“It’s one of those awful questions where people say ‘what kind of work do you make?’ ”

“Book of Iterations”

U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 S. Thayer Street, Room 1010

Through January 22, 2010; Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For Pippa Skotnes, artist and professor of fine art at University of Cape Town in South Africa, the answer to her own hypothetical question is complex. Her current exhibition, “Book of Iterations,” explores the definition of a book through the mediums of shadow box (an enclosed diorama) and — believe it or not — tattooed horse skeletons.

Skotnes’s interest in books began with legal, as opposed to artistic, inspiration.

“I’m really interested in what a book is,” she said. “Part of that interest comes out of a court case where I made a book that I considered an artwork and the National Library in South Africa claimed that their legal department should be able to copy the book. They wanted a precedent out of this and sued me.”

The court case centered on the definition of a book. Ultimately, an appeals court ruled against Skotnes, saying that books and artwork are mutually exclusive.

“So then I thought about it afterwards. About what, in terms of the law, is a book? And what could I make that would fit the legal definition of a book, yet the library wouldn’t claim it?” she added.

To create such an object, Skotnes turned to horse skeletons and shadow boxes. On three of the exhibit’s walls hang conglomerates of boxes containing dioramas consisting of, among other items, a leopard skeleton, crane skulls, horse shoe nails, miniature World War I stretchers, photographs of colleagues and family members dressed as clergy members, text excerpts and photographs of now-dead Westernized Bushmen.

According to Skotnes, the shadow boxes are supposed to be unbound pages of a multi-cultural and time-defying narrative discussing two of Skotnes’s themes: redemption and sacrifice.

The solitary horse skeleton at the exhibit’s center also comments on these themes. Named the Book of Divine Cancellation, this skeleton is tattooed with fragments of John Donne’s poetry on its skull, King Hamlet’s ghost’s speech about purgatory upon its hips, passages from religious works upon its ribs and legs and major battles of World War I along its spine. Noteworthy battles of World War II are written on linen strips and attached to the rear of the horse, forming a tail.

Even though Skotnes cannot remember why she chose to use horse bones for the exhibit, it seems fitting now.

“The skeletons fit the legal definition of a book — they have spines, pages — which don’t have to be made out of paper — and writing,” she said.

The Book of Divine Cancellation is joined by three bridled horse skulls and the remains of one of its complete skeleton brother books (there are four in total) that was accidentally destroyed in transit to the exhibit. Fragments of the damaged skeleton are on display, featuring excerpts from 19th-century interviews with South African Bushmen.

These interviews were combined into an archive of the now-dead Bushmen language, called |xam (pronounced with a tut, followed by “sahn”). Fourteen-thousand pages of interviews and several photographs are all that remain of this extinct culture. The passages featured on the broken skeleton, centered on stories of transformation, are just small selections from the archive.

Though unplanned, the wrecked horse fits perfectly into the exhibit. As Skotnes explained, “it’s a fragmentary object representing a fragmentary archive.”

The three horse skulls, named Aphasia (“without memory”), Anomia (“the loss of names”) and Alexia (“the inability to write”), also represent this theme of fragments, as each horse stands for an aspect of incompleteness.

“Aphasia represents the martyrs burnt at the stake during the Middle Ages. Anomia represents war casualties and the soldiers who not only sacrificed their lives, but also sacrificed their names. And Alexia represents the paradox of the remaining |xam dictionary — it is a written document meant to decode an oral language that is no longer spoken and only exists in writing,” Skotnes said.

The skulls, skeleton fragments and complete horse glisten with gold leaf that complements the vibrant red and stark black ink used to tattoo the bone. While these colors are aesthetically pleasing, their combination and resulting beauty are eerie. Instead of masking what the dead horses are supposed to represent, the delicate artistic touches highlight the skeletons’ otherworldliness.

This ghostly aura is exactly what Skotnes was trying to express.

“How do you represent a lost world? A lost culture? A lost language? I chose the idea of sacrifice — Christ and other biblical stories, the colonists wiping out civilizations of Bushmen, World War I soldiers slaughtered in the trenches, the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” she said.

“Where is the redemption? I think it’s in finding some kind of voice for the dead — providing a way for these texts to walk out of the archive on the bones of horses. Making their absence present through the sensorial.”

A quote painted onto one of the exhibit’s walls (from Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Dominion of the Dead”) further explores this concept:

“The Dead speak from beyond the grave as long as we lend them the means of locution; they take up their abode in books, dreams, houses, portraits, legends, monuments and graces as long as we keep open the places of their indwelling.”

In addition to themes of sacrifice and redemption, Skotnes is also interested in “how objects circulate and move away from their original place into different realms and spaces.” This concept manifests itself in the exhibit through miniature vials spread throughout the dioramas and skeletons, containing one line each from an essay by Stephen Greenblatt on the nature of the Eucharist. Skotnes’s curiosity also mirrors the dispersive nature of her own work.

“I started working with the archive in the 1980s and it’s a project I’ve been working on for so long that every time I think I’m going to give it up, something comes out of the woodwork. In the past, the pieces have traveled everywhere around the world,” she said.

This time the exhibit brought with it two events — a lecture by Skotnes titled “Curating the Archive: Representing Scattered Collections of the Colonial Past” at the UMMA last Wednesday and a conference with multiple scholars discussing the “Archive, Museum, and the Safe House of Language” at the Humanities Gallery last Thursday.

In her lecture, Skotnes focused on a Bushmen diorama that was closed down in South Africa due to its culturally insensitive nature. Skotnes discussed the merits of the exhibit (which was, incidentally, not opposed by those whom it was “insensitively” presenting).

She claimed the diorama, featuring several Bushmen in their hunting camp, paused and looking toward an animal that just ran past, encourages a suspension of disbelief. Representing a snapshot of an extinct existence, the diorama seems more real simply because it is a fantasy. Even though the potential of this moment’s reality is gone forever, the remembrance remains in this diorama.

Despite the heavy subject matter of her exhibit and lecture, Skotnes offered a message of hope for the future of her two passions: the archive and the book.

“One increasingly goes online and finds more fabulous, old archives digitized. But then what happens to the actual archive? It’s no longer of interest just in terms of content, yet it’s still interesting,” she said.

“In the books that I’ve published I’ve tried to put the reader in the presence of the actual objects because when you work with the archive and work with the material, you become bonded with the documents — with the paper, the ink, the smell of it. Digitizing an archive makes the material more important. And it’s the same for a book.”

“I think there’s an entanglement in the object and the reading, which the digital availability of it will throw into sharper relief. Books and archives allow you to occupy a space that other disciplines don’t allow you to occupy,” she added.

In an interesting twist, Skotnes’s obsession with the concepts of books and archives directly affects a visitor’s experience of the exhibit. Beside a single plaque outlining her credentials and general influences, no other explicitly explanatory text is prominently displayed in the exhibit. Skotness intends her work to be ambiguous and to instill a unique reaction within each visitor.

According to Skotnes, her artwork should be read as a book — a highly interpretive narrative can be gleaned from the bones, photographs and other materials in the exhibit. However, a copy of the exhibit’s corresponding (and traditional) book, “Book of Iterations,” is available if a visitor needs footnotes.

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