Elfriede Dreyer  > Curating  > Art  > Publications 

Elfriede Dreyer, Ship of fools I, 2012.

Mixed media on Perspex, 1000 x 1500 mm.. 

Ship of fools 1 (2012)  see other works in the series

In summary the 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) points to the boat as a "heterotopia par excellence", since " … the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port" (Foucault 1986:27). Foucault thus derives a sense of 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.

The concept of a Ship of Fools originates from Plato’s The Republic (Book VI, 488),  written in 360 BCE, in which he compares a state without good management to a Ship of Fools: ‘Though the ship owner surpasses everyone on board in height and strength, he is rather deaf and likewise somewhat shortsighted, and his knowledge of seamanship is pretty much on the same level. … The sailors are quarreling with one another about the piloting, each supposing he ought to pilot, although he has never learned the art … So with such things happening on ships, don’t you believe that the true pilot will really be called a stargazer, a prater and useless to them by those who sail on ships run like this?’. Plato's intent in The Republic is to establish the foundations of an ideal state rings true for the fugitive migrants in autobiographic pursuit of a better life, fleeing from perceived lesser-than-ideal states. The perils facing Plato’s sailors without a good pilot are equally applicable to the real-life threats facing migrants, since most of the direct routes they are taking by sea or by land are fraught with danger and the pilots are mostly inexperienced. At the turn of the sixteenth century when allegory characterised art production in Europe, visual depictions of a Ship of Fools became popular. The Renaissance notion of a Ship of Fools entailed the practice of removing mad citizens − considered as Others being unwanted, abject and incapable - from society by consigning them to ships and sending them into the ocean without any supervision. Fundamentally, then, the Ship of Fools is abject.  In Madness and Civilization, Foucault  describes the Renaissance Ship of Fools as a ‘strange ‘drunken boat’’, a ‘pilgrimage’ boat and a ‘liminal’ vessel reserved for the ‘insane’.  The boat'’ liminal position on the threshold inbetween places marks the emergence of a dystopian reality whereby the utopian dream becomes shattered by the failure of technology (sinking boats) and human frailty.

The trope of the boat as a floating vehicle or container takes centre stage in my series of works with boat imagery.  As a transportation mechanism the boat is interwoven with the teleology of human carriage and the self-inscripted and self-inflicted autobiography of proposed “good ending”, as well as with memory. The Platonian and Foucauldian notions of a Ship of Fools, as well as for the very real Renaissance practice of Ship of Fools, provide a discursive framework for such nomadic imagery. These ideas are 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. Ship of fools 1, 2012, was the first to deal with this theme. In Ship of fools 5 (2013), the garden stereotype of dark, sensual exotic Africa as discovered and penetrated by the coloniser is articulated. The water of the Apies is rendered as mystical, magical and as a repository of the utopian ideas projected onto Africa by both the colonisers of the pre-twentieth-century period, as well as by an influx of diasporic Africans currently gathering in the vicinity of the Apies as the historical centre of Pretoria in a search for better-world conditions.n a reductionist scheme of two dialogical elements, Ship of fools 3 (2013), engages with the heterochrony of ideology and place, embodied in the images of the lion as Dutch representing colonial strategies and ideals, as well as its African counterpart depicted as having become a powerless porcelain nice-to-have. This work engages with Foucault's fourth principle that postulates heterotopias as "most often linked to slices in time-which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies.