exist mainly as fictions. Although many utopias have been conceived over the ages, few have worked out. Still they persist in appearing in a social and political sense; in addition, most people nurture personal ideas about a ‘good’ place. A non-place is a no-man’s land or space that belongs to no-one and everyone, such as, according to French anthropologist Marc Augé, a supermarket, airport or mall. Although a non-place then seems void of utopia, it is not, since these spaces have been conceived as ‘good’ places with good objective or teleology.

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